Luke 14: 1, 7–14
Well, I think you can all hear in my voice that we had a little cold go through our household this week. It's not COVID so don't worry and I'm feeling much better. But a nice thing about a cold for a preacher: it gives you a little added a little something, right? A little more authority in those rumbling undertones. Listen to me, listen to this voice! This is gravitas. It's the authority in my voice. This is, believe it or not, something that preachers struggle with sometimes. I mean, there is something sort of contradictory, strange about standing up in front of people and preaching and having that spotlight shone on you. And also trying to remember that you're not better than anybody else, right? And it, it doesn't help. Sometimes when you have a voice that people naturally respond to as that voice of authority, you begin to think that maybe the authority comes from inside of you, rather than from somewhere else.
And that's a problem that some preachers can have. A video went viral last week. I don't know if you saw it, but it was a preacher who was scolding his congregation for not buying him a watch—a watch that he wanted. And he was calling them all kinds of names. He was not being very nice to them about it. He was not speaking to them nicely and somebody thought that they would embarrass him, I guess. And they posted this video and it went viral because it wasn't very nice. And I think when that minister went back and watched that video, he probably realized that the way that he was speaking, the way that he was talking about what he wanted and what he expected of the people in his congregation was that he believed that he was better than they were. Now, It's difficult because sometimes a minister's job is, or the job of anyone speaking in public is, to try to get a point across, right, to remind people about our shortcomings that we all share. But sometimes if you do it in a way that insults other people, or that places yourself above them, then it becomes very problematic. You begin to think that you deserve the good things and that these people should provide them to you and you are better than they are.
It's a been difficult I think, in our culture, to think about humility, humbleness. We live in a culture that is so divisive and so divided now, politically and socially between left and right. And there is arrogance on both sides. And I really think it's arrogance that is driving us away from each other. Folks on the right feel like folks on the left don't listen to them, think that they're smarter than them, think that they have all the solutions think that they're making up all kinds of problems that don't exist and think that they're doing it because they think that they're better than everybody else on the right. And sometimes it's true. Sometimes folks on left might think that they're a little bit better than folks on the right, that they don't have to listen to them. And sometimes folks on the left feel that folks on the right think that they are smarter and better than folks on the left. They think that the problems that people on the left care about people on the right are dismissive of, and that they think that sometimes people on the right uphold traditional values in a way that undermines values that people on the left truly care about. And they feel like they're insulted and called snowflakes and told to sit down and stop whining and stop crying. And sometimes it's true. Sometimes that's exactly what's happening.
Arrogance drives this division in our culture, pushes us away from one another—this idea that my side, my opinion is better than yours and that the only way that we're actually going to get to a better place is if we drive one another out, not coming together and figuring it out together, but by beating each other up. And it just drives us apart. I'm here to suggest something that I think is a little bit counterintuitive in our culture. I believe that humility is a prerequisite to kindness. Now kindness seems to be a virtue that is celebrated both on the left and on the right. People do believe in basic human decency and kindness. And yet we see that the left and the right are driving one another,r are separating from one another,r and beating one another up. Why, if they both seem to uphold kindness as a basic human decency that they want to teach their children. Why then?
And I think it has to do with this lack of humility, that is such a part of our politics and such a part of our culture. You may be suspicious of humility and in our culture there is good reason for that. Just listen to how similar, the word “humility” and the word “humiliation” are. We think it's the same kind of thing, but it's not. Humiliation is something that somebody else does to me, without my consent, without my best interests in mind to disempower me, right? That's what it means to be humiliated, to be beaten, to be dismissed, to be thrown out. But humility is something that I choose for myself in order to become the kind of person who never chooses to humiliate another, the kind of person who recognizes and understands that I am no better than anyone else. I do not want to defeat anyone else. I do not want to drive anyone away. I do not want to beat you. I want to live in a difficult but loving relationship with all of you. And the only way that I'm going to get there, the only way that I'm going to get there, that we are going to get there as a culture is through kindness that is founded in a humble understanding of who I am.
So, let's turn to our scripture reading this morning. It seems funny that Jesus is out there giving this tricky social advice to rich and powerful people at a banquet, but he tells them, he says, “Hey when you're throwing a banquet, don't go sit in the place of honor. Because if you go and sit in the place of honor, you may be asked to move down and wouldn't you then be humiliated. Instead, go and seek for yourself the lowest seat, the seat of humility. And you may then be honored by being called up.” Now in our thinking about what humility is and how it works we cannot imagine that anyone would voluntarily seek out the seat of humility for themselves without having some sort of broken self-image. How could you think that that's all you deserve? How could you think that that should be the place for you? The lowest place?! That must be some sort of oppression laid upon you. That can be the only way that you would want to do that. Somebody has told you that you're not good enough for good things that you don't deserve them, that you don't have a right for them. And so out of self-hatred, you go and you just seek the lowest spot for yourself.
And our culture says, instead, if you really love yourself, if you really believe that you're as good as anybody else, then you should believe you deserve the very best things. Of course, you should go for the highest seat for yourselves and you should fight for it and you should earn it for yourself, because aren't you as good as anybody else is? Of course you are! So get out there! And if you get it, good for you, you deserve it because you got it. What we fail to recognize here is that no matter what we may be consciously thinking when we fight for the highest place of honor for ourselves, we are fighting for it. Somebody else has to be underneath us in order for us to put ourselves at the highest seat of honor, right? There has to be a whole bunch of people sitting in all the other seats down the line in order for me to be there. And not everyone can share that high seat of honor with me. That's the way that human hierarchy works, right? Somebody is on top, usually a small number of people. It's why it's a pyramid. It's a small spot on the top and everybody else is down below. And when we actually do get ourselves to the top of the social pyramid, we tend to think, “Well, why not me? I worked hard for it. I'm a good person. I don't believe I'm better than anybody else.” And yet the system that we have participated in suggests that we actually think that we are better than others and that we have a right to fight them for our place above them on the social pyramid.
And this is the problem that Jesus has. This is why he tells this strange little parable. Jesus says, “No, no, no, no, no. Don't hate yourself and go seek the lowest seat. Love yourself and love your neighbor and go and seek the lowest seat. Because when you seek the lowest seat for yourself and only when you seek the lowest seat, the humble seat for yourself, can you really do it in a way that acknowledges that you are better than nobody else, that you do not desire to threaten anybody else's place in this world, and that you desire for everyone to have an equal access to good things, and to honor, and to love every bit as much as you have it. You want it for others. When you fight for the seat of the highest honor, no matter what you may think about others consciously or unconsciously, you're participating in a system that says people lower down on the pyramid are not as deserving, not as good, not as beloved as you are.
When we seek the lowest seat for ourselves, the humble seat, we do it with this mantra in mind, “I am a child of God. I am a child of God. I am a child of God,” no better, no different than anyone else. I choose this humble seat knowing that I am not sufficient unto myself. That's just a fancy way of saying I'm not anything without God. Everything that I am, everything that I have earned, every gift that I have been given comes from God. And so I choose the humble seat. I choose the humble seat, accepting the fact that I am finite. I can't do it all. I am not God. I choose the humble seat and I believe that there is a God, a God who is infinite, a God who gives every good gift, a God who is seeking and searching for me in my smallness, in my recognition that I am just one of God's children. And when that infinite finds me humble and ready, knowing my place among my sisters and brothers and siblings, that is the only way that God can call me up.
And when God calls us up, that is the true honor: to be called up from a place of knowing my position in God's beauty, God's love, God's kingdom here. I am no better than my brothers and sisters wanting only to live in difficult, trying, painful, but loving relationship to all of them. And when we find that place of humility, where we do not think that we're better than the people on the left, the people on the right, that is when God can begin to call us all up together. I don't want to be great in this world. I want to be called up with all of you. I wanna be called up with everybody. The way that I get there, the way that we get there, is by seeking out the humble seat. I am nothing without God. And I choose this seat because I love all of you.
What kind of a person do I want to be? What kind of a person do I want to be? What kind of a Christian do I want to be? What kind of a Christian life and Christian witness do I want to express with my day and with the years that are given to me? What kind of a Christian Church do we want to be? What values do we want to lift up? How do we want our community to look? How do we want it to operate? What do we want people to think about us?
These are the kinds of questions that we need to wrestle with as individuals and as a Christian community: What is God calling us to do? Who is God calling us to be, how is God calling us to behave in this world?
Speaking of behavior, I know that you know that I am now a father of two sons—one who is too small to be naughty yet, but another one who is two years old and he's in his terrible-two twos. And it is a struggle with behavior—as any of you have been parents or spent any amount of time with a two-year-old know. One thing that Bonnie and I really work hard to do is to avoid all of the “good boy, bad boy” talk. We don't try and put that on our son, Romey, at all.
I don't want to do good boy, bad boy. I don't tell him he's a bad boy if he's doing something that's driving me crazy, if he's doing something that he shouldn't be doing. And I don't ask him to be a good boy for me, or praise him as a good boy, when he is doing something that's pleasing to me. I feel like he could get hung up on that good boy, bad boy stuff. And instead, I try to focus on his actions, what he's actually doing. So I say, “Oh, that is not safe. We don't do that.” But I don't say, “You're a bad boy for climbing up the bookshelf.” Or I say, “Oh, that's very nice to give your brother a kiss. What a kind thing to do.” But I don't tell him that he's being a good boy.
And I try and avoid that whole pressure of trying to make him put himself into the mold of good boy and bad boy, because in reality, I don't think there's any such thing as a good boy or a bad boy. And many of us, I think get stuck in trying to figure out how we're supposed to be good boys and girls or not. And unfortunately I think that this is something that comes across in Christian faith a lot. When we think about this question, what sort of a Christian am I supposed to be? What kind of a person am I supposed to be? What does Jesus expect of me? What does the gospel expect of me? A lot of people feel, and there is this real cultural sense that a Christian is just supposed to be a good boy or a good girl.
And what does that actually mean? And how limiting is that, right? Because good boys and good girls, usually are what? They're the way mom and dad want them to be at the end of a long, hard day at work, right? So you're being quiet. You're being agreeable. You're not causing any trouble or any commotion in the house. You're just pleasant to be around. You're seen, not heard. Everything you do is cute and sweet and nice. And there's no trouble whatsoever because mom and dad are stressed out and tired and we don't want any trouble. And I think, unfortunately, some of us think that that's what God wants from us—to be good boys and girls. Just keep your nose clean. Don't do anything too disruptive. Don't hurt anybody's feelings. Just be nice. And I think being nice is a dangerous thing to uphold and uplift to our children as the highest Christian ideal.
Now there's nothing wrong with being nice, at least a good part of the time, but that can't be the highest Christian ideal, right? As Christians, we are asked to really struggle with the virtues and figure out how to be a Christian in a world full of conflict and struggle, and in a world where it's not always clear what the right or the wrong thing to do is. And the question is, how does a good boy or a girl step into the strife of this world and make a difference if they're just supposed to be quiet and nice? And I think as Christians, we're called to step into the strife and conflict of this world. And if we're all hung up on being good boys and good girls and having everybody praise us for being nice and for never doing anything unexpected, it's very hard, I think, to live up to what the gospel expects of us.
Luckily we have Jesus here to show us another way. He never really asked us to be good boys or good girls. He asked us to do our best. He asks us to struggle. And Jesus himself must have struggled. Did you hear what he was going through when he was teaching on the Sabbath? “Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for 18 years.” And right there, Jesus must have heard the question in his own mind: What kind of a person am I going to be? Am I going to be the good boy that everybody wants me to be? Or am I going to do the right thing?
Just imagine the context of what Jesus was dealing with here. He was in public, right? This wasn't the privacy of his own home. He was in the synagogue. He was in his “church.” Everybody was gathered there—all kinds of people. This was a bit of a spectacle. And here he was in a position where I'm sure a lot of the people expected him to honor what scripture said, to honor what the tradition said, to follow the rules, and to not upset anybody because upsetting somebody on the Sabbath in the synagogue would be a real tragedy. Nobody comes to the synagogue to be upset, do they? Nobody comes to church to be all riled up and to leave in turmoil with more questions than they had when they walked in the door. We want simple answers. We want to be reassured that the tradition is right and we don't have to struggle with it. But Jesus says, “No. Sometimes you do have to struggle.”
Jesus was in public. And he was also in view of the authority of the synagogue, right? There was a leader of the synagogue there. We think of Jesus as the authority. But in this context, Jesus was just some guy at the synagogue teaching. And there was an authority figure there watching him teach and expecting him to toe the line. “If you're gonna stand up and speak in my synagogue, you better make sure that you're following what scripture tells us to do and what everybody in here is expecting of our tradition.” But Jesus decided that he wasn't going to do that.
Now I want you to think about the disruption and the conflict that Jesus caused in that synagogue on that day. And I want you to imagine that Jesus was in your church, our church on that day, or a church that you really love, a place where you feel safe, a place that you really invested in. What do you want Jesus to do? Do you want him to break the rules? Do you want him to make people feel kind of bad and get kind of upset? Do you want him to divide the synagogue between the people who say “yes, that was the right thing to do” and the people who say “no, that was the wrong thing to do, and all of a sudden, we recognize that there's a divide here among us and we have to talk it out and we have to feel that there's division in the place that we love, where we all just want to feel unified? Would you want him to seem to go against what scripture and tradition was telling him to do? In public? To cause a spectacle like that? Would you want that to happen in your church, in your holy place, in your religion? It's a tough one. It's a tough question. But Jesus does what he believes is right to do. And he causes a commotion in that synagogue and there is yelling and there are accusations flying and people are being scolded. But Jesus does it.
I think it's important to remember here that Jesus was not throwing the Sabbath out, right? Jesus, wasn't saying the Sabbath is a bunch of garbage. We don't need a Sabbath. I should just be able to do whatever I want on Sabbath. And I don't believe in the rules and I don't believe in tradition and I don't like the Sabbath. So I'm just gonna do what I want and I'm gonna heal on Sabbath. What Jesus says is, I believe in the Sabbath, I observe the Sabbath every seventh day. I keep it holy and I believe that the Sabbath is big enough to hold this woman's healing. I believe that the Sabbath is big enough to hold this woman's healing. Jesus doesn't create conflict and trouble and disruption just to throw the world on its ear, right? Jesus isn't trying to destroy tradition. He's not trying to throw away everything that we hold dear. Jesus is the kind of person (and is calling us to a kind of religion) that sticks its elbows out into tradition and says, you need to get a little bit bigger. There's room here for this. This is a good thing.
Jesus is the one who steps into tradition, and scripture, and people's expectations, and he always, always points to the higher law—the law of love. And he says, “We have to look at this through the eyes of love! In the eyes of love, what is able to be done on the Sabbath? Observe it, keep it holy! But does love make room for this daughter's healing? And Jesus’ answer is yes. Jesus calls us, I think, to the same kind of activity in our lives, right? Jesus is not asking us to be rebels without a cause. Jesus is asking us to be disruptors with love—people who look at the world around us and who look inside of our own church and who stick their elbows out into tradition and expectations and say, love, love, love, make a little more room. Let's make a little more room. It's not always easy to do. But what about the benefit?
This is another important thing to remember about who Jesus is. He's not the kind of person who just does something for no reason. And there is a human being in this story, right? What kind of person is Jesus? What kind of Christian does he want us to be? He is someone who does what is right. He does it in public. He does it in full view of the authorities. He does it with boldness. He does it with authenticity. He is courageous. He is not afraid. He is not afraid to cause disruption or conflict within the congregation or within his world. And he does this while also doing something so simple and beautiful that we can almost miss it. He does it while making sincere, personal, meaningful, transformative, physical contact with another human being that heals them. Sometimes when we stick our elbows out into tradition and expectations and ask for them to make a little more room for love and to make a little more room for someone else, it can transform hearts and it can open the mouths of people who were maybe full of doubt and pain and fear. And it can open their mouths to praise God because God's love made room for them and you were willing to fight for their inclusion and their healing.
What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of Christian do you want to be? What kind of church do we want to be?
The last two weeks I've been preaching to you about prayer and about change. And I think that the opening of our scripture reading this morning is a perfect encapsulation of the messages that have been in the preaching over the last two weeks. The first being, you don't know what you're going to get in this life. Even if you pray, you don't always know what you're going to get. And the second being that nothing in this world lasts forever and that none of the things that make us feel comfortable and safe in this world—our possessions, our money, our prestige, our home, even our relationships—can keep us safe and comfortable forever.
But Jesus says there is something that can keep us happy, meaningful, safe forever. So let's read this, "Do not be afraid, little flock for it is your father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom, sell your possessions and give alms, make purses for yourselves that do not wear out and unfailing treasure in heaven where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." When you come to the realization that nothing in this world is going to last for you forever, except for God, except for faith and hope and love, and that the things and the possessions of this world are all going to go up and down and they're all going to change, when you come to that realization and you stop praying to God to say, "I expect my every prayer to be answered exactly the way that I prayed it. I want to get exactly what I want, because what I want is good and just and fair and necessary. And if I don't get it, I'm going to suffer, and I'm not going to be happy. And I'm going to be in pain," and you start to say to God, "I am willing to accept whatever it is that you are giving, because that is life, and this life is good," it begins to free you. It frees you. And what it frees you to do is to be generous. It frees you not to constantly be grasping at the things of this world and trying to hold onto them as tight as you can because you think that the things of this world are somehow going to save you, that God can give you things that will save you.
But that's not the way that God works. God doesn't give you things to save you. God gives us something else to save us. And so when you realize that the things of this world are not the final answer to the troubles that we live through, to the questions that we have, to the pain that we feel, you become free to live like a disciple of Jesus: to be generous even if you only have a little bit, because you don't need to hold onto it. It frees you to love everybody even if you don't like everybody, because there is enough love to go around. It frees you to act in the service of your neighbors. Why? Because you don't have to be afraid of what it means to lose that time. You don't have to be afraid of what happens if I get in trouble for going on that March? Or what if people don't like me when I speak up about that issue? That's not the stuff that matters. What matters is your relationship to God. That's the foundation. That's everything. So we can be generous and loving and kind.
But still we struggle a little bit. We struggle with God who we believe to be powerful and good, who doesn't seem to answer every prayer in exactly the way that we would hope that every prayer would be answered. And we see this, right? We see that some people pray for very good things, to be healed, and yet they're not healed. To be lifted up out of poverty, and yet they're not lifted up out of poverty. For their children to be safe, and yet, in some cases, their children are not safe the way they want them to be safe, their loved ones are not safe. And this always makes us wonder, what is the character of the God that we love and worship? What is the character of the God we love and worship, who doesn't always seem to give us the fair, or the just, or the right, or the kind thing, even when we pray, even when we ask?
There are a couple of ways that we have answered this question throughout our history, right? One of them is that when things go wrong in your life and you're not getting exactly what you think you deserve, or what's fair, it's because you are being punished for something, right? If you think back long enough, you'll remember some awful thing you did or said, or didn't do that you should have done, some thought you had, some deed you did. And the reason that you are suffering now, even though you're praying for something else in your life is because you're being punished for that thing that you did. It's your own fault. That's the way it works. And this has been a very popular reasoning for suffering throughout all of history. There's one problem with it. And there's a lot of Christians and I think there's a little bit of all of us who kind of believes this, right? We always kind of say to ourselves, when something goes completely wrong, "What did I do to deserve this?" It's sort of just built right into the culture, built right into the psychology. But the problem is Jesus seems to totally reject this idea. When the disciples and Jesus come across a man who has been blind from birth (And the popular opinion at the time was that if you had anything that was wrong with you, it was because you had committed some sort of sin), and the disciples couldn't quite figure out if he had been born blind, what could he have done to deserve it? And so they were arguing amongst one another, "Well, he must have done something even when he was very, very small." And then some of the other disciples must have been saying, "No, I think it was his parents who must have done something to make him blind. That's why he's blind." So they went to Jesus and they said, "Hey, answer this debate for us. Who was the sinner? Was it him or his parents that he was born blind?" And Jesus says, "Ah, forget that. The whole thing is wrong. Nobody had sinned. That's not what this is about." Jesus seems to just step away from the idea that you are being punished and that's why you're suffering.
So then there comes another idea about God that’s very popular, and I'm sure that we all hold this in our hearts as well. And this is the idea that there is some sort of great plan at play in the world. And everything that happens to you and everything that happens in the world, God has ordained that it's going to happen or is allowing it to happen because it is a part of this great master plan. And in the end, everything's going to turn out okay. Even though the world might be burning right now, even though you might be suffering right now, in the end, it's all going to turn out okay. There's a couple of problems with this. One is the issue of free will. We know that we have free will so if God has ordained that something should happen, do I really have free will? But I think the bigger issue is what kind of a God who has the power to step in and stop a tragedy from happening—and that God is all good, we believe that God is good—then why doesn't God step in to stop the tragedy from happening?
What does that mean about God? And a popular answer to this is that, well, God's goodness is different than our human conception of what goodness is, right? And in fact, God is just. And so the fact that there is suffering and pain and tragedy and disaster and injustice in this world, and that God isn't fixing it all for us when we pray for it to be fixed is just because God is just, and in the great picture of justice, it is right for all of us to be suffering through all of these things and it's going to get us to God's justice in the end in some way. But again, that sort of comes back to this idea that we are all suffering because of something that we've done wrong, right? This idea that we are being punished in some sense, or not being healed because of some kind of injustice in our past, or some kind of imperfection within us that we can't do anything about. And that seems to be something that Jesus rejected when he said, "Nobody is being punished for a sin," in this particular instance of the blind man who is born blind.
So what kind of God do we have? What does God ask of us? What does God want from us? Well, in the second part of our scripture reading, I think that Jesus gives us the answer, be dressed for action and have your lamps lit, be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet. If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.” Our God is a God who is putting the impetus on us, yeah? God is putting the impetus on us. He is saying to me, and to you, "This is the way the world works. I need you to be ready. I need you to be paying attention. I can't have you giving up. I can't have you losing hope. You need to be as ready as if you are expecting me to rush back into your life at any moment, because even in the midst of disaster, and even in the midst of suffering, I am right at the edges and my kingdom is right there already waiting to respond. And if you are not ready for that, if you have given up because of the hardship and the trials and the suffering and the pain, what will you see?" Well, you won't see anything.
It's our readiness that enables us to see God's action in the world. And it is our readiness that enables us to be God's hands in this world. Be ready, be ready. Watch. God is already at work in this world. And in all the trials and all the difficulties of our lives, none of which are... Not all of them are ever going to be perfectly solved, right? If everything could be perfectly solved, then everything would be perfectly solved by just praying for it and wanting it. And just by it being the right thing. But that is not the way it works. You and I need to be involved. That is the world that God has given us.
And so it's not that prayer isn't answered. I believe that prayer is answered. It's just not answered in the way that we always expect for it to be answered. Because if we are asking for God to give us the things and the comforts in this world, even health and relationships and love or possessions and money, if we are looking for things in this world that will make us more comfortable in this world, that is not how prayer works. But if we are coming to God in prayer to say to God, "I am ready for you to enter into my life, to enter into this struggle, to enter into this difficulty, into these blessings, into these strengths and weaknesses so that I can act for you and for my neighbors" that is when prayer is always answered. That is the prayer that God always responds to exactly the way we hope.
"I will be with you until the end of the age, and you don't know what you're going to get. And the blessings that you have, they might not always be there. And the hardships that you hope will never come in your life may come, but whatever may come, I will be there with you if you are ready for me to be there with you." Now beloved what I'm not saying is I'm not saying that money doesn't matter. I'm not saying that health doesn't matter. I'm not saying that your relationships and your family don't matter. I'm not saying that the things of this world don't matter. I am saying that our faith tells us that there is something that matters more. And in prayer, we connect to that One who matters more. And we say to God, "I am ready. Whatever may come, whatever may come, I am ready."
Well, if you are going to live a good life... and I think most of you want to live a good life. I could tell... look out there, see those faces, I know you want to live a good life. If you want to live a good life, one of the things that you're going to have to struggle with and figure out is: What is my relationship going to be to money and to stuff, to possessions? And this is something that I know that many of you are struggling with in your lives, right now. It is something that we work through our entire life. What is my relationship going to be to this stuff that I want, but that also stresses me out... to this money that I need, but that also causes me all this anxiety. How am I going to relate to that? And Jesus has, I think some very interesting things to say to us about this... very difficult, but very interesting.
Now, one of them of course, is “Don't be greedy.” And that's part of the lesson from our scripture reading this morning, but it's not the whole lesson at all, I don't think. And I'm not going to get too much into “don't be greedy,” because I think for the most part, even though we might struggle a little bit with greed here and there, and even though the world can often struggle mightily with greed, we know that greed is ugly. When we see greed, even when we see it in ourselves, we generally know that it is ugly. We have heard in our culture and in our scripture, and we have been taught since we were children, “do not be greedy.” Share, be fair with other people. We know that greed not only hurts the world around us and people around us, we know that it hurts us.
But Jesus doesn't just say, “Don't be greedy.” Jesus goes further. Jesus says to his closest disciples, when he calls his disciples, he says, if you want to follow me, you have to leave everything behind. Nothing. You have to leave your job behind. You're going to have to leave your family behind. You're going to have to leave all your responsibilities and your hometown behind. You're going to have nothing. And then you are going to come and follow me. And then Jesus took those disciples and he sent them out into the community to preach and to teach the gospel and to heal the sick. And when they were going on this journey, how did he prepare them? He said, you're not going to take anything with you. You will have no staff. You will have no bag. You will have no purse. You will have no money. You're not going to even have a little bit of food or water. You're going to go with the clothes on your back and the sandals on your feet. And that is it.
And we sometimes hear Jesus offering people advice like the rich young man famously in scripture. The rich young man comes to Jesus. He says, Hey, I've lived a good life. I've done everything I'm supposed to do according to the scripture. I still feel like there's something missing though. And Jesus says, oh yeah, you have one more thing that you need to do. Take everything that you have sell it, give all the money away to the poor and then come and follow me.
This sounds like pretty shocking advice to us. And part of the reason it sounds so shocking is because I, and most likely you, do not live this way. We have some things... we've got a staff, we've got a bag, we've got a purse, we've got more than one pair of shoes, we don't exactly live this way. And so it's shocking to us to hear Jesus recommending it so forcefully throughout scripture. And I want to say, I don't think that Jesus expects us to live this way. This is called voluntary poverty. And I think it's a very special calling for very special people. It was a special calling for those disciples and certain followers and for certain people who really want to excel and meet spiritual challenges and grow spiritually in their life. But it is not what everybody in this life is supposed to do. We cannot all live in voluntary poverty, just like we can't all live in celibacy. And we can't all live in constant prayer, continuous prayer. These are very special vows for people who have a special calling and are on a special path in life.
However, I do think that even though this is not a universal calling and it may not be the calling for you or for me, there is a lesson in Jesus constantly reminding us to give things away and to leave things behind. There is a universal message in that teaching that is meant for all of us (even if we don't live in voluntary poverty) that we often miss. And it is a lesson that is deeper, more fundamental, and more important than just, “Don't be greedy.”
Now I want you to take as an example this morning, the landowner in Jesus' parable, the rich landowner. Is this the story of an out of control greed maniac? Does this sound like somebody who's just monstrously greedy and is just the poster child for a greed out of control. This guy's a business owner. He has a bumper crop. He doesn't have any place to store it. So it decides he is going to have bigger barns. And then he's going to be able to live off the proceeds.
Is that greed? I don't know if it is. It sounds a little bit like you or me, right? I mean, if you're a business owner, when the time comes and you have the opportunity, maybe you want to expand your business a little bit. Is that greediness or is that just business? Is that the way the world works? Is wanting to have your golden years be well funded so that you are not suffering, and during that time, when you don't have income coming in, because you're not running your business anymore, is that greedy just to want to have a nest egg that you can rely upon? I don't think that it is.
Can we really say that this landowner is acting immorally by what he is doing? Greed is immoral. This isn't immoral. It's not unethical. We don't even know that this landowner is being uncaring towards other people. Is he so obsessed with his business that he is not loving to his wife or to his children or to his neighbors? Does he not give to charity? Is he somebody who's totally self-obsessed? We don't see that in Jesus's story. That's not the story that Jesus is telling us here. This guy, he's not Ebeneezer Scrooge. He's not some miserable old miser. That's not what we're hearing about here. He's somebody just like you or like me. So yes, of course, don't be greedy, but Jesus is telling us something about ourselves as well. What is he trying to tell us?
Unfortunately, what we sometimes hear that Jesus is trying to tell us in this story, and it makes us quite nervous, is we say this guy, who's not all that different from you or me, the bad man, is super, super greedy. And so God kills him for being greedy, right? If you want bigger barns, God's going to kill you. So don't. Don't tear down your barns and build bigger ones, because that is going to get you the bolt of lightning from heaven. Now, I don't think that's actually the message here. Here's what I think the real message is. And I think you'll hear it in the words.
This is a perfectly average rich man who is making perfectly normal business decisions, but he is relying on his money and his possessions totally and completely to the exclusion of God. And he believes that his wealth and his power and his possessions are going to be able to save him in this life. And just at the moment when he believes that he has made it, and that he is going to be able to savor all of the fruit of his hard labors over the year and becoming someone who is rich and secure, he dies... not because God kills him for building bigger barns, but because everybody dies. Everybody has to leave it all behind at some point.
And then (I love this line) God says to the man, all that stuff that you thought was going to hold you up and protect you, who does it belong to now? Who does it belong to now? I think the lesson here from this parable is that none of us, no matter whether you're rich by luck and accident, or you're poor on purpose, none of us really owns anything at all. And none of us can rely in this life, on our possessions, on our wealth, on our money, however much we may have or not have to keep us going forever. Who owns everything that we have? God does. We are just intermediaries. It's entrusted to us for a short amount of time. And we cannot put our faith in it. Everything is always changing. And there's only one thing that we can rely on.
We think often in this life that, well, if I just had a little bit more, just a little bit more than I have now, then I would be truly happy. And how many times have you thought that in your life? Well, you think it about two weeks after you get whatever you thought was going to make you happy the last time. It always fades. We think if I just had a little bit more money, a little bit more security, well then I would be truly happy. And that happiness always fades. Why? It's because it's the psychology of our human desire. We always want more. And there's always more to want. Whatever level we get to, we always believe that there's something more and we're always disappointed in the end.
And yes, it may be true that having a little more money in this world might make you a little more secure in this world. That is the way that the world works. But you're not always going to be in this world. And at some point, everything that you built up around you in this world to keep you safe, isn't going to be able to keep you safe. That is the nature of our existence. And so who do we rely on?
Jesus has tried to teach us a universal truth in his voluntary poverty that he practices and that he recommends. He's trying to remind us of that universal truth in this parable. And that is that your true happiness can only be found outside of money and possessions. It can only be found outside of this world. It is somewhere in heaven, which as I told the kids this morning is somewhere in here and somewhere out there, a little bit of both. Your true security in this world has to come from beyond this world, your happiness and your meaning must come from beyond because this world is impermanent. It is always changing. It is always going up and down.
As I’m coming back from my paternity leave over the last two weeks, I have been catching up with a lot of you. And I always put some of our older members first, because I feel like they need me most. And frankly, I'll tell you the other reason I do it, is because the older members, the 65+ crowd, is the crowd I feel like that has the most change going on in their lives. If I don't talk to somebody for two weeks, I don't know what situation they're going to be in two weeks later... constant change.
And as I've spoken to many of our older members over the last two weeks, a lot of you are suffering. Some of you have good news, but many of you are dealing with this change... change in life. What about my finances? Who's going to take care of me? Where am I going to live? Now I have to move. I have to go somewhere else. Can I be independent or not? My friends are dying. My friends are moving away. Who's going to be there to take care of me. How am I going to be able to do it? My health is failing. What is wrong with me? Am I going to get better? Or is this it? There's so much change. I want you to know that I see that change. And I see what you all are going through. And as you know, because you're older and wiser than me, I can't fix it. All I can do is sit with you and love you. And remind you of the One who is with you through all of it.
This world is always changing. Our fortunes are always going up and down. Nothing stays the same. Everything we depend on, sooner or later, is going to disappear. And so in this life, we must realize and learn that no matter what, we must found our happiness and our security in God. Everything else in this world is like a little extra bonus to keep us safe and happy and warm and well fed. But the truth, the fundamental truth, is that it has to start with God. But many of us live our lives as if it starts with a paycheck in the bank. And it starts with food on the table and it starts with clothes on my back and it starts with a great career. And then God is the extra thing that I add on at the end of the week, but that doesn't work and that will eventually run out.
We have to found ourselves, our happiness, and our security, on the thing that is greater than any change, greater than any misfortune, greater than anything in this world. We can found our lives on faith, hope, and love. And so when Jesus recommends voluntary poverty to us, the lesson that I think he is offering us, is to live in this life without too much attachment, to work in this life without being attached to that work, to love in this life, to love everybody as if they were our own selves, but not to get attached too much to who we think we are, or who we think that they should be. Live, work, love, lead a good life, but found it all on the One who is greater than all of these things.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations