By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
September 29, 2019
Luke 16:19–31 (ESV)
19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’ ”
When Jesus would teach, his favorite method was by telling stories. It is interesting how powerful this method really is. There is power in a story. The greatest tool available to each of us as we converse with those around us, is not how much scripture we have memorized or even how many apologetic question and answers we have stored in our brains, but the most powerful tool we have is the story of our lives and our faith within our lives. There is something powerful in a story.
We can always tell our stories, and for most of us we would love to listen. To tell others where we once were and where we are now, and the journey we had taken and what we have learned along the way can be extremely interesting. Even if we think we have the most boring life ever there is something we all could learn, by simply listening to your journey of faith, and the more we tell that story the more we remember and the more interesting it becomes.
Jesus was one of the greatest story tellers, but he told a different type of story. There are the true stories, which contain facts and at times personal narratives to enlighten those who read or hear it as to what might have been going through the mind of the ones involved. Another story we often encounter is a story that is fictional. These stories could come in many forms: a myth, a legend, a novel, or many others. Often in our culture we view these fictional stories as less authentic or real. We hear the word myth and immediately we think that its fiction so nothing can be gained from it than entertainment. But that is not exactly true. Jesus often taught using a similar method, a parable is a mythic form of storytelling, because a myth is a story containing wisdom while still being entertaining.
I will be honest. I have learned more about history by reading and listening to fictional accounts than reading history textbooks, because the story grabs hold of something inside me and urges me to look deeper. Of course, this largely depends on the storyteller, because I have also read many books that try to convince people of ideas that are not based on any academic reality.
Jesus was a masterful storyteller. Very few of stories that Jesus taught can be directly linked to actual events but each of the stories convey a wisdom that can reveal divine truth to those that listen. Today’s story, or parable, is one of the most unique of Jesus’s stories. The reason I say it is unique is because one of the characters has a name, Lazarus. I might be wrong, but this might be the only parable where one of the characters has a name. This has led some people to believe that this parable might be connected to a real event and is not just a fictional story. I personally do not necessarily have an opinion one way or the other on that, but most of the people that want to say it is an actual event tend to take that route because they want people to believe in a physical fiery hell.
I do not want to speak a great deal about hell, but I do want to mention a few things. Over the course of Hebrew history, the concept of hell evolved. Early ideas were simply going into a pit where the spirit would remain. As the Hebrew people interacted with different cultures concept of hell began to change, and the idea the fiery wrath of God became a greater part of the story. These concepts came from many places, one place was that they would be burned as their sacrifices to idols. But the concept that we often hear mentioned in the new testament is the concept of hell that was brought by the people returning from exile. Is hell as described? I really do not know, because the stories are often embellished with the ideas of surrounding cultures, but one theme remains throughout. That theme is that there are those that will enter a place of blessing and consolation and those that will be left separated in some way, where there is no rest or comfort. Jesus does speak of an existence that extends beyond the veil of life.
The story begins by introducing a rich man clothed in purple. I have always found it interesting that Jesus speaks of the color of the garments that this man is wearing. To have a garment in ancient times that was dyed is a luxury. Ancient methods of dying clothing was more difficult than it is today. Today we can go to the store and find dyes in the same aisle we buy laundry soaps. We can get the dye almost any color we want and can revitalize the clothes we wear, or we can make psychedelic designs on plain clothing. Dying in ancient eras took a bit more skill. They had to find the right ingredients. They had to know just how to prepare those ingredients. And then they had to know how ensure that the color would stay in the fabric and not wash out. The materials could be found almost anywhere. The soils in an area could offer the pigment, or possibly the plants in an area would be the source they would seek. They would boil some of the ingredients and with others they would mix in vinegar or even urine to achieve the desired combinations. One of the reasons people believe that Jacob’s son Joseph was disliked by his brothers, was because their father invested in dyes to make Joseph’s coat, which was expensive and time consuming. But of all the colors people tried to make dyes for purple is a color that was one of the hardest to achieve, making it the most expensive.
The main reason purple was so difficult was because it came from a variety of sea snail. Only a small amount of needed ingredient could be found in each snail. And these snails were not exactly easy to find, because they lived deep in the sea. Those that dyed garments would have to dive into the sea to harvest the snails, and they had to do it without the benefit of scuba equipment. It was dangerous, and labor intensive. Because this color was difficult to obtain it was very expensive, and because it was expensive the color became associated with those of extreme wealth.
There is something more to the story. Purple was often associated with royalty of the gentile nations, but the dye used to make purple was special. The fringe that is found on the edges of the religious garments were dyed. These garments were very sacred to the Hebrew people. Especially the prayer shawl. When a boy became a man the most important thing, they received was the prayer shawl and that same shawl would often be used the rest of their lives. It is even used to make the canopy that they would have over them as they married their wives. The meaning behind this was that the woman would be covered in the righteousness of their husbands. The dye used on this fringe was thought to be lost to history. Many could not say for certain what color it was exactly. As they studied ancient documents and traditions, they found that the same the dye used was derived from similar snails, which is why only the fringe was dyed. But they still did not know exactly what the process was. Ancient Hebrews were thought to have blue fringe, but after they returned from captivity that blue dye was lost. They knew the snail but could only get purple. When Jesus speaks of purple, he is not only is speaking of wealth but also religious. Recently they were able to figure out how again make the blue dye, it comes from a similar snail but not the same one as the purple, and when making the dye they must make smaller batches and it must be exposed to sunlight or it will turn blue.
This man was wealthy, and possibly very pious. He had lavish feasts every day. And while he celebrated his wealth, a poor beggar named Lazarus sat at his gate wishing he could eat the crumbs that fell to the floor. Not only was this man a poor beggar, he was covered in sores. Sore of which the dogs came to lick. It’s a wonderfully horrific literary picture. Lazarus wanted to eat the food of the dogs, and in the process became dog’s food. This is the ultimate insult to his humanity and the extreme opposite of the rich man.
Both individuals die, and this is where the story gets interesting. The rich man is buried. His body is celebrated and carried to a tomb where people mourn for the loss. What happens to Lazarus? Human hands are not said to have carried him, but Jesus says angels carry him to Abraham’s side. He is not celebrated or mourned by humanity, he is all but forgotten and probably tossed out with the refuse to be burned. The rich man was honored, and Lazarus did not even have a funeral.
From this point the fates of the men are turned, now Lazarus has the blessing and the man of wealth is found in torment. And he become the beggar, pleading with Abraham to assist him in his torments. When his words fail, he comes to terms with his situation and he then begs that his family will be saved from the same fate.
We often believe this is a story teaching us of the afterlife, but it is more. It is more than even judgement and wrath or blessing and rest. It is a story of humanity. The rich man in all his feasting was not moved to have compassion for the man sitting at his gate. A man whose only companionship and physical contact came from dogs. The rich man in many ways regarded Lazarus no better than food for the dog, not even human. Did he know Lazarus? Did he know what caused that man to sit at his gate? One could speculate a great deal about the story. It is likely that the reason that Lazarus was at this man’s gate was because he was at one time in his employ. It is possible that Lazarus was once an able-bodied individual that served this rich man on his estate, and over the course of time was met with unfortunate circumstances. Maybe he became ill, maybe he was injured while he worked. When hard times met this man, it is very possible that he could not pay his debt, and as a result he was removed from his home and banished. He was sick, injured and unable to work, he was removed from his home with no hope, so he sat there at the gate. One could go even deeper in the speculation. It was common in ancient times that if debts could not be paid, that members of the family would be sold into slavery to cover the amount owed. If this was the case, Lazarus might have lost the only means of survival as his wife, and his children were sold, and he being disabled and of no value was left to rot.
You might say that is just speculation and it has no bearing, and you are right. We do not know how Lazarus ended up in the situation he was in, we do not even know how the rich man gained the wealth required to obtain his fine garments and food for feasts. But one thing we do know is that the rich man called Lazarus by name. We could even say that Lazarus was known to the remaining brothers within the rich man’s family, because the rich man made a plea to Abraham to send Lazarus to speak to his family and warn them of their impending doom.
I said that this is more than a story of what happens beyond life’s veil, it is more than a story of judgement, but a story of humanity. It is a story of how we live our lives with others. Only in death did the rich man have concern for others, and then it was only after he came to the realization that there was no hope for him. When that realization found its seat in his reality the real torment began. He had every opportunity to avoid his present situation.
Life is more than the accumulation of wealth. Life is filled with relationships and experiences. When we gather together with family especially when one life comes to an end, we speak about the passions we had, and the memories we shared. We discuss the things that caused us to shine and how we shared time with one another. When my grandmother recently passed the entire family sat and listened to the stories of a life lived with others. We listened to my great aunts share about their childhoods, I listened to my mother and her siblings share stories of their life with their mom, and I listened and shared stories with my cousins. Sometimes the stories were funny, and sometimes they were hard to listen to. But the stories were filled with hope and faith, they were filled with love and relationship. This past week one of my aunts passed from this life to the next. When I heard the news, I began to remember life with my aunt and as we celebrate the life, she lived I look forward to hearing the stories.
The rich man in this parable recognized that his life was lived for himself. He realized that everything he did was focused on his own gain, and what was left at the end was poverty. Yet he looked across the chasm and he saw Abraham and Lazarus. Abraham, the father of faith, the patriarch of Israel. It was Abraham that he placed his faith, because he was his descendant one of the chosen people. That heritage meant nothing in the end. And he saw Lazarus, who man exploited, abused, and neglected. Lazarus was a man of no name or worldly reputation, he had nothing and yet he had the blessing.
This past week I have been reading the Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In the book he speaks of cheap and costly grace. Cheap grace is grace where we justify the sin but not the sinner. And costly grace is where the sin is justified through the obedience of the sinner. Cheap grace is righteousness of the heritage, and costly grace is the convincement of the individual to repent and follow Christ. I thought about these things as I considered this parable and I considered our spiritual heritage as friends. Our religious society was founded on the idea that nothing could make you holy except a life lived in obedience. No outward sign of religious devotion could replace the actual life lived in devotion. I thought about these things as I spoke to my coworkers and as I interacted with various people throughout this week.
Are we loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others or is our attention somewhere else? As we enter this time of open worship and communion in the manner of Friends consider Lazarus, the only named character in Jesus’s parables, and the rich man in his purple garments. Consider the men and consider your life. What is your story saying?
Luke 16:1–13 (ESV)
1 He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. 2 And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ 3 And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ 7 Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ 8 The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings. 10 “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? 13 No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
Today I admit that I do not know everything about scripture. There are portions of scripture that I really struggle with. There are portions of scripture I tend to avoid, because I simply do not understand what is going on. Or at times I think I know what is going on, but it does not fit into the perspective I have of faith. Today we read one of those passages. We have a parable of Jesus that Luke finds necessary to include, yet the wording and situation seems to fly in the face of the values that we hold as Friends.
There really is not an easy way to teach the beliefs of Friends, because we tend to always promote a minority voice of some sort. Friends historically have tried to see an area of ministry and focused into that area nearly exclusively, until they feel they have done all they could to bring about lasting change. Early in the Friends movement this often revolved around prison reform, for the simple fact that they spent a great deal of time in prison due to their refusal to fight for the various factions of a war, because they refused to take an oath in court, and oddly enough they refused to remove their hats to those who had higher social status within their society. They spent time in prison, and they had a first-hand view of the conditions those accused had to face while they awaited trials. Prisons were reformed in England because of the work of Friends and prisons in America were much more humane than their European counterparts because of the influence of Friends on our continent.
We were also greatly troubled by human enslavement. It is true that many early Quakers did own slaves it is an unfortunate reality of world history that the British Colonies participated in that activity, and we as Friends originated under that empire. Although we participated, we were very quick to turn from those ideas because it conflicted with our theological ideas. If all human beings are equal according to our beliefs, how could we treat any human being as something less than human? We as Friends did not believe that native Americans were less human than the European colonists this is seen in how we interacted with them. This is highlighted by Edward Hicks painting The Peaceable Kingdom, which depicts William Penn signing a treaty with the Native Peoples around the area of Philadelphia. A treaty that peaceably allowed European settlements by purchasing the land from the Native Tribe, instead of forcefully removing the native people as other colonists did. If we recognize the humanity in the natives of America, how could we deem those of other ancestry as less than human? So even before the Revolutionary War the Religious Society of Friends condemned slavery within their communities and began to work for the abolition of slavery within our boarders. Many Friends during this time felt so strongly about this that they would refuse to consume any product that benefited from the use of exploited labor. They would wear wool instead of cotton, and the fabrics that they used would often be undyed because the dyes used in clothing at that time were obtained using slavery. And something that often surprises many, the fact that many Friends oppose the consumption of alcoholic beverages is largely due to opposition to slavery than the social ills brought on by alcoholism.
I could continue to go through our history, but the reason I bring this up is because we have often been ministry minded people, not theologically minded. We focus on making sure our actions match what we say we believe more than making sure we fully and clearly communicate our beliefs in a systematic format. When I say that something in scripture seems to oppose our beliefs, I mean that the words seemingly oppose a testimony of practice.
One of the easiest ways to explain the basics of Friends testimonies is the acronym SPICE. We all like a bit of spice in life, especially during the fall when there is pumpkin spice everything. This acronym means simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality. I really enjoy this acronym because it is easy to remember, and it covers basically all our core testimonies. I try my best to not only teach these testimonies but to live them out in my daily life. There is nothing from these testimonies that is unsupported by scripture and I find it to be fully integrated within the command of Christ to love God with everything we are and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
The problem I have is that Jesus taught a parable the basically praises someone that lacks integrity. Right away, my mind seemingly shuts down because how could Jesus teach something that is so foreign to my understanding of the Christian life? This week I have spent a great deal of time considering this, and to be honest it has been fun.
Most commentaries would point out that Jesus was employing a literary form of Jewish folklore that celebrates the tricksters. If we were to look back through the history of the Jewish people, the patriarchs of faith often employed tricking other for greater gain. Jacob was probably the greatest of them all. In the story of Jacob and his twin brother Esau we learn that Jacob the younger brother tricks his older brother Esau out of his inheritance with a bowl of soup. He then later tricks his father into giving him the family blessing by putting fur on his arms to resemble Esau. Jacob also tricked his uncle out of many sheep working out a contract with him that all the sheep white sheep would go to the uncle while all the spotted sheep would go to Jacob. And he put something in the water that would cause the wool of the sheep to become discolored.
Jacob was a trickster but often his behavior was returned to him. He was working for his uncle in order to earn his uncles favor so that he could marry one of his daughters. The uncle realized that Jacob was tricking him so when the time came for the marriage to occur, his uncle tricked Jacob and caused him to marry a different daughter, thus tricking Jacob into fourteen years of service instead of seven. Without this trickster we would not have Israel because Jacob through the two wives and two handmaidens fathered the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel.
The Jewish people seem to love a good story of a clever trick, and one rabbi that was quoted within my commentaries told a story of how a man was charged with theft and was about to be executed for his crime. This man was a very quick-witted person and as he spoke to the governor, he said it was a pity that he was going to die without sharing a wonderful secret to someone. This interested the governor and this man was brought before the king, and the man told the king that his father told him a secret to cause pomegranates to grow and bear fruit overnight. Of course, it was a secret that they would like to know so they asked him how to do such a feat. The thief dug a hole and stood there. Eventually they tired of him and asked him why he would not continue, so he responded, “This seed must only be put in the ground by a man who has never stolen or taken anything which did not belong to him. I being a thief cannot do it.” The king looked around at everyone around him, and each one had to stand aside because of various reasons one because he did something as a child, another because he might have made a mistake in the accounting that could be considered wrong. Each person in the room realized that if this secret could work they were not going to be able to place the seed in the ground because they were not without sin. The king finally came to himself and even he was disqualified because he kept a necklace of his father’s. The thief looked at them and responded, “You are all mighty and powerful and want nothing and yet you cannot plant the seed, whilst I who have stolen a little because I was starving am to be hanged.” The king was so amused by the thief’s ruse that he granted him a pardon.
While I am sure people enjoy a good story of quick wit and clever ploys, I do not think this is exactly what Jesus is promoting, because that he would be promoting sin, although he is encouraging us to be clever and to use the brains that God gave us. As I continued to read and study, I was drawn to the word measures. While I read this, I found that this one word that we have translated to English as measure is two different forms of measurement one is a bath of oil and the other is a cor of wheat. This dishonest manager goes to these debtors and he discusses each of their debts. He goes because he said to himself that he was too weak to do heavy labor and too ashamed to beg. So, he wanted to use his position to gain favor within the community, hoping that by doing so he could rely on them for support.
As I investigated these two different measurements, I realized that the quantities were interesting. A bath is an ancient way of measuring liquid, one bath is equivalent to approximately 6 gallons. This man’s debt was six hundred gallons of olive oil. Usually when I read this parable, I often read this debt like the debts that I have on my credit cards. I must admit that at times I have lived beyond my means and I have debts. So, when I look at this parable I often think of these debts in terms of consumption. And in that way this guy is canceling debts and causing his master a loss of capital. How can the master praise his terrible steward for that? I looked up what the value of that debt would have been today and found that six hundred gallons of oil would be equivalent to just over two metric tons of oil which is how the commodity market states the prices. Today that price is around $4632, so the debt this man owed was around $9681.
I then began to look at the second unit of measurement mentioned the cor. A cor is equivalent to six and a half bushels of wheat. I grew up on a wheat farm, so I began doing research into the average yields for wheat in Israel and compared it to the yields in Kansas. In the past ten years Kansas yields around forty-two bushels of wheat per acre and Israel is about thirty-seven. I know that yields today are much greater than they were two thousand years ago, but I mention this because there is not much difference between the yields here and there. If the yields today are nearly the same, then we can assume that the yields and real value of those crops would also similar. Today a bushel of wheat is worth $4.84 per bushel so one cor of wheat is worth $31.58, this man’s debt of 100 cor, which is around 652 bushels, or $3158.
These are not insignificant debts. But what was interesting to me was when I began to consider other aspects of these two agricultural products. Basically, I did a lot of math while I studied this passage, so even pastors sometimes must use math outside of school. As I was looking up all this information, I noticed that both debts had something similar, they were both 100 units of measure. In my mind that sounded important and I remembered that during our nation’s history there was a time where our government encouraged the settlement of land by offering people 160 acres of land in the homestead act. This act and that land that was offered was the reason that my family settled in the area they settled. That offer of land gave them an opportunity to make a life for themselves. Today that amount of land is not enough to raise a family on but when that law was written 160 acres was a kingdom to many. People left their home and moved west. People left other countries and moved west with the hopes of being able to provide a better life for their children. I thought about what the yield per acre might be for these various crops in relation to the units mentioned. Thirty-seven bushels per acre is around 5.6 cors per acre. And then I noticed something interesting the debt for the man who owed wheat was around 1/5th of the average yield. You might not think much of this but when I was still on the farm there were a couple of ways a farmer could rent land. One way was to simply pay rent with cash. The other method of renting land was splitting the cost and return. This second method would divide everything into thirds the farmer who did the work received 2/3rds of the returns and the landowner received 1/3 and the cost of production was also split in the same way. When I considered the value of the debt being 100 cors of wheat and how in the history of our nation a family could start their farm with 160 acres, I thought maybe this might be rent, especially when the yield of an acre of land could so easily be divided into fifths.
I then looked at the average yield for olive oil. I found that olive oil is something that is more difficult to predict because the amount of oil that can be extracted from olives can vary greatly, to the degree that you might be able to have greater yield in fruit from one year to the next and the yield of oil can actually be less. So, I googled the averages and found some good information. Israel today has 81,000 acres of land devoted to the production of olives, and the average yield of oil from those acres is around 15,000 tons that is 5.4 tons of oil per acre. To me that sounds amazing, because one acre of olive trees today would provide $22692. If you applied the same 1/5th rule to the olives as you did the wheat the value would per acre would be $4526. And the man’s debt in the parable would be equivalent to $9681 which is around the value of 1/5 of the yield of two acres of land.
The conclusion I gleaned from this is that this dishonest manager reduced the rent that was owed by the farmers. The tenants were able to keep more of the profits of their labor while the landowner still enjoyed a decent return as well. And because this was largely an agricultural and subsistence economy no one is really suffering a real loss of food. But the relationships between all involved are greatly changed.
Each farmer had their rents reduced they are happy, and because they are happy their respect for the landowner is greater so in the future, they will be more likely to do what the owner needs them to do. The manager might have lost his job, but he is the person that negotiated the contracts so when he does finally leave his post, they will be more likely to assist him. Or possibly they might demand to deal only with him so the landowner might reconsider the value of this dishonest manager. So, when I look at this parable, I see a lot more than I did before. I see life. I see my life and yours, I see the interaction between governments and citizens and those that represent us. I see people trying to make a living and people hoping for a better life.
Jesus tells us a parable of interaction, of relationship. And as we enter this time of open worship, I urge you to think about how we live our lives and how we interact with those around us. Are we using what we have available to us to love God and our neighbor?
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
Luke 15:1–10 (ESV)
1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8 “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? 9 And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
One of the most interesting things about Jesus that I have noticed is the types of people that were attracted to him. I have been a part of the church since I was a child. I am not a preacher’s kid but about as close to it as one could get without being one. My stepdad has been the clerk of the meeting for as long as I can remember and he has lead worship for most of my life, which he has passed over to some of the youth in the meeting now. He has served on yearly meeting boards and is comfortable filling the pulpit when the need arises. He says that he was called to be a farmer, but I kind of question that a bit. I think he has been the assistant pastor of my home meeting for my entire life. My dad is also greatly involved in the church. He is a lay minister within the Methodist Church, and I have rarely seen him at church without his guitar. I grew up with church being central to my life. It was just part of life. We worked hard for six days and always worshipped on the seventh. It was rare that we missed any function of the church and many of the vacations that we took revolved around it. If the church needed repairs, we where there. If a class needed taught, we were there. If someone needed a ride to camp or yearly meeting sessions, we loaded that bags and topping off the tank to make the trip. The church has been such a part of my life that I simply cannot imagine life without it.
But I am not the world’s perfect person. I have not always been a saint, let me rephrase that I have never been a saint. I can be selfish. I am often upset without a real reason. I work too much and get pretty stressed out if I do not have money in the bank. I say that I can’t imagine not being in active in a church community, if I am totally honest, I would have to say I would not know what to do if I only worked one job. My entire adult life has been constantly on the go. This has been so much of the case that when James went to basic training I had a bit of an emotional crisis because I did not know for sure if he really knew how much I loved him, I did not know if I took enough time to actually show him how important he was to me. It broke me.
I mention all this because I think I could make a case to be part of a religious class of people. We often speak of the pharisees in negative terms within the church. We act as if they were some bizarre class of religious people but let’s really consider who they were. The pharisees were committed, devoted, practitioners of religious life. If we were to take the name of pharisee off the record and described them in terms most of us would understand, what we would see would be the people that keep a worshiping community together. They were the people that came to the business meeting and provided the time and effort to keep the building in shape. They were the people that contributed financially to the ministries, to the point that the budgets and accounting could be planned. They were wealthy businessmen, they were teachers, and could be counted on to speak a word of encouragement to a gathering. They would be the one that offered a prayer at the banquet or a meeting. We would want pharisees because the pharisees kept the place of worship going. The pharisees were committed. They were knowledgeable, they knew just what to do and when to do it, these were the leaders within a community and the ones that anyone in the religious community would want to keep happy because without the pharisees the future of a worship community would be unsure.
I want us to think about the pharisees in this way because in all reality we have a great deal in common with them. The pharisees are the keepers of tradition and faith. If you are or have ever served on a church committee at any level, if you have ever taught a Sunday school class, or have done any service in the name of the church you have a strong predisposition of being a pharisee. And the more committed you are to a religious group the greater chance you exhibit pharisee like traits. It is nearly impossible to exhibit these types of traits because the more committed you are to a religious faith, the more training you have received, the more leadership you give the more invested you are in that community and the more likely you are to resist any change within that group because it has become part of your identity . I am in that group, not just because I am a pastor, but because I am an elder. But even beyond that, I have been very active in the church from early on in my life, so I was a pharisee type of person even before I entered church leadership, and the fact that I have been accepted in the roles I have filled is because people know that I am a keeper of tradition and faith.
If you were to list off the traits of a pharisee and place it beside a list of my dominate traits there would be very little difference. I am a pharisee. When Jesus speaks out against the pharisees he is speaking to me and people like me. One of the greatest things our Yearly Meeting Lead Superintendent says is that he is a recovering Pharisee. I like that terminology because it is so very true. It is very easy to get so wrapped up into the politics of religion. It is extremely easy to think that our way of thinking is the only way and close our minds off to a different perspective. And when we close our minds off to looking at things from a different perspective, we often prevent participation.
Jesus comes into the scene. He is clearly a devout and religious individual, but he does things a bit different. Because he approaches faith from a different perspective it attracts attention. Everyone in the area is paying attention to Jesus. He has recently healed a woman in the synagogue as well as in the middle of a banquet thrown by a leader of the pharisees. People are following him around the countryside. I completely understand the fear that pharisees might be feeling because people talk to me about these things. I am constantly asked questions about faith. I give my perspective and people give their perspective that might be like an ideology that I personally do not consider to be correct. They speak to me about these things and I want to tell them that they are wrong and list off every reason why. Jesus keeps teaching, and people keep coming to listen. And the pharisees observe that there are people of questionable reputations gathered around Jesus. They already had disdain for Jesus because he did not respect their traditions. He brought a woman into the synagogue and healed her on the sabbath, and he had the nerve to tell them that they were wrong. Now they are looking at Jesus surrounded by tax collectors and sinners and this again upsets them, how can he consider himself righteous when those sorts of people are visiting?
The grumbling that they speak of some scholars liken to the grumbling that the Israelites had during their wonderings in the desert with Moses. We might not think much of this but those grumblings against God and in response to selfish desires. They are grumbling not because Jesus had done anything wrong, but he is not doing it their way.
In response to these grumblings Jesus tells a parable. “A man that has one hundred sheep, loses one and he leaves the ninety-nine to find the one that was lost. And when he finds it, he puts it over his shoulder and rejoices. He is so excited about recovering this lost sheep that he calls all his friends over to rejoice with him.” Why does Jesus tell a parable like this? We must remember who Jesus is speaking to at that time. In the first century, Judea is largely agrarian. Much of their economy is based on providing the basics of life. This means that most of what they produce revolves around food, and probably clothing. When Jesus speaks of a lost sheep, he is speaking about the manner of life the people around him live. We might not quite understand what it might mean to lose a sheep, because it is just an animal. If you were someone that raised sheep today this one sheep would represent approximately $300 for the animal itself. But Sheep are not only raised for their physical bodies each sheep can produce a fleece that can weight approximately twenty pounds, and the current market price for wool depending on the quality can bring in $2 to $10 per pound, so the potential of this sheep is $200 a year. And each sheep can live approximately 10 years, so we are talking about $2300. If this sheep was a female, then this one sheep has the potential of increasing the herd by one to three lambs a year so over the course of this sheep’s lifetime the profit potential of this one sheep can generate is approximately $62,000. How many of us would just let $62,000 walk away? This is being very optimistic, but I think we understand the point. Each lamb is important for those that raise sheep.
In the kingdoms of men, we understand the value of items. Each item that we attribute a value too, we will guard to the best of our ability because those are the things that are going to provide for our lifestyle. This past week the store I work at had its annual inventory. For those that do not work in retail, inventory determines how efficient our store is, because it determines how much inventory we had lost over the past year. When a store loses inventory, it affects the store’s ability to operate. Most people do not think of inventories in the way that people in asset protection do, but when a store loses inventory, it loses sales, and when a store lose sales, they lose profit. In the stores that I have worked at we have lost around a half of a million dollars a year. This loss represents many things. But the most important thing is that it means the limitation of at least ten jobs.
This is economics but Jesus is speaking to people whose minds are caught in the kingdoms of men. Their minds revolve around the things that they attribute value to, just like us. The loss of one sheep in today’s world would be the equivalent of the loss of an entire year of wages. That is important to us. The amount of theft that occurs in the stores around the metro could result in the addition of ten jobs each. That’s important. The pharisees understand that, they are people of intelligence. They understand the loss of a sheep because their lives depend on them. What they do not understand is the value of the person they are judging.
In God’s economy the things that hold value are different than the things that hold value to mankind. Jesus is trying to explain this in a way that those around him will understand. God values every human life because each human being bears the image of God. On the sixth day of creation God said “let use create man in our image, after our likeness. Giving them dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So, God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. In God’s economy humanity is the thing of value. God values humanity to such a degree that he risked all of creation for us. There came a time where God nearly wiped us all out, but he resisted and used Noah and his family to reset humanity. He continued to love mankind, so he called one family, Abraham to reveal himself to the world. Humanity continued to reject God’s economy, so he again chose one family to reveal himself through, Israel. Again, and again God used people within the world to shine the light of his revelation to the world. And we as humans continue to turn away. Finally, God decided to come himself, he chose to live among mankind and show us exactly what he values. The message of God has not changed through all human history. From the dawn of human existence God desired only one thing his creation to live in communion with him. His delight was to walk with his groundlings in the garden as they both male and female enjoyed the simple beauty of life.
But we turned. We as humans get distracted and we begin to chase after other things, we lose our innocence and we turn from God. Yet he calls out to us to come back. We run away seeking our own ways, our own desires, our own fulfillment yet God comes after us. He seeks us out and he rejoices when we are found. This is the parable of the lost sheep. A story that has been told and retold countless times throughout history. We turn and God finds us. We turn again and yet again God comes to find us. Again, we turn, we run, we hide and again God comes to find us. We scream out to him why won’t you just leave us alone, and he responds with I love you.
The pharisees do not understand the economy of God, and many of us get distracted as well. We begin to think that God loves us because we are good people. God loves us because we have chosen to follow him. God loves us because we or more likely God loves me because I deserve it. Each of us have run from God. We might be running from God at this very moment, because if we reject those that God loves we reject the very things that God loves.
The sinners and the tax collectors eagerly approached Jesus. It makes me wonder, why? The community around them were filled with religious people and the gospel indicates that some of these supposed sinners were part of the worshiping community, yet they were not accepted. Several of these supposed sinners were people employed by there very people that rejected them. The shepherd was often included among the sinners, even though that lifestyle was the lifestyle of their forefathers and was the life of their beloved King David prior to his assertion to the throne. In the mind of the pharisees many of those very people that served them would be considered sinners, because they did not have the time and money to live the devoted life encouraged by the religious leaders. One could almost assume that according to teachings during this time frame the poor were considered sinners, because they were not blessed with wealth.
But Jesus did not reject the poor, he did not reject the hurting, injured or sick. He did not reject sinners, the tax collectors, the prostitutes or even the Roman soldiers. Jesus is said to not give preference to anyone but allowed anyone to approach, even women and children. The results of Jesus’s lifestyle changed lives within that community. Tax collectors stopped exploiting, those bound by spirits were freed and became contributing members of society, even those that were exiled due to leprosy when they approached Jesus returned to the community. This happened only because of God’s love for them.
About once a week a meme goes around the internet among my friends. The meme states that a shepherd leaving 99 sheep to get one seems foolish until you are the one. I have been the one. I am not a saint by any stretch of the imagination. I have been that one that Jesus came after. We each might at this moment be safe within the flock, we each might be right where we are supposed to be, this does not mean we are better than anyone because each of us might wonder off at any moment, because we are like sheep. The good thing about that is God does not judge our value the way we judge value, and he left his throne in Heaven to live among mankind to bring each of us wondering sheep home. And for each person that is loved by Christ turns, or more accurately returns to him we should be happy. Because who among us would be willing to potentially lose a years’ wages, how much more valuable are those among us who are loved by the one whose image we bear.
As we enter this time of holy expectancy and communion in the manner of Friends, let us remember who we truly are and why we are here. Let us remember who we were and who we hope to be. Let us remember how and who influenced us in our lives of faith and let us strive to become people who love God, embrace the Holy Spirit, and live the love of Christ with others.