Humble, not Humiliated

Luke 18:9-14

“Humility” is not a very popular concept.

On the one hand, those writing the history books of the future might look back at the past 100 years and declare that this was the century of “equality”, as it became the lens through which we view each modern controversy: from women’s suffrage in 1916, to civil rights movements leading to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as we’ve attempted to deal with issues from land claims and self-government to the decisions to redefine marriage and definitions of the family in Canadian law, with each movement claiming “equality” as its goal.

But, for all the talk of equality, we continue to create new and different ways to distinguish ourselves from our neighbour.  We all do it – and it is so ingrained that it’s almost sub-conscious.  You know, those quick, fleeting thoughts that flash across our minds when we encounter someone who, for whatever reason, we’ve categorized as “other”: it might be that warm flash of pride when we see our shiny new car parked between two old jalopies; it might be that silent “good heavens” when we see someone still in their pyjamas with a couple of unruly kids hanging off their shopping cart at the store; it might be that splash of dopamine, that moment of pleasure that we’ve learned to crave as we check our Facebook again and again to see how many likes that post had – or, depending on our mood, perhaps even clicking to see who has liked it, and who hasn’t.

As a society, we’ve made great strides in the name of “equality”.

But, in a world bent towards corruption by the effects of sin, we simply cannot help ourselves from creating division.

From the start, the chief effects of sin are division and separation.  Separation from the God-given blessings of the land, divisions between parents and children and peoples and nations,
and separation from life in the presence of a holy God, as we choose darkness over light and death over life.

We’ve come a long way from our great-grandparents, whose society built dividing lines based on race or gender; but where one dividing line falls, it seems a new one is built.

Humility is not a very popular concept.

It was Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian of the 1900s who wrote that, above all else, ‘pride is the chief sin of the religious person’.[1] 

Now, if we’re living our lives as disciples, as apprentices, students of Christ, and our call is to follow where he leads, we’ll find ourselves moving from strength to strength as grow in the imitation of Christ, as we increase in charity and love for each other, as we become able to speak the truth in love, following that narrow path of obedience.

But the problem with this narrow path carved through the mountains alongside the valley of death is that, if you stop to look around, to see where you are compared to the others, if you lose track of the footprints of the one leading the way, you risk losing your footing, and then you fall.

Yes, pride is the chief sin for a religious person, precisely because it only springs up after we’ve avoided the more public, the more visible sins.

No good Christian would boast that you have lied, or committed murder, or dishonoured your parents.  You wouldn’t boast that you sat down and carved a false God, or lost your house and livelihood to addiction. But how easy is it for any one of us to see those sins in another, and suddenly feel that warm rush of sinful pride as we thank – not God, but ourselves – that we aren’t like those people.

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

In the Gospel today, we hear the Pharisee saying his prayers: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get”.

Now, I hope we all recognize that there’s a problem with this prayer – standing up and telling God how great you are.  But that’s not the lesson for us.

The reality, you see, is that the Pharisee is right

Everything he’s saying is true.  The Pharisee’s concern above all else was keeping the laws of the Old Covenant as strictly and carefully as possible.  By the objective religious standard, he is a better Jew, a more observant God-fearer than thieves, evildoers, adulterers, or tax collectors.  The law required a fast once per year on the Day of Atonement, but he offered God a fast twice each week; the law required that you offer back to God a tenth of your living expenses and farm profits, but he offered back a tenth of every thing he received.

According to the law, according to the cultural and religious expectations of his day, the Pharisee is right.

The problem – and the lesson for us – is that, for as right as he certainly is, the second his “rightness” became a badge of honour that he could show to the world, it loses its value.

Sure, he’s no less right.  But, you know what the scriptures say: if you announce your good works, sure, they’re still good works, but “truly, I tell you, you have received your reward”.[2] 

After resisting the temptations to disobey the law, the Pharisee falls victim to that more sinister, chief sin of pride, which makes all of his obedience and religious progress worthless.  All the effort of following that narrow path becomes worthless if, in your looking around at others in their journey, you lose your footing at fall.

What is Humility?

There’s a lot to think about there.  Pride and humility are big ideas.

Unfortunately, we aren’t helped by what “humility” has come to mean in the way we speak.

We think, before anything else, of “humiliation”, when you’re made to feel ashamed or foolish by an attack on your dignity: that’s not humility, and as sons and daughters of God and members of Christ’s Body, humiliation is the furthest thing from what God wants for us.  After all, we’re made in His image, and he loves us so much, we’re worth so much, that before the foundation of the world He would offer his own son to redeem us.

Humiliation – an attack on your dignity by someone else – is not humility.

Humiliation – feeling humiliated – is an emotion, and a highly negative one at that, the feeling of responding to a public attack by another.

Humility, on the other hand, is not an emotion, but an attitude. 

Where humiliation is reactive, responding to what someone else has done, humility is a direction, a course that we set for ourselves.

Humility – having the quality of humbleness – means that we have become intentionally aware of our status, of our strengths and weaknesses, and our relationships to others.

Too often, we’ve allowed everyday speech – the same speech that, just under the surface, is building walls to divide “us” from “them” – to define “humble” as a polite way of saying “poor”, or as a kind way of saying that someone is weak or passive. 

But that’s not the point.  A person who is humble is aware of their status before God.  The word itself comes from a Latin word meaning “of the earth”, as our faith itself tells us that our entire existence depends on God, and as the dirt will one day be sprinkled on the earthly remains of every one of us, we are called to remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

Confidence in Christ

The Pharisee, proclaiming how much better he is than the others, is certainly not humble.

But, let’s take a moment to hear again the words of St. Paul, the blessed Apostle to the Gentiles, and see if we hear the difference in his speech:

“As for me, I am already being poured out as an offering, and the time of my departure has come.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me…”[3]

Is this a humble speech?  Yes.

St. Paul knows his worth in the eyes of God as a sinner forgiven by grace, even as he awaits his trial in a Roman prison.

Like the Pharisee, St. Paul knows he has done what is required of him, and when he has messed up, he’s asked for forgiveness and started again.  Again, St. Paul, like the Pharisee, has full confidence in the reward that accompanies a life of faith.

The difference, though, is the attitude, the direction of their gaze.

St. Paul, a student and follower of Jesus, followed the narrow path; and now, nearing the end of what he describes as his earthly race, what does he do?  Does he stop and turn around to see how big of a lead he has?  No.  He keeps his eyes firmly fixed on Christ, knowing that, whatever he may face, his worth, his identity is secure as a child of God.

The Pharisee is also running the race of obedience, but instead of keeping his eyes on the prize, he’s focused instead on the others that he thinks he has left in the dust; but no one wins a race by focusing on how much better you are than the others; and the surest way to lose a race is to assume that you’ve already won.

And what about that tax collector?

Well, there’s no question: this man was a sinner.  Tax collectors were those who cooperated with the Roman oppressors, and were authorized to charge as much as they liked and to collect the debt by any means, even violence.  There’s no question, he robbed those in his own community to line his own pockets, and was probably personally responsible for widows losing their homes.

He was certainly universally hated; he had hurt everyone around him.  He came to the temple, but wouldn’t dare even enter, but stood out in the porch with his head down so people wouldn’t recognize him.  And while everyone else was performing the daily rituals of prayer, he bent down and said “God, have mercy on me a sinner”.

…And here’s the scary bit: that criminal – he’s the one who went home in a right relationship with God.

Is Jesus telling us to follow the example of the tax collector?  By no means; Jesus doesn’t condone the sin; and whenever Jesus encounters people in the Gospels he tells them to go and sin no more, making right what they have done wrong.

But it’s a matter of attitude: the tax collector knows where he stands; he knows he needs God’s mercy, and he makes no excuses.  He doesn’t stand there and say, “well at least I didn’t murder someone, or at least I’m not a homeless drunk”.  He needs mercy.  He asked for mercy. And he received mercy.  The Pharisee, as right as he was, didn’t receive anything, for he had already received his reward.

How, then shall we live?

Humility is not a popular concept.  But, it was St. Cyril of Alexandria who said “no true soldier who has seen battle brags that they came out alive while others fell”.[4]

We’re all on this journey.  The temptations may look different, but “there, but by the grace of God, go I”, and the moment we take our eyes off the prize to see how much farther ahead we are than those who are struggling is the moment we fall. 

But, from a place of humility; with the knowledge that we are all God’s children, and with our course set as followers of Christ, everything changes.  When you know who you are, as a forgiven Child of God, the dividing walls are no longer necessary.  When you know where your value lies, puffing ourselves up with pride no longer gains us anything.  When we are honest with ourselves about our own struggles, then we realize the mercy we’ve received, and can extend that grace to a world that is desperately hurting.

For, truly I tell you, all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.  To God be the glory forever and ever.  Amen.

[1] Volume IV.1, 60.2 of Church Dogmatics.  Barth begins by saying the chief sin is “unbelief”, which he explains as the pride of man in believing that we can be god, being our own law-giver, judge, and saviour.

[2] Matthew 6:2

[3] 2 Timothy 4:6-8a

[4] Cyril of Alexandria’s Commentary on Luke, Homily 120, para.

Featured Image: “The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector”, Acrylic on Canvas by Rebecca Brogan.

What happens when we die?

This is perhaps the oldest and most fundamental of human questions.  Every culture, every society that has walked the earth has sought the answer to this question. 

Every person ever born has, at some point, felt the tug of the Holy Spirit drawing them toward the questions of eternity.  Every person has looked at the frailty of life, the loss of loved ones, the declining health of a parent, or the tragedy of a life cut short and, as we were created to do, we all look up and say “there must be more than this”.

What happens when we die?

That is the age-old question that unites all people; a question – a longing – that itself is a part of God’s revelation to us, as he created us for relationship with himself and has revealed his plan for our future through his covenant with Israel, through the prophets, and ultimately in the death, resurrection, and ascension of the Word made Flesh, our Lord.

There is much that has been said about what awaits us after death. 

We live in an age where, as the world grows ever smaller, we come into contact more and more with ideas from other times and places.  Unfortunately, it seems that instead of giving us greater understanding, we find ourselves with a jumbled mess, where in the well-intentioned name of peaceful coexistence, our modern culture finds itself not more at peace, but caught up in whatever crisis finds itself trending on Twitter this week.  And the only framework we have left to decipher our fears and concerns is an inconsistent mixture of popular and positive ideas from here and there, ideas that sound good, but in their inconsistency, ultimately fail to answer our deepest questions as this jumble only succeeds in disrespecting and misrepresenting the very cultures and viewpoints they claim to include.

One friend of mine put it this way: replace the hard questions like “what happens when we die”, with what should be an easier question: “what kind of cookies should we make”.  In the past, we knew with confidence where we could find our recipe book, with the answers to the “cookie question”, tried and tested recipes that have been handed down in the family for generations. 

Today, though, it’s as though our eyes have been opened to the vast varieties of cookies possible, but instead of actually committing to any single recipe to try it out, our culture invites us to throw the parts that appeal to us from of all the recipes together into one. 

The obvious problem for anyone who has ever baked is that recipes exist for a reason: baking is a science as much as it is an art.  Recipes exist precisely because, no matter how nice the ideas might be on their own, you cannot simply throw shortbread, chocolate chips, oatmeal, ginger, molasses, peanut butter, dates, marshmallows, raisins, and lemon juice together in a bowl and hope for the best. 

To make a cookie, we need the recipe – a consistent recipe with all its parts, a tested recipe, where the ingredients work together to produce what was intended.

We wouldn’t bake cookies haphazardly.  Yet, for so many, that’s exactly how we attempt to answer the hard questions that life throws at us.

A Recipe

What happens when we die?

The Church, the Body of Christ and his messengers in the world, have been entrusted with a recipe – a tried and true recipe, handed down from one generation to the next.

If we were to read and study our scriptures faithfully, we would find that God has been revealing his plan for us from the beginning.

Unfortunately, and disgracefully, some leaders, claiming to work in the name of Christ and his Church, have hidden the answers to these questions for selfish purposes; it’s no secret that, at various times in human history, the Church has relied on fear of the flames of hell and the unbiblical image of an angry judge to scare people into submission instead of truly addressing that God-given longing for eternity.

What happens when we die?  I’m inviting us today to “stick to the recipe” handed down to us, and appreciate what it actually says as the answer to that question.

No cartoon pitchforks or wings and harps to be found.

The parable we heard today is the most extended teaching of Jesus specifically about what takes place after death. 

It’s a parable, meaning that it is an illustration specifically used for teaching those ideas that would be hard to grasp on their own.

In Luke 16, beginning at verse 19, we hear of two men. 

One is rich – well fed, very well dressed, lived for lavish parties and opportunities to enjoy and display his wealth.  He’s also safe and secure: we’re told his house has a gate, and we can imply from the context that also means he has gatekeepers among his several servants, the poorly paid workers who grow and process his food, who sew and mend his clothes, and who build the things in his house.

The other man is poor; not just living from paycheque to paycheque, but poor.  His name is Lazarus.  He’s suffering from an illness that cripples him and prevents him from working, and he’s now living on the street with the stray dogs as his only companions, but even they betray him as they gather the scraps from the rich man’s trash before Lazarus can get there himself.

Both die – but neither ceases to exist. 

As Christians, we believe that God created humankind for immortality.  That’s what we mean when we say that we were created in God’s Image, that his Likeness is imprinted on our souls.  We believe God created everything that is – and modern science shows us each day just how much more wonderful that creation is, with space extending beyond our wildest imagination, made up of particles so small that we only know they exist by their effects on the world around them. 

And, we believe that, out of that vast creation, God created us to be different – to exist in relationship with him, to have free will rather than raw instinct, so that we could experience the free giving and receiving of Love, which is God’s Nature. 

Both the rich man and Lazarus die – their bodies wear out – but that’s far from the end of the story.

As Christians, we confess every time we gather that we believe in the resurrection of the body.  We believe, as taught by the scriptures, that our bodies, and all creation, matters

This is one of those places where, especially in the modern era, some have been mixing ‘recipes’.  The resurrection of the body was counter cultural in Jesus’ time, and runs counter to the many Greek, Roman, or Eastern philosophies that reject the body and the earth as bad and of no worth.

As Christians, we don’t believe that. The Church doesn’t teach that.

We believe that God created the heavens and the earth, and that he called them “good”. 

We certainly don’t believe that good and evil are equal and opposite powers fighting for control – that’s anything but Christian!  No, rather, God is good.  The problem is not some equal force of “evil”; it’s disobedience and rebellion.

It was in using our free will to serve ourselves rather than return the love shown to us by God that the world became not ‘evil’, but fallen.  God made it and called it good, but disobedience caused it to be stained, corrupted.

Our hope – our eternal hope – is not that God would free us from our bodies and the world.  There are religions that teach that, but not Christianity.  Our hope, as found in the scriptures, is found in God’s promise to restore our bodies: that’s precisely why it’s essential that Jesus was raised from the dead with a renewed body. 

Our hope, as found in the scriptures, is in God’s promise not that we will end up in some disembodied spiritual realm, but that we will be made citizens of a renewed earth, one where those who have accepted Jesus’ offer as the remedy for our corruption, and who share in that resurrected body will live in relationship and communion with him and with each other.

And, until that time, we are told that our flesh rests in hope, and that for the faithful, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.

Punishments or Justice?

The experience in the grave is very different for the rich man than for Lazarus.

Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson provides an image, and it’s one worth our attention.

There’s no little red devils with horns and hooves wielding pitchforks – in fact, you can search the scriptures all day long, and you won’t find them anywhere: that’s not what the Church teaches, and it’s not what the Bible says.

What we do see is this: the rich man in the grave (Hades, the place of the dead) is separated from Lazarus who rests in “paradise”, awaiting the last day and the resurrection.  And, the scriptural image is, at least for me, much more powerful than the cartoon devils given to us by false preachers.

The chasm – the walls of the cell, if you prefer – separating the two men are of the rich man’s own devising. 

The wall, the gap separating the rich man from the peace of paradise is the very wall that he himself constructed.

In his life, he did all in his power to separate himself from the plight of the poor.  He paraded around in his new clothes; he was so well fed that the food that he wasted or threw away would have been enough to feed those in need; he built a wall, in the name of safety and security, which also served to guard his eyes from having to face those in need around him. 

But, Jesus says, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.

The great divide that the rich man experiences after death is the reversal of the great divide that he inflicted on others in his life.

It’s not as though this is a punishment unfairly imposed by an angry god who keeps a tally of wrong deeds. 

No.  It’s simply justice.  We reap what we sow. 

We lock away and hoard our treasure now, we find ourselves locked away grasping to what has become worthless in the age to come. 

We celebrate and rejoice, or save and spend at the expense of our brother or sister, and as we hear in scripture, that love of money and the eagerness to become rich result only in wandering from the faith and piercing ourselves with many pains.

Those who take great comfort now, be warned.  “For blessed are those who mourn” now for injustice and wrong; because those who are comfortable, like the rich man, will watch as those who mourned shall be comforted.

Those who take great pride now, be warned: for you shall see the meek inherit the earth.

The Answer to the Question

What happens when we die?

We believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life everlasting.

And as our bodies rest, our eyes are opened and we see the justice of God. 

But, it’s for us to decide, in this life, if we will be those who strive for God’s truth and justice now, who take up their cross and follow Jesus in spite of the persecutions we might face, and who will rest in peace. Or, if we are those who build, inherit, or benefit from walls that have been built, then justice demands that we experience life outside those walls in the age to come.

The rich man said “I beg you to send someone… I have a family, and they need to be warned so they won’t come into this place of torment”. 

No, came the answer. “They have been warned.  If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if one rises from the dead”.

None of us can earn paradise; we’ve all, every one of us, benefited from building chasms between rich and poor, friend and foe, between races and languages and nations. 

Our only hope, then, is to believe the message of the one who rose from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.


This sermon is consistent with how Christians from the Early Church interpreted this parable before the politics and polemics that led to and stemmed from the Reformation. It draws largely on St. John Chrysostom’s Four Discourses on the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, particularly discourses 2 and 4.

The idea of “digging one’s own abyss” in interpreting this passage comes from St. Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Soul and Resurrection (in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, CUA Press, vol. 58, pp. 232-234); St. Augustine emphasizes the idea of reaping what one sows, or the concept of the equal balance of the scales (“the measure you give is the measure you get”) in this passage in his Sermon on this parable (#367 in his collected works).

Numerous fathers of the Early Church (Justin Martyr, Clement/Pseudo-Clement, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen, among others) are sources on the topic of the state of the righteous and unrighteous dead before the return of Christ and the general resurrection.

Anglican bishop and professor N.T. Wright has written extensively on the topic in recent years. His chapter “Purgatory, Paradise, and Hell” in Surprised by Hope (HarperOne, 2008) is a fascinating and accessible study.

Shrewd Managers

Luke 16:1-13

Today the Church gives us what is certainly one of the most difficult sayings of Jesus; indeed, at various points in Christian history, the Church has been outright embarrassed by these ancient words passed down for us to hear today.

We’ve grown accustomed and even expect Jesus to raise the bar on obedience – “the law said don’t commit adultery?  I say don’t even look at another person with lust;” “the law says don’t murder?  If you hate your brother or sister, you’ve already committed murder in your heart.”

We’ve grown accustomed to hearing Jesus calling people to keep the law rightly, as he summarized in the two great commandments: love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.

And yet, now, we hear Our Lord commend this dishonest manager, one who, by any objective standard, falsified the accounting books to ensure that he would land on his feet after he was fired.

It’s no surprise the Church found this passage embarrassing over the ages – on face value, there’s no question – this manager is not a good guy.  You don’t want this guy working for you.  What a mess we would be in if we read this passage and concluded it with a hearty “go and do likewise”.

It’s a hard text, but it’s one that deserves our attention precisely because it doesn’t say what we expect; and when we think we’ve got God all figured out and conveniently ignore those hard parts of his Word, that’s when – time and time again – we find ourselves dangerously close to worshipping a god made in our image, rather than the one in whose image we were made.

A Parable in Context

If we were to open our Bibles to Luke 16, the first thing we would find is that this passage doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  It’s a parable – a certain type of story, often using unexpected characters and situations to teach a lesson, and if we were to flip back a page in the Gospel of Luke, we’d see that it exists as part of an extended collection of more familiar parables: last week we heard the first part of Luke 15 – the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin, a pair of stories told to illustrate God’s persistence in finding even one who is lost.

Then, later in Luke 15, but not in the lectionary this year, we have the well-known parable of the prodigal son.  We all know it well: a wealthy man has two sons and divides his wealth among them.  The younger one takes his money and travels the world, spending this great fortune on fabulous parties and wild living, and eventually finds himself broke, on the streets of a foreign land, feeding pigs and perhaps sleeping in their barn just to have a roof over his head. 

Now, with all of his father’s hard-earned wealth wasted, he returns home begging for his father to take him back as a hired hand. 

And what does his father do – he welcomes him with open arms, forgives the wasting of the family wealth, and, like we saw with the lost sheep or the lost coin, celebrates that this one that was lost has been found.  Of course, as we might remember, the rich man’s other son is angry, saying, “look, my brother wasted all your hard-earned money, but I’ve worked hard at the family business all my life – why are you celebrating?”, the moral of that parable of course being that it isn’t about the wasting or the dishonour or disrespect brought upon the family, but it’s about the restored relationship between a loving, merciful father and a child that had wandered away.

And it’s as part of that string of familiar stories that Jesus tells the parable of the dishonest manager.  

Jesus’ Theology of Money

If we want to understand the point that Jesus is making here, we have to first take to heart his absolutely radical, earth-shattering approach to money.

We all know “Money makes the world go round”.  Every one of us in the room base many of our day-to-day decisions on their financial impact.  In today’s world, it’s money and livelihood that brings communities together, as we grow up and, more often than ever before, have to leave home in search of work and… money.  Money to buy what we need – food, shelter, clothes; money to buy what we want – cars, books, toys of whatever sort, whether it be a Nintendo or Xbox or a boat and skidoo; and money to plan for our future – to pay off debt, to put something away for our kids, to have a place to call our own.

Money, for better or worse, is the driving force behind many of our choices: decisions to work harder now to pay off that student loan, or to put off retirement for another year to pay off the truck and take that great vacation.

And if we actually read Luke 16, perhaps the most unexpected thing that we find is that Jesus is actually acknowledging the role of money in our lives.  Jesus, having just told the parable of the prodigal son who wasted his father’s wealth, and who as told the rich man to sell his goods because it is easier to enter the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, takes this opportunity to teach his disciples – you and me – about worldly wealth.

“I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?

The problem is not money.  The problem is when we forget what money is.

Money is not God.  Money is not the master.  You cannot serve two masters.

So if money is not the master, then what is it?

Money is a tool. 

It’s a worldly tool; all tools are.  It’s not as though God installed ATMs and printed bills with his face on them to use in the garden of Eden, where, without pride and greed, everyone’s needs were met without toil or labour. 

Money is a tool.  And tools, even worldly tools, can be used for good or evil. 
A hammer can be used to build or to destroy; fire, used wisely, gives light and heat, but left to its own devices will consume everything around it.

Money is decidedly worldly – it does us no good in the Kingdom of God; we can’t buy our way in, and we can’t take it with us.

But, in this world, we find ourselves entrusted with it. 

“And the master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.  For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.”

Now, let me be clear – this is not about stealing.  This is about Christians understanding the right use of money – not as a supreme goal or measure of worth, but as a tool, as a means for accomplishing things in this world.

The Dishonest Manager

As was common in the first century, the master had hired a manager to oversee this area of his business.  And business managers, like tax collectors were entrepreneurs rather than servants working for room and board; they had a quota due to their master, and then they would add their commission over top, or charge interest if one of the debtors had missed a payment and the manager had to cover the expense.

When the manager’s position came under scrutiny and it looked like his contract wouldn’t be renewed, a short-sighted manager, one viewing money as the goal rather than as a tool to be used, would have called up the debtors and demanded payment.  A short-sighted manager would have said “I’m going to lose my job, I need to collect some money right away”.

But this shrewd manager said, “they’re going to cut my position, I need to make friends while I can so that, when I’m no longer in authority, I have people to look out for me.” So he calls them in, slashes his commission, writes off the interest, and sends them on their way.

He writes-off the debt that is rightfully his because he knows that his time is short. 

He writes-off the debt that is rightfully his because he knows that money can only get you so far; that worldly wealth runs out.

He writes-off the debt because he understands that everything he has ultimately belongs to the master, and can be taken away at his next breath.

A Parable Applied

Now, remember the prodigal son? 
Remember the undeserved mercy shown by the Father?

God is the master.  We are the managers.  The Master has given us everything – grace, forgiveness, blessings beyond measure, and he has put us in charge of his accounts.

But word comes to the master that we’re squandering his possessions.  That grace, that mercy, that forgiveness, those blessings, those positions, that influence – we’re not using them to their full potential for the master’s kingdom.

So, he wants an account.  He wants to check the books.

And this is where he wants us to be shrewd.

So, we call in those who owe us.  Our debtors; or to use the older language, those who trespass against us.  And recognizing that everything that we are owed pales in comparison to what we have received from God, and realizing that whatever worldly wrongs done to us, whatever we are owed, is worth nothing in the age to come, we forgive, we write-off those debts.

For whoever is faithful in little will be faithful in much.

And, in forgiving our debts, in laying down what is rightfully ours, in not seeking revenge, in repaying wrongs with kindness instead of anger, we use our worldly powers to gain friends for ourselves, relationships which reflect the mercy that we ourselves have received from God, and which will pay eternal dividends.

No one can serve two masters.  But, use your worldly wealth – money, positions, power, influence, relationships – the things that, in the long run matter very little and will pass away; use them in such a way that we will be welcomed into our eternal dwelling, where we will be entrusted with true riches – abundant life where neither moth nor rust destroy and where thieves do not break in a steal – for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

To God be the glory, now and forever more.  Amen.

The Cross: Cosmic Solution to a Universal Problem

Today is all about the Cross.

This weekend, many Christians around the world are celebrating Holy Cross Day – a Holy Day that, according to our own church calendar, ranks just below Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost.

This celebration of the Holy Cross is an opportunity for us to look at the cross once again, something we normally do in Lent and particularly on Good Friday, but to see it now with a different emphasis, to look at it in a different light.

Historic and Individual – Cosmic and Corporate

On Good Friday – and the majority of other times we think to the Cross – the focus is on the earthly work which Christ accomplished for us.  What do I mean by that?  Well, the focus is often on the Cross as an instrument of death, the Cross as the place where an angry crowd, a crowd in which we all find a place, was spurred on by jealous politics and empty pride to put an innocent man to death, a death, as we hear each time we celebrate the Eucharist, he freely accepted, offering himself to reconcile humankind with God.  The focus, almost exclusively among some of our Christian brothers and sisters, is on the blood that was spilled, in keeping with the Old Testament imagery of sacrifice, where since that first time that animals were killed to make clothing to cover human nakedness, it was blood that paid the price for the shame of our sin.

On Good Friday, the focus is so often on the individual.  Even in our music – “When I survey the wondrous cross”, or “were you there when they crucified my lord?”. 

That focus on the individual isn’t a bad thing – in fact – to quote another old song, everyone one of us, at some point, need to decide for ourselves if we will follow Jesus (“no turning back, no turning back”).

But as good as it is to focus on the Cross as a place of sacrifice for us as individuals, and to focus on the Cross as a historical event which we recall when we gather, that’s only part of the story. 

Today, the Church gives us an opportunity to view the cross not as an instrument of death, but as the symbol of victory; victory, once and for all, over the grip of death; victory, once and for all, over the power of shame and guilt for past wrongs to which we are shackled, and which so often hold us down until we’re crushed under their weight.

Today, the Church invites us to look at Christ’s death on the cross not only as a historical event impacting your individual life, but to view the power of the cross on a universal, cosmic scale: that singular moment of sacrifice and victory as a ‘big bang’, if you will, that ripples out through the whole created universe, changing the very fabric of life itself, as everything that happens when time and eternity meet, in that moment after we take our final breath, is forever changed.

Today, the Church invites us to think upon the power of the cross as it really is; though, like a star being born in a distant galaxy, the light, the experience of that truth is not yet visible to us as we journey through this mortal life.

Death defeated by death.

In the Cross, Death is defeated by death.

In the Cross, Death – the power of the grave over creation – is itself defeated as it tries to close its jaws on the one who cannot die.

And, in that moment, the lifeless body of the incarnate Son of God lying in the tomb becomes not a sign of weakness or mortality, but, as the scriptures say, he becomes the firstborn from the dead – a new “Adam”, piercing the veil between life and death and opening the door into the new creation – and, again as the scriptures tell us – not the fluffy, disembodied “heaven” of fairy tales or romantically inaccurate Sunday School lessons, but to lead us into the city of God, where we, in our resurrected bodies, share in the life of the resurrected Christ.

Of course, “death being defeated by a man who dies” hardly looks like victory to those looking on.  Indeed, in our epistle today, Paul admits this as he calls out, “Where is the wise man?  Where is the teacher of the law?  Where are the philosophers of this age?”[1]  Come, explain this, teachers and lawyers!  From a human perspective, from those only thinking about creation from our little place in the vast universe, “the cross is foolishness”.  But, Paul quotes from Isaiah 29: this is no surprise, for God says that in the day when his power is put on display, the world will be turned upside down, the wisdom of the wise will be destroyed, and all the understanding and theories of the intelligent will be frustrated as a new structure is put into place.

We see this new structure, death defeated by death, foreshadowed in Moses.  Like so much of what Jesus does on an eternal and universal scale, we see it first in earthly, human terms as God delivers his people Israel. 

They are led through the Red Sea from bondage into freedom, as we are led through the waters of baptism.  They are fed in the desert with food from heaven and water from springs, as we are fed with the bread of life and drink from the cup that runs over.  And they are led through by God through a time of wandering in which they learn what it means to trust in God and to repent and return when they go astray, as the Holy Spirit leads the Church in our own day.

In the lesson we heard today from Numbers chapter 21,[2] we find God’s chosen people growing impatient and wavering once again in their obedience and trust; as a result, they come across poisonous snakes who begin biting the people in their tents.  Realizing that it was God who was protecting and providing for them, they repent and beg for the snakes to be taken away – and God says to Moses, make a bronze snake and put it on a pole, and lift it up for the people to see; anyone who is bitten can look upon that pole – a sign of God’s power over creation – and they will live.

The very thing that was harming them – snakes – was defeated as God claimed his authority over it; and in looking upon it, they were healed.

We, like all people, are chased and bitten by death.

And, Jesus says,[3] “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man will be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life”.

Death itself, an innocent man, beaten, bruised, stripped, shamed, tortured, abandoned, and hung to die – is defeated as God claims his authority over it; and that gruesome image becomes the gift of life to all who believe.

The power of the Cross is the triumphant power of life over death itself.

Searching for the Lost

But it’s not enough that God would defeat death and then leave us to figure it out.

The glory of the Cross – indeed, our whole faith — is that God himself sees the worth, sees the intrinsic value in each human man, woman, and child made in his image, and seeks to bring them home.

It’s that wonderful parable of the lost coin.[4]

This woman has lost no ordinary coin.  Rather, in 1st century Palestine, one sign of a married woman was a set of coins sewn to her headscarf; some suggest this was part of the dowry, and in times of need – like if the woman were to become a widow – it formed a small savings that could be used.

It’d be like one of us today who lost a wedding ring. 

The ring might not even be of great monetary value – it might just be a plain gold band – but in the eyes of the ones who gave and received it as a sign of their vow, it is of incredible worth.

You look, you look again, you clean the house, you retrace your steps, you do all in your power to recover that thing that means so much because of the pledge, and the love attached to it.

And the Cross is the story of that person searching for that which is of great value, as each and every person – regardless of what they did with their life – bears the image of God, and was wired to live in relationship with him.

This is that part of the Creed that we recite each week: Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, he was crucified, died, and was buried.  He descended to the dead.

Or, in the older prayerbook language it’s even stronger: he descended into hell.

Think about that: God loves you and me and every person that he has made so much, that Christ not only died, but descended to the place of the dead in order to find and release those who were in bondage. 

This is where the New Testament[5] would speak of Christ preaching to the dead as his body rested in the grave on Holy Saturday, like the shepherd or the woman who doesn’t rest until every effort has been made to find that which has been lost.

And, in the parable, there’s great rejoicing when that which was lost has been found; and in the Power of the Cross, Jesus himself becomes that strong man of Mark chapter 3,[6] who ties up Satan and the powers of Death, so that he can plunder his house, and that house – the place of the dead – now divided against itself will fall as Christ arises victorious, leading captivity captive as he invites us to share in his risen life.[7]

Our Hope

This is the power of the Cross.

Not a fairy tale or a distant historic event, but a cosmic event whose ripples are moving throughout creation until that day that the light of that Truth finally reaches our eyes.

So, we live in hope – eyes firmly fixed on the Cross – that tool of death that becomes for us the way of life, as the one over whom death has no power destroyed death once and for all.

…Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness – look up, and live.  Amen.

[1] Paraphrase of 1 Cor 1:18-24

[2] Numbers 21:4-9

[3] John 3:14-15

[4] Luke 15:1-10

[5] 1 Peter 3:17-22

[6] Mark 3:26-27

[7] Ephesians 4:8-10

The Good Samaritan

Luke 10:25-37

Today we hear once again what is perhaps the most familiar and most recognizable parable of Christianity: The Parable of the Good Samaritan. 

It’s in this great parable that Jesus summarizes the entirety of the law: Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.  It’s in this parable that we learn the importance of serving others and seeing every person as our neighbor, regardless of who they are.

It’s a familiar parable, and we’ve all heard it preached many times; but sometimes, it’s that same familiarity that causes us to over-simplify the message; sometimes, familiarity with a passage keeps us from hearing all that it has to say.

Today I want us to hear the parable of the Good Samaritan, but hear it, and perhaps even put ourselves in the perspective not of the Samaritan who saves the day, but put yourself in the shoes of the man in the ditch.

Many of us will know a little about the tensions between Jews and Samaritans at the time of Jesus.  This was a time, as we’ve sadly seen at other points in our history, when race and class meant everything.  In many respects, a person’s value to society was not in what they did with their life, what they accomplished, but was measured by their lineage, their language, and even how they dressed.

This was a time when Israel had been conquered by Rome, when, from the South and the East, Arab and Syriac herdsmen were taking over the best pastureland, and on the west, Phoenician fisherman had claimed the ports along the sea.  The great Jewish Nation, a proud people living in a Promised Land, had become land-locked, and even in their own land, they were subject to outside rule and heavy taxes from Rome.

To make matters worse, the Samaritans, to the North, are ethnically and historically descended from Abraham and Isaac – they’re Hebrew people, descendants of the 12 Tribes of Israel, sons and daughters of the same Covenant that God made with Moses; they’re essentially cousins to the first-century Jews, but they’ve become bitter enemies, caught up in a centuries-old boundary dispute.

When the Jews at Jerusalem were attacked by the Babylonians and Solomon’s great temple was destroyed, the Samaritans to the North built their own temple in their homeland, and worshipped God there. 

Then after several generations, when Jews were able to rebuild the temple, the Samaritans, who had been worshipping for years with their own priests in their own temple, said “no thank you, we’re the one’s who are worshipping God properly; sure, you’ve got a shiny new temple, but ours was here first.  There’s no way we’re giving up our priests and our temple in our homeland.”

And this began generations of hatred and fighting between Jews and Samaritans, even though they were related, they were members of the same family, surrounded by enemies on every side.

And this was age when appearances meant everything. 

Samaritans had their own accent, such that a Samaritan walking into a Jewish market or town square would be instantly recognized as soon as he opened his mouth.  At the same time, the educated Jews – the priests, the lawyers, the doctors – spoke what they called a “pure form” of Ancient Hebrew, a language they, in their expensive colored robes, could speak to each other while the farmers or peasants in their undyed linen, wool, or fur robes couldn’t understand.   And then those involved in government, wearing their Roman purple, spoke Latin, the official language of the empire, and the sign of foreign rule.

Appearances meant everything.  It was a society built so that you could see from one’s clothing whether or not they were your neighbor, whether or not they were in your social class.  It was built so that the second someone opened their mouth, you knew instantly from their accent and language whether or not they were your equal.

And here, on our way on the 7-mile journey from Jerusalem to Jericho, we find ourselves robbed, beaten, stripped off, and left to die in a ditch.

Lying in the ditch.

This is a well-travelled road; it’s a road that you travel every year on your way to the festivals in Jerusalem.  But this time the road isn’t busy, and you find yourself as one of those poor victims that you’ve heard about many times.

But, beat up, broken, half-dead in a ditch, you know someone will save you.  You’re a good Jew, a good member of your community, and people pass by here every day; someone will save you.

An hour passes by, and your bruised broken body is lying there, baking under the hot Mediterranean sun.  You’re dehydrated.  You’re too exhausted to call out for help.

In the distance, you hear the slow clatter of hooves on the road; it must be someone wealthy, it must be someone educated, who knows the law, who knows that it is sinful for a Jew to leave a Jewish body exposed to the elements.  As the sound of the donkey draws closer, you open one eye, the other one swollen shut.  “Oh, good” you say, “it’s one of my people”.  You can tell from the colored cloak that it’s priest, coming back from his two weeks on duty at the temple.

You do your best to call out, but all you can manage is a weak groan as you see the priest draw closer.

Now, the priest, sitting on his donkey, notices the half-dead body.  He knows, in fact, he has taught others, that every Jew has a duty to care for another Jew at the point of death. 

The problem, though is that you in the ditch are naked, and you’re too dehydrated and in shock to speak.  Sure, the priest could help you.  But you’re not wearing any clothes, so the priest can’t tell what tribe or social class you belong to; you’re too weak to speak, so he can’t even figure out if you’re Jewish. 

You are one of his people, so his duty is to help you.  But, he can’t be sure.  What if you’re a poor Arab shepherd or construction worker?  What a scandal that would be for a wealthy leader of the community to bring a half-dead Arab home. 

What if you’re a Roman, guilty of oppressing the priest’s own people; if he brought you home, he’d be accused of helping the oppressors, of being on the wrong side. 

You groan again from the ditch.  This is one of your people, this is someone you trusted.  But he can’t risk it.  So he passes to the other side and goes on by.

Now a few minutes later, the Levite, a respectable leader in the congregation, a teacher of the law, comes by.  He’s also on his way back from his two weeks on duty in the temple.  You know this man; you’re friends with his father, you’ve eaten at his table.  You tell yourself, “we’re practically family.  I would lay down my life for his father, surely he’ll stop to help me”. 

But, after the beating you received, your own mother wouldn’t recognize you.  This young Levite is going places; he’s an up-and-comer in the community, and his reputation would be on the line if he brought a lesser person into his home; it would be the talk of the town. 

You do your best to cry out; you know this man, you know that he would be a hero if he saved you, but it’s no use.  Because, in this state, the outward signs that you always depended on are worthless; who you are, what you do, what you wear and how you speak mean nothing when you’re lying naked, silent in a ditch.

Another hour goes by, and you start to pass out. 

You hear hooves again, and as you come in and out of consciousness, you catch some strange words.  This is a stranger.  This is one of those people, one of those who don’t belong here.  You see his foreign clothes, you smell the foreign food off his skin.

You think to yourself, “keep going, you thief.  You’re probably related to the ones who beat me up and robbed me in the first place.”  You’d call names and spit at him, if only you had the strength to open your mouth.

But then it happens.  He stops.  He comes over.  He looks down as you close your eye, afraid of what this stranger might do, figuring, even hoping, that he’ll finish you off.

And this stranger, this foreigner, this man who is insulted and laughed at wherever he goes; this man who lives in fear of what others might do to him on a long empty road, he stops, he opens his bag.  He rips an old shirt into bandages and wraps the gashes on your body.  He pours in ointment.  He lifts up your head, and opens his canteen.

You clench your lips shut; you’ve never drank from a Samaritan’s cup.  But you’re too weak to refuse.  He picks you up, and places you across the back of his donkey as you finally shut your eyes.

He gets close to the Jewish town.  The kids outside town can tell right away that he’s a foreigner, they start laughing and hurling insults even though he can’t understand them.  They don’t realize that it’s your beaten body, their own relative, on the donkey.

People in the market stop and stare as this lesser person heads to the inn with a beaten and bruised person in tow.  Did he do it?  Did the Samaritan beat this man?  You’re naked, covered only in bandages, so maybe it’s another lesser person, his slave. 

Then, at the guesthouse, as you’re finally resting away from the burning heat of the hot sun, this person whom you hate, this person who is hated by everyone, hands over his paycheque and mutters with a think accent, “take care of him”.  And if it costs more, I will pay.

Will I be his neighbour?

When we think about being a neighbour, one of the questions we must ask is this: are there those to whom I will only be a neighbour if I’m the one giving something to them?

Am I willing to be generous, to be hospitable, to be loving to people?  And, am I willing to allow them to be generous, hospitable, and loving to me, knowing that the way that they show generosity, or hospitality, or love, might be very different than what I’m used to.

In our pride, we so often think of neighbourliness, or the so-called Golden Rule as working only one way.  But truly being a neighbor, means that we are in relationships that work both ways. 

If we do to others as we would have them do to us, that means that we have to be ready and willing to receive from others, to learn from others, to walk with others, in the same way that we hope to be able to meet their needs or teach them. 

When we visit the care home, we don’t go just to bring them something; we go to receive with open hearts what they offer us, to learn what it means to trust in God when strength fails, to experience joy in the little pleasures of life.  The same has to be true no matter what we do: when we serve the poor, when we offer Bible Camp or messy church to the unchurched kids in our town, being a neighbor as Christ commands means that we stand ready to receive what they offer us, even if their way of thanking us seems foreign, or not as we would do.

Because, as the Good Samaritan tells us, all the earthly things that we trust in, all the ways that we build an identity and a place in our communities, what we wear, the way we speak, our positions, the friends we keep, they all pass away. 

And, sooner or later, every single one of us will find ourselves with everything stripped away, helpless, at the mercy of God, with Christ alone as our only hope, as we learn to receive freely from him what we can never earn or deserve for ourselves: healing, hope, and the forgiveness of sins.

To God be the Glory.  Amen.