Friday, March 09, 2007

I am so embarrassed!

I can't believe how many years I have studied the Bible with some degree of diligence, yet missed the in-your-face, pervasive emphasis about poverty and injustice and how God's people are to respond to it.

Last Sunday's theme in our "Stories Jesus Told" series was the vivid and frightening story about hell (actually "hades" in the Greek) in Luke 16. The full sermon is available at It includes a discussion of five different ways people understand the doctrine of hell, including the one I have tentatively adopted (a change from most of my life).

What now seems inescapable in this story that I completely overlooked in the past was the equally shocking theme of wealth and poverty in relationship to hades and paradise.

Obviously Jesus was not suggesting that if one is rich and wears purple, he is headed for the fire. Nor was He advancing the idea that if one is poor and licked by scavenging dogs he will sit beside Abraham in the great heavenly banquet.

However, it would be hard to miss the point that what we do with our resources and how we respond to suffering and need are infallible indicators of the true condition of our heart.

Perhaps the rich man’s wealth served to isolate him to some degree from the suffering of the beggar at his gate. But, it did not excuse him from his heartless and wicked indifference.

In today’s “flat earth,” I have to be willfully indifferent to isolate myself from the horrible suffering of poverty and injustice in West Michigan and the world. The comfortableness of my middle-class suburban lifestyle has isolated me, but does not excuse me.

This is the only one of Jesus’ stories in which a character is named. The pathetic beggar is “Lazarus.” His name meant “God is my helper”—it must’ve mocked him with the realization that God didn’t seem to be doing a very good job of helping him. Yet his angel-escorted-arrival at the heavenly banquet table next to the father of Arabs and Jews would suggest that his trust in God was not destroyed by his earthly suffering.

By naming Him, Jesus humanized a person who had been dehumanized and marginalized by his community. We’re more comfortable if we don’t know a beggar’s name for the same reason we avoid eye contact with him. If we look him in the eyes or give him a name, he becomes a person – a fellow human being like us who is suffering and needs our help. It’s easier to walk by if he isn’t a real person to us.

How big a deal is it whether or not we use our resources to help the needy?

If asked, “What was the sin of Sodom?” most would respond with a hot-button moral issue. How shocking when the Scripture (Ezekiel 16:49f) describes a different primary issue: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.”

Jesus’ story in Matthew 25 describes entrance into or exclusion from God’s kingdom on the basis of whether or not people fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, took in the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and imprisoned.

We tend to think our reward will depend on how often we went to church. The Bible says it will be based on what we did for the poor and needy.

I am so embarrassed that these themes have been largely absent from my teaching. I repent. God is changing me. Do I ever need it!

No comments: