By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
September 25, 2022
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.’ ”
There was a rich man. It is interesting how many parables and teaching moments of Jesus begin in this manner. There was a rich man. What does it mean to be rich? This of course depends on your cultural context, because what would be considered rich in the community that I grew up in, would look very different to someone in New York, and what is rich in a New York setting would be ridiculous in Rwanda or India. The concept of rich may have a different appearance in different cultural contexts, but there is a common theme through each culture. The ones that are rich have an abundance, and due to this abundance, they have greater influence within their culture. The rich are those that can exert their influence over others for gain. It is not a sin to be rich or have abundance, but how we use what we have is where trouble emerges.
I have often contemplated the ideas of wealth and riches in the context of culture. I read once about a man that was speaking about World War II to a tribesman in what we would consider a 3rd world country. The man spoke about how many people died in the war and all the machinery that was invented for the execution of the conflicts. And the tribesman was astonished. And he asked the man how they could afford such a war. The man looked at the tribesman questioningly because there was something lost in translation. The European man was considering the cost of the equipment, and the tribesman was thinking not of the war itself, but of the cost of the lives. Because each of the lives that were lost in that man’s culture had a value of ten cows that would be paid to the families of the warriors by the victor. When the European man told him of the millions lives lost in that war, that tribesman was wondering how anyone could afford the cost. Where would someone even house a herd of nearly a billion cattle?
I do not know where I read that story or even if the story is true, because it seems so alien to my mindset. But I remember the story because it shows the difference of value and wealth, and it reminds me that if we are not aware of other’s understandings of the world around them, we might cause a great deal of offence. The tribesman’s understanding of wealth revolved around a herd, where we might consider the value of our investment portfolio. There was a rich man.
The wealthy of any culture have influence. The tribesman of the story, if he had a great herd, could wield greater influence over the people around him. If he chose to use violence, he had the herd to pay the cost of war. But what about us? Even in America the land of the free and the home of the brave, we often base our judgment on our ideas of wealth. If you do not believe me just turn on the news, there is a story in the news that has been running for weeks now, and the reason it has been weeks is because of the wealth of the individual involved. Our perception of wealth gives us influence, and this wealth gives power. It gives power because those that have an abundance of what a culture values can use their abundance to apply pressure to those that do not. Where those that do have a shortage of what is valued, live at the mercy of those that have an abundance.
“There was a rich man,” Jesus says, “who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.” This week, as I was studying, I could not get past this first verse for the longest time. Jesus is using some very vivid language in this verse. Purple dye was a great sign of wealth in the first century. The dye comes from a sea snail that is only found in the Mediterranean and Black Seas. To get just one gram of dye people would have to dive under the water to collect around twelve thousand snails. Due to the great risk and quantity of snails required to produce this blueish purple dye it was extremely expensive. When used this dye would make a purple color in the fabric or if it was exposed to sunlight at the proper time, it would produce blue. There were other means to produce blue or purple pigments in fabric, but this dye was important to everyone because it did not fade over time.
This dye was expensive yet very important to the Hebrew people. Scripture required that the prayer shawl should have at least one strip along its length that used thread dyed with this pigment. And the Tzitzit, the fringe or tassel worn by the men also utilized this pigment. There are many explanations as to why this was important to them, some writings say that it represents the sky and water. Which would symbolically indicate that those that wore the fringe were connected or wired to the heavens because the hue was undistinguishable from the sky. Unfortunately, when the Hebrew people returned from the exile, they lost the knowledge of making the blue color so often what should have been blue remained purple. This did not deter them from using this expensive dye, they knew that the color was off, but they used this loss of knowledge to teach the people that when Messiah came, he would restore the lost knowledge and Israel. Through contemporary scientific discoveries we have restored the formula that will make the blue hue which is exciting.
This rich man was clothed in purple. This is an indication of not only his wealth but his religious devotion. Not only was he connected with his religious fringe and strip of his prayer shawl, but his entire body was dedicated and connected with the heavens. This was a man of great influence. It is possible that Jesus was thinking of a particular person as he told this story, but he left that person unnamed. This unmentioned person would have been considered to have great wealth and influence among the righteous as well as their pagan overlords. Maybe even the high priest, or the high priest’s father-in-law.
I usually read five different commentaries when I study each week, and almost every one of the commentaries said something humorous about the fine linen. Each of these scholars thought that the fine linen that Jesus was speaking of was the man’s underwear. Jesus was making a very pointed statement about the man’s wealth. He wore purple every day, and even his underwear was of the finest, most expensive fabric. Even the most vulgar aspects of this man’s life were clothed in luxury.
This was a man that had so much wealth that he used it for the most unnecessary extravagance. As I sat in study, my mind kept being drawn to symbols in our current society. When I was a child there was a show called lifestyles of the rich and famous. This show would tour the amazing mansions that the wealthiest people of the world lived in. And I was reminded of Trump’s golden toilet, and the viral YouTube video called Putin’s Palace (by Alexei Navalny). These people of great wealth will use their abundance to make the most ordinary things in their lives extravagant.
“And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus,” Jesus continues. This is the only time in all of Jesus’s parables that a name is given to one of the characters. This has led some to believe that Jesus was speaking about an actual event. I am not going to say that this is true or not, because nothing in scripture indicates one way or the other, except for the fact that this is the only time Jesus uses a name. Lazarus was the third most common name among the men in first century Jewish people, and the name derived from the Hebrew name Eleazar which means, “the one God helps.” Scholars believe that it is a fitting name to describe a poor man in a story. Eleazar was also the name of Aaron’s son who became the second high priest of Israel, so Jesus might have also used the name to direct attention to the ancient faith of the fathers and the contemporary expression of faith.
Lazarus was laid at the rich man’s gate. Laid is also an interesting word; it is the passive form of the Greek word to throw or cast out. Meaning this man was not just placed at the gate, but he was cast out and forgotten. He was squatting at the gate of one of the most influential people’s and yet he is forgotten, overlooked, and disregarded. He was covered with sores and the only medical care he received was from the dogs that came by to lick his wounds. This shows the heartlessness of the main character of this parable, the rich man. He had enough wealth to have linen underwear, but he would leave this man in the care of wild stray dogs.
Already just three verses in we see much, but there is much more to the story. Both these men die. And angels carry the poor man to Abraham’s side, while the rich man is buried. We might overlook this part of the story, but its important. Angels are regarded as ministering spirits, and some of these ministering spirits would escort the souls of the dead to God. And depending on the person another ministering spirit, Satan, the accuser, would stand before God with these souls and accuse them. This poor man Lazarus is different. He was not accused before God; he instead went directly to Abraham’s side. Lazarus was immediately received into eternal blessedness. Very few people are spoken of in this manner. Moses, Enoch, and Elijah are the only ones that come to my mind that went directly into God’s blessing. Everyone else it is said are gather to their ancestors, which means that their bones will be placed with the bones of their ancestors as they wait for the resurrection of the righteous. Jesus is telling us that the poor man is as righteous as Moses. The poor man is carried to blessing by the angels, and “the rich man is buried and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.”
The irony here is thick. It is often taught that blessing here on earth is equal to blessing in Heaven. Meaning that those that have an abundance on earth have that because God has blessed their righteousness. The same teachings can still be seen today among the health and wealth teachings of many churches in America. What does Jesus have to say about this? Last week we heard what he says, “If you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” We often take this parable as proof of heaven and hell, but we often miss the fullness of what Jesus is saying. This is not a story of heaven and hell, or the virtue of the poor and the vile of the rich, but a story of what God values in His Kingdom.
The rich man cries out in his torment to Abraham, “Send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water to cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.” This goes back again to last week. In the ancient world there were basically two classes of people the rich and the slave. Those that had wealth or abundance, and those that lived at the mercy of those with abundance. There were very few in between these two classes, and if we were to be honest the merchant class or the free men class were often feared by governments because they could not be easily controlled. This rich man in hades had been one of the elites. He had slaves and servants, and since Lazarus was at his gate, he most likely would have been a slave of this man. The rich man looks up to Abraham and expects Lazarus to continue in his servitude to him. Abraham quickly puts a stop to this, “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.”
Abraham calls the man child; I do find this interesting. He speaks to the man with tenderness, even though he is condemned. Not only is he speaking in tenderness, but the term child is the word used for the first son, the heir. He may be in hades, but he is still honored for who he is. Even though he chose a life that forever separates him from the eternal blessing of God, he is addressed in a manner worthy of his name. We are all loved by God, we are not worms in the hands of an angry God, but children. Errant children at times, but still children. The rich man understands what Abraham is saying. He chose his destiny. He chose to disregard the teachings of Moses in life, and he accepts the judgement rendered. But he begs, “Father, send him [Lazarus] to my father’s house – for I have five brothers – so that he may warn them.” This rich man still believes that he can command Lazarus. He still believes that he can control and influence those around him, even in his condemned state.
Abraham again stops this train of thought. “They have Moses and the Prophets, let them hear them.” Why does Abraham say this? Scripture teaches us the life that God desires. We often regard it as the law, but with every law there are exceptions to the rule. Scripture is not law, but teaching. It is filled with case studies or situational events that teach us how to discern good and evil. When we regard scripture as law, we begin to negotiate and make justifications. This is what this rich man had done his entire life. These justifications left him looking righteous on earth, it gave him power and influence, but he did not discern the deeper truth. He sought the unrighteous wealth and neglected true wealth. Abraham tells him, “Your brothers have all they need.” And this man pleas, “No, Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”
This story, often regarded as teaching us about the choice between heaven and hell, speaks not of that decision. Instead, it teaches us of something deeper. How will we live? Scripture throughout the Old Testament speaks of how to live life with others. Israel was called to a different kind of life, set apart or sanctified from the rest of the world. Much of what we regard as the Law, is very similar to what every other culture in the area did, but Scripture puts a different spin on it. The spin is value for human life.
If you were to read the legal codes of Mesopotamia you would find many similarities to scripture, not equal but similar. This points to the natural law; CS Lewis so famously spoke about. But the difference is in the areas that are not similar. Mesopotamia had classes of people, where in Israel people were equal in the eyes of God. Mesopotamia would allow dishonor of outsiders where Israel was to be hospitable to the alien. Mesopotamia, or Babylon allowed those of means to lord over their slaves as if they were subhuman. Scripture reminds Israel that they were once slaves and they should treat all people as the image bearers that they are, because God will eventually redeem all people to himself.
What I am getting at is that it is can be easy to fall. The slightest turn can drastically change the course set before us, and that slight turn can be detrimental to life. The pilgrims our schools love to honor around thanksgiving had their course set not toward Plymouth but toward the already establish colonies in America. They were blown off course and when they came to America, they were miles from where they intended on being. That modification in course nearly killed them. If it was not for the hospitality of the native peoples in that area, we would have one less story to tell around Thanksgiving.
We are called to use the unrighteous wealth of mankind, to lift each other up in the world today. We are called to use what we have available to us here and now, to bring glory and honor to God. We are called to live our lives in a manner among the people of this world, that will reflect the love that God has for them. We are called to live this way not because we ourselves are good, but because this is how God created us to live.
It was the fall that brought in sin and death. Sin or missing the mark is how we veer off course. We can veer off course in simple seemingly insignificant ways, but as we continue our journey through life that little turn can lead us miles from the destination. God understands this. God knows how easy we can be swayed, so he reminds us that it is justice not whole burnt offerings that he desires. It is Loving him with all that we have and loving our neighbors as ourselves that is the true law. God knows how easy it is to turn from the true law, so he provided a way, a pathway through the valley of the shadow of death, in Jesus, his one unique son. So that whoever believes in him will not perish but will have life, true life in him. Will we answer that call?
The rich man clothed in purple and fine linen appeared to most people to be living the life of blessing, and Lazarus who sat at the gates with his sores ministered by the dogs appeared to be the one that was cursed. It is difficult to know the hearts of those around us, because we so often are attracted to what positions itself as power and influence in the kingdoms of men. But what if that tribesman with his herd of cattle knows more about life than the European?
What do we value? And how do we use what is available to us? Jesus is calling those who claim to follow the God of Abraham to examine their lives and their actions. He is asking us to do the same. Christ came to live among mankind to give us a course correction, will we follow him? Will we return to God’s path, or will we continue to follow the pathways of this world? Are we loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others?
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By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
September 18, 2022
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.”
There are many times I will sit down with scripture and wonder why a passage is even in there. Today we have read one of those passages. I struggle with this parable. I usually love the words that Jesus speaks, but this one gets my mind twisted in knots.
As a Quaker, or a Friend, integrity is important to me. It is one of the pillars of our faith, that stretches across our various branches. It is common to have these pillars to be taught as SPICE. Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality. When I read the words of Jesus and the seeming praise of someone that is acting without integrity, I get concerned. I pull back from this passage and I demand some sort of answer that I can use to justify its inclusion in scripture that will satisfy my own religious ideologies.
I have read and studied this passage several times, and I have yet to come up with an interpretation that I find satisfaction with. I have read through commentaries and quite frankly even they seem to be grasping at straws when it comes to understanding this parable, because unlike other parables the answers do not seem clear.
I struggle with this. And as I sat this week in study and in prayer, I have concluded that the teaching of this parable just might be that we must struggle at times with our faith. When I was a freshman in college my little sister passed away at the age of ten. Next month she will have been gone from this earth for twenty-five years. I do not understand why something like that happens. Why it is even allowed to happen. It is not fair, and it is an injustice to every perception of goodness. How can a good God allow something like that to happen?
I do not have a good answer. I really wish I did. I wish I could speak some word over it and all the pain and uncertainty could be swept away. But that is not life. Life is filled with struggles. When our first parents were tempted to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil they introduced struggle into our lives. Prior to that the only knowledge that Adam and Eve had was the knowledge from God, when they ate from that tree another factor was added to the mix. They suddenly had to discern what was good and what was evil. They had to make these decisions for themselves, and for each other, and eventually for their children. God told them that from that point on they would have to struggle, they would have to toil, they would till the earth to grow food and thistles and thorns would come as well. We struggle because we do not have perfect knowledge, and because we do not have perfect knowledge, we must do the best that we can with what we have.
Jesus looks at his disciples right after he tells them the parable of the prodigal son. The parable where one son goes off to a faraway country and squanders his wealth and comes back home to beg for a place at the servants’ table, only to have his father throw him a party. In that story we often focus on the son that went away, but it is a tale about two sons. One went away and the other stayed and did everything right. He served his father with honor and respect, and his father seemingly never even noticed him. At least that is what he thought. “These many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.” That older son said to his father.
This son has a point. His younger brother went off to the foreign land and wasted all he had bringing dishonor to the father’s name. While the older brother did what was right. It is not fair, that the father would throw a party for the return of the sinner, before honoring the righteous.
Jesus looks at his disciples after he sets them up with this story. He has them considering the fairness of life. They are considering grace and righteousness. They are wondering why Jesus is honoring the sinner that returned and not the one that never left. And then he tells them another story. “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. 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.’”
To begin we need to understand something about the culture. We often look at the term manager or steward and we consider it from our point of view. We assume that this man was hired to be in this position, and that very well could be, but not always. I want to remind you of the story of Joseph and his brothers. The brothers were jealous of the favor that Joseph had with their father so they plotted against him. Initially they were going to kill him, but instead they sold the boy into slavery. And eventually Joseph found himself in service of a prominent official’s household. Joseph served his master well, and eventually his master placed him over his household. Joseph the slave was made the steward of the rich man’s estate. This is likely the type of steward that Jesus is speaking of. A man that had been enslaved, but had found enough favor with the master of the estate that he had been given an administrative role over the other slaves.
Slavery has always been part of human history. Every culture has some connection to it, but not every culture treated slaves like they were treated in America. In Israel, yes Israel had slaves and they also were at one time slaves themselves. In Israel, slaves were not reduced to the absolute category of chattel, nor to virtual animal servitude like that of American Slavery. In Israel, slaves were to be treated as hired workers and were indebted to six years of service if they were Hebrew in origin. Non Hebrews slaves were a bit worse off, but unlike in America, slaves throughout the Mediterranean world, could be professionals and work as doctors, educators, and business managers. Slaves were seen as human and could contribute to society if their master allowed them to. This particular slave was a business manager.
He was placed over the estate and he managed the accounts for his master. This was common in Israel because often the masters would be the religious leaders, and they would devote their lives to the service of God, which is a full-time job. So these leaders would set someone over their estate to keep them financially secured, so that they could be released to serve God more fully. But this particular rich man, was informed that the steward was not managing his accounts well.
This man was busy doing whatever rich men did in that day, because a message was sent, and he had to make his way back to the estate to figure out what was going on. “What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management.” He is asking him to go get the accounts so that he can go over them and transfer the responsibility of management to someone else. This was a time before computers so there was not a cloud that the rich man could access to see what was going on. The accounting was kept with the steward in his home, so the man was sent away to get the books.
This manager knew he was in trouble. There was no way to talk his way out of things, we do not even know what the crime or mismanagement may have been. But he knew that his service was over. This is why scholars believe that the man was a slave and not a hire manager. He walks home, and as he is walking home he is thinking to himself what he is going to do. “I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” He says to himself. Then he has an epiphany, “I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me in their houses.”
He has a list of all those people who are indebted to his master, so he calls them in. And together they conspire. One man owes one hundred measures of oil, so this steward tell him to take the bill, sit down and quickly write fifty. To another that owes a hundred measures of wheat, he says to take his bill and write eighty. What is he doing? Well, he is the one that has the record of the bills. He holds the contracts. He and those that he called are the only ones that know the true amount owed. And he brings them in to write the bills out themselves so that together they know the truth. For each of these men he has lifted a burden of a year’s salary from their shoulders. And there is an agreement with them that because of that conspiracy they will provide for this man’s livelihood when he is removed from his position.
The man takes these new fraudulent bills to his master and he turns them over. And the master knows that they are inaccurate, but there is no way to prove it one way or the other. He knows that this man has figured out a way retain his lifestyle and there is no way for the master to disgrace or condemn him because all the evidence has been removed. So what is there to do? He sends him away commending his shrewdness.
Do you see why this is a troubling passage. The man is committing fraud and not only getting away with it but being commended for it. And Jesus concludes the story by saying, “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” Jesus is seeming suggesting that this is acceptable behavior. “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”
I sit and consider this passage. I stew over it and I literally have given up on trying to understand it for a while. And then as I pray, I realize that the story is not about what we see on the surface at all. On the surface all we see is a guy committing fraud and getting away with it. But that is not the point. The point is relationships. The point is that each of the people in this story is bound in slavery of some sort. Each of them is indebted to the master in some fashion, and not are truly free. But what are we going to do with what we do have available to us?
As I reconsidered this parable I began to think about a book I have read a few times. I mentioned this book a couple of years ago, called Father Arseny 1893-1973 -Priest, Prisoner, and Spiritual Father. This man, who we may or may not be real, was a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church during the Soviet era of their history. Because of his position in the church he was imprisoned for various reasons and lived much of his adult life in the Gulag prison systems. While he was in prison he continued to live as he always had. He prayed whenever he had an opportunity, and he would encourage other prisoners to explore a life of faith. Many of the people he was imprisoned with followed him into the priesthood.
Eventually Father Arseny was released from prison, and he continued to serve the church, although in an underground manner because he could not officially serve because of his imprisonment. One day in 1962 a bishop came to visit him. This man was a very serious theologian and philosopher, and many sought his council. And many of the people Father Arseny had encouraged throughout his life were under the care of this bishop, so the bishop felt that he should visit Father Arseny. He stayed with Arseny for two days, and during that time they prayed together and make confessions to one another, and they discussed the fate and future of the Church in the Soviet Union. This Bishop looked at Father Arseny’s library and pronounced, “The faithful one needs only the Gospel, the Bible, and the works of the Holy Fathers. All the rest isn’t worth his attention.”
Father Arseny remained silent for a few moments and answered, “You are right, Your Holiness, the most important things are in those books, but we must remember that man as he develops nowadays is very different from man in the fourth century. The horizon of knowledge has become wider and science can now explain what couldn’t be understood then. The priests today must know a great deal in order to be able to help believers make sense of the contradictions he sees. A priest has to understand the theory of relativity, passionate atheism, the newest discoveries in biology, medicine and most of all modern philosophy. He gets visited by students of medicine, chemistry, physics, as well as by blue collar workers, and each one of them has to be given an answer to his or her questions such that religion doesn’t sound anachronistic, or just a half-answer.” (Page 132-134)
When I was in school my teacher said once that while the priest argued about the colors that should be put on the alter the Soviet Union took control over the hearts of the people. That statement broke my heart, because I love the Russian people. I have a great love for their exploration of theology, I love the way they wrestle with faith and life in the pages of their books both secular and religious. They have so much to offer the world, and yet something went astray. We often wonder what went wrong but it all goes back to our first parents. They too wrestled, they too struggled trying to figure out what was good, and what they took hold of is different from what we cling to.
But the words of Father Arseny speak to my heart. Today we have people that are just like the bishop in that story, all you need is the bible. And I agree it is the most important thing, but if we are unable to translate what is in the bible to those that are in the world, we might as well be talking about the colors on the alter while the Soviets take over the hearts. If we cannot speak Christ into science, if we cannot talk of Christ as we relate to those around us what are we?
This is where the shrewd manager comes in, and what I think Jesus was really getting at. All those present were indebted and enslaved by the master. But by the worldly knowledge of the Steward they were able to lift their burden together. Some scholars say that the debt could be relieved because it was the amount of interest charged on the debt, so the steward took that off because of the law against usury. Other have said that it was the amount that would have been his commission or his personally wages, so the steward did not defraud the landowner but only removed the portion of debt that would have been paid to him upon the conclusion of the contract. We do not know exactly what the terms were. All we know is that the man used what was available to him, to make life better for himself and those around him.
Jesus is telling us that we too need to wise. We need to think outside the box at times. We, like Father Arseny, need to be able to speak Christ to the medical student and the physicist, to the atheist and the blue-collar laborer. We are all in this together so we need to figure out how we can make life just a bit better for everyone around us, because life is struggle enough. Too much of life is unfair and unjust so we should seek to lift the burden instead of adding to it.
I still do not think I fully grasp this parable. I do not think I ever will. But I can be content in my lack of understanding. I can be content that even though I do not have all the answers, I can struggle with God. And as I struggle, God will give me glimpses of the truth that will keep me going another day. There will be times where we do not have an answer. Do not lose hope. Do not give up. When we do not understand look back to what we do, and maybe as we wrestle, we get a glimpse once again.
As we enter into our time of open worship and communion in the manner of Friends, I want us to listen to a song written by NT Wright and Dr. Francis Colins, a theologian and a scientist that are both men of deep faith. Men that approach life from different directions but come together in Christ. We may not all agree, or even have the same ideas, but God is with us in Christ. We are all under the same curse and debt, and while we were still there in that sin Christ came, lived, taught, died, was buried, and rose again. To lift us up, to restore and redeem us. He came so that we can be a people Loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and Living his love with others in whatever capacity we have available to us.
If you would like to help support the continued Ministry of Willow Creek Friends Church please consider donating online:
To help support the personal ministry of JWQuaker (Jared Warner) online and in the community click to donate.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
September 11, 2022
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.”
When I would dream about what I wanted to do when I grew up, being a pastor was never on the list. Being a pastor was not even a thought in my head. I have mentioned it before, when I was Albert’s age, I wanted to be an astronaut. Every week when our class would go to the library I would have space books, I think I read all the space books in the library. I loved the movie, “The Right Stuff” and even though it is an unbearably long movie to watch as a kid I loved it. And I could not wait to be in the third grade because that was the year the students could go on a field trip to the Kansas Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas. If you have not visited the Cosmosphere, I cannot urge you enough to make that trip the next long weekend you have, because it is worth the trip.
I mention this because even though my mom knew that being an astronaut was probably never going to be something I would ever be able to become, because I was born half deaf, she still encouraged me to try my hardest. She encouraged me to study. She would tell me what astronauts needed to learn, so I really applied myself in the areas of math and science. Never once did she tell me you cannot do that, except when it came to the military. She told me I could not join the military because I heard the doctor tell me that. She let me come to my own conclusions in that regard. She allowed me to find out on my own that, my dream of become an astronaut would not be something I could do, and then she helped me pursue a different path.
I love my mom. I could not think of any mother that could be better than my mom. Except maybe Albert’s mom, because my mom never threw birthday parties like Kristy does. In fact, there was one birthday she forgot to make a cake, so she put a candle in a little Debbie and sang happy birthday. In her defense we were planning on celebrating my birthday on the next weekend, but she usually made a cake for us to eat on the day anyway. My mom is a great mom, but when I told her after I returned from Ukraine and finished my last semester of college that I felt called to the ministry, it was the first time she really told me that I could not do something.
Parents know their children. They know their interests and their personalities. They know their strengths and their weaknesses. And my mom knew that I did not talk. I am painfully shy most of the time. As I have gotten older, I realized why I do not talk much. It is because I do not hear well. It is easier for me to withdraw and read than it is for me to hold a conversation, especially if the conversation is in a crowded room. When people lose their hearing, they will begin to withdraw from conversations, and eventually from social gatherings, simply because it is a lot of work. She knew that I did not talk, I did not like large crowds, and that a career in research probably would have been better suited to my personality. Parents know their children, but sometimes parents are wrong. It is not their fault because they are human just like everyone else. We sometimes misread a situation, or maybe we neglect some aspect of a conversation, and we build a faulty assumption that distorts our perspective of reality.
I love my mom. And although she told me that I could not be a pastor she has sense repented and has said that I do ok.
I bring this up because we can sometimes get things wrong. Each of us look at the world around us and we make choices and decisions based on the things that we see, hear, smell, and understand. But there are always times where we proceed only to later find out that we had built our minds around something that might not be the whole truth. This is where I find myself in today’s passage. I love this section of the gospel. I love the parable of the lost sheep, and the lost coin because it is filled with hope.
“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?”
I must confess that I have not fully understood this parable. I have read it, even spoke from this text multiple times, and yet the more I study the more I realize that I have often been wrong. I look at the shepherd in the story and I know that it is God that is pursuing the lost sheep and bringing it back into the fold. I have built my life on this understand of this passage, because I have been that lost sheep. And God did find me, and God did bring me back. But there is more to this story than just God going out to find the lost sheep.
We often forget why Jesus is telling this story in the first place. “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’” Why are the religious leaders so upset with Jesus talking to sinners and tax collectors?
I have read this passage multiple times and for some reason I just never really understood why Jesus was prompted to tell this story in the first place. A few weeks ago, we discussed Jesus healing a woman at the synagogue on the Sabbath. We discussed how irritated the ruler of the synagogue was at this. And the reason was that she was healed on the sabbath. He was not necessarily upset that Jesus healed the woman, but that he would do it in the synagogue on the sabbath. Jesus worked on the sabbath. Jesus not only worked, but he did this unrighteous feat in the place within a community, dedicated to the regular worship and praise of God. Six days you are to work, come on those days if you want to be healed. Jesus looked at the ruler and rebuked him. He said to that man that all of them would untie their donkey and lead it to water, yet this daughter of Abraham they would leave bound by a disabling spirit.
Then on another Sabbath, Jesus was invited to a meal at the ruler of the pharisee’s house, and he again healed a man on the Sabbath. This time the people were astonished that he would heal on that day yet again, but this time when Jesus spoke, he began to speak out against the various social maneuvering the people at the feast were doing. They were trying to get the best seats; they were inviting the most influential people. They were living their life trying to get one step ahead, while the man, this son of Abraham was sitting in bondage, right outside the house.
And then Jesus, while beginning his final journey to Jerusalem, began to teach those that followed him what the cost of true discipleship was. And I mentioned to you that in God’s economy, value is retained not in the currencies of this world, but in the people that bear the image of God and are called by his name. The cost of discipleship is to turn our backs on economies of the kingdoms of men, and to embrace the very things that God values.
We have value in God’s economy. Every human being bears the image of God within them. Early Quakers would often say that we should pursue and encourage that of God in all people. That is an interesting saying, it is a bit odd, but I like it. I like it, because it reminds me that there is something of value that God loves in every person. When we find that place where those of us who know God and those that do not know God meet, that is where something miraculous happens. That is where we can encourage and be encouraged. That is where we can live the love of Christ with others.
This is the framework that Luke is working in when he wrote these words. He is building on the passages that we have read from the past few weeks. He is telling us that the ruler of the synagogue, the ruler of the Pharisees, the people that wished to be disciples but were unwilling to accept the cost are all in the same place. They are wandering around in the kingdoms of men while claiming to be in the kingdom of God, but their currency is not valid. It cannot be exchanged. They look as if they are wealthy but, they are impoverished.
These religious leaders are grumbling that Jesus receives sinners and eats with them. This is tied to Old Testament teachings that many of us may not understand. There were rules about hygiene that were attached to meals. You were to wash your hands before you eat, but not merely washing your hands, you had to wash them in a particular manner, so that you could remain ritually clean. If you were to meet someone that did not put in the same amount of righteous care, they might contaminate you.
There are good reasons for these ritualistic hygiene rules. You do not know where someone else’s hands have been. We have just come through a worldwide pandemic, and we are very aware of how pathogens can be spread. Ancient Israel did not know about the germ theory. They did not know anything about viruses or bacteria. They did not know about parasites that could live within meats that were improperly stored or improperly cooked. They only knew that God commanded them not to eat certain things, and that they should wash before they ate anything. And because of the strict focus on remaining ritualistically clean, they would avoid contact with people that did not actively live the same way. This avoidance would lead to shunning, and the shunning would then lead to open condemnation. When Jesus did not reject these sinners, these people that did not live like they did, they began to wonder if Jesus even believed.
This is where I began to wonder what was going on. They were grumbling about Jesus eating with sinners. Jesus listened to the grumbling, and he begins to teach about shepherds and sheep. That is a big leap if you ask me. But then as I studied and as I considered the teachings that Jesus has made in the readings over the past few weeks, I began to see things in a different light. These were the leaders, the most important members of the religious community. These were the ones that had taken on the role of encouraging the people in faith. Throughout the history of Israel there is a word or title for these people. They are the Shepherds of Israel. They are the ones that are to teach and exemplify life with God before the people. And in my study, I was led to Ezekiel.
Ezekiel was a prophet that lived around the time of the exile into Babylon. We know some of the stories that he told, like the vision he had of the wheel within a wheel, which prophecy preachers like to use in sermons quite a bit. I will not get into all of that. We also like the story of the dry bones that miraculously reanimate to become an army for God. And pretty much that is the extent of our knowledge of Ezekiel. At least my knowledge. Ezekiel is a very difficult book to read, and if I want to be honest, it is disturbing. I would not recommend letting children read it unless you are prepared to explain things. Basically, Ezekiel is loved by many of the 2nd temple period religious leaders because it speaks a great deal about the sin that got them into the situation of being exiled, and it also speaks about the restoration of Israel. It is the teaching of Ezekiel that is often used to teach the people to be more righteous so that they will see the restoration of Israel and will not face exile again.
Jesus looks at these religious leaders and he reminds them of their own teachings. He reminds them of Ezekiel, this great prophet they like to point to. And he calls them out yet again. “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them…Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.” (Ezekiel 34:1-6)
I read that passage and I was nearly brought to tears. Because I grumble. I get upset when I am not understood, and when people I respect do not listen. I get upset when I see injustice, I get annoyed when people that should care, do not even try to understand. I get annoyed and I grumble. Ezekiel continues and says that God himself will go out and search for the lost sheep. That he will be the shepherd of his own sheep. That he will seek the lost and bring back the stray. That he will bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong he will destroy. That he will feed them in justice.
The Pharisees grumbled. The Pharisees are often given a bad reputation in scripture, but we are not always aware of who they were. These were the guys that helped keep the faith alive during the exile. They were the ones that retained their identity even when there was not a temple to worship in. And they did well. When they returned to Jerusalem the Pharisees were important, they even spread the faith to those around them, and even made converts. The family of Herod were not hereditary Jews, but were from the tribes of Edom, Israel’s brother. And yet Herod’s family was accepted into the community and could worship in the temple, because they became part of Israel in faith, largely due to the work of the Pharisees. They were instrumental in restoring and preserving the worship of the Most High God in the land. The Pharisees were good shepherds for a period. But they had grown fat. They had lost focus and began to look to themselves instead. They devoted their lives to purifying the land to prepare the way for Messiah, but in their work, they lost sight of what God really wanted. He does not need us to be the judge for others, God can do that himself. What God needs is for us to be hospitable.
We often focus on the lost sheep or the lost coin, because we have all been there. But what if that is not the point? What if the point of this whole story is that we should be welcoming, and celebrate with one another?
What if Jesus is telling us to stop grumbling about what the republicans or democrats are doing and instead invite them over for a cup of tea and a slice of cake. What if the point of this whole story is that God is the shepherd not us. God will bring in the lost and we are supposed to celebrate.
We live in a time of division. We live in a world that is at war. We each have our ideas and our opinions. We have our strongly held beliefs and at times those strongly held beliefs are baffling. But what if all God really wants us to do is live our life following him. What if all he wants is for us to notice the injustice and stand with them. What is all he wants us to do is live the love of Christ with others?
We can often get bound in our desire to be righteous. Yes, we need to be righteous, but what is that? Jesus made it his custom to worship in the synagogues with the community. He withdrew often to pray in isolated places. And he ministered to the needs of those within the community. Worship, prayer, and service. Loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. That is all God wants. Let us speak to that of God in all people. Let us encourage the light within all people to burn a little brighter. Let us become people that do not grumble because someone around us sins, but instead let us celebrate when they begin to turn toward God, within their own understanding. Let us stop our grumbling and live the love of Christ with others. Maybe…we just need to celebrate.
If you would like to help support the continued Ministry of Willow Creek Friends Church please consider donating online:
To help support the personal ministry of JWQuaker (Jared Warner) online and in the community click to donate.