I am a preacher. Currently my Sunday morning gig is to supply a small United Methodist church with sermons, and to help lead their worship service. I also do some visitation ministry for the congregation. I am functionally their pastor, but that’s not my job title. While I’ve been a pastor, I am not licensed by the UMC, and the church isn’t big enough to pay a pastor (the denomination and the conference has some guidelines for what their pastors should be paid). It is a small community church, and the membership is aging out. We are lucky if there is 17 or so of us gathered on a Sunday morning and the congregation has no idea what tomorrow holds. In the meantime, I hope to speak a hopeful word for them.
My passage this Sunday comes from Isaiah 11. There is some evocative imagery there about a wolf and a lamb, a leopard & a goat, a calf, a lion a yearling, a cow and a bear, a child leader, and an infant playing in a snake pit. But the passage begins with familiar words we quote while awaiting the Christ child this season, ” A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” (Isaiah 11:1).
I know something about stumps (I am not an arborist, but I play one on tree-vee). Stumps are dead.
We had a giant maple tree in the backyard of the property we rent in Medford. It wasn’t a healthy tree, but it seemed stable enough. It was wide and tall and still had signs of life. But in early autumn a branch fell off onto our shed. I went in the backyard to inspect the tree and discovered that parts of the trunk were rotten. I could stick the handle of my garden hoe right through the trunk. I called our landlord and over the next several days, he had cut the tree down and only a stump remains.
Evidently the previous owner, had decided to make a raised garden bed around an existing tree, and covered the maple tree roots with soil, stressing the tree. While the tree looked alive enough for awhile, it was dying a long slow death. Now there is just a stump, left for dead.
When Isaiah had his vision, the northern Kingdom of Israel was taken into captivity by Assyria (circa 722 BCE), and the Southern Kingdom of Judah (where Isaiah was) was forced to pay tribute. While Judah maintained their independence, the golden age of David and Solomon was behind them. Judah found itself dominated by powerful nations all around. They had a noble past, but their roots were distressed under a layer of dirt. Life had ebbed from the tree.
Isaiah has a vision of the dead stump of Jesse—the Davidic monarchy at its end (Jesse was David’s father). Lifeless. I am sure Jesse’s stump wasn’t from a maple tree. I picture one of those mighty Lebanon ceders the Old Testament keeps mentioning, only dead. Just a stump, until a green shoot grows from its center. It was a renewal of hope in a Messiah—an anointed King in the line of David—a green shoot from the stump of Jesse. And with this shoot, hope grows.
Joan Chittister, in Scarred By Struggle, Transformed By Hope (Eerdmans, 2003) writes ” Everywhere I looked, hope existed—but only as some kind of green shoot in the midst of struggle. (preface, ix).” With hindsight and a high Christology, we read of the green shoot in Jesse’s stump and wax eloquent about the Coming of Christ. I am not sure how comforting this was for Isaiah’s hearers, who remembered that stump and the grandeur of yesteryear. But as Chittister says, “Hope, I began to realize was not a state of life. It was at best a gift of life” (ibid).
Advent hope, then and now, is a gift of life. It is a green shoot in the midst of struggle. A green shoot in a stump of a failing monarchy doesn’t sound much like hope. But it became the hope of salvation for the whole earth. Christ’s return sounds to us like pie-in-the-sky escapism, but it is our hope for the renewal of all things, here. A green shoot in the midst of struggle.
I don’t know what you are going through and what it means for you to hold out hope. I don’t know what it means for our world threatened by violence. Or our a country with ever-deepening divisions. I don’t know what it means for the church I pastor that I’m not the pastor of. But each of us, are more than the stump of what was. Hope grows. A green shoot—life where we least expect to find it.
I’m training for a marathon. Well . . . nearer on the horizon, I’m training for a half marathon. For the past 11 weeks I’ve been doing a half-marathon training program with Katie Barrett I discovered on Audible (with some minor tweaks). Next week Saturday, I am headed to Eugene, Oregon for the Eugene Holiday Half. This will be the longest race I’ve run to date. I’m not in the best shape of my life, but I still expect to finish this in 2 and a half hours. And I hope it will be fun.
I start each Advent by reflecting on the meaning of the season, that we are waiting, and what we are waiting for isn’t here yet. The way Israel waited through their long exile, we wait for the return of the reigning Christ, when war, predation, suffering and grief will cease and we shall experience the renewal of all things. I believe practicing Advent means being dissatisfied with where we are, and being shaped by hope of what’s to come.
But guess what? Our world is not at peace. We are at war, there are mass-shooters that attack public spaces. Racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, homophobia are thriving, affecting vulnerable people in our society and in the world. And then there are broken relationships and betrayals, financial worries, discomforting diagnoses, and painful losses. The Advent of Christ feels a long way off.
When I started training for my half marathon, I committed to running four times a week, stretching, fueling my body appropriately and building in time for recovery. Twelve weeks later, I’m in better shape and better prepared to run. Because I’ve been training with an audible program, I’ve had a constant voice in my ear during my runs, reminding me to work on my form and stretch out my stride. I am coached when to push and when to run easy. At different times in my training program, I am coached to picture myself in my last mile, pushing as hard as I can. And at other times the exhortation is simpler: run the mile I am in.
So we celebrate Advent in the strong hope of God’s coming to us in Christ. But just as the Isaiah passage from Sunday exhorted Israel, “Come, descendants of Jacob,let us walk in the light of the Lord”(Isaiah 2:5). Isaiah shared a vision of the coming of God when swords are beat into plowshares and all the peoples of the world come to learn the ways of YHWH (Isaiah 2:1-4) and then exhorts his hearers to walk in the light of the Lord. The grand goal of worldwide shalom and communion with God, and the exhortation: run the mile you are in. Walk now in light of the things to come
How do we practice Advent in a way that both keeps our eye on the finish line, and with awareness of where we are, run the mile we are in? What are the practices which help us prepare well for the coming of Christ?
Here are some suggestions:
1. Light candles. A lot of our churches have Advent wreaths which count down the Sundays before Christmas. Our family also has a home wreath, which I haven’t unearthed yet. This is great mindful way to practice advent. The warmth and light of the Advent candles are a visceral and visual reminder of the way light dispels darkness. Just lighting the candles is a ritual of hope.
2. Sing songs. Some cranky liturgists and young preachers will tell you that this is not the time for Christmas carols. We are in a season of waiting and longing, and the joy of Christmas is coming. This is bosh. Mary sang (Luke 1:46-55). Yes there is pain, and longing and dissatisfaction. Yes, there is the ache of the already but not quite yet. But there is also wonder and awe, and joyful anticipation. If singing ignites and keeps hope alive. Sing. Sing loud, off key and exuberantly. Sing of the things to come. When people smile when they are running, they can run farther.
3.Do Justice. Part of our Advent hope in the coming of Christ, is that justice and peace will reign when he comes. Part of running the mile we are in, is find ways to press into God’s peace and justice now. Is there an issue facing your community which you can address? Are ways we can promote peace now? Who, of your neighbors is facing injustice? Can we do something about it? This is walking in the light of what’s to come. This is running the mile we are in.
4. Welcome. When Jesus comes everyone is welcome. We are talking kings and shepherds, women and men, Jews and Gentiles, young children and old saints—people of every tongue, tribe and nation. The radical inclusivity of God’s kingdom is coming! What are ways we can practice inclusion and welcome now? Who can you show hospitality to? Is there someone you can invite over for dinner? Is there someone you know, who feels alone and excluded that you can invite along with you where you are going? Do you know someone who needs you to run along aside them for a while?
Jesus came, Jesus comes, Jesus is coming. Our Advent hope is sure, and in our hearts we can picture the finish line. These are just a few suggestions of how we can run now, the mile we are in, as we prepare for the Day ahead. How do you practice Advent?
When I was in seminary (10 years ago), I took an ethics seminar where we read a number of articles each week from Bible scholars and theologians on various issues. We read a good cross-section of confessional and critical scholars, both theological conservatives and liberals. One of my classmates standing critique of our readings was the use various theologians made of the beginning and the end of the biblical story.
He’d say something like, “At creation, no one was there to see it, so we don’t know what it is really like. The end of the story hasn’t happened yet, so we can’t speak of what it is like. So we can’t base our ethical claims in either Creation, or the consummation of things.”
Spoiler alert: he was wrong.
His idea, capitulates to a metaphysical realism, where all we can do is make do with the way things are. We may have some resources from tradition to draw on and we may cling to some commands or ethical principles, but essentially all we can do is limp along the best we can. We just have to make the best of it.
The beginning and the end of our story is integral to our spiritual formation. The Hebrew Bible opens with a description of God’s creation of heaven and earth (Gen 1:1):
Our Christian Bible closes with a vision of a new heaven, a new earth, a heavenly Jerusalem descending and Christ’s promise, “Surely, I am coming soon” (Rev 21-22).
The beginning of the story is significant because it tells us what kind of story we are in. The end of the story is essential because it tells us our telos—the future God in Christ has envisioned for his Creation. Without the beginning and the end of the story, we are muddled in a middle, from nowhere and going nowhere. We can say with the culture around us, it is what it is. If we allow the bookends of history, the biblical narrative widens our vision: The good that was, may be again; what is wrong will be made right; the dying and decay of our enthropic environs will be restored; God’s peace will reign.
We may be fond of the idiom, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” There is some truth in that, and we can’t be so future oriented that we aren’t aware of what’s right here, right now. But even the metaphor of journey, implies we want to go somewhere. There is somewhere we want to end up. We don’t want to wander aimlessly forever in the dark.
The Advent story (both the first Advent and the final Advent) tell of God breaking into our wanderings and bringing about a whole new reality. Jesus came, Jesus comes, Jesus returns and everything old is new again. Injustice the degradation of nature, wars, and sickness, and the heavy feeling of grief which haunts and stalks us, even in our seasons of joy, will meet their end. Creation will be renewed and all that is broken will be mended. Everything will be as it should be. In words Dame Julian, ““All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
This is the end we are moving toward, or better, this is the end that God and Christ is moving toward us. May we all be prepared to see the reign of God break into our lives a little more. Come Lord Jesus, Come.
You know what? We have never been home yet, to full justice, to full peace, full righteousness, full neighbor-love, full self-love, full trust and obedience. Never there even now. Advent is pondering what it would be like to end our common exile and come home. -Walter Brueggemann
Implicit in the season of Advent, is waiting for what is to come. Yes, Jesus was born in Bethlehem to a teenage peasant twenty centuries ago. If you were there you’d find him, wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. Yes, there were those who saw angelic visions and dreamed dreams of wonder, at who this child would become. Yes, just like in a musical, people and angels broke out in song.
But when we celebrate Advent, we do more than just remember that. We hope.
We dare hope that that one time, God came in the flesh and entered into the suffering of the world, was not a one time thing. We hope that God in Christ, will return and then we will taste in fulness the meaning of God’s salvation for us. That peace will reign on the earth. That:
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9)
Advent hope falls under a category of theology called ‘eschatology,’ the study of last things. In the evangelicalism I grew up in, we loved eschatology. The Bible camp I went to as a child, gave me a detailed chart of the book of Revelation describing the rapture, the beast, and the time of tribulation. It was fanciful and most of the things I was taught, I’ve come to reject as an adequate reading of ancient apocalyptic literature. Sorry, Kirk Cameron.
But while mapping the Anti-Christ is no longer my eschatology, I still have one. I still believe that there is a hope that the story is moving toward. That the coming reign of Christ will bring about God’s justice, God’s peace, and fulfill God’s hope for the cosmos. With Walter Brueggemann and the prophet Isaiah I dare hope that there will be a day that no one will hurt or destroy on [God’s] holy mountain. And that we will come home to full justice, full peace, full righteousness, full neighbor-love, full self-love, full trust and obedience.
In The Coming of God, theologian Jurgen Moltmann, argues against a ‘end of all things’ idea of eschatology which envisions the end as ‘final solution’ to all that ails the world:
Christian eschatology has nothing to do with apocalyptic final solutions ofthis kind, for its subject is not the end’ at all. On the contrary, what it is about is the new creation of all things. Christian eschatology is the remembered hope of the raising of the crucified Christ, so it talks about beginning afresh in the deadly end.
Jurgen Moltmann. The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (Kindle Locations 82-83). Kindle Edition.
I believe Jesus came. I believe Jesus comes to us. I believe Jesus is coming again. And when he does, we aren’t at the end. It is the beginning of the life we are meant to have. In the mean time we live toward that day.
When I was a kid, during the month of December, there was a Peanuts cartoon on the front page of the daily paper, announcing how many shopping days left until Christmas. The month of December was deemed Christmas shopping season. But that was then, now our Christmases, in all its commercial glory begins sometime late September. It is about then that our big box stores begin receiving their Christmas order, and not wanting to clog the back rooms, make space for Christmas décor somewhere on their sales floors.
And this past Thursday was Thanksgiving, If it was a good one, you likely ate too much and stumbled from your dinner table to the couch, in a turkey-induced Tryptophan haze, trying to stay awake through a football game, or a holiday movie. Our consuming doesn’t end with one holiday meal. There is Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday and holiday sales designed to get us to spend more money. This is the season of giving, but often it’s the season for overspending. And why not? For many of us Christmas is not the most wonderful time of year, it is the season where we feel the dull ache of what we miss. Loved ones, we’ve buried, family we’re estranged from, and all the things we’ve lost. What better way to get through the holidays, then with a little retail therapy?
But then we come to church, and we discover that here we mark the season in a wholly different way. Advent. The word Advent simply means ‘arrival’ or ‘coming.’ This is one of the preparatory seasons on our Church calendar, and it is our way of preparing the way for the coming of Christ. Traditionally Christians have thought of this on a couple of levels. There is preparing to remember well, Christ’s nativity—the mystery of Incarnation, the sacred moment of his birth, when light shone in darkness, but the dark did not overcome it. It is also a time for preparing for Christ’s second Advent when Christ shall come with shouts of acclamation. And in between these comings are all of Christ’s little advents, the ways Christ comes to each of us and meets in the quietude of our hearts.
In Isaiah 2:1-5, and Mathew 24:36-44, our passages for the first Sunday this year, we hear twi descriptions of God’s coming:
Isaiah 2:1–5 (NRSV)
1 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2 In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3 Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4 He shall judge between the nations and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. 5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
Matthew 24:36–44 (NRSV)
36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
Matthew’s passage describes this as great and terrible day of the Lord, when God returns to the judge the wicked, Just like in the story of Noah and the flood where the wicked were swept away, Jesus says “two will be working in the field, one taken and the other left, two women will be grinding meal, one will be taken and the other left. Keep awake therefore because you do not know when the day your Lord is coming.” 19th and 20th Century dispensationalism had an idea called “the rapture” where Jesus took the faithful in Christ out of the world before things really got bad. Chances are you may have come across this idea if you’ve ever saw a Christian movie about end times. It is a relatively new idea, and it reverses the thrust of Jesus words. Like in the flood, those who were taken, were those under God’s judgement, those who were ‘left behind’ were the ones who escaped it.
The Isaiah passage is a little happier to our ears. In the days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house will be established as the highest and all the nations of world will stream into it. Isaiah imagines a future where nationalism is no more, and Israel has fulfilled its calling to be a blessing to all nations. People from all over the world would come to be instructed in the Lords ways. God will judge between all peoples and all the war mongers and weaponizers will beat their swords into plowshares, and not study war anymore.
Both passages give us a little taste of God’s coming advent, but in a couple of different ways. I think these passages have several lessons for us as we enter Advent this year.
Advent means being dissatisfied with the way things are. Jesus words in the first century come at a time when the nation of Israel is occupied by Rome, and the whole conversation that Jesus is having with his disciples in this passage, hinges on Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (which happened in 70AD). Isaiah began his prophetic ministry, under King Uzziah of Judah reign. The Assyrian empire. had laid waste to the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and Judah was forced to pay tribute to them. In both cases, things weren’t as bad as they could be. In Jesus’ time and Isaiah’s time, God’s people could still worship God in the temple. And there were people that made do with the world they were in. After all, even though things weren’t as bad as they could possible be, things could be worse right?
In our country today, we enjoy religious freedom. Every once and a while you hear someone talk about the war on Christmas, but nobody has stopped us from meeting, and celebrated the birth of Christ. But we have been at war. War perpetually since 9-11. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and there is the rumor and threat of war with Iran. And there are worries about fair trade and tariffs, even with our allies. In our own borders, we are also not at peace. We suffer, political unrest, with the great divide between east and west. Are hearts break whenever we hear about another shooter at a school, church, synagogue or public venue. Things are not the way we should be. This is not the way it is supposed to be. And yet, we could busy ourselves in the holiday we can ignore everything wrong with our world and just sing, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas/make the Yuletide gay/ from now on our troubles will be miles away.”
But the message of Advent is this, right now is not the way things are supposed to be. God is coming and we have hope for a different future. Which brings me to our second lesson.
Advent means holding out hope for our bright tomorrow. Jesus is coming!
Isaiah tells of a new future where God’s temple, is not only not ‘under siege’ by Judah’s powerful neighbor’s but the place where all the nations come to pay tribute and learn and discover the ways of God. He envisions a future where countries aren’t racing to make weapons of mass destruction, but are joyfully, turning their old weapons into farm tools. Isaiah holds out hope for the future of God’s promise, even if his current reality falls dismally short. When God sits enthroned in Jerusalem, things will be completely different. All the good things God has in store will come to pass.
In Matthew, Jesus warns of coming judgment. Trained as our imaginations are by American style revivalism, we often hear this as “you’re going to get it,” but I think the sense that Jesus speaks these words is, “they’re going to get it.” A new age is coming and the people that are oppressing you, who are taxing you harshly and conscripting you into service, or even slavery, the occupying military that threatens you, they will meet there end. And the justice of God will reign! When the baby Jesus was born in the village of Bethlehem, the region of Judea was besieged by the Roman empire. But a baby child would come and bring salvation, not only to the Jews, but the whole world.
The good news for us is that where we are is bad. Maybe not the worst case scenario but bad enough. But the good that God has in store for us, is exactly everything he promises and is so much better than our wildest imaginings.
Finally, Advent means walking in the light of the Lord (Isaiah 2:5). Isaiah exhorts ‘the house of Jacob,’ Israel and Judah to walk in the light of the Lord. I think this is an exhortation for us too. Walk in the light of the Lord.
What does this mean? What does it mean for us? There is a Mahatma Gandhi quote that I learned by way of Martin Luther King, jr., “The ends and the means are convertible terms.” King applied Gandhi’s wisdom to non-violent resistance, concluding the way we get to the ends we want to get at, is to enact them. So for King and his struggle for civil rights, the Beloved Community where blacks and whites joined hands in universal brotherhood, meant that the way he envisioned getting there was by enacting the vision of racial peace he envisioned. If wanted peace between whites and blacks, he wouldn’t get there through violence; he’d only get there through non-violent, peaceful means.
In the words of Jesus and Isaiah we have heard the promise of future justice and peace. We have heard about the promise of a world at peace, where all violence ceases. What does it mean for us to be shaped by this vision? What it does it mean for us as a church? What would it mean for us to invest in a future where it isn’t us vs. them, but believing in God’s shalom, where all that is wrong with the world is put to rights, all injustice is brought to an end, and everything that should be, is, and everything that should not be is not?
In a broken ancient world, Jesus was coming. In our present, national and international divisions, Jesus is coming, in the quietude of our hearts Jesus comes. In Advent, we pause and prepare for the coming of King Jesus. We look honestly at the broken world we are in, we hear God’s hope for our tomorrow, and we live our lives in the light, shaped by God’s promise for us. Merry Advent. Come Lord Jesus, Come.
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine
linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man
named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what
fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.
The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The
rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he
looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on
me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue;
for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that
during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner
evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all
this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might
want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to
us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I
have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into
this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets;
they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes
to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not
listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if
someone rises from the dead.’” -Luke 16:19-31
If you watched the news this past week, you probably saw enough to be discouraged about the state of things. Greta Thunberg gave an impassioned speech at the UN about climate change and the impact on, particularly the younger generation. Many of us are in awe of her bold powerful speech but a slew of climate-denying pundits, questioned her grasp of the situation—”she is only a child,” “she is on the spectrum,” and “she is being used by the left to hoist their environmentalist agenda on the rest of us.”
Also this week, the speaker of the house, Nancy Pelosi, announced the beginning of an impeachment inquiry in relation to a phone conversation between President Trump, and Ukraine President, Volodymyr Zelensky. As more information about this conversation has come to light, including a transcript of their conversation, and the whistleblower’s complaint, it has been interesting watching the various responses. Those on the political Left see clear evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors. Those on the Right may allow that the conversation wasn’t Trump’s finest moment, but there is no “quid-pro-quo” and ‘nothing approaching something criminal.’
I mention these examples from the
news, not because I am trying to make a partisan, political statement which you
may or may not agree with, but to point out the obvious. People with the same
access to information, observing the same event can come away with radically
different interpretations. There is lots
of reasons for this. We each carrying
our own set of assumptions based on experience, socioeconomic status, education,
and personal beliefs. We each have our
own starting point and our own vantage point on events.
When we turn to the parable of the Lazarus
and the Rich Man, we have an example of two men with very different starting
points, and as it happens, two very different end points. A rich man and a poor man die. The rich man finds
himself in the place of the dead, suffering in the flames, the poor man at the
side of Abraham. The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus, the poor man to
him, to give him some relief.” But he is rebuffed, “Child, remember that during
your lifetime you received your good thinv gs, and Lazarus in like manner evil
things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this,
between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want
to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’
That the rich man finds himself brought
down and a poor beggar is lifted up, may be a reversal of each’s expectations
but this is very much in keeping with the message of Luke’s Gospel, where Mary
sings, “the hungry are filled with good things and the rich go away empty” (Luke
1:53), Jesus announces that he comes to proclaim “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:
17:21) and pronounces judgment on the
rich and comfortable because they have
already received their consolation (Luke 6:24-26).
If the experience of the rich man and Lazarus is radically different in the next life, one thing remains consistent. a great chasm has been fixed between them.
“The Great Chasm”
The entire parable contrasts the rich
man and Lazarus. We are told at the beginning of the parable that the rich man
dressed in purple and fine linen and that he feasted sumptuously everyday (v19).
Purple was an expensive dye in the
ancient world, reserved for wealthy elites. As was fine linen. This was their equivalent
to red-carpet designer fashions. He feasted on delicacies every day in his
father’s house with his five brothers. This was a wealthy, decadent family, no
doubt famous and celebrated for being wealthy. Perhaps they were the ancient
world’s equivalent to the Kardashians. When the rich man dies, he is buried.
There was likely an elaborate funeral procession with all the important people attending.
At his gate sat a beggar named
Lazarus. Lazarus longed to be fed by trickle down economics—the crumbs that fell
from the rich man’s table. Instead he is left out by the gate. Dogs would come
and lick his open sores. These weren’t well coifed Bishon Frises and Labradoodles
but unclean scavengers, who came and licked his open wounds, making him ritually
and perpetually unclean, marked off from his community. He had no family of his
own to look after him and when he dies there is no mention of a burial. But he
is whisked away by angels to Abraham’s side.
Lazarus was the poor man who discovered his place in the kingdom
of heaven, but the rich man, already had his consolation.
When the rich man calls out to
Abraham from the flames, it is remarkable that he knows Lazarus’s name. There is
no evidence in the parable that he ever spoke to him and even now, he only
addresses Abraham. “Father Abraham, show mercy and send Lazarus to me to cool
my tongue for I am in agony.” He is still operating from a place of privilege
and entitlement, expecting to command the poor and vulnerable to do his biding.
But the rich man is told he had a lifetime of good things while Lazarus had none, but now Lazarus is comforted.
Now this is a parable and I am not
sure it is intended as an accurate depiction of the afterlife but if we
contrast the two men we hear of a decadent rich man who lived a life of self-centered
entitlement and a poor beggar who is ultimately blessed by God. The name
Lazarus comes the Hebrew name Eleazar meaning the one who is helped by God. One
man had the resources to help the other but left him out by the gate. The other
man died alone and homeless and vulnerable and welcomed into the kingdom of
if the rich man’s afterlife would be different if he braved the great chasm in
life and used his dishonest money and resources to make friends with
Lazarus the beggar.
What about us? Who are the folks
across the great chasm from us? Maybe, like in the parable, you are on one side
of the have or have nots divide. Maybe it is political. Like the examples I
mentioned above, about some conservative and liberal responses Greta Thunberg or
the president’s phone call you would think that the left and the Right have
nothing in common with one another.
There is some research to back that
up. Conservatives and Liberals seem to have different brains. There are various studies that show liberals
tend to have more brain activity in the left anterior insula, the section of
the brain that regulates emotion and is associated with compassion and empathy
while conservatives have more activity in the right amygdala, the part of the
brain responsible for regulating our fear response.
So when you hear your ultra-liberal friends talk about the need to be
compassionate to those asylum seekers on our southern border and your ultra conservative
friends are talking about how we need to have strong border security to keep our
country safe from terrorists, drug dealers and some very bad people, there very
brains tell them to think the way they do about the world around them. It is as
though a great chasm has been fixed between the two.
Or has it?
When the rich man knows Lazarus won’t
come to his aid, he asks instead for Abraham to send Lazarus back to earth to warn
his 5 brothers of coming judgment. And Abraham answers, if they don’t listen to
Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises
from the dead.”
Beyond the reference to Jesus’ own
death and resurrection, Abraham’s word to the rich man is that his brothers already
have everything they need to know that they are danger of God’s judgment. With a
lifestyle of feasting and finery they left a poor beggar at their gate to have
his sores licked by dogs. In the Torah,
Israel was repeatedly urged to care for the poor, the widowed, the alien and
the orphan (cf Deut 14:28-29; 24:17; Exodus 22:22) When Israel harvested their
land, they were to leave some of the fruits of harvest in the field so that the
poor could come and glean and no one in the land would go hungry.(Leviticus
19:10-11) When we turn to the Hebrew prophets, we hear page after page warning
Israel that their failure to care for the vulnerable, would result in exile and
6 brothers partied in their house
while a poor beggar sat at their gate, hungry, destitute, dogs licking his
sores. But if the dead beggar came back, wouldn’t the other 5 brothers listen
Abraham says no. And he is right.
Resurrection and Confirmation
Confirmation bias is a thing. We tend
to give weight to the evidence which reinforces our view of the world and produce
explanations which cover the counterevidence. So, when we read the gospels it
is interesting to see how people respond to Jesus’s miracles. He heals on the
Sabbath, and some are impressed by his compassion and authority, and they praise
God while others point at how by breaking the Sabbath, he is leading the Jewish
people away from Torah. They see the same event. Two radically different
interpretations consistent with their own worldview. Or consider miracles in
general. John’s gospel calls miracles “signs” because they give us a
demonstration that Jesus is truly the Word made flesh. But at times these
miracles become a spectacle which distract from the message of Jesus. John
Tucker observes, “[Jesus] says that some people cannot see the truth because they
are hung up on the miracle.”
Lazarus the dead beggar came back to warn the brothers. I don’t think they
would have changed anything. They would have called the exorcist to drive him
away. They didn’t let that man inside the gate when he was alive, there would
be no way, they’d let him in now that he was one of the walking dead. They
might be momentarily arrested at the sight of him, but then one of them would open
a fresh bottle of wine, and they’d turn the music up until the voice of the
crying beggar was drowned out, as much as it ever was.
When I read this parable, the message I come away with is this: cross the great chasm. Include the person who is easiest for us to exclude. Become the type of person that will include those who view the world differently. Don’t assume your view of the world is the most right, become open to challenges. Become a person who listens. Listen to scripture as it challenges us to not just live for our own enjoyment and comfort, but to expand our care for the vulnerable and to live for God. And if some one rises from the dead and you find him standing at your door, knocking, you may want to listen to what he has to say.
William Holman Hunt – “The Light of the World”- Manchester Version, Painted between 1851-1856
John Tucker, Zero Theology: Escaping Belief through Catch-22s, (Eugene: Cascade
Books, 2019), 30. Tucker is commenting on Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5000,
and the fact that the multitudes follow him only because they ate the bread and
were filled (30).
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Luke 16:1-13
Watch tv, go see a movie, read a book and you will discover the characters we are drawn to are often those that are less than perfect. They are antiheros who are deeply flawed. Often the characters acting in their own self-interest are those who save the day for everyone else: Gunfighters, crooked cops, mobsters, or a conman with a heart of gold. We love stories where a character with feet of clay do something good.
There is an old Mel Gibson movie, which I don’t think I ever saw, and if I did, I forgot everything about it except the preview. The movie was called Payback and preview began with a voiceover, “Get ready to cheer for the bad guy.”
When we turn to the parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-13) it is as though Jesus does the same voice over: “Get ready to cheer for the bad guy.”
This was a servant in charge of a master’s estate. He is was charged by someone with being wasteful and squandering his boss’s riches. Evidently the charges were serious enough or easy enough to establish that his master fires him without investigation. But they weren’t so serious that he had security accompany him to immediately clear out his desk and escort him from the building. He is given time to put a report in order.
The manager knows that he doesn’t
have the strength to dig ditches, back breaking labor usually reserved for foreign
slaves captured in war (the way America used to use slaves for such work, and
now use prison work crews). He is too proud to sit by the side of the highway
with a carboard sign which reads:
MANAGER OUT OF WORK.
So, he devises a plan. He calls in all
the people he knows who are in debt to his master. One man owes 100 jugs of
olive oil to him, likely about 850 gallons of olive oil. No small sum. “Quick
take your bill and make it 50.” Another debtor owed his master 100 containers
of wheat. This was the amount yield you would get from 100 acres. “Take your
bill and make it 80. The percentages that the manager reduced their bills, 50% and
20% were different, but in both cases, it came to about 500 denarii, roughly
about 2 years’ pay for a day laborer.
When the master gets word about what his wasteful manager did, you would think he would be upset. The manager was aleady in trouble for squandering the master’s estate and here he just cut him out of an additional 1000 denarii. But we are told the master praises “the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly. “
If this strikes us a strange reaction from the master, Jesus seems to add his own condemnation, “for the children of this age are shrewder in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
This is called the most difficult of Jesus’ parables. While
some critical Bible scholars argue about which of Jesus’ words in the gospel he
really said, almost no one can imagine anyone else saying this. No moralizing
bishop from the second century would praise such an unsavory character.
As I have studied the parable. I have discovered there is wide
disagreement from one commentator to the
next on how we should interpret it. There are no fewer than 16 different
interpretations of the parable.
Some scholars absolve the shrewd manager of any wrongdoing. They say, the master
of the house was the one who was in the wrong and the debts that the manager
forgave were really the interest rates that Deuteronomy 23:20 stated shouldn’t
be charged a fellow Israelite. Others argue that the manager forgave the portion
of the debt that was his own share. There is a paucity of details in Jesus’
parable and there is no internal evidence that the master was bad. The manager
on the other hand is described first as wasteful, and then as dishonest.
One creative take, is that the shrewd manager is really Jesus,
accused of being wasteful by the religious elites, he then acts to forgive our
debt to the Master. I don’t think so, Tim. There is too much moral ambiguity about
the manager’s actions for me to think that this is a really Christological
parable. Though the forgiving of debts does connect to the larger theme of
Jubilee in Luke’s gospel.
Most of this wrangling is unnecessary. In the passage Jesus
never praises the manager for his alleged wastefulness or his dishonesty. He
praises him for being shrewd. And in
verses 10-13 he praises faithfulness over dishonesty:
If you are faithful in little, you will be faithful with much, and if you are dishonest with little you will be dishonest with much,”
and commends faithfulness with ‘dishonest wealth’ as
requisite for being entrusted true riches:
“If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust you with true riches?” And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own.”
And then Jesus says that you can’t serve both God and mammon (vs 13). None of this seems like a glowing endorsement of the manager’s wastefulness and dishonest dealings The manager was a bad guy. Nevertheless, Jesus cheers on the bad guy, because this bad guy was so shrewd.
Christine Pohl says:
Jesus does not commend
the manager’s practices, but rather his insight into the connection between
resources and relationships. When we consider our wealth and economic
practices—even the means we employ to accomplish good ends—as peripheral to the
kingdom, we are ignoring Jesus’ warning that it is impossible to serve God and
So, the question for us
is this: Each of us has money and resources at our disposal, how can we use the
things we have to serve God? In what ways can we, like the shrewd manager, make
friends who will care for us long after our money is gone? How can we use our
resources to build relationships?
And if we are bold enough to ask: Are there ways I serve wealth more than God?
I am not a big fan of giving to charities, unless I know something about their work. We know we ought to be generous and we give to issues we think matter. But sometimes, giving to charity is an inoculation against really caring for people. It is easy to be kind to those we don’t know a lot harder to be a friend to someone who is struggling.
I came across a quote this week from the Peruvian, Liberation theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez, ““You say you care about the poor? Then tell me, what are their names?”
Jesus gleans from the shrewd manager is “Make friends for yourselves by means
of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into eternal
What of instead of giving money to a homeless mission we befriended that homeless person in our neighborhood? Instead of serving a meal at a shelter to someone we’ve never met, we bought dinner for the person with the cardboard sign and we sat down and ate with them and listened to their story? What if we stop using our money to keep those people away but instead used our money and resources to care for them in tangible ways? And yes, we should direct some of our resources to organizations doing good work in the world, but our giving should never be an inoculation for caring for the poor, the widowed and the vulnerable that God places in our midst.
Jesus teaches us that what we do with the money and resources we are entrusted with today, is related to our experience of the riches God has in store for us. Therefore, use money to make friends! The one who is faithful with little will be faithful with much. We can’t serve both God and mammon.
We live in a consumer culture and everything tells us to invest in our own enjoyment and security. Drive a nice car, have a comfortable home, buy more toys, have a nice nest egg for your future. And to some extent, we buy in. But when even a bad guy uses his resources for the good of others and to make friends, we cheer him on. We cheer for the bad guy. Sometimes the bad guy who does good, is us.
Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of
Jesus, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 406-409.