Twenty-Sixth Day of Lent

Luke 16:19-31
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ 31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Luke’s Gospel is a difficult one for those of us living in the First World for so much of his account is a sustained challenge to those who, as this story puts it, “in their lifetime have received your good things,” (Luke 16:25). Luke aims so much of his Gospel at the economically wealthy and charges us with a responsibility for economic justice in our world.

As the late, lamented Clarence Jordan, farmer, theologian and one of the founders of Habitat for Humanity said it in his characteristic Southern American drawl, “[The bible] doesn’t say you shouldn’t serve God and Mammon; it says you cain’t.”

And so here we have yet another story which begins “There was a rich man who…” And this story gives a dramatic account of the negative impact of economic inequality on poor people, but also on the rich.

Just prior to the World economic Forum in Davos last January Oxfam published a report on world economic inequality.⁠1 In it they presented evidence which demonstrated that the world’s twenty-six richest people control more wealth that 3.8 billion of the world’s poorest people. Billionaires around the world saw their wealth grow by $2.5 billion A DAY in 2018, and that one per cent of the accumulated wealth of  the world’s richest man Jeff Bezos was equivalent to the entire health budget of Ethiopia, a country of 105 million people.

Theologian Ched Myers describes the story of Lazarus as a political cartoon. He says it opens with a portrait of decadent wealth (Luke 16:19) in which the anonymous rich man is clothed in extreme luxury (incidentally a form of luxury repeated in Revelation 18:12 as part of the doomed cargo mourned by profiteering merchants of burning Babylon). By contrast the poor man is named; he is Lazarus. He sits at the gate of the rich man, as a visible opposition to the conspicuous consumption of the rich man, longing to receive charity from the indulgent wastage of this man.

Both characters die. It’s a matter-of-fact statement, indicating perhaps that wealth is no insulation against the ultimate end. In this we should be reminded of the parable of the wealthy farmer for whom death came suddenly (see the reflection on Luke 12 from the 21st March). The spatial opposition is reversed here, the poor man goes to the bosom of Abraham and the rich man to Hades (Luke 16:22-23). Myers reminds us that this is not simply a crude reversal of fortunes in the next life. Instead, “it is a severe warning that we will all ultimately become victims of the social barriers we erect if we don’t deconstruct them in this life.”

There is something unsettling here about who really belongs to Abraham’s family. This has been a consistent theme of Luke’s Gospel (see Luke 3:8; 13:16; 13:28 and even 19:9). Many who presume entitlement to a relationship with Abraham will not sit with him in the heavenly banquet.

The rich man imagines that in this afterlife the old social order still holds and he requests Abraham to dispatch Lazarus to bring some water to ease his suffering. Later, when he requests help for his family Abraham refuses saying they have the witness of the Scriptures. But even at the end he defies the biblical witness and refuses. Abraham makes a startling comment in concluding the story to the effect that the danger of privilege and piety is that it could care less about the clear prophetic witness of justice. We claim commitment to biblical authority, but we chase the spectacular and prefer if someone comes to us “from the dead” (Luke 16:30).

This is such a complex and challenging story, that Myers believes is actually the key to understanding Luke’s message of discipleship. It challenges us, as Myers says “to either ‘live against’ or ‘die with’ the inhumane disparities that divide our social landscape.” It makes us think about the persistence of economic disparities, whose implications last beyond our life here; it challenges us about the place of biblical authority and prophetic witness; about how we crave the spectacular in our walk of discipleship at the expense of the hard work of doing prophetic justice.

It’s an obvious question really, but where and who are the rich man and Lazarus today? Where do you see a “great chasm” (Luke 16:26) between peoples and people groups? What does it require of us to act in prophetic witness against such a divide?

1 https://www.oxfam.org/en/tags/davos-2019

Tenth Day of Lent

Luke 6:27-38 
27 ‘But to you who are listening I say: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

32 ‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

37 ‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.’

The experts tell us that Luke was written round about AD 85. The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed in AD 70, which was hugely traumatic for the Jews. And the trauma was working its way out in a variety of forms. We shouldn’t forget that what we now know as Christianity began as a subset of Judaism but at the time this was being written Jews and Christians were starting to split apart and go their own way.

In many cases this meant that families were being split up, and whole communities were being divided. So when Luke reminds the Christians of the words of Jesus in this sermon, they came with a very real edge. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man,” (Luke 6:22).

Jesus understands what this level of aggression and anger is like, but he doesn’t try to go easy here. There is no let up for the disciple. So to the listeners Jesus says, “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,” (Luke 6:27). Remember yesterday we noted that though Jesus was speaking to a big crowd he addressed his disciples directly. Here he zooms in yet again, and is addressing those who are listening. This is a challenging word.

It’s hard to offer any deflection in the exegesis here.

Love your enemies.

Jesus describes three ways of loving enemies: do good to them, bless them, pray for them (Luke 6:27-31). Someone once said that all of Jesus teaching can be found somewhere in the prophets, except for this one - love your enemies. This is utterly new, and unique. And when Jesus describes how to do it, he will not allow us to be passive about it. We are too ‘do’ things about it.

And so he roots it in their place and time. If someone, strikes you on the cheek offer him the other one too. A strike on the cheek is a dismissive act, often delivered with the back of the hand. Turning the other cheek offers another strike with the flat of the hand and is an act of resistance. “I will not strike you back, but nor will I allow you to dismiss me as if I don’t matter. I am somebody and you will notice.” If they take your cloak, give them your shirt also, and stand there naked before them. Reduce their abuse of power to an absurdity.

But also, live with a reckless generosity.

Treat others the way you want to be treated and risk the fact that, though some may abuse your kindness and generosity, sufficient numbers may be inspired to change the way the world works. For our relationship to others is not to be determined by their past actions towards us, but rather by the way the future is set to turn out as the reign of God works its way out in the world.

Let’s begin gently. If you have someone who you might consider an ‘enemy,’ or someone who has abused your generosity and thereby hurt you, pray for them now. Later on, you can think of ways to ‘do good’ for them.

Jesus who knew rejection
For those who have ignored me
And isolated me and made me lonely
Bless them

Jesus whose reputation was impugned
For those who speak ill of me
And tell lies about me
Bless them

Jesus who endured the cross
For those who have hurt me
Physically, emotionally, spiritually.
Bless them

Lord this is all I can do right now.

Strengthen me towards love
And forgiveness
So that I may more fully follow
As one of your disciples.


Ninth Day of Lent

Luke 6:20-26
20 Looking at his disciples, he said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 Blessed are you who hunger now,
    for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.
22 Blessed are you when people hate you,
    when they exclude you and insult you
    and reject your name as evil,
        because of the Son of Man.
23 ‘Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
24 ‘But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have already received your comfort.
25 Woe to you who are well fed now,
    for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
    for you will mourn and weep.
26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
    for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

This is Luke’s Sermon on the Plain which stands as his counterpart to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount in Matt 5. But this passage in Luke also has other parallels in his text, including the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) and his inaugural sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:18-19). These three passages from Luke’s gospel display consistent themes in his writing which also make difficult reading for us today.

Jesus is in the middle of a large crowd, though he addresses his disciples directly. In the crowd there are people from Jerusalem and Judea as well as people from the Greek cities of Tyre and Sidon (Luke 6:17), so the crowds following him include Jews and Gentiles, right from the beginning.

There are some significant differences between Matthew's account of the Beatitudes and Luke's account which points towards the differing purposes of the writers. In some ways these differences also make Luke's material much harder to preach. In a way Matthew 'spiritualises' the material, so he blesses the 'poor in spirit' whereas Luke, in keeping with his theme, blesses the poor. Matthew blesses those who 'hunger and thirst for righteousness,' whereas Luke blesses those who are hungry, and issues a Woe! to those who are well fed. As I said, this is consistent with Luke’s overall theme which appears in both the Magnificat and in Jesus’ first sermon.

Luke’s account therefore makes difficult and complicated reading for those of us in the relatively wealthy and well-fed West. In Luke’s account Jesus’ promise of blessing to disciples is for those who are poor and hungry, those who weep and mourn, and those who are reviled, for in this state they parallel the experience of the prophets and they can therefore rejoice because their reward is certain.

But for those who are rich and comfortable, who are well fed, who live life with a degree of carefree-ness and are well thought of, well, their experience parallels that of the false prophets.

So what do we do with this teaching, those of us who are sure and certain of a fresh meal tonight, and a warm bed, and who are of good reputation (which is probably most, if not all of us, who read this today)?

Maybe two things are worth thinking about. First, I think Luke means to alert us to the dangers and temptations inherent in wealth and comfort. It’s not that that state is of necessity an evil thing, but that there are dangers inherent in it. It’s a warning that it is a very short step from enjoying wealth, comfort and good reputation, to believing that this equals godliness. When we make that short step we have begun to shape the Gospel in our image. In our context therefore to be a good respectable, middle class, white Presbyterian is to be a good disciple. Not necessarily says Jesus. You can be all of these things and a false prophet. (That’s hard to hear isn’t it?)

Secondly, whilst we shouldn’t deify poverty, we should be alert to the fact that the Gospel is fundamentally concerned with those who are on the margins of society. If we are running after a good reputation we should be alert to the fact that we may be running away from the Gospel. Furthermore, the margins are constantly changing and shifting. As soon as we move and enfold someone in from the margins of our society, someone else will appear at another margin. And so it goes.

The poor are always with us, and they constantly change their clothes and appear in different guises in different places. The Gospel challenges us to be always alert to who may be left out.

If we absolutise ‘the poor’ we may miss the point of this passage. Those who are economically poor should always be of concern to disciples of Jesus, particularly if we are among those who are economically secure. But we should be aware that the margins are always shifting. It’s always worth reflecting on who we consider to be the ‘poor’ and who we leave alone at the margins.

What follows is a hard thing to say. Currently it is almost an item of faith that churches should be supporting local food banks, which is a wonderful and relatively recent development, for things were not always so. But even as we rush to help in this way, are there other groups of people who are falling outside our circle of care. They may not be economically poor, but they are weeping now and hated and rejected as evil. Who might they be?

God of all wisdom,
We understand that life as a disciple
Is a mixture of blessings and woes.
And that whilst we chase the blessing
We are blinded to the
Woe mixed along with it.

And while we try to avoid woe,
We miss the fact that blessing
Can come in the woe.

Teach us to reach out
To those who live lives of woe
From a place of thankfulness
And gratitude for your blessing
In our lives


Seventh Day of Lent

Luke 5:27-32
27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And he got up, left everything, and followed him.

29 Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. 30 The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; 32 I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

Again we see Jesus issuing a call to a person not from behind a pulpit, but from that person's place of work, and we see the shaping of a new movement and it's followers by their actions and not just theri beliefs. It was Levi's willingness to leave his employment that marks him off as a disciple.

But in leaving his employment he doesn't leave his relationships. The first action following the leaving is the party! And to this party he calls all his old acquaintances. It is worth noting that the religious leaders are not so much concerned with the party but with the company.

I wonder were they already wary of Jesus. They complain to his disciples, not to Jesus himself, although it is Jesus who answers their query (Luke 5:30-31).

Jesus reply is of course very instructive. It makes me think that he may have been a difficult person to be around because it's a rather rude response to their question. Let's imagine for a moment that the religious leaders are genuine in their questioning, genuinely confused about how this otherwise orthodix Jewish rabbi can justify eating and drinking with people the culture considers to be unclean. Tax collectors were usually employed by non-Jews to extract the taxes of the Empire. Sinners, well they could be allsorts. In his studies of the Gospels, Ched Myers suggests these may have been people who were in debt. What was Jesus doing with these kinds of people?

Jesus' response displays an attitude to faith that seems to say that he is less concerned with keeping people in line than with increasing the numbers in the ranks. For the religious leaders the traditional practices of faith seem to be used for the purposes of exclusion rather than distinctiveness, which was the original intent of food laws.

And so I kind of imagine Jesus putting air quotes around the word "righteous" in 5:32. It's a sarcastic comment that betrays Jesus attitudes to the morally righteous, law abiding, upright citizens. "If you think you've got it sorted," Jesus seems to say, "then you have no need of me, and I'm not overly interested in you."


But the reality is that there is nothing that Jesus can do for us unless we realise our need for repentance. And repentance isn't the confession of wrong things we have done, it is an acknowledgment that we have missed the mark and need to adjust our aim entirely and radically. Like Levi leaving his job.

And of course we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that Levi "followed" Jesus Luke 5:28). So his repentance was not a once off action, but a steady, consistent, costly attitude or walk. It's the adoption of a whole new direction of life.

Imagine for a moment that Jesus stood in front of you and said “Leave everything and follow me!” Spend a little bit of time thinking about what might be the most difficult thing to leave behind. It may be a thing, a person, a status or position, or an idea you have about yourself. Put a name on it now before Jesus. What would it cost you to surrender this to follow.