Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Story of the Dishonest Manager

What is the most unethical or dishonest company that you can think of today? The Swiss research firm, Covalence, released a list of the 12 least ethical companies of 2010.
• Among them was Barrick Gold Corp. accused of illegally burning 130 homes and manipulating land titles in Papau New Guinea to clear the way for its gold mining operations.
• Then there was Mediaset, the massive Italian TV company that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi founded and still controls. Last year, Berlusconi's gov’t raised eyebrows when it tried to double the tax rate of one of Mediaset's main competitors.
• French oil and gas company Total was found on the list because it was accused of building a pipeline with the aid of slave labor in Myanmar.
• Then there is budget airline, Ryanair because of its deplorable customer service, and harsh treatment of employees…including forbidding them from using the company's pens or charging their cell phones with its electricity.
Philip Morris was there again too for trying to persuade the gov’t to overturn its 10 year old lawsuit against the industry for concealing the dangers of smoking.
• Other companies were accused of tax evasion, unfairly procuring gov’t contracts, and for health and safety violations

Now it’s one thing to point out some unethical businesses…its quite another thing to say that we can learn something from them; and yet that’s exactly what Jesus does in The Story of the Dishonest Manager  (Luke 16: 1-9). Here, Jesus shows me that he has the ability to walk through the badlands, the back alleys and the crooked streets of this world, to say nothing of the crooked places in my own heart, and find something that can be used for his own purposes. If nothing else, he’s got my attention…

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. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” 3 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. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” 6 He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” 7 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.” 8 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. 9 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.

As I read this story in vv. 1-8, I find it naturally divides it into three parts.
Part 1: The First Century CEO (1a).  Jesus’ parable takes us to the world of big business. It is the story of a rich man (an owner of a large estate somewhere in Palestine) whose property was run for him by a manager.  A manager was given great authority to do business on his master’s behalf -- it was a powerful and a lucrative profession.

Part 2: The Day of Reckoning (1b-3). With great power comes great responsibility… and it seems that this manager was lacking just that. The charge that he was “wasting” or “squandering” his master’s property was a serious one -- His silence in the face of this accusation is telling. To put it mildly, he was finished. There is little chance that he would be able to get a comparable job…there weren’t that many jobs around anyway, and no one would employ someone who had been fired as he had. The outlook was pretty bleak. As he talks to himself he says, “I am not strong enough to dig.” The manager was probably not a young man, and the change from a comfortable white collar job to a strenuous 12 hour day laboring job would be too much. But he was not only physically unable to do anything else, he was psychologically unable to do anything else, which is why he says, “I am ashamed to beg.” Obviously the question, “What will I do?” was an urgent one…and all the more if he had a wife and children that depended on him.

Part 3: The Perfect Crime (4). The answer that came to him was that he must quickly win for himself some influential friends so that “when I am dismissed as manager” they may welcome me into their homes (4). But how to do this? His strategy was to summon each of his master’s debtors (5), and to get them to alter the documents relating to their debts in a way that was to their advantage. And boy did he alter those documents. The first owed a hundred measures (lit. baths) of oil -- each bath is equivalent to 9 gallons, so that’s about 900 gallons of olive oil. The manager tells him to write fifty instead (6) -- that’s a fifty per cent reduction worth perhaps 500 denarii (days of work)!  The second man owed a hundred measures of wheat (7); and to this one the manager said, “write eighty”. This is a lower discount, but the actual value of the reduction is still about 500 denari.

It’s pretty clear what is going on in the story. The manager has been told by his master to hand over all the paperwork related to his accounts, papers that would have included documents related to business deals he had made. But instead of handing them over as is, the manager takes out the documents related to debts owed to his master, and replaces them with redrafted and now considerably less valuable notes. Whether he had the authority to do this, having just received his notice, is unclear. But the parable says he acted quickly. He couldn’t delay handing over those papers for long. The story ends with the comment that “the master commended the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly” (8). Now this is the sentence that throws commentators off. Essentially the problem is: “How could the master praise a manager who is obviously a crook who has defrauded him?

The simplest and most straightforward interpretation is that the master of the story is impressed with what the NRSV/NIV calls the manager’s shrewdness (phronimos) -- a word the RSV translates prudence . Kenneth Bailey argues that the original Aramaic word Jesus used was probably hokmah which means "skillfulness in self-preservation."  In any case, I think this manager was the kind of rascal you had to admire for his shrewdness, even if you deplored his morality. How do we know this is what the master was doing? Jesus tells us so.  In v. 8 Jesus comments….“for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” (8). Here is Jesus’ clear recognition that the unjust manager is a worldly man, not a “son of light” whose moral example is something to be followed. Nevertheless, Jesus implies that this rascal can teach us some important lessons…

“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.”  There are four lessons we can learn from this verse….

First, get your hands dirty: Use the things of this world for a holy purpose (8, 9). There is something about the shrewdness of the dishonest manager that Jesus likes. He faced the coming crisis by using what worldly resources he had to the maximum benefit. Jesus is not saying we are to use “ill-gotten gains” or “embezzled money” for the sake of the kingdom. In v. 9 he calls it “dishonest wealth” [Greek: adikia /unrighteous] because in one way or another it is tainted.  Take a bill out of your wallet or purse right now and look at it. What do you see? A President’s face? A metal strip imbedded in the bill to prevent it from being counterfeited. The words “In God We Trust”? Yes, thank God those words are still there! But I see something else. I see dirt. There isn’t a bill in my wallet that isn’t a little tainted; a little dirty; that hasn’t been used for a less than holy purpose. Nevertheless, Jesus challenges us to take hold of it, and use it for God’s glory.

Second, work quickly: This present world and way of life is coming to an end. We’re told the manager acted “quickly”, when he learned he was about to lose his job (6). The manager didn’t waste time; and in this respect he is an example to us. Like him, we are encouraged to make the most of the time that God has given us on this earth, and to be conscious that our present way of life is coming to an end -- whether at death or the Lord’s return.  This is the meaning of Jesus’ comment that one day, the “dishonest wealth” will be gone.  The Greek word is eklipe: literally, to fail, to be eclipsed (9). This is the Eclipse no one wants to stand in line to see or think about; not a movie about immortal vampires, but our own mortality and the limited time we have here. We all have a yearning for immortality. The reason Christ came was to give us life abundant and eternal; and so he challenges us to be a children of light (of eternity with an eternal destiny) and not a children only of this age (8)? Christ wants us to be children of light (8)…using our time for his glory. It’s so easy to waste the time God has given us. So Paul says, “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16).

Third, influence intentionally: “Make friends….” (4): Like the manager, every human being has the ability to “make friends” (9): that is, there are spheres of influence… the home, workplace or school, in which there are people that we can touch with the love of Christ; people that we can comfort and encourage and pray for. We have the opportunity to either ignore, destroy, or nurture these relationships for the sake of God’s kingdom. Now there are different calling and different passions that we have in this area. God may be calling some of us to reach out to international students; others he may be calling to minister to the poor, the rich and powerful, or those who are struggling with sickness or loneliness. Our work place is a major place of contact! Many of us are called to focus on family and children. We don’t all have the same calling…but we do have the charge to share with them the grace and truth of Christ.

Finally, give strategically (5-7, 9): Money is simply a form of power, and like the Steward, we can leverage our material resources in such a way that someone suffers or benefits, whether it be ourselves, others, or the kingdom of God (and these are not exclusive). John Wesley preached a famous sermon on this passage in which he had three basic points: gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.  I’m thinking of Boston Businessman Tom White who at the age of 85 said that his life's goal was to give away his entire fortune. The Boston Globe reported that in 2003 he had given away $75 million to date. When people ask him "why," he responds with "give me three reasons I shouldn't," and then proceeds to give three reasons he should: "I can't take it with me, my kids are okay, and my wife's taken care of." He'll also tell you, "I'm motivated a lot by what Jesus wants me to do…and I think he wants me to help make the world a better place." His proudest relationship is with Haiti, where he has supported numerous health and justice projects. Tom White's one regret? "I'm sorry I don't have more money to give away." Jeffrey Arthurs, South Hamilton, Massachusetts; source: Boston Globe (3-23-04)

Get your hands dirty…work quickly (using your time wisely)… influence intentionally, give strategically. You know, there’s a rascal, there’s a crook in each one of us.  That's why I’m so glad that one of Jesus’ last words from the cross was to a criminal…a thief hanging on the cross next to him. “Jesus,” he said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Now that thief had the right idea…but what if we could pray that prayer today…and not one minute before we die. What could Jesus do through you right here…right now if you were to day, “Jesus, remember me – I’m kind of a crook, my hands are not clean…but I think I could really accomplish something for your kingdom here and now. So remember me, and fill me and use me to bring your kingdom today…and to be part of your kingdom for all eternity.”

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Story of the Father & His Two Sons

This month, there are many proud parents who watched their children complete another grade level, culminate from elementary school or middle school, or graduate from high school or college. It was a time to celebrate and give thanks for our children, and the pride we have in their accomplishments. When I see the sons and daughters of my own church…I also see their fathers, and their mothers, and I give thanks to God that these children are loved and cared for…because I know and you know that this is not always the case. Can you imagine, for example, driving your toddlers to the side of a freeway and abandoning them there? It happened to a brother and sister, ages two and three. Can you imagine forcing your own child to watch and then act out pornographic movies with her siblings? My wife, while working at a foster family placement agency, actually met these abused children who shared their stories with her. What redeems these tragic events is that loving foster parents took them into their homes, and began to give them the care they needed. 

A parent’s love can be one of the great forces for good in this world. But the love of every caring and consciencious parent in this world combined still pales when compared to the Heavenly Father’s love for the spiritually lost. In The Story of the Father and His Two Sons (Luke 15: 12-32) Jesus tells us the truth about God’s character…and gives us hope (whether we number ourselves among the rebellious or the resentful, the prodigals or the proud) that we can come home…and begin to love as he has loved us.

Chapter One: The Father & His Prodigal Son (Luke 15. 12-24). "There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give to me the share of the property that will belong to me' (12).  What the son says literally (and I'm looking at the Greek text right now) is 'Father, give to me the part of the property that's coming to me!'  That is, "I want what's coming to me!"  The son’s words are ironic: he was definitely going to get what was coming to him. His words are shocking because they would have been considered an extraordinary insult. Kenneth Bailey in his book, Poet & Peasant makes it clear that a father’s assets were not distributed until he was near death.  Therefore this request in Eastern life would have had the effect of saying, “I wish you were dead, but I can’t wait that long! Give me what’s mine now so I can get on with my life.”

In light of what this request meant, it’s even more incredible that the father concurs. “So he divided his property (literally, his bios, his life!) between them.” Remember that “property” i.e., “land” was the most valuable possession in Middle Eastern culture; but when the younger son received his share of the property, he immediately sold it and converted it to cash. Land that was in the family for generations was now gone.
Please understand that listeners would have expected the father in this story to explode and discipline the boy at this point in the story, but the father says, “As you will."  Here then is the first sign of the Father’s amazing love who grants his child the freedom even to reject him. It is an amazing truth that God has given us freedom either to love him, or to flee from him. We are not his slaves, forced to do his will. We are sons...

What happens to the younger son as he leaves home, is a picture of what happens when human beings flee from God and his principles. First,“he squandered his property in dissolute living.” Our goals and priorities become warped (13). Then, “when he had spent everything a severe famine took place throughout that country….” We are overwhelmed by the trials of life (14). Finally, like this young man, we "begin to be in need!”

Desperate, the young man“hired himself out” (The Greek verb, kollao, means that he "glued himself" -- that is, "forced himself upon" one of the citizens; and then worked a job that was truly a Jewish nightmare: swine herding!  Having reached rock bottom, and deciding to go home, he rehearses a speech he’s going to tell his father: “I will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands' (18-19).  Notice that he assumes he will never be able to return as a son again, but that he might be able to return as a servant. That is, he might be able to work something out that would be acceptable to his father.

As the son returns to town (20), Jesus paints for us a picture of love so amazing that it would have positively stunned his listeners: “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”  The father is scanning the horizon for his son, and sees him a long way off. Though he was the one who had been disrespected and insulted, he takes the initiative by running to meet him. Know that in eastern culture, it is humiliating for an elder to run anywhere (Aristotle once said, “Great men never run in public." ) and yet this father is willing to sprint for love of his son (Bailey). But there is another reason why he ran to meet his son. The father knew that when he entered town, all the people would have gathered to mock him and even beat him in the street. But the father goes out to meet his son… and kisses him (forgiveness) and walks through the crowd with him, under his protection.

Next, the son begins his rehearsed speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son....” That’s as far as the son gets before his father interrupts him with words of forgiveness. It means his son will not be able to earn his acceptance as a hired servant. No, his only option is to come back as a repentant son who has been forgiven and restored. The message for us is clear!  Each gift the father gives has special meaning… He gave his son the best robe as a sign of honor. In the ancient world you didn’t give medals, you gave robes to honor someone. This robe had to be his father’s own robe; and to be clothed in his father’s robe meant that he was being honored as his son. It calls to mind Isaiah 61: 10 (a favorite chapter of Jesus) “For he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness.”  He put a ring on his son’s finger – an indication that his authority was now restored. The ring was no doubt the signet ring, a ring used like a signature in legal agreements: it carried with it the authority of his father. He put sandals on his feet - the gift of respect; that he was to be treated as a master not a servant, for servants did not wear shoes in that culture. He had his servants kill the fatted calf, a very large animal as opposed to a goat or sheep. It signified that the entire community was invited to celebrate his return! If the previous gifts expressed reconciliation with the father the final sign expressed reconciliation with the community. Are you awed by the love of this father for his son? Jesus is telling those around him that this is the true heart of the Father for his children.  For most people, this was new information, it was a new portrait, a new understanding of God...and it's still new information for many of us today.

Chapter Two: The Father & His Proud Son (Luke 15: 25-32).  The irony of the Story of the Prodigal Son is that we only remember half of the story. In Luke 15:2 we read, “Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” In other words, the Story is for the Prodigals, but it’s also for the Proud who resented the way Jesus welcomed and reached out to them. Listen carefully then to the second half of Jesus’ most famous story…

As the elder son nears the house he hears music and dancing. He quickly learns that it is all for his younger brother! Then we’re told that “he became angry and refused to go in.” This time it is the elder son, not the younger, who publicly insults his father by refusing to join in this community celebration. He is just as lost as his younger brother had been. And yet, once again, the father takes the initiative and goes out to him (28), as he did with the younger. The elder son complains: “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you…”  Did you catch the irony in this statement? The younger son thought he would have to return as a servant – but was welcomed as a son! Now we learn that the older son -- who never left his father – thought of himself like a hired servant all those years, and his father’s blessings a wage that he had earned instead of a gift to be gratefully accepted. His father may have welcomed his brother…but he has no intention of doing so. Listen to his tirade in v. 30-31: “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”

What would his father say?  The Father patiently replies: “Son, you are always with me!” The term the father uses is, teknon which means "my child..." (as if to remind him that he is not a slave, but a son) "...we had to celebrate and rejoice because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, was lost and has been found.” You and I are, for the most part, the religiously serious. We’re here because we like going to church…we enjoy the community…we want to be involved in serving and using our gifts. But like the older brother…the biggest temptation for us will be to forget why we’re here; to forget that the church’s main purpose is mission…a mission to seek and save the lost. Life in the church is a wonderful thing…but if it becomes more important than reaching out to those who are outside these walls, we’ve forgotten our purpose…which is why chapter three is the most important chapter of all…

Chapter Three: The Father & His Future Sons (& Daughters). We do not know how the older brother will respond. But we do know how his Father wants him to respond. Come in from the outside! Add your voice to the singing! Be a son and not a slave!  Jesus wanted the Pharisees to see the difference between their attitude toward the lost “younger brother”, and his own. Jesus is the true elder brother, the true Son who rejoices when his broken brothers and sisters come to the Father! He throws open the doors of the Kingdom wide to all would enter in repentant humility!  Jesus left his story unfinished because he wanted us to end the story! Will I be a prodigal, a proud pharisee, a slave, or will I live like a son…beloved by my Heavenly Father?

Each time I read this story, I am struck again by the picture that Jesus gives us of God…so patient and kind, so ready to bear the pain and shame of our sin…so eager to welcome us home when we come to our senses. I want to end this message by saying three things to the fathers among us. First, if you did not receive the love of your father, you can receive healing today by accepting the grace and love of your Heavenly Father. Second, if you’ve been distant and detached from your family, you can come come…just like the prodigal or the proud son. We can come home and begin to live and love our children just as our Heavenly Father has loved us. Third, receive God’s blessing…because there are many fathers among us today who need to be encouraged....

Dads who are faithfully providing for their families…we see you. Dads who are intentionally playing with their children…we see you.  Dads who are patiently mentoring their children, teaching Sunday School, fathering through Boy Scouts, coaching their children’s sports teams…we see you. Dads who have had to practice tough love with their children…we see you. Dads who are caring for a spouse with health problems and bearing tremendous responsibility…we see you. Single dads who are stepping up to the plate and providing stability and a constant fatherly presence…we see you. Dads who are trying to be spiritual leaders in their homes…praying with their children…modeling Christ-like character, pointing them to the Scriptures…we see you. Dads who are not with us now, who have gone to be with the Lord, but who have left a legacy of fatherly love that their children will carry with them throughout their lives…we see you. Men, one of my prayers is that our children will look back and be able to say, “Dad, because of you and your example I know in my heart that God is truly a loving and gracious Father.”

Heavenly Father, we are a mixture of the prodigal and the proud today. We have tried to run from you; we have proudly tried to earn your love; we have scoffed at the outsiders not realizing that our pride was placing us on the outside too. Inside each of us is a need for the perfect love and compassion which only You can give. Help us to place our trust in Jesus, your one true Son today, so that we may become adopted children in your Kingdom Family forever. Amen.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Story of the Weeds & Wheat

Was Jesus a “religious extremist”? Yes…and No. Jesus certainly asked for extreme commitment to him as Lord, saying that we must put him before family, or possessions, and our own self-interest (Luke 14: 25-33). But was Jesus a “religious extremist” in the sense of being a militant revolutionary? We can say unequivocally…no. Jesus did not lead his followers to violently overthrow his enemies…he led them to the foot of the cross where he forgave his enemies. He taught his followers the way of radical devotion characterized by extreme sacrificial love. Perhaps you are an extreme idealist who wants to create heaven on earth, a perfect church, or even a perfect home? Then again, you may have lost all idealism, and feel discouraged and beaten down by failures, suffering and opposition. Either way, Jesus' story of The Weeds & the Wheat (Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43), can help us understand and respond to this messy world and our messy church with extreme determination, hope, and love.

24 He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” 28He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” 29But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’

36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’ 37He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

As we read Jesus’ parable, we learn, first, that weeds and wheat will always be found together (24-28a, 37-39). "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away." In the interpretation, we read that "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man" (37). The Greek word translated “sows” describes the act of "sowing" -- action that is ongoing and continuous, not just a one time event. If we go back enough generations, most of us have relatives who worked the land. My uncle was an alfalfa farmer, and my mother’s family was in the nursery business for decades in Malibu. I learned that sowing and growing is not just a hobby, it’s a career. So it is with the Risen Christ, and I find that exciting. His life’s work is to sow the good seed, which is his word, and those who have been transformed by it. Through his followers, the kingdom of God is advancing, however slowly, in the world!

Understanding this is important, because what Jesus describes next is something like industrial sabotage: the sowing of weeds among the wheat. When the servants awake (like you and me), they want to know the origin of these weeds. “Didn’t you sow good seed in your field?” (27a) -- a question they already know the answer to. The farmer is a good farmer, and he sows good seed (24)! So they immediately come to the real question: Where did these weeds come from? (27b) This is the problem of evil. If God is good, and loving, why is there so much evil in the world? If Christ is building a church in the world, why are there so many bad people in it? If Christ is Lord, why am I still prone to do evil things?

The answer given is brief: “an enemy did this” (28). From the interpretation, we know that Jesus speaks of the doer of evil, the devil (39). Now the devil may be out of fashion today, but his tastes never are. Some may deny his existence, but no one can deny the palpable presence of evil in this world. In a Newsweek cover story titled, “The Roots of Evil” Sharon Begley writes: “In their search for the nature and roots of evil, scholars from fields as diverse as sociology, psychology, philosophy and theology are reaching a chilling conclusion. Most people do have the capacity for horrific evil, they say: the traits of temperament and character from which evil springs are as common as flies on carrion.” Psych. Robert I. Simon of Georgetown Univ. School of Medicine says, “The capacity for evil is a human universal” (Newsweek / 5-21-01). No kidding. Jesus spoke with authority about weeds, because he lived, ate, ministered, and died in the midst of weeds. He is fully aware of the evil in man (see John 2.23ff.) so he wants us to be fully aware of it too, to wake up and see the truth (25)!

The truth that weeds and wheat will always be found together is inescapable logic, but it is still difficult for many of us to accept when it comes to the church. Several years ago, the 4th cent. Church of the Nativity was under siege during a confrontation between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants. After it was over an 18 year old Palestinian Christian re-entered the church and commented in tears, “I can’t believe this,” surveying the cigarette butts, spent shell casings, dirty dishes littering the church. “This is the house of God and the place where Jesus was born. What a dark moment” (LA Times 5-11-02). I couldn’t help but think that what happened in the Church of the Nativity is an extreme example of what is true about the church in general. We are the house of God, but we are also a place where you can find a lot of trash; and weeds as well as wheat. Only when we wake up to the reality of the weeds, and the evil that we ourselves are capable of, can anything be done about it (1 John 1.8-9). To agree with God that the evil is real and sometimes working in me is the meaning of the NT word homologeo ("to confess," "to say the same thing" or "to agree" ) with God about our condition -- and it’s the first step to being rid of evil!

Secondly, it is the Lord’s job to uproot the weeds (28b-30, 40-42). “The slaves said, “Do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both…grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” This is a difficult part of the parable to grasp. When the farmer explains to his servants that his enemy planted these weeds, they ask if he wants them to pull up the weeds right away. Oddly enough, the farmer says, “No!” Why? Because if they try to gather up the weeds too soon, they will uproot the wheat along with it.

The first implication of the fact that we are to let God uproot the weeds is that we are incapable of making final judgments about the moral character of other people. A person may appear to be good, but may be evil. A person may appear to be evil, but may be good – only God truly knows who his children are. In fact, there is a type of weed that grows in Palestine that closely resembles wheat in its early stages (darnel). In some regions it’s referred to as false wheat because it looks so similar…that is, until the ear appears. The ears on the real wheat are so heavy the entire plant droops downward, but darnel whose ears are light, stands up straight. The wheat appears brown when ripe, but the darnel is black. At harvest time, the weed has to be separated from the wheat because it causes the sensation of drunkenness and then death if eaten. In The Gulag Archipelago, the great author, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, says, "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being." In the church, we spend a lot of time apologizing for ill-spoken words, and self-righteous condemnation. C. S. Lewis once observed that the church is the only army that shoots it’s wounded. We must forever be repenting of this sin.

Having said that, I don’t think we can argue from Jesus’ teaching that we are never to confront evil or practice discernment in the church or in the world. After all, in Matthew 5, Jesus tell us that if our right eye causes us to sin, we should tear it out rather than have our whole body cast into hell. That’s a vivid way of saying that we are to take immediate, drastic action against that habit, or thing that is threatening to destroy us. In Matthew 7, Jesus says to “Beware of false prophets….you will know them by their fruit.” Then, in Matthew 18, “If your brother sins against you go and show him his fault…..” Obviously we can’t take any of these actions without confronting something that is simply wrong. But while Jesus calls us to discern whether certain actions are good or evil, we are not permitted to decide whether a person or group of people is ultimately good or evil. Even good people do stupid things….

Therefore, the second implication of the fact that we are to let God uproot the weeds is that our Lord alone can distinguish the weeds from the wheat. As human beings we’re tempted to rush to final judgment about all kinds of things and all kinds of people, but one of the biggest reasons we must avoid doing that is we may end up destroying the very one God wants to save and redeem. I’ve been studying up on weeds lately. Ain't Wikepedia a Modern Marvel?! Did you know that there are a number of weeds, such as the dandelion whose leaves and roots may be used for food or herbal medicine? It’s true! Burdock (thistle) is a common weed over much of the world, and is sometimes used to make soup and other medicine in East Asia. Incredible isn’t it? Some modern species of domesticated flower actually originated as weeds and have been bred by people into garden plants for their flowers or foliage (say 'ooooh, aaaaah!') In other words, you’ve no idea the plans God may have for the weediest person in your life. Weeds can be redeemed....

I’m thinking of a man who in his teens began living with a woman and got her pregnant (No one in our church, by the way). After living with her for 15 years, he dumped her and got engaged to someone else—only because it would advance his career. But it was a long engagement (two years) so while he was engaged, he began living with a third woman, who was not his fiancĂ©e. Meanwhile, during all this time, he left the church and joined a cult. Eventually, he got bored with that and became a skeptic. Now was this a person a weed or wheat? He certainly behaved like a weed, and yet if you were to tear him out of the pages of history, you would be tearing out the future St. Augustine, one of the most brilliant theologians in church history whose conversion was as spectacular as his former life was decadent. Writing more than 1500 years ago, he preached: “O you Christians, whose lives are good, you sigh and groan as being few among many, few among very many... I tell you of a truth, my Beloved, even in these high seats there is both wheat, and tares, and among the laity there is wheat, and tares. Let the good tolerate the bad; let the bad change themselves, and imitate the good. Let us all, if it may be so, attain to God….” (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/160323.htm).

Finally, the Lord will ensure that his wheat prevails (39, 43). “Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire…Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” I find this comforting, and unsettling, because of the reality of weeds in me. What assurance is there that we will not be among the weeds that are destroyed? Only that if we come to Jesus, and seek his mercy as the woman did who knelt at his feet, or the prodigal son, or the paralyzed man, that we will hear him say, “Your sins, which are many, are forgiven” (Luke 7:47); and “whoever comes to me, I will not cast out” (John 6: 37).

But Jesus’ story ends on a high note (43). Christ will triumph over every kind of evil. No matter how messy this world looks right now things will get straightened out, and we shall shine like the sun in the kingdom of our “Father”. Jesus says this will happen “at the close of the age” (39) The word trans. “close” is sunteleia, and it literally means,“completion or fulfillment.” There are many aspects of our lives, of the church, of our families, that long for completion, putting back together again.

Case in point, when we first planted grass in our backyard it was perfect…marathon sod. Not a weed in sight…but within a year, the weeds were everywhere. Now, I know we’re in a drought, but about three weeks ago I decided that I needed to give my lawn a little tender loving care. I have a lot of weeds and a lot of dead areas that just looked terrible. So, I went down to the garden supply store and picked up some seed…and some topper. I started out by trying to remove some of the weeds…and then I realized that I would have to remove most of my lawn too! But here’s the interesting thing I learned. Weeds grow when your lawn is weak, not when it’s healthy. For the longest time, I focused on getting rid of the weeds, but then I realized that what I really needed to do was focus on re-seeding and feeding my lawn. (Don’t tell anyone but I actually watered my grass by hand…several times when no one was looking.) Right now…it looks pretty good...not quite sunteleia (complete) but getting there. Are there a few weeds? Sure…but I’m not worried -- I may use the dandelions to make some herbal medicine (the legal kind). For now, I’m focusing on the grass.

And that’s what Jesus wants us all to do. Because we’re the most help to him when we focus on growing wheat rather than pulling weeds (30). I heard Chuck Swindoll give some good examples of growing wheat. Here they are: We are growing wheat when we mend a quarrel, dismiss suspicion, or tell someone, "I love you" this week. When we give something away--anonymously. When we forgive someone who has treated us wrong. When we turn away wrath with a soft answer. When we visit someone in the hospital. When we apologize if we were wrong. When we are especially kind to someone with whom we work. When we give as God gave to us in Christ, without obligation, or announcement, or reservation, or hypocrisy.

In other words, we will be the best kind of religious extremists when we are extreme in our compassion, extreme in our hope, extremely forgiving, extremely loving, not wallowing in the mess, but walking in the ways of the Messiah who promises to clean this whole mess up.

Mighty Savior, we confess that there are weeds…that there is sin and evil in this world. We see it in our nation, we see it in our families, we see it in our church, we see it in ourselves. O Lord, you have solemnly vowed: “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.” Yes Lord, and let the weeding begin…with me. Remove from my heart the roots of bitterness and resentment, falsehood and unfaithfulness, arrogance and unbelief. Help me to confront the reality of evil in myself and in others with boldness and humility, truthfulness and loving-kindness. We joyfully confess that you are greater -- for “Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world” – that evil is a reality but not an invincible one. Therefore we pray for and anticipate your return and until then…the visible signs of your victory in every arena of our lives …to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Counting the Cost

Last week the greatest basketball coach in modern history, John Wooden, died at the age of 99. Wooden led UCLA to 620 victories in 27 seasons, and 10 national titles. Wooden knew the cost of building a championship team. He understood the cost of winning. He was loved by his University and became an icon of sports history. The importance of counting the cost before taking on some great endeavor is well known, which is why Jesus -- for all his popularity -- was very sober in the way he warned the large crowds that began to follow him. Take the story of The Builder & the King which Jesus begins by saying these shocking words:

"Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14: 26-27). Now that doesn't sound like any formula for church growth that I've heard of! Is Jesus trying to discourage the crowds from following him? NO. But he does want them to understand what being a disciple really means. That's because Jesus knows that it’s possible to travel with him without being his disciple. So what keeps us from being true disciples of Jesus? According to Jesus, We cannot truly follow him until we decide that life with him in his kingdom is more valuable than anything else. In his story of The Builder & the King, Jesus recommends a process for making that decision:

Take the first step, and sit down (25, 28, 31). “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down….Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first….” Jesus wants those who are travelling with him to stop everything sit down, and take some time to consider what it is that they are doing.

When Jesus “sat down” he was often preparing to do something very important. Before he preached the Sermon on the Mount, he sat down (Matt. 5:1). Before he healed the sick, the lame, and the crippled in Matt. 15: 28-30, he sat down. When he was about to feed the five thousand he had them sit down on the grass (Luke 9:15); and when he shared the bread and the cup with his disciples before his arrest…he sat down at the table with them. Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, we’re told, but he wanted them to stop, sit down, and consider what they were doing (25).

Jesus was a rising star. He was a compelling speaker. He had the power to make sick bodies whole. Mothers wanted him to hold their babies. If he was walking the earth today…we would be pressuring him to run for governor…and so the crowd began to build. (By the way, I understand he’s not on the ballot again this year). But Jesus was heading for Jerusalem; and while the crowd was ready to make him king…he was looking to the cross. Did they know what they were getting themselves into? Jesus literally says, “Which of you, wishing to build a tower, does not first, sitting down (the Greek word is kathisas), consider the cost.” I know, grammar is boring, but kathisas, which is an aorist participle, emphasizes a long, serious consideration -- and that's important to understand here. When someone calls and says, “Are you sitting down?” – what goes through your mind? Before we continue to follow Jesus, he calls and says, “Are you sitting down?” Are you willing to seriously consider what you’re doing and why?

Let's face it, it’s hard for us to sit down. We are constantly on the move…heading for work…walking to class… phoning, emailing, texting, twittering, and facebooking. In one online survey, a majority of men and women under 25 said they would answer a text message during a meeting, while eating a meal, sitting on the john…and while having sex. I was performing a memorial service yesterday, and there was an older gentleman there who was a former colleague who worked with the woman whose life we were honoring. After he got up and spoke briefly, I noticed that he immediately sat down and began working his "crack" berry. He had no time to even listen to what other people were saying about the one he just got through telling us was his "close" friend and colleague. Unbelievable -- and this was no 20 year old! Into the midst of our absurdly crowded lives, Jesus invites us to stop everything; to quietly step away from the crowd for a moment, and while sitting down -- consider what it means to be his true follower. In other words, to...

Take the second step and figure the cost (26-33): “Which of you” asks Jesus, “intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?" What is the cost of following Christ? Jesus mentions three things:

First, we must value him more than family relationships. Jesus says is that if we do not “hate father and mother…even life itself” we cannot be his disciples. Now how can Jesus, who called us to honor parents, care for children and love those who hate us, use the word hate in a sentence? He does so to grab our attention! He means that we are to love him first, above all others (see Matthew 10:37 for an alternate version of this story). My wife Lisa experienced the rejection of her father when she chose to get her MFT degree at Fuller Seminary's School of Psychology. This led him to say terribly hurtful words, disown her and refuse to come to our wedding. She never once heard him say, “I’m sorry…” before he died, but God empowered her and the rest of us to love and to forgive him. What Jesus inspired in us (and only he could have done this, believe me) made it possible for Lisa's dad to see the love of God in action. My wife chose to follow her Heavenly Father, and in doing so was given the power to love her earthly father sacrificially.

Second, we must value him more than our possessions. In v. 33 Jesus says: “Whoever of you does not renounce (lit. say good-by to) all that he has cannot be my disciple” (33). The phrase “all that he has” means more than material possessions: it literally means: “everything that is under our control.” To value Jesus more than anything else, means that we will say good-bye to the idea that we are in control, and consciously put ourselves under Jesus’ guidance and control. As Christians in the west it is easy to confuse the material things we have with God’s blessing and with Jesus himself. Think about your own church community (if you have one)…would you still follow Jesus if there was no church building, no music, no staff, no youth and children’s programs, no clergy, no freedom to worship in public? Today there are Christians all over the world who follow Jesus without any of these benefits....

Nicky Gumbel describes the reaction of a man living in the former USSR when he gave him a Russian Bible (at that time, illegal). The man… “had an expression of almost disbelief. Then he took from his pocket a New Testament which was probably 100 years old. The pages were so threadbare they were virtually transparent. When he realized that he had received a whole Bible, he was elated... We hugged each other and he started to run down the street jumping for joy, because he knew that the Bible was the most precious thing in the world" (Nicky Gumbel, http://www.htb.org.uk/one-year-bible/word-god). Can you imagine running down the street, jumping for joy because someone put one of these (hold Bible) in your hand? This man could, because Jesus was his greatest possession. How about you?

Finally, we must value him more than our own lives. In some countries, physical persecution is a reality. According to Gordon-Conwell Seminary (2006) an average of 171,000 Christians worldwide are martyred for their faith per year. Many more face the loss of job, jail, or physical harm if they are caught reading their Bible or worshiping with other Christians. Here…valuing Jesus more than our own lives will not usually mean physical death, but it will mean the death of our own selfish and self-centered goals....

On April 21st, a terrible accident took place on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. The rig exploded, eleven people were killed…and now millions of gallons of oil are flowing into the ocean from a depth of 5000 feet…destroying the environment, wrecking havoc on the livelihoods of those who make their living from the sea, and threatening the economy of several states. How did it happen? Robert Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, concludes that the primary cause was “hubris, arrogance, and ignorance... combined with a natural hazard.” Bea is an engineer, but he is not using scientific language here…he is speaking moral failure. Self-centered and selfish goals trumped safety, accountability, and common sense. You can have the most sophisticated scientific and engineering technology available to you…but they are no match for human sin. The costs of discipleship to Jesus are nothing compared with the costs of non-discipleship. Jesus does not want to see us destroy our lives or this world with the oily sludge of pride, arrogance, and selfishness…he wants to save our lives and this world, which leads us to consider not only the costs of valuing Jesus above all else, but to...

Take the third step, and consider the benefits (14: 1-4, 15-16). The costs of following Jesus are real…but they do not compare with the benefits. Dallas Willard rightly points out that no one goes reluctantly into discipleship with Jesus. As the Son of God, he has the best information available on how to live the eternal kind of life.

Valuing Jesus before family relationships means that we can trust him to be the healer and savior of our families. I know that many of you have a spouse or family member who is not a believer; you are praying for them daily; but I want to encourage you. Let your patience, love and forgiveness speak for you as you trust Jesus to do the healing! This week, as I mentioned above, I officiated at the fifth memorial service in as many weeks in our congregation. The common thread? I’ve seen families in grief united and inspired by the gospel over and over again. In our family, Lisa and I know that her dad was deeply touched by the love of God through his children…and it’s given us great peace.

Valuing Jesus more than possessions means the blessing of living and giving with purpose to those in need, to his mission and ministry, to making this world a better place; not just a more dangerous, wasteful, self-centered place. In recent years, some churches in India have been burned, and church leaders killed. But they are also seeing great miracles among the poor at the Divine Retreat Center in Mumbai and Kerala, India…a handicapped and brain damaged child healed, a 21mm hole in a woman’s heart, healed, an 18 year intestinal ailment completely healed. (LA Times: Divine Retreat Center in Kerala, India). Here are people who have next to nothing…but have everything they need in Christ…

Valuing Jesus more than our own lives, means recognizing that he is our life, and that by losing our lives we gain them for eternal life…that in him death is not the last word, but a defeated foe.
As I began by saying, when I consider a man who sat down and figured the cost and benefits of building and winning (in sports and in life) my thoughts go to John Wooden. He was a legend of sports, but the possession of those 10 national titles was clearly not the most important thing in his life: “I have always tried to make it clear that basketball is not the ultimate. It is of small importance in comparison to the total life we live” he said.
Wooden developed The Pyramid of Success which became a classic of motivational thinking… but strangely enough, he never copyrighted the material, prompting a friend to say he didn’t have a marketing bone in his body. “I hope not,” Wooden said. He intended the ideas to be freely shared…and he could do that because there were other things more important to him.
Wooden was married to his beloved wife Nelli for 53 years until her death on March 21st, 1985. He kept a monthly ritual (health permitting)—on the 21st of every month he visited her grave, and then wrote a love letter to her. After completing the letter, he placed it in an envelope and added it to a stack of similar letters that accumulated over the years on the pillow she slept on during their life together. No one could have loved his wife more…but was she the ultimate, the most important thing in his life? Was she the secret to a winning life?
No. He tells us in his book, They Call Me Coach: “There is only one kind of life that truly wins, and that is the one that places faith in the hands of the Savior” - John Wooden (2003). Wooden valued his Lord above all else, because in Christ everything that was truly valuable and important to him (his wisdom, his wife, his very life) was redeemed. This man who knew the cost of winning in sports and in life placed himself in the hands of the Savior. Here's one more thought. Jesus does not ask us to do what he did not do himself. For he sat down, counting the cost of our salvation, not considering his own life too dear a price to pay. Therefore, what cost him his own life can never be cheap for us. Isaac Watts has it right: "Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all" (When I Survey the Wondrous Cross)!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Story of the Greedy Farmer

A man approaches Jesus, asking him to play the role of judge --not an unusual thing to ask a rabbi in those days. “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me” he cries. No doubt the father left his possessions to his sons in a lump sum -- not a problem if there was peace between the brothers, but there wasn’t. So the man approaches Jesus like a judge on The People’s Court TV show and asks him to enforce his right to his share of the inheritance. Jesus’ reply may seem surprising! “Who made me a judge or arbitrator (literally, a divider)over you?" But wait! Wasn’t this a legitimate request, Jesus? A cry for justice?! Kenneth Bailey points out that the answer can only be that however lawful this man’s claim was, Jesus knew that his most important problem was not the division of his father’s property, but the division of a family over material possessions.

“One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” Jesus says. “Let me tell you a little story…” (15). Here is Jesus’ signal that he wants to help the man, but not the way that he’s asking. He wants to help him, and anyone in earshot, understand that there are ways to be rich that are far more important than having great material wealth, and he does this by showing us how a greedy farmer who thought he was rich was really poor…

To begin with, the farmer had a poverty of gratitude. Then [Jesus] told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops (16-17)?

There is no parable which is so full of the words me, mine, and I: I will do this I will do that…it’s all about MEmy crops, my barns, my grain, my goods. The Me-Monster is on the loose! Notice that he never considers that this abundant crop was an extra blessing from God. But Jesus is clear: “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully” (16). He certainly didn’t earn this abundance; and being rich he did not need it. And yet, he treated it as though it was simply his to stockpile and to do with as he liked.

George W. Truett, a well-known pastor who used to take several weeks each year to drive cattle in Texas and minister to cowboys on horseback was invited to dinner at the home of a very wealthy man. After the meal, the host led him to a place where they could get a good view of the surrounding area. Pointing to the oil wells punctuating the landscape, he boasted, "Twenty-five years ago I had nothing. Now, as far as you can see, it's all mine." Looking in the opposite direction at his fields of grain, he said, "That's all mine." Turning east toward huge herds of cattle, he bragged, "They're all mine." Then pointing west to a beautiful forest, he exclaimed, "That too is all mine." He paused, expecting Dr. Truett to compliment him on his great success. Truett, however, placing one hand on the man's shoulder and pointing heavenward with the other, simply said, "How much do you have in that direction?" When we lose a sense of wonder at life’s unexpected gifts, we also lose a sense of gratitude to God for what he’s given us; and a desire to share it with others.

The farmer had a poverty of relationships. "Then he [discussed with himself], 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods'" (18).

Notice that this man is rich in material things, but poor in friends and vital relationships. He is a man isolated by his wealth. In Middle Eastern culture no decision of this magnitude is made in isolation (see Kenneth Bailey, Poets & Peasants). There are conversations at the gate with the leading men of the village. Even the slightest transaction involves hours of discussion. Contrast this picture with what Jesus describes:

Jesus says that there is no one around as this wealthy man ponders what to do with his grain. He is alone, talking to himself (literally, “dialoging," v. 17) with his own soul, instead of dialoging and having a conversation with others! How different are the shepherd, and the woman who celebrate with their friends over finding the lost sheep and the lost coin in Luke 15. Sure, he’s “arrived!” But he has no audience, no family, no friends, to give his arrival speech to! It reminds me of a conversation Elvis Presley had with a reporter 6 weeks before he died: “Elvis, when you first started playing music, you said you wanted to be rich, famous and happy. Are you happy?” “I’m lonely as hell” he replied. In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis described Hell as a dismal town of infinite size where people move further and further out, building , quarreling with neighbors, then moving and rebuilding to get away from one another. Some inhabitants are millions of light years away, lost in envy, grievances, self-importance and resentments (The Great Divorce, pp. 18-19). There’s a great cost in never seeing beyond ourselves.

The farmer had a poverty of vision. "And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry. But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?'" (19-20).

This man was a fool not because he had no plan, but because his plan lacked vision. It was short-sighted – a plan to eat, drink and be merry. He didn’t think beyond satisfying his own immediate wants…right here, right now…right away. John White comments that “death is a values-clarifier." Death makes us re-evaluate what the purpose of life is. It causes us to think about what really matters. This man had not done that yet. Now he was forced to look beyond his earthly timeline to consider who would inherit the things he now possessed. God is blunt, "Whose will they be?" Good question, God. Obviously they are God’s, but beyond that this man made no provision for the future, for the coming generation, or the kingdom of God.

Just up the street, a man died recently who lived alone for years. I noticed yesterday morning a swarm of cars around the house. Someone was holding a garage sale…that should have been called a clearance sale because there were dozens of people going in and out with furniture, knick knacks, all kinds of things. I walked over to the house to look inside and then I had a sobering thought: Here was a man I had never met, never even seen…and now I was walking through his living room…watching all of his earthly possessions being carted out by strangers. All of a sudden the phrase from this passage came to mind: “Whose will they be?”

Whose will they be? We can either make that decision ourselves…or it will be made for us. We can live for the moment, or we can have a generational vision that considers how the things we have will bless those in need…a charitable cause we believe in, our church where we have spent years together in ministry and mission…and yes, our family whom we are called to provide for. In the case of the farmer, his was the tragedy of a missed opportunity to bless others with his possessions, to leave a legacy of faith , to declare with his wealth who he belonged to, and in whom he trusted. But how about you? What legacy will you leave? What message will you declare to the world with your words, actions, and possessions? And what will that decision say about who you belonged to, and in whom you trusted in this life?

Finally, the farmer had a poverty of generosity. "So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God" (21).

Notice that Jesus ends the parable with a challenge to be rich, not a challenge to be poor. Jesus does not exalt poverty; and while he does not want us to be filthy rich, he does want us to be faithfully rich, rich in gratitude…rich in relationships…with a compelling vision of never-ending life in the kingdom of God.

I have two cousins who inherited their parent’s property in Malibu after they died. One of my cousins stayed on the property, married, and continued to run the nursery. Her brother moved out years ago. He has been very successful in bioengineering, and owns more than one property, but it pains me to say while he has been materially rich, he has been poor when it comes to the practice of generosity, and I would tell him that to his face. Eventually he demanded his half of the Malibu property. This was his sister’s only income and he knew it. This was not about mismanagement or irresponsibility on her part…this was about greed on his part. Sadly, it came down to a lawsuit…in which he forced her to sell and divide it with him. She has never fully recovered…is still looking for a permanent residence, and a way to re-establish her business. This story is strangely parallel to the parable we just read. The division between two siblings over a family inheritance…and the pain and suffering that it causes. Greed causes division, Selfishness causes division… and it’s not the way our Lord wants us to live. He wants us to live a life of generosity; a life in which we are caring for the people around us, and not just ourselves (which also includes encouraging others to be responsible in the use of what they have). But I’ve seen firsthand what happens when people do the opposite…and you have too.

“Don’t store up treasures for yourselves…but be rich towards God says Jesus. Philip Yancey writes about a conversation he had with a medical doctor who worked with lepers in India…and the subject was storagefat storage. “I don't know what comes to your mind when you hear the word "fat", but I have a good idea. In America fat is nearly always a dirty word. We spend billions of dollars on pills, diet books, and exercise machines to help us loose excess fat. I hadn't heard a good word about fat in years--that is, until I met Dr. Paul Brand. 'Fat is absolutely gorgeous,' says Brand… 'When I perform surgery, I marvel at the shimmering, lush layers of fat that spread apart as I open up the body. Those cells insulate against cold, provide protection for the valuable organs underneath, and give a firm, healthy appearance to the whole body.' I had never thought of fat quite like that! 'But those are just side benefits,' he continues. 'The real value of fat is as a storehouse. Locked in those fat cells are the treasures of the human body. When I run or work or expend any energy, fat cells make that possible. They act as banker cells. It's absolutely beautiful to observe the cooperation among those cells!' Now each individual Christian in a relatively wealthy country like America is called to be a fat cell. America has a treasure house of wealth and spiritual resources. The challenge to us, as Christians, is to wisely use those resources for the rest of the body" (Philip Yancey in "World Concern Update," January 1982).

You and I are a fabulously fat storehouse, a gigantic reservoir of God’s blessings…just waiting to be unleashed upon the world. “Don’t’ store up treasures just for yourselves…be rich towards God.” When we live a life of gratitude, aware of all that God has given us; when we invest in relationships, actively loving the people around us; when we ponder God’s vision for this world, a vision that goes far beyond short-sighted goals and desires; then, we will be catapulted into a life of generosity, a life that is rich toward God and all that he cares about. Amen!

Father, help us to see that a life without gratitude, a life without relationships, a life without transcending vision, a life without generosity -- is a life on the skids, a life of true poverty. For when we live a life of gratitude, aware of all that you have given us; when we invest in relationships, actively loving the people around us; when we ponder your vision for this world, a vision of the kingdom that goes far beyond short-sighted goals and desires; then, we will be catapulted into a life that is “rich toward God” and all that you care about. So where we have focused on what is ours instead of thanking you for all that is yours; where we have hurt others or neglected important relationships, where we have made no investment in the generations to come and focused on short-sighted, self-serving goals; where we have withheld from you and those in need -- we ask your forgiveness and the ability to feel, and to walk in, the richness of your boundless grace through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.