God

Thank God!

Of course, I’m not like the Pharisee in Jesus’ story (Luke 18: 9 – 14), thank God.

Imagine being contemptuous, opinionated, judgemental, competitive, discriminating, excluding and (self-)righteous, and then turning up to church to worship God. It would seem God was far from impressed. No wonder! Who does he think he is, standing there emphasising his goodness and worthiness to God? Imagine! It seems like he is another one of these hypocrites that fill religious places the world over.

Yet, to be fair, is this not the world we inhabit… one where we are taught from earliest days to judge others by their failings and weaknesses; one that makes me a success because I am not like that – poor, weak, uneducated, incompetent…

Success is often viewed in terms of worthiness, material gain and the capacity to separate ourselves from those lesser than us and whom we don’t like; and, because they are less and we don’t like them, we believe God doesn’t value them or like them either. Nevertheless, even while trying to be fair, thank God, I’m not like that there Pharisee! He is really into some serious finger pointing!

If I am honest, however, it is probably true to say, I am like him and he is like me! I might believe I am, and want to be, more like the tax collector, but I know I can be more like the Pharisee.

So, the issue isn’t just one of a misplaced pharisaic confidence before God; it is about how that competitive focus manifested itself in his relationships with others who shared his world but not necessarily his outlook. His way of worshipping allowed the Pharisee an excuse to exclude those who were not ‘pure’ like him and I can’t help but wonder if he would have thought he was doing God a favour by pointing out the failings in everyone else, and especially the tax collector.

The Pharisee was living according to his own culturally set and false standard of purity which served to justify his separation from those who failed in living to his sense of religious rigour. Sadly, while so focused on seeing and naming the failings of those around him, he seems to have lost sight of his own sin, and therefore God as well. The condemnation he thought he was helping to bring on others was the condemnation he brought on himself instead! Thus, in the end, he came to be standing alone; worshipping himself, by himself.

If true worship engages head, heart and hands in a constructive and creative synergy of faithful living; then perhaps the Pharisee could be considered guilty of a false worship. He may have engaged his head and hands but he seems to have misplaced his heart.

In viewing the world around me, and in particular those different to me who stand afar off the church, I need consistently to hear with my heart rather than judge with my head and exclude with my hands. God does not stand afar from them. His view of success involves repentance and compassion. Here the shocking thing is for me that not only does he like them but he loves them as well, equally; even in their difference and lives of other religious rigour.

But, at least as good, his mercy and love can release me from my captivity to any false standard of purity and religion of exclusion.  As God does not stand afar from his world, and all in it, neither does he stand afar from me.  Indeed, God can never stand any further away, and never stand any closer, than the vacant cross which is eternally standing and welcoming home my soul.

For this, I can truly say, Thank God!

Amen, Lord, have mercy…

His name is known…

Lazarus may well have lain outside the gate of the rich man but he was comforted inside the gate of God.

Among the many differences between rich and poor, one might be that the names of the rich are known individually, at least according to the Richest 100 list. In this story (Luke 16: 19 – 31), it is not the rich who are known by name. The only one known by name here is Lazarus; and, he is hardly the celebrity with whom people would want to be identified or the one whose name would be found in people’s desirable contact list. While the rich man was covered in the finest clothing, Lazarus was covered in boils and sores. While the rich man feasted sumptuously, Lazarus was desperate even for the crumbs from the table.

However, despite his situation of degradation and despair, Lazarus is the one known, called and welcomed within God’s gate. Yet, on reading the story, we have to recognise that the rich man is not accused, nor condemned, as a result of any named sin. Likewise, Lazarus is not accredited as righteous because of anything he has done or not done.

On reflection, perhaps, the rich man has been found wanting due to being blind to the suffering reality lived by those outside his gate. He has done well. He might even convince himself that he has his riches due to his own hard work. Or the hard work of others whose riches have been inherited by him. He might even believe his riches are a sign of God’s blessing on his life. Yet, he is the one whose name is not known and who finds himself outside the gate of Heaven and within the gate of Hades.

Equally, the story does not say what Lazarus may have done, or not done, to be comforted with such heavenly blessing. There is no mention of faith or works, simply position in the world, as one who is destitute and suffering. How those tables were turned. Here, the rich man has become the beggar and Lazarus has his name called out to join the Kingdom feast. Yet even in the judgement and condemnation, there appears no malice against the rich man. The chasm has been set and it is just not possible to cross it.

It is also interesting to note how Lazarus does not speak for himself. He does not have to. The angels, Abraham, God, and the whole company of heaven, have become his spokespersons, advocates and comforters. Meanwhile, as the rich man speaks, he does so isolated by himself, without an advocate or comforter or community of hope.

So, as we move towards this coming week, I wonder how aware are we are of our riches of possession and possibility? How blind do they make us to the Lazarus’ of the world, those who remain outside our churches’ gates and on the other side of any fixed chasm of privilege and position? Does God even know our name? What more than the chasm crossing risen Christ is needed to convince us, and our world, of the need to be known by him?

Convinced, at the end of the day, may we each be known to God individually by name, carried by the angels and welcomed within the gates of the heaven to his table of life.

Lord, have mercy…

What is this I hear about you?

There was no argument about it, no attempt at self-justification; simply a recognition that he had been caught (Luke 16: 1- 13). But rather than throw himself on the mercy of the rich employer, the manager started trying to figure out how to make the best out of a bad situation.

Jesus does not elaborate on what the manager had used the resources at his disposal for. We are simply told he squandered his employer’s assets. If this was a substantial charge to be levelled against someone then, squandering assets is almost considered unforgiveable today. Careers and reputations are lost in these days of austerity if it is perceived that a manager, whether in the private, public or third-sector, has been guilty of squandering hard earned resources, especially financial ones.

Yet, there are times when we must all be wary. ‘What is this I hear about you?’ calls us all to account and lets us know we have been accused of squandering. Perhaps not financial but what of our squandering the resources of the earth; our squandering the resources of young, middle aged and elderly people alike while we participate in a socio-economic system that seems content to allow their gifts and talents go to waste; our squandering the resources of power and privilege exercised for personal and group gain rather than the common and global good? There may not be many who can stand without remembering how we have been guilty of squandering that with which we have been entrusted as stewards of the things of heaven.

The manager was concerned (rightly!) with his future. Yet, instead of throwing himself on the mercy and compassion of his employer, he decides the way to ensure future welcome and friendship was through fraud; so he rewrote the debtors’ bills. It is a hard challenge to hear how this approach seems to have been appreciated by the owner (and Jesus?) who, rather than castigating his manager, commends him for shrewdness. Behind this shrewdness is the wisdom word of the wise man who built his house upon the rock (Matthew 7:24) and the virgins in contrast with the foolish who had sufficient oil in their lamps for the whole of the wedding feast (Matthew 25: 1 – 13).

Can Jesus really be sharing this as an example for his disciples to copy? This is complicated. For me, I am trying to hear here a challenge to consider how I wish to be welcomed by God and remain friends with him, even with the noise of the accusatory ‘what is this I hear about you?’ filling the air, and fill the air it does.

The squandering manager acted in character to save his future, and acted in fraud. So, how are the disciples, the people of God, to act in character when they/ we wish to know the welcome and friendship of God, into the forever eternal future beginning today? If the manager acted as he did to save his major asset, his life, what will the children of light do to save their major asset, the salvation of their life and soul?

Given this, what assets do we have before a creator God? It would seem that we have lost sight of the fact that any assets we have before God are ones that have first been entrusted to us by him. Our accusation may be we have taken as gospel that we are the creators rather than the created and as such can do what we like with those things we believe are ours and ours alone. We live without remembering that anything we own has been granted unto us for the purposes of the kingdom rather than personal reward. In this, we have become servants of mammon, rather than servants of God.

Thus, as God asks of us in this coming week, ‘what is this I hear about you?’, may we respond in a spirit of repentance and hope; may we strive to live out the grace granted unto us in salvation through God’s greatest asset, and our richest blessing, even his Son Jesus Christ; and, may God hear of lives of service given on behalf of the Kingdom rather than of assets squandered.

Lord, have mercy…