My intentions came unstuck in week 4. No reflection on the sermon last week. I blame having to oversee the air-conditioning installation… and myself. However, I think I will reflect on both the last two Sunday’s passages today, because I don’t want to overlook ‘Lazarus the poor man’.
Whilst I didn’t get around to writing anything last week, I did reflect. And I couldn’t help but be struck by the fact that Jesus just keeps talking about wealth! You can’t read through the travel narrative of Luke’s gospel (Chapters 9-19) and not be challenged about your attitudes and practices regarding money. Nothing is said in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus about the faith or godliness of either man, except for one thing - the rich man lived in luxury every day. This was his crime, and for it he is spending eternity in agony, cut off from God’s blessing. Jesus seems almost to be saying, “If you’re rich in this life, you’ll suffering in the next; and if you’re poor in this life, you’ll be blessed in the next.”
Now of course, there’s more to it than that. The rich man and his brothers are finally presented as having ignored the word of God through Moses and the Prophets. Their life of luxury is not incidental to their morality - it is an outworking of disbelief in God’s word and proud exaltation of themselves. In the context of Luke’s gospel, the rich man is presented as one of those out of step with the values of God’s kingdom. He has clearly been ignoring the plight of poor Lazarus, begging at his gate.
But although the core issues are pride, lack of faith in God’s word and lack of love, the expression of sin - the sin that sees him condemned to ‘Hades’ – is living in luxury every day whilst others around him go hungry. This should make every one of us sit up and pay attention! The rich man is me! Surely at least to some extent. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say I am, and you are, one of the five brothers. Those still alive, in danger of living in luxury while we cut our hearts off from the plight of others around us. Those in danger of failing to heed the word of God, and live by faith in his coming kingdom. Those in danger of investing in and exploiting this life as if it was all there is.
This is not ‘justification by works’, as if giving to the poor is a righteous act that can earn our place in heaven. It’s about faith in God’s word. Jesus himself makes that very clear - the rich man and the brothers have failed to listen to Moses and the prophets. Again and again, Jesus makes it clear that genuine faith in him - genuine discipleship of him - will involve a different set of attitudes and practices regarding wealth than the ‘normal’ attitude of those around us. Turning away from ‘living in luxury every day’ is part of biblical repentance. Turning our eyes and hearts towards those in need is part of biblical faith. It’s a life of repentance and faith that we are seeking to spur each other on in, not necessarily something we are all living out perfectly. But it’s a calling we must surely take seriously.
And equally serious is the call to forgiveness. Just as genuine repentance and faith directly affects our wallet (or purse!), so it affects our relationships. There’s no room in faithful discipleship of Jesus for holding grudges - for withholding forgiveness - when those who have wronged us come in repentance, seeking our forgiveness. As Philip pointed out on Sunday, to deny someone our forgiveness is to imply that they are not worthy of God’s forgiveness. Of course, it doesn’t mean pretending there is no offense, or even that the relationship can return to ‘the way things were’. It means simply what Jesus says: ‘if they repent, forgive them.’
And if proactively stepping out of our cultures attitudes towards luxury or forgiving a brother or sister for the 77th time seems too difficult, it is good to know that God is ready and waiting to act according to his purposes with even a tiny seed of faith. As Philip explained, the promise of Luke 17:6 is not so much about flying mulberry trees as it is about an encouragement to embrace Jesus’ challenging teaching with the tiny seed of faith we have, rather than sigh in despair at our inability to change. I’ll pray for myself and for anyone who might read this that rather than letting Jesus' words bounce off us, we can listen carefully to the challenging teaching of Jesus, and respond in faith - that is, in faithful, grateful service in his strength.