The passages that form the foundation for this sermon are: Amos 6:1a, 4-7; 1 Timothy 6:11-19, Luke 16:1-8, and Luke 16:19-31.
This morning I want to both revisit last week’s gospel reading and tie it to the gospel reading for today.
I want to do this for two reasons.
First, it is always good, whenever possible, to look at scripture passages within their larger context.
Too often, we only look at the scripture at hand without reference to where it is found in the text.
As the saying goes, context is everything.
Second, if you remember from last week,
I tied the parable of the “unjust” steward, as it is commonly called,
to the idea of forgiveness.
But there is almost always more than one way to interpret Jesus’ parables and teaching,
and today’s sermon is an opportunity for us to examine the passage from last week from a different perspective.
So, let’s take one more look at this parable for a few minutes.
As I mentioned last week,
the first scripture lesson from Luke (Luke 16:1-8) is rather strange,
and it is especially disconcerting to hear Jesus tell it.
It seems as though Jesus is commending the dishonest actions of a businessman.
You remember the story, I am sure,
but let’s hear it again from a more contemporary perspective.
The notice came in the morning.
Word had leaked out that he had not done too well in the managing of his employer’s assets,
and now he had to turn over his books.
Naturally, he had experienced a few minutes of sheer panic.
His double-dealing would be discovered,
he had no doubt about that.
He was sure to be fired,
and a lawsuit would probably ensue as well.
And then what would he do?
As the passage says,
he wasn’t strong enough to do manual labor – like digging ditches,
and he was too proud to beg.
Suddenly, it came to him.
If he was going to be fired,
friends and allies would be essential.
He needed some protection, some insurance.
So the manager called in all the people who owed his boss money and told them to sit down.
He explained to them his predicament, and said,
“WE still have time, you know.
The books can still be changed,
but if we wait till tomorrow,
well, tomorrow will be too late.
Now what will you give me if I change them?”
Well, amounts were mentioned,
some haggling took place,
and affairs were finally settled.
One hundred barrels of olive oil was reduced to fifty.
A thousand bushels of wheat to only eight hundred.
Everything was done with pencils and erasers, of course,
and finally, the books were closed.
Everything had been dealt with in time.
And as a consequence of all his wheeling and dealing,
not only was the manager not fired,
but he was even commended by his boss for his ingenuity and shrewdness.
Now after telling this story,
which might very well have been based on a true story floating around Jerusalem at the time,
Jesus said that he really admired the presence of mind that the manager had.
He had not panicked,
He did not waste time crying over spilt milk,
but instead, he had taken immediate action.
Then Jesus asked his disciples, in effect,
“Why don’t you act like that manager when it comes to the affairs of the Kingdom of God I have given to you?”
Now this doesn’t mean Jesus thought we should act unfairly or unjustly.
No, what he meant was that we should act as quickly and efficiently as that manager did.
In effect Jesus is saying to his followers, then and now,
“Why don’t you do something?
Don’t just sit around and worry, or get into a tizzy, or panic,
or throw up your hands in disgust.
As Jesus would later add,
“We, the sons and daughters of light,
are sometimes so naive and unsophisticated when compared to the so-called business types or the crafty evil-doers who control the world.”
By telling the story about the unjust steward,
Jesus was reminding his disciples that in the world of business and industry,
people are concerned about the market and the marketability of their goods.
They worry about good management and labor production.
They look at current trends and plan strategies for the future.
They get concerned about the appearance of their product and they speak convincingly of its worth.
They do everything they can to make sure that they can turn a profit.
And in the more successful companies,
you will find that their employees are faithful,
at least publicly,
in their allegiance to the company and its product.
Now contrast these attitudes and behaviors with those found in the church.
Church members are more apt to criticize their church than praise it.
They are more likely to spend their free time finding fault than they are to coming up with solutions as to how the mission and ministry of Christ might be better carried out.
And in the church we spend hours in meetings and in activities that primarily benefit ourselves,
as if to avoid being engaged in more meaningful activities. . .
activities such as spreading to everyone we meet the good news of God’s love in Christ,
or getting your hands dirty from doing Christ’s work?
Of course, when it comes right down to it,
many of us would rather come up with excuses for not getting involved than actually do Christ’s work in the here and now.
But Jesus lets us know by this story that he isn’t about to accept our excuses for not taking any action.
Yes, the world is an evil place.
Yes, it is hard to live a Christian life.
Yes, it is even harder to try to reach out to others.
And Yes, many things you will try will just fail and you will fall flat on your face.
It is risky, time-consuming,
and sometimes doesn’t have much of a payoff.
But that doesn’t mean we can just quit and throw up our hands in disgust and say,
“I’ve tried and tried, nothing seems to work.”
It doesn’t mean we can sit back and remain content with what we’ve done.
It doesn’t mean we can stop trying.
No, Jesus lets us know that we should do all we can,
as quickly as we can.
You and I cannot escape from the evil of this world.
We cannot keep our hands clean,
but we are not allowed to keep them in our pockets either.
We must risk getting our hands a little dirty at times,
if our cleans hearts are to have any meaning.
It is as the writer of James says,
Faith without works is dead.
Clean hearts without dirty hands are worthless.
There are times when you have to get your hands dirty.
And be warned,
if you choose to keep your hands clean,
then you have to be ready to face the consequences.
Jesus points out these consequences in the second passage from Luke (Luke 16:19-31) for today.
It is the familiar story of Lazarus and the rich man.
Here we are told that the rich man spent his money lavishly and almost entirely upon himself.
He dressed in the best clothes and most up to date fashions.
He ate beautiful and filling gourmet meals – ten course dinners,
candlelight all over,
soft music in the background,
He had it all.
Lazarus, on the other hand, had nothing.
Not even his health.
Poor, diseased, unclean,
Lazarus lay at the front gate to the rich man’s mansion every day,
hoping for a small handout,
a few coins,
a piece of bread.
Lazarus’ only company was the dogs that came to lick his sores.
He was all but invisible to everyone,
especially the rich man.
The rich man either could not or would not even acknowledge Lazarus’ presence.
After all, if he even looked at him with more than a cursory glance,
how could he have not been moved to do something,
anything to help.
(But then we do the same thing, do we not?
Walking by beggars – don’t look at them, don’t acknowledge them,
or they will mark you as a sucker and ask for your help.
That’s the last thing we want to happen, right?)
It was certainly the last thing the rich man wanted.
He didn’t see Lazarus because he didn’t want to see him.
And he didn’t want to see him because he didn’t want to get his hands dirty.
The rich man didn’t want to dirty his hands.
He did not take any action to improve the poor man’s lot.
Oh, he allowed him on his property,
he allowed him to search for food in the trash cans,
But the rich man didn’t really care for the life that was dying in the running sores of Lazarus.
And it was that lack of care that created the distance between the rich man and Lazarus,
and that distance grew every day,
even though they were almost always close by to each other.
And when they both died,
that distance separated them still.
The rich man had not wanted to dirty his hands,
And now even the tip of a finger dipped in water that he asked for was refused.
The distance had become too great.
Nothing could cross it anymore.
It is simple really,
this gospel we profess and even celebrate.
It is a call to have clean hearts and to love God,
tied to the call to dirty our hands by loving and caring for each other.
What is not so simple are the excuses,
the elaborate schemes we build to keep our hands clean.
But the fact is,
God will not accept any of our reasons, excuses or schemes.
God expects us to take action,
to roll up our sleeves and go about doing the good work of the gospel,
and if that means getting our hands dirty,
then so be it.
A passage from James illuminates this (This is from “The Message,” James 2:14-17):
Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all
the right words but never do anything?
Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say,
“Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ!
Be filled with the Holy Spirit!”
and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup-where does that get you?
Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?
Of course, it’s not that our deeds or hard work will save us,
but, if our faith is real and alive,
then there will necessarily be some fruit, something real.
If our faith is alive and growing, if Jesus is our Lord,
then there is absolutely no way that our faith will not leak out into our living, our relationships and our goals,
for a living faith cannot be contained.
This all reminds me of a story that’s very similar in some ways to the parable Jesus told.
At the beginning of this tale we read:
“Marley was dead: to begin with.
There is no doubt whatever about that.
The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner.
Scrooge signed it.”
Of course, you know this story as Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol.”
Here is a story of a rich man who dies and is in torment.
Here is a story of someone coming back from the dead with a warning.
It’s not a resurrection story, it’s a ghost story;
it’s not the good Lazarus being sent back,
but the bad rich guy, Marley;
who has come from the land of the dead to warn someone who’s still alive.
And in his case, as you remember, Marley is dragging a chain.
“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost.
“I made it link by link, and yard by yard;
I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.
Is its pattern strange to you?”
Scrooge trembled more and more.
“Or would you know,” pursued the Ghost, “the
weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself?
It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since.
It is a ponderous chain!”
“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, .
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again.
“Mankind was my business.
The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance,
and benevolence, were, all, my business.
The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the
comprehensive ocean of my business!”
And so it was, and so it still is.
Our business, my friends, is twofold:
love God by living with clean and pure hearts,
and love each other and the world by getting our hands dirty.
Woe to us, if we do not do both.
As Amos states in today’s reading (Amos 6:1a, 4-7)
(This is my paraphrase.)
“Alas for those who are at ease in the dwelling place of God,
and for those who feel secure in holy places.
Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,
and lounge on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall;
who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,
and like David improvise on instruments of music;
who drink wine from bowls,
and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
but are not grieved over the ruin of my people!”
As Pastor Edward F. Markquart, of Grace Lutheran Church in Seattle, Washington,put it:
“There is going to be a time in history, at the end of history,
when God is going to ask you:
“What did you do for Lazarus?”
You and I are going to be asked that question someday and hopefully we will not say, “
O, I gave him some crumbs from my table.
As I cleaned my table, he got the crumbs that were left.”
Markquart goes on to add that in l905 we received the classic interpretation of this parable in the person of Dr. Albert Schweitzer.
As some of you older folks may remember,
Albert Schweitzer was from England and he was enormously gifted.
He had degrees in music, medicine, and theology;
he could do almost everything and anything.
One day, Schweitzer came to church and heard a sermon preached about the parable, the rich man and Lazarus,
and his life was changed.
For him, the rich man was Europe; the poor man was Africa,
and he knew that he had to give his life to the poorest of people in central Africa.
Soon he left the safety of England for the heart of Africa,
and he gave his heart, soul, time and abilities to the poorest of the poor in central Africa.
Later on, Dr. Schweitzer would write the following words:
“We . . . are the rich people.
Out there . . . lies wretched Lazarus.
Just as the rich man sinned against Lazarus because of his lack of heart and compassion,
so the rich man would not put himself in Lazarus’ place.
Nor did the rich man let his conscience tell him what to do.
And so we . . . have sinned against the poorest of the world at our gates.”
But this morning I really don’t care about the life of Albert Schweitzer and what he did.
The questions are for you and me.
The questions are for you and me.
“What did you do for Lazarus?
What are you doing for Lazarus?”
And are you willing to get your hands dirty to help him? [print_link]
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