Sunday, November 20, 2022

HEY YOU! Me? YES, YOU! The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

 Here we go!

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Luke 18:9-14)

The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is an especially powerful one, because sometimes we are the Pharisee, and sometimes, we are the Tax Collector.

What do I mean by that? Luke gives a quick preface to this parable: "To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable..."

Haven't we occupied, at one time or another, both roles?

For example... Today, the my Pharisee mode is in full swing:

I walk out of the door of my nice house, climb into my nice car and buzz down the road, to my nice office. On my way to work, I see some guy standing out in front of a stoplight with the cardboard sign of woe: homeless, moneyless, out-of-work-less and I think (in my heart, of course), "Clueless. I am not giving you dime one. Why can't you be like me and get a job?"

I drive to work. I walk into the office and notice my fellow worker's desk: all askew with sticky notes multiplying on monitors like mold in a cabin shower. I say (in my heart, of course) "Why can't she be like me? My desk is organized. That's why she can never find anything and is always asking me for things."

I head to lunch and notice the heavily-tatted young woman behind the counter. I order my food and notice that she moves at a glacial speed to fill my order. I'm thinking (in my heart, of course) "You're going nowhere sister, with all those tats. Why didn't you spend your money on education, so you don't have to work such a dead-end job? I bet you have screaming kids and your take-home pay won't even take you home."

So...We have our Pharisee mode. We feel so better. We feel so blessed. We go forth with a critical heart for those who don't measure up to our standards; we have contempt and wish those folks could just be like us. Then their problems would go away and they could be, well, like us.

We don't just have a standard; we are the standard.

Some days, we go forth in the Tax Collector mode:

I walk out of my apartment, and head for the stoplight. It's degrading but with all of the money I owe the court, begging seems to work. Yeah, I get a lot of flak--jeers, sneers and an occasionally rock or bottle thrown my way. But I do get an occasional smile. If you had asked me two years ago if I'd be standing by a stoplight, begging for money, I would have laughed. A lot can happen in two years. Yeah, I get it. I should get a job, right, lady, sneering at me in her nice car?

I sit down at my desk, with my husband's angry words still ringing in my ears. I forgot about picking up the kids at Grandma's last night. The boss always has some last minute must-do he places on my desk, causing me to walk out each day a little later. The sticky notes are numerous because my work gets broadsided by my boss. Trying to find a new job would take too much time. With my husband's job always on the brink of being outsourced, I have to work this job. Options dwindle while the sticky notes pile up. Why must my co-worker stare at me every time she passes by my desk?

We drop the toddlers off at Mom's; am I pregnant again? I was careful this time. I can't afford to lose this burger job. I am so tired today; Ben was up all night screaming, and Toby seemed to be feverish. I hate this job; I hate being away from the boys. Am I pregnant again? Nate and I were careful...Why is that customer sneering at me? I know I'm slow...

The Pharisee looked around, and measured his goodness by himself. He wasn't a robber, an evildoer, an adulterer, or even like that tax collector over there. He may have gone to the temple to pray, but it turned quickly into a Personal Praise Session, with whom he loves the most at the center. I love the little detail Jesus throws in: the Pharisee stands by himself. He doesn't brush elbows with the average Joes standing in the temple.

He stands by himself, and for himself.

The Pharisee is in his nice world, all sparkly and good. He doesn't know or even care to know the stories of his fellow human beings. He is the standard, and everyone needs to man-up and be like him. He rolls out his righteous deeds as if God needs to be reminded. He probably is not praying quietly; I am sure his "prayer" is a rather loud recitation of his goodness.

Notice the brevity of his prayer. No thanking God for His blessings, His love or for His provision. You might, in the movie version of this, hear "I Did It My Way" playing in the background. He mentions God once, and himself four times. This ratio shows his heart.

The tax collector stood "at a distance." Hmmm...Was he close enough to hear the Pharisee's prayer? Or did the Pharisee pray loud enough to for the tax collector to hear him?

Either way, the Pharisee's words would have reinforced what the tax collector already knows: He is a loser. He isn't even worth the powder to blow himself up with.

The tax collector will not look up to heaven. His heart is weighed down with the burden of his own inadequacy. He knows, according to everyone's scornful looks--with the Pharisee happily weighing in--that he is a loser. He rolls this out to God by saying he desperately needs His mercy, for he is a "sinner."

He mentions God once and mentions himself twice. God can work with this kind of ratio.

Why? Because God wants us to humbly acknowledge our need for Him.

Jesus puts a coda on this parable by saying that "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Some days we are the Pharisee, comfy and cozy in our superiority, and seeing God as a divine Master Card, all too willing to meet our needs because of our goodness.

Some days we are the tax collector, so weighed down in our shame and blame that we dare not look up to heaven.

While the tax collector is certainly closer to God in admitting his need, he is also forgetting one important fact: He is a child of the King. "For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, 'Abba! Father!' The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God…" (Rom. 8:14-16)

The tax collector can be akin to the Prodigal Son. He can return home with a repentant heart, and the Father is eagerly awaiting him. But, what if he just stands there, humble but unwilling to embrace the Father? Jesus points out that humility swings wide the gates of Heaven. His humility "justified" or made him right with God. Now what?

God wants our fellowship, so with humility comes community. God wants us to join Him in His work on this planet. Standing there, beating our breasts and crying out that we are sinners is a start, not a finish. He wants to justify us to set us free to do what He has commissioned us to do: win the tax collectors and Pharisees to the Kingdom of God.

The Pharisee is equally a child of the King.

He is akin to the Prodigal Son's older brother. He is so focused on doing good for God, that he has forgotten God and is angry that he needs to remind Him of his works.

Both are equally precious to God. Both can work for the Kingdom.

One needs to humble himself and realize his works should come from his love for God. Pride must be put aside. He needs to bow before God, asking for God's forgiveness. He must now walk as the son that he is. One needs to realize how deeply God loves him. He needs to rise up and accept God's forgiveness. He must now walk as the son that he is. The coldness of this world needs the light of His love.

My pride and my abasement will slam a bushel over His light in me. I must seek His forgiveness and walk as His child.  He died to make this possible.

My "goodness" and my sin were equally nailed to His cross.

He, because of the cross, offers me a crown.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Show Me the Money! The Rich Man and the Beggar (II)

We last left the poor beggar winging his way to heaven, where he now resides, at Abraham's side.  Abraham is the father of the Jewish nation.  Abraham, a pagan, heard God's voice.  He followed in faith and it was "credited to him as righteousness."  He became the founder of the Jewish people, and he stands tall in the Hall of Faith.

So, a beggar, unnoticed in life, is given an honored place with Abraham after his death.  Jesus doesn't add any more detail here--being seated next to Abraham is enough.

Jesus immediately switches to the rich man.  He dies and goes to his reward:  Hell.

No sugarcoating here:  a man who lived for himself, whose money was his god, and whose life was spent in material pursuits, finds a different set of values in the afterlife.  As Jesus explains in another passage: "But Jesus called them to Himself and said, 'You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave…" (Matt. 20:26)

The Kingdom of God is a reflection of God's rule, on Earth as well as in Heaven.  So, if you want to be a leader, you must lead with love.  If you desire to be first, you must allow others to go before you.

This is the Kingdom way.

This is His way.

Why?  His way is an antidote to our pride, which needs little encouragement.  Our sinful nature is all too ready to jump in, demand more and have the best of everything.

Sounds like our rich man, huh?

So, our rich man, now residing in hell, sees Lazarus far away, next to Abraham.

Now, the rich man calls out:  "Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire."

Hmmm...interesting.  A man who could not have been bothered to relieve suffering in his lifetime, now requests relief for his suffering.

"But Abraham replied, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony."  

The afterlife is real.  Judgment is real.  God's ways are real.  You lived, Mr. Rich Man, as if all of this was untrue, or simply didn't apply to people like you.  Wrong.   

Dead wrong:  "And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him." (Heb. 9:27)

Abraham also reminds Mr. Rich Man that an uncrossable chasm separates Hell from Heaven.

Then the rich man, suddenly realizing the finality of all this, says, “Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment."

Interesting.  Mr. Rich Man didn't even notice nor care about Lazarus when he had a chance; why would his brothers?  Would they take Lazarus seriously?

Lazarus who?  Oh right.  You came back from the dead, huh?  Is this a new ruse to get us to give you more money?  Hell and Heaven are real?  Yeah.  Yeah.  We know, but we've got too much going on.  Sorry, gotta go, Mr. Lizard, or whatever your name is.  My broker's on the phone... 

Abraham  goes on to suggest that they have "Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them."  Remember who has a front row seat to this parable?  The Pharisees and religious leaders.  They probably perked up at this point.

You bet we have Moses and the Prophets.  We stand on that foundation with pride and knowledge.  We are educated.  This puts you, Rabbi Jesus from Nazareth, at odds with us.  What are your credentials?  Who appointed you to waltz in and start teaching the masses about God?  We do that.  We are qualified to do that.  You, while you might be sincere, you are sincerely wrong.  The people need us.  Not some storyteller from Galilee.  What we do in our off-hours is none of your business.  We lead and they follow.  It is as simple as that. 

Jesus knew their hearts.  Jesus knew how they pursued worldly wealth and the status it brought.  How they wanted to be first in line, revered and respected, and if they let slip a sneering look at the unwashed masses, so be it.  The masses deserved it.

So, the parable ends on a rather pointed note.  The rich man responds, "'No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’  He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

This must have caused the Pharisees to startle a little bit.  The murderous rage they nursed in their hearts towards Jesus was still probably only thinking at this point.  But Jesus knew all too well where this jealous thinking would lead them: to collude with the Roman government and seek His death.  

The ironic thing here is, despite the admirable knowledge the Pharisees possessed, they missed a fundamental element:  Moses and the Prophets spoke of Jesus.  He pointed this out to them:  "Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me...And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life...Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father: there is one that accuseth you, even Moses, in whom ye trust.  For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me; for he wrote of me.  But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?" (John 5:39-40; 45-7).  

So, they missed the boat on seeing how the scriptures point to the Messiah, and how that very Messiah was standing right in front of them.  

But Abraham in our parable has quite the response to the rich man:  "And he said unto him, 'If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.'"  

So, turning this parable around, could you argue that Jesus is Lazarus?  He is poor, lowly, not of high status and He lingers at the gates, waiting for those who think they have it all to come and acknowledge Him.  They don't listen to His words.  They continue to "dine" in their pride and arrogant knowledge of who God is, and all the while, they ignore the Beggar at the gate.  

This Beggar will rise from the dead.  

He will rise for the dead.  Death will lose it sting.

He will rise to the dead.  He will rise to bring eternal life to those who seek Him with heart and soul. 

But these dead, sneering at Him while He finishes His story, are not listening.  

Friday, November 4, 2022

Show Me the Money! The Rich Man and the Beggar (I)

Let's dive in!

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

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

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

He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

‘No, Father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ (Luke 16:19-31)

If we get a little uncomfortable about money, especially when Jesus is teaching about it, good. It's always good to ponder what bothers us; perhaps we have a stone that needs to be turned over and looked under.

Jesus has just finished teaching the parable of the "shrewd manager" in Luke 16. Jesus then boils down the argument to its essence: Who are you going to serve? You cannot have "two masters." A master demands undivided loyalty; how can you divide your loyalty and serve wholeheartedly? One master will get the short end of the stick.

Notice Jesus says "master" in Luke 16:13? Not "friends," nor "families" nor "neighbors." He says, “No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” [emphasis not in the original]

Wow. In the Kingdom of God, you are a servant. Jesus saw Himself that way, and His followers. He washed the feet of the disciples at Passover, which surprised them no end. The host of the Passover washed the hands of his guests; servants washed the feet. He modeled what this Kingdom servant looks like by doing both.

So, if you are a servant, who is your Master? God Himself, right? Well, the ones listening to Jesus, the Pharisees, are characterized by Luke as loving money. Their divided loyalty was manifested on their faces--as they listened, they "were sneering at Jesus." Jesus, Who had an irritating habit of cutting straight to the chase for those who needed it the most, saw into their hearts and knew of the the two, money and God, which One was not getting the Pharisees' undivided loyalty.

He goes on to remind them that in the Kingdom, what is valued by men carries no weight, and actually is "detestable in God's sight" (Luke 16:15). God's economy is so different and Jesus is embodying that difference every day in who He touches and teaches.

Before Jesus launches into His rather famous parable, about a rich man and poor guy named Lazarus, He makes a few more comments: “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it. It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law. Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery" (Luke 16:18)

Jesus is putting the religious leaders on notice. "The Law and the Prophets" is the Old Covenant, outlined in the Jewish people's holy writings. But John's ministry is a demarcation, from Old Covenant to the New Covenant, as now represented by Jesus' teaching. This new Kingdom is so appealing that people are wanting to get in on it now!

Jesus is, however, not preaching spiritual anarchy. The Old Covenant isn't be tossed onto the scrap heap of history. It has its place, for it shows how God's Chosen are to act.

So, adultery is still adultery in this New Covenant, and by extension, all of the commandments will still reflect the Divine design of things. But, and here is an important point: Jesus is showing how the Law and the Prophets, in the hands of the religious leaders, has been drained of its vitality, with no love and no life. That is why the doors of the Kingdom are being busted down by eager people, desperate to feel that they are truly loved by God.

So, what have the religious leaders failed to do? Sure, Jesus could lecture them as to their many shortcoming in the service of His Father, but He chooses chooses rather to tell a story.

So, Jesus uses, as his subjects, a rich man and a beggar. 

Hmmm. It's a subtle message, but a powerful one. I am sure that a few of the Pharisees caught the essence of this story, while a few others just stood there, flummoxed by what they saw as Jesus' deliberate obtuseness.

So, let's see where this story takes us. Remember, Jesus has already made the point about money being a master to many and how it is incompatible with serving God. The Law and the Prophets are still in effect in terms of how God expects His children to act. So, with these two trains of thought, let's get on board.

Two men, two very different lives. The rich man isn't mildly rich...he is RICH. His garments are colored purple, which comes from a very expensive dye, and his linen is "fine." Every day, this man is livin' large.

Everyone knows who this rich guy is and where he lives. How could you not know with someone dressed like this?

Some folks have the brilliant idea of laying a poor beggar, Lazarus, at the rich man's gate. Good move. This rich man has more than enough to give. He has been richly blessed, and the Law and the Prophets teach that those who have must give generously to those who have not. The rich man probably doesn't just walk down the street. He is probably carried in a sedan chair to his various engagements. So, in his comings and goings, he might not even notice this lone beggar on a street corner. To insure that Lazarus gets noticed, his friends/comrades/family place him at the gate, so when the rich guy leaves his abode, he can't help but notice him.

Problem #1: The rich guy doesn't seem to be on the vanguard of philanthropic ventures. The poor have to be brought to him. He doesn't seem to make the rounds and help the poor.

Next, we see Lazarus at the gate, "covered in sores." Malnutrition and deprivation have worked their damage on this poor guy. His hope? He longs to eat what falls to the floor from the rich man's table. He's not even begging outright when the man is dining. He's just hoping that when the floor is swept and the garbage is put outside the gate, he'll be the first to get the scraps. But in his weakened state, he will have to compete with the dogs. He is so weak that they lick his sores. He doesn't seem to have the strength to get away from them, and their licking makes his degradation all the more poignant.

This can only end one way: the beggar dies.

So, this man, this beggar, forgotten on earth especially by those who could afford to care for him, gets a beautiful angelic escort to heaven. He is not forgotten after all. Heaven is all too aware of his suffering. In fact, the overflow of the blessings bestowed on the rich man should have been used to relieve his and others' suffering. Heaven gives so we may give. 

The rich man couldn't be bothered.

Problem #2: The rich man's attitude was not in harmony with the Law and the Prophets. Blessings, especially material, were seen as coming directly from God's hands. Sadly, many took the inverse to be true: If you aren't blessed by God, then you've done something wrong and offended Him. So, you get what you deserve. Right? 

No, Jesus is showing another interpretation: You, with your cup overflowing, are God's hands and feet to a hurting world.

OK, let's review. Line up, Pharisees.

Problem #1: You don't seem to be on the vanguard of philanthropic ventures. You scorn the poor, the needy, the sinners. Do you seek the poor out? Or do you stay behind your self-righteous gate, and even when the poor are brought to you, you ignore them? You are too busy basking in your blessings, thanking God for noticing your wonderful adherence to His law and rewarding you accordingly. Do you even consider that your wealth is not an end in itself, but a means to bless others? Probably not.

Problem #2: Attitude check. OK, you don't seem inclined to spread the love around. You have been blessed by God, but now you love the money more than Giver. You use your wealth to separate you away from the rest of society; you sport a country club mentality with your abundance. You claim to be God's representatives, yet walk right by the Lazaruses all around you.

I can hear you thinking, "How do you know that, Jesus of Nazareth?"

These are the very people who come to hear Me speak, and you are not subtle in the least with your sneering, scornful looks, towards them or Me.

Next time, we will follow the rich man, who goes the way of the buffalo...

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