Luke 16:1-13 (kids)
Psalm 146 (call to worship)
Two weeks ago while at the leadership conference at The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas, I mentioned our ROOTS message series on Charles Wesley to a colleague, who remarked with a quote that if we lost the Scriptures, much of it could be recreated from the  hymns of Charles Wesley (unknown but relayed to me by Ken Loyer). Today’s hymn, unlike the others we have used, is one that was never published in his lifetime and never made major hymn collections. But it recreates the themes of Luke 16, both the story of the shrewd unrighteous manager we shared with the children and the story of the rich man and Lazarus.
I’d like to begin our examination today with the Three General Rules of the United Societies, written by John Wesley for the people called Methodists. For each of these simple rules, Wesley offers examples of what it means to follow them, and these examples include many social and economic dimensions, particularly in the first two rules (excerpted text, available at umc.org and in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church):
1. Do no harm:
The taking of the name of God in vain.
The profaning of the day of the Lord, either by doing ordinary work therein or by buying or selling.
Slaveholding: buying or selling slaves.
The giving or taking things on usury–i.e., unlawful interest.
Laying up treasure on earth.
Borrowing without a probability of paying; or taking up goods without a probability of paying for them.
2. Do good . . . as far as possible, to all men:
To their bodies, . . . by giving food to the hungry, by clothing the naked, by visiting or helping them that are sick or in prison.
3. Stay in love with God.
These rules indicate that great Wesleyan idea that “there is no personal holiness without social holiness”. But the Wesleyan practice was even clearer. Methodist converts, in the early years, were encouraged to emancipate their slaves. AND, the Wesleys worked to abolish the slave trade entirely. One of the last letters John Wesley wrote was to the leader of the abolitionist movement in the English parliament, William Wilberforce, encouraging him to stay the course. If you want to learn the Wilberforce story, be sure to watch the wonderful film Amazing Grace).
The Wesleys came of age in the Industrial Revolution and were at the forefront of recognizing that our economic systems are bigger than we imagine. We benefit from child labor and exploited workforces in other countries so that we can wear inexpensive clothing. We benefit from clear cutting of the Amazon rain forests and displacement of the native peoples so that we can print all our digital documents on paper. We benefit from unsafe conditions in mines both here and around the world so that we can have the energy and metals we want.
The Wesleys recognized that we are stuck in systems much bigger than any single person, systems that are ruled by “unrighteous mammon”, that old English term for the god of Wealth. And, since we cannot extricate ourselves fully from these systems – we’ve all got to wear clothes, use paper, and consume energy – the Wesleys worked to change the systems themselves. “There is no personal holiness without social holiness.” They were involved in abolition, in prison and debt reform, in medical care. They were supportive of the founding of Sunday Schools, originally designed to teach literacy and faith to the working children of industrial cities before the advent of public schools. And, all of this social transformation was combined with the evangelical appeal, the invitation to men and women and children to follow Jesus with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.
One of the things I hope for in the context of our regional urban ministry initiative, “Communities of Shalom”, is that we will find some practical ways to attack “Unrighteous Mammon” and the systems of poverty and injustice in our urban area. At the same time, though, I look at the story of this rich man and Lazarus and the phrase: “at his gate”. The rich man could not claim that he was unaware of Lazarus. Lazarus was at his gate every day (Jerome, ACCS, 261). Every day he had an opportunity to help one person. And every day, he refused opportunity. Instead, every day, he gave his devotion to “Unrighteous Mammon”, to the “Greed is Good” mantra of Gordon Gekko (Wall Street).
Jesus’ Bosom Friends (Charles Wesley)Today’s Scripture is tough, especially in the wealthy West. Yes, even us hard working regular folks are wealthy, at least when we compare ourselves to the global average. The Scripture is strange and uncomfortable. Uncomfortable, because it highlights Jesus’ attitude toward wealth – that we don’t need it, can’t depend on it, don’t own it, and have it only to serve and give. Strange, because the salvation elements in the story raise questions about our simplistic view of salvation by grace through faith.
The poor as Jesus’ bosom-friends,
the poor he makes his latest care,
to all his followers commends,
and wills us on our hands to bear;
the poor our dearest care we make,
and love them for our Savior’s sake.
The story told with the children, the one about the unrighteous manager who “made friends by unrighteous mammon”, that one is a strange one too. Jesus is teaching righteous people to use “unrighteous mammon” and he is using an unrighteous person as a positive example. Like this story of the rich man and Lazarus, there are apparent salvation questions that are wrapped up in our economic choices. That’s a tough nut to chew. We’ve been told over and over that salvation is by God’s grace through faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). Sometimes we forget the next verse in Ephesians, that God “created us for good works”.
Jesus’ Bosom Friends (Charles Wesley)Both stories are parables, so there are not direct parallels for every feature of the story – to salvation theology, for example. At the same time, salvation is clearly a part of the story. This chapter follows right on the heels of Luke 15, that wonderful chapter focused on the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons. Remember what happened to the younger son in the far country, hungry for the pig food? The Scripture says that he was “longing to be fed” (15:16) – the very same Greek expression used for Lazarus as he looked at the crumbs from the rich man’s table (16:21). And, like Lazarus, it was the younger son who was welcomed to the salvation feast at the father’s table. And, what happened to the older son as he refused to go in, protesting his father’s generosity? His father came out and addresses him with the same term (in the Greek text) that father Abraham says to the rich man: “My child” or “My son” (15:31 and 16:25). And, like the rich man, it was the older son who found himself outside the feast, looking in. (See Joseph A. Fitzmyer, 1985, The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV, Anchor Bible 28A, pp 1131-1133.)
Whate’er thou dost to us entrust,
with thy peculiar blessing blessed,
O make us diligent and just,
as stewards faithful to the least,
endowed with wisdom to possess
the mammon of unrighteousness.
Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, who lived in the 4th and 5th centuries, preached: “Jesus kept quiet about the rich man’s name and mentioned the name of the poor man. The rich man’s name was thrown around, but God kept quiet about it. The other’s name was lost in silence, and God spoke it. Please do not be surprised. God just read out what was written in his book. . . . You see, God who lives in heaven kept quiet about the rich man’s name, because he did not find it written in heaven. He spoke the poor man’s name, because he found it written there, indeed he gave instructions for it to be written there” (Sermon 33A.4, excerpted in Arthur A. Just, Jr., editor, 2003, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament III: Luke [ACCS], 261).
As Father Abraham says in the story, “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed.” That chasm is graphically illustrated in the story, including in the dying of each man. Lazarus dies but is not buried – no money for a proper funeral – and he is “carried away by the angels”; the rich man is “buried” and appropriately mourned (Fitzmyer, 1132).
In the first theme of the message we examined the social agenda of the Wesleys and the early Methodist movement and we tied that to the phrase, “at his gate.” In the second theme, we examined the salvation language of the story, including its echoes of the story of the two lost sons, and tied that to a second phrase in the story, “between you and us a great chasm”. The rich man had a choice in this life: To serve and get to know the beggar at his gate OR to live his life in line with the social divide, the chasm that separates social classes. He chose the chasm, and found the chasm mirrored in the next life as well. In fact, he couldn’t get over the different social location in Hades; he still thought of Lazarus as a man who served.
Remember last week’s message on Jacob, whose hip was struck by God? That week prior, my mother-in-law broke her hip. And, this week, as I prepare, I am contacted by a homeless person who wants money for rent. The Scripture gets intensely personal, practical, and tough when this happens. Then I read some lines from another Augustine sermon, this one on the shrewd manager:
He was insuring himself for a life that was going to end. Would you not insure yourself for eternal life?Ouch.
“Make yourselves friends with the mammon of iniquity, so that they too, when you begin to fail, may receive you into eternal shelters.” It is easy, of course, to understand that we must give alms and a helping hand to the needy, because Christ receives it in them. . . . When you give alms to all different types of people, then you will reach a few who deserve them. . . . Let in the unworthy, in case the worthy might be excluded. You cannot be a judge and sifter of hearts (Sermon 359A.10 and 11-12, ACCS, 255).
What chasm do we face? For that rich man, it would have been the most uncomfortable and unnatural thing to reach out to Lazarus, to introduce himself, to get to know him . . . never-mind actually help him. The call of Jesus is clear: Cross your chasm now and be sure to cross the chasm for eternity. Where to start? The problems in our world are so big and we don’t have the mind or skill of a Wesley. Start at your gate. Pray for open eyes to the needs right in front of you. Even at my gate, there are people in need, people who are – for a hundred different reasons – in a different social location than I. Jesus loves them, and if his love lives in our hearts, then we will be moved with love as well.
“If someone goes to them from the dead, then they will repent.” Well, Jesus took care of that. And he proves his own statement. We still have to choose to cross the chasm. We still have to choose to love and serve the poor. Jesus gave us the example of chasm-crossing: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Jesus’ Bosom Friends (Charles Wesley)
Help us make the poor our friends,
by that which paves the way to hell,
that when our loving labor ends,
and dying from this earth we fail,
our friends may greet us in the skies
born to a life that never dies.