September 25, 2022
Again this Sunday, our gospel reading is a difficult parable… a difficult parable that follows three beloved parables… the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son. Now after telling last week’s difficult parable about the dishonest manager, Jesus is still in conflict with the Pharisees… who the text say were lovers of money and who are ridiculing Jesus after hearing all these parables. Actually this whole section in Luke’s gospel began with “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.’” That really tells us all we need to know about these Pharisees… their ideas about faith… and the state of their hearts. The charge of “welcoming sinners”… we know even today who makes that kind of charge. How dare you welcome the sinner into your home and treat them with respect and kindness as due a child of God!
“You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others;” Jesus tells these Pharisees, “but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.” These straight to matter words from Jesus is important for us to hear today… and it goes back to the same theological theme as last week… you cannot serve two masters. Last week I put to you that… theologically speaking… the two masters we need to be aware of are grace and merit. The discipleship created by each of these masters is wholly different from the other… maybe not to the naked eye… but as to the motivations and to the transformation of the heart… these two masters lead us in completely different faith directions.
Merit and justifying yourself go hand in hand. With merit you set the reward you want to receive in front of you… that thing that is prized by human beings… that level of achievement to be attained that helps to differentiate between you and the sinner… and then the pathway to that reward gets worked out. So… considering the parable we are going to read from today… let’s say that reward we seek is getting to heaven… and we have faith… and we do the works of our faith in an effort to merit that reward. As a motivation, the reward we seek for ourselves alone undermines and brings just a bit of poison to everything we do. There are plenty who will tell you the proper pathway… who will tell you about all the boxes you must check to merit that reward. Like the stereotypical Pharisee they will tell you which of the laws of faith are most important… and which are less important and won’t count as much against you if you don’t follow them. If there is a system… then it can be gamed. In our day, works of the law have become right beliefs. There are certain beliefs that are paramount and certain beliefs that will find forgiveness if you don’t hold them. Just as Jesus did with his other encounters with the Pharisees in these gospels… usually what those are get mixed up… so the obeying of a rule like following the Sabbath gets lifted up… and a good work like healing someone gets pushed to the side if it breaks one of those Sabbath rules. Because… as always… there is what we say… and then there are the actions of what we truly believe. There is nothing new under the sun. A system of merit is easily corruptible so that some… the right ones… are able to enter in and achieve the merit especially through a bit of well applied privilege and double standards… and the others… the ones who do not belong… are kept out. And that divide between the two are very very important. This man welcomes sinners. Can you believe it?
Grace, on the other hand, is a disrupter of our systems and the expectations we create and assume. Grace is given and not merited. Grace is God centered and not human decided. Grace is not concerned with the reward you want. Jesus says the good news of the kingdom of God is what is being given… this is God giving us what we need… this is God transforming us towards God’s will for us. I think we even dare to pray for that very thing every week. We are justified by grace and grace alone… and then the works of faith that follow from that justification are to spread that grace out into the world… our own proclamation of the good news of the kingdom of God… with both words and deeds. And here’s the point that I think we struggle with the most, there is no guarantee with grace… a guarantee is bound to the idea of there being a reward… there is no guarantee that after God justifies us by grace that we will then live by that grace… since… as always… there is what we say… and then there are the actions of what we truly believe. There is nothing new under the son.
There’s always that element of choice isn’t there? There’s always that call to follow. And there’s always that desire to have it both ways. But we can’t serve two masters… for we will either hate the one and love the other… or be devoted to the one and despise the other.
Listen to these words from I Timothy… we’ll get to our reading from Luke in a bit… I promise you… but first some words from 1 Timothy… “For the love of money (and Saints, it doesn’t have to be money per se… it’s the love of that reward that we desire… the reward we want more than anything… it may be money… or it can just as easily be the reward of heaven) for the love of reward is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rewarded some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. But as for you, man (woman, child) of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith…” and here I want to clarify… the faith that follows grace… and not the faith of merit. Righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness… all of these when they flow from grace… when we make these our choices… all these enhance our experience of faith… help us to grow in grace. They do not help us earn the grace we’ve been given. They are not there to pay of the debt of the gift. There is no debt to repay… there is only the grace to share freely just as it has been shared freely with you.
I mean… let’s take one of those words and apply them to the faith of merit that seeks a reward. Let’s take godliness as an example. With the stereotypical Pharisaic faith, godliness was what… following certain aspects of the law… making sure you were seen following the rules that bring the merit given by others… that bring distinction to yourself… your religious dress is right… your words are right… your habits of religion are right. You could be right in all that gives you status in your circle and in your world… but still be hard of heart. And in the faith of merit… that wouldn’t matter. That would not cancel out the godliness you achieved. You can still be godly by the definition of merit… and hard of heart at the same time without conflict because… because my hardness would be justified because it would still set me above the sin of another… whatever it is I am saying justifies myself and keeps you in your sin. There has to be a clear line… or what then is the value of that reward? This man eats with sinners. He sullies the reward. He brings us all down to the level of the sinner.
Our difficult parable today from Luke is about two men… one rich and another poor. Listen as God speaks to you today.
So let me ask you a theological question. How many times… how many times would the rich man need to send some leftovers down to the gate to be given to Lazarus in order to be carried away to be with father Abraham? How many times after how many feasts? What’s the right number to earn his place with father Abraham? Or maybe it needs to be proportionate with the number of feasts? Maybe the number is more of a percentage. If the rich man sent leftovers to Lazarus 51% of the time, would he be godly enough to earn his place with father Abraham? What if he did something about Lazurus’ sores? Sent an ointment now and again down to the gate? Would that action lower the number of times it was necessary to send down the leftovers and earn him that reward? Would that make the rich man good enough? Or maybe just one good deed acknowledging Lazarus would be all that was needed in a lifetime of self-centered choices? How about if he just remembered Lazarus in thoughts and prayers? Surely that would be enough righteousness shown to get the rich man his reward.
I know that maybe I’m not supposed to ask such questions aloud… but those are the unspoken questions of merit that lurk in the heart. How much… or how little… do I have to achieve in order to merit the reward? If I know I can’t fully uphold the Law 100%... then what is the percentage of enough? 75%? 51%? What is good enough to merit crossing the line from sinner to righteous?
This is a parable told to a people who believed fully that all wealth was deserved and all troubles in life were deserved. The rich man was rich because he had done something to earn it. Poor Lazarus was poor because he had done something to deserve it. So, the ultimate fate of each in the parable would be shocking in its time. May be shocking for some of us in our time… even as we try to determine the deservedness of Lazarus to be with father Abraham. Does it seem fair that Lazarus receives a reward simply because he was poor… simply because he was so wretched that he was covered with sores… sores that the dogs would lick? Is that fair?
The parable isn’t interested in those questions. It won’t give us an answer. The parable is more concerned with the great chasm in the rich man’s heart… a great chasm that even in such a situation cannot be crossed. The rich man couldn’t in his lifetime cross the great chasm from his house to his gate… he couldn’t afford the mercy that wouldn’t have made a noticeable dent in his abundance. He had the ability but not the will to welcome the sinner in his heart. The call of his faith to care for the poor is easily and readily found in the Law… it is easily and readily found in the message of the prophets… but his heart did not listen… listening more likely to those messages that affirmed him in his own inflated sense of merit.
The faith of merit that these Pharisees represent is very seductive. It tells us what we want to hear. It markets and sells well. It makes promises that we would very much like to believe in. It helps to build us up so that we can be thankful we are not like those sinners… “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” That’s the prayer of the Pharisee found just a few chapters away.
If we’re being honest… the faith of merit creates its own special hell that doesn’t begin in the afterlife. A hell that has swallowed us up more than we probably realize.
No one can boast in the faith of grace. The lost is found. Gratitude brings generosity… so that even the slightest hint of deservedness reveals the dead rot that lives in the untransformed heart. Undeserved forgiveness undermines our judgment of others… so again… what sins are worthy of forgiveness and what sins are we supposed to hold onto and continually punish? The faith of grace is enough to bridge the great chasm of the heart… if only we could believe it. Amen.