Monthly Archives: September 2016

Separation Now, Separation Later

In Jesus’ story about Lazarus and the rich man, what was the rich man’s sin?

To recap, there was a rich man who lived in luxury and a beggar named Lazarus who lay at his gate, covered with sores, longing to eat the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table.  They both died.  Lazarus was taken by angels to Abraham’s side, while the rich man ended up in hell.  In torment, the rich man asked Abraham to let Lazarus come and dip his finger in water to cool the rich man’s tongue.  Abraham reminded the rich man that in life he had received good things and Lazarus only bad things, but now Lazarus was being comforted, and the rich man was in torment.  Furthermore, there was a great chasm, separating them that neither could cross.  (Luke 16:15-31)

It did not appear that the rich man had violated any of the Ten Commandments as originally set out in Exodus 20 or Jewish law.  But he may have violated Jesus’ restatement of the commandment to love the Lord your God with all you heart, soul and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

The rich man’s sin was not the fact that he was rich.  It was his indifference.  Though Lazarus lay at the rich man’s gate (his neighbor), the rich man never noticed him.  The rich man had let his wealth and way of life separate him from the people in need of his day.

By historical standards, many of us in America today would likely be considered rich.  We do not want for food, shelter or clothing.  We have employment that enables us to live in a home we have bought and provide for our families.

Our circumstances may have the effect of separating us from people like Lazarus.  They still exist, but we don’t see them.  We do not see them in our neighborhoods.  We don’t see them at work or in our churches.  There may be the occasional homeless person begging at an intersection or Metro stop.  But for the most part, unless we take some affirmative action to step outside of our circumstances, our default response tends to separate us the very poor of our world.

When I read this story or the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46), I struggle with how much my life is separated from those in need, and the serious consequences that can result if I do not seek to remedy that separation.  

So, we write checks and give used clothes to various organizations assisting the poor.  I keep some dollars handy in the console of my car for the homeless soliciting at an intersection.  I volunteer in the Chaplain’s office at the county jail.  But do these things fulfill the spirit of the King in the above parable?

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”    

The tragic irony for the rich man and perhaps for us is that letting our circumstances separate us from those in need at this time can also lead to separation from God later. 

The Yoke of Jesus

What is the yoke that Jesus invites us to put on? 

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,” Jesus says, “and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

This may be one of the most loving and grace-filled invitations of all time. 

Robert Bellarmine, Bishop and Doctor of the Church in the 16th Century, says that the yoke that Jesus is talking about is the first and greatest commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.”  Loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbor as our self, is the yoke Jesus invites us to put on.  In contrast to the yoke that holds two animals together for purposes of pulling a wagon or plow, Jesus’ yoke is not heavy or burdensome.

Many years ago, my wife and I purchased an ox yoke which we found in the attic of an antique store while traveling in Maine.  It is massive, made of solid oak.  Its beam is more than a yard in length with a girth of six inches.  It is quite heavy to lift.

In contrast to such a heavy burden, Jesus tells us his yoke is easy and light.  It is not a burden to carry.  In fact, when we choose to love God with all our heart and our neighbor as our self, whatever other burdens we may be carrying become lighter.

Life’s circumstances can be filled with a variety of burdens — a chronic illness, the care of a spouse with terminal cancer, the loss of a job or career opportunity, the estrangement from a son or daughter, the challenge of a difficult boss or colleague, to name just a few.

One of the greatest burdens that we often choose to carry is sin.  What kind of sin?  St. Paul offers a long list, which he characterizes as obvious: “sexual immorality, idolatry, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness and the like.” (Galatians 5:19-21)  Implicit in this list is anger, resentment and unforgiveness, not only a heavy burden, but also an obstacle to experiencing the presence and fullness of God in our lives.

But if we accept Jesus’ yoke of loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, we will want to repent of our sin, accept Jesus’ forgiveness, and experience his presence in our lives through the Holy Spirit.  Instead of experiencing the sin described by Paul, we experience the fruit of the spirit, also described by him as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5: 22-23)

The contrast of the two lists is stark.  The first, a heavy burden; the second, the means to lighten the burden.  Jesus tells us to learn from him.  He says he will be gentle and humble with us.  Paul eloquently captures the result of carrying Jesus’s yoke –

“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Cor. 2:9)

The Heart Replaces Stone Tablets

What is your motivation to live out your faith day to day?

Six centuries before Christ, Jerimiah announced God’s intention to make a new covenant that Jesus later inaugurated with his passion, death and resurrection.

“’The time is coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘When I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel …It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers…I will put my law on their minds and write it on their hearts.’” (Jerimiah 31:31-33)

God is changing his writing materials.  This new covenant will differ from God’s earlier covenant in that it will not be written on tablets of stone but on people’s hearts.  While writing on stone can last a long time, it can still wear and fade just like the grave markers in an old cemetery.  Writing on the heart can last forever. 

There is another difference.  What is written on the heart is done so with the Holy Spirit of God.  The Holy Spirit not only imparts knowledge of right and wrong, it also provides the desire to do the right thing.  No longer are we trying to comply with the law based only upon our human will, but out of our love for God and the power and strength provided by the gifts and fruit of the Holy Spirit.  

While compliance of the law may be encouraged by punitive consequences, compliance is better assured when the love of God and the desire to do the right thing is written on our hearts.  

Many ethics programs in business, government and the professions fail because they are based only upon rules and consequences, rather than a heart desire to do the right thing out of the love of God.  The decision to comply then becomes an evaluation of the risk of consequences vs. the benefits of noncompliance.  There is no motivation of the heart.

This past Sunday, we remembered the 15th anniversary of September 11, when terrorists seized airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania.  A number of the victims included first responders and others who gave their lives trying to rescue and assist others.  Their actions resulted from decisions of the heart on which God had inscribed his commandment of love.

Jesus affirmed all of this when he said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.  Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:30-31)

Heart, soul, mind and strength are not made of stone, which can wear and fade, but are aspects of our inner being created by God which we will take with us to eternity.   

Toughening It Out

How do you respond to persistent, long term challenges? 

The prophet Jerimiah complained to God about the godless prospering and living in contentment even though their hearts were far from him.  God had called Jerimiah early in life to speak for him.  From the beginning, Jerimiah encountered hostility and persecution to his prophetic words taking place over decades under several kings and the conquering armies of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon.  Seldom did the people or their kings heed his warnings.  To compound his lament, he sees people prosper who have ignored both him and God.

God’s response is not entirely sympathetic.  He says, “If running against men worries you, how will you race against horses?” (Jer. 12:5)  This sounds similar to God’s response to Job after his many complaints resulting from his lengthy suffering.  “Who is this that obscures divine plans with words of ignorance?” (Job 38:2)

Like Jerimiah and Job, how often do we complain to God about the trials and challenges in our lives, or question his timing or justice?  It may be the suffering from a long term illness, seeing the life of a loved one snuffed out prematurely or protracted unemployment extending beyond our ability to cope.

I am reminded of the women who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years in Mark 5:26 or the man who had been an invalid for 38 years waiting to be healed by the stirring waters of the Pool of Bethesda in John 5:2-9.  Each had an enduring faith: the woman saying, “If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured;” the man waiting for someone to assist him to get into the pool while the healing waters are stirring.

For almost thirty years, I have been praying for the healing of a daughter with a speech disability that accompanied her birth with Down syndrome.   She understands fully all that we say to her, she reads at a rudimentary level, but she has difficulty articulating her feelings or thoughts that require more than a short sentence.

In spite of her disability, God has blessed her with a smile that melts your heart, an inclination to love and hug most everyone she meets and a purity of heart that teaches the rest of us about the ways of God.  While I must confess that I have given up on my prayer from time to time, I still persevere, knowing that anything is possible to God in spite of my mustard seed size faith. 

I stand in awe of people who suffer through a painful long term illness and yet retain the joy of the Lord.  I marvel at the spouse who cares for a disabled loved one day in and out, month after month and sometimes even year after year.

The apostle Paul who accepted the tough words of God to Jerimiah and Job for his own life, offers us great words of encouragement in the face of interminable suffering or challenges.  He says, “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus…Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12: 1-3)