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Parables of Surprise

The Sunday Lectionary after feast of Cross in September offers various combinations of Epistle and Gospel readings that break the normal pairings – at least in the Greek tradition. Today’s readings, Ephesians 2:4-10 and Luke 16:19-31, offer an interesting juxtaposition: faith or works? Paul says: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast.” But our Gospel passage today seems to focus only on whether the rich man showed kindness on Lazarus.

Chapters 15 & 16 in the Gospel of Luke are rich with parables – and all deal with what it means to be lost. After two short parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, Jesus turns to three big parables with human characters. As if to underline that these are human, all-too-human stories, each parable begins with the phrase ἄνθρωπός τις – there was a man, anthropos. The parable of the prodigal son we read every year before Lent. The parable of the shrewd manager we don’t read on a Sunday, but it also is a gem of a story. The third parable is the one we read today, the rich man and Lazarus.

Each story features central characters who are lost in different ways. Then in each story grace enters and reverses the plotline. Paul told us today: God “raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” Did you catch that? It’s not just a promise of a future life; we’re already sitting with Christ in the heavenly places! The immeasurable riches of grace are a future promise, but the present is already a life lived in rich fellowship with Christ. This is precisely what happened to all the main characters in our parables.

The younger brother was lost in sin; but he repented, changed his mind, and entered life. The older brother was lost in pride and ego, but the door was opened to him also to join the celebration of life. And let’s not forger that Jesus’ favorite image for eternal life was a banquet! The father in the parable was not lost, but he also found redemption of sorts by showing kindness to both his sons. You don’t have to be lost to receive grace and redemption. The father found a deeper life through the redemption of his two sons. Profound!

The shrewd manager in the parable we don’t read on a Sunday was lost because of his dishonesty, but found redemption by using his dishonesty in a way that somehow met with Christ’s approval. Who ever said the Gospels are boring or irrelevant? Maybe Jesus was a capitalist after all! (Okay, I’m joking.)

In today’s parable, Lazarus is lost in poverty, hunger and invisibility. But he is raised from the dehumanized squalor of dogs licking his wounds to life in “the bosom of Abraham.” The rich man is lost in his self-absorbed luxury. Redemption of some sort comes to him too! He now sees Lazarus as if for the first time. Is it too late for him? The parable clearly indicates that it is; but he does try to prevent his five brothers from coming to the same end as he. Plus, he is in Hades. That’s not Hell. As a matter of fact, Hades was a Greek mythological concept: the place of the dead. Luke, the writer of this Gospel, was a Greek, not a Jew, so it is very possible that he inserted the language of Hades and made it a place of torment; whereas for the ancient Greeks it was not necessarily a place of punishment or torment. It’s highly unlikely that Jesus himself would have used the word Hades. He might have said, Sheol, and Luke turned it to Hades. Sheol in the Hebrew mind was not much different from the Greek Hades – not a place of torment, but a place of darkness and separation from God.

So all three of these parables with the ἄνθρωπός τις headline, have surprising elements. In each parable something takes place in and around grace that reverses “the way things are.” There’s a message there for us too. Never settle for the way things are. Our Lord is the master of surprises. So the entire question of faith vs. works is meaningless. Grace is the only thing that matters. And grace is unpredictable in its coming and in its effects. Prepare to be surprised – here in this life and in the life to come.


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We are not neutrinos!

 

On a recent trip to Germany we visited friends in the city Karlsruhe, a typical German city of medium size. I did not know at the time – but found out just days ago – that Karlsruhe is the site of a very important experiment in physics: the Karlsruhe Tritium Neutrino Experiment, Katrin for short. Its purpose is to find the mass of the neutrino – the most insignificant entity in the universe. Insignificant because for a long time it was believed to have no mass, but scientists now know that it has an extremely tiny mass. What is significant about neutrinos is that they are present everywhere. Every second, right now, billions of neutrinos pass through your body! Uncountable numbers have been left over from the Big Bang birth of the cosmos 13.8 billion years ago. There are more neutrinos in the universe than any other kind of particle, but because they do not interact with any type of matter, they are hard to detect and measure. Because they are present everywhere in huge numbers, their mass could determine the future of the universe. Will it continue to expand for ever, to all eternity, until it dies a cold death? Or will it stop expanding and perhaps even contract and collapse again?

The main spectrometer of Katrin on its way to Karlsruhe in 2006. The project is set to get under way in June 2018.

You might think that the fate of the universe countless billions or even trillions of years in the future is hardly something for us to be concerned about. How about the fate of your grandchildren or great-grandchildren a hundred years from now? Is that something you might want to be concerned about? Although the current administration in Washington does not believe in global warming and human-caused climate change, the White House did release last Friday an exhaustive scientific report put together by 13 federal agencies that says humans are the dominant cause of the global temperature rise that has created the warmest period in the history of civilization. The report says that there is “no convincing alternative explanation” that anything other than humans — the cars we drive, the power plants we operate, the forests we destroy — are to blame.

Will it change people’s minds about climate change? Will it change the position of the current administration, which allowed the release of this report?

Change of mind is a hard thing for humans. And that is why in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) we hear Abraham say to the rich man: ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.’

It is hard for humans to change our minds. It will be interesting to see what impact – if any – this newest report will have on public opinion and the politics of Washington.

The rich man did not change his ways, though he saw Lazarus every day at his doorstep. So also his brothers will not change their ways even if someone should rise from the dead. The human heart can be very hard, implacable.

Do we go through life like neutrinos, not interacting with what’s around us? Do we go through life like the rich man today, not caring for those who need our compassion? Do we go through life not caring how our lifestyles might be ruining the environment and the future life of our children and grandchildren? Those are good questions to ponder on today.

May the Lord preserve us from hard-heartedness. May the Lord continue to work on us, to give us soft hearts, compassionate hearts. We are not neutrinos!


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Abraham in the Center

 

Last week I speculated why our churches – including our own here in Portland – are slowly emptying. My answer last week was two-fold: Our Orthodox Church has forgotten its purpose to be a place of healing, and people simply don’t think they need healing – or to put it more radically, they don’t need Jesus. Or they think they don’t need Jesus!

Today we have two readings (2 Corinthians 11:31-12:9 and Luke 16:19-31) that remind us of what used to be the reason why people went to church. For many centuries, the church had two weapons that kept people coming: The promise of heaven and the threat of hell. Promises of heaven can motivate many people, but nothing motivates like fear. So the church for many centuries used the weapon of fear to keep people coming back and staying in their places or pews.

Today the fear of hell has gone from most people. And as for heaven – well, if there is heaven God is going to let everyone in, so what’s the big deal? Why should I go to boring Liturgy? Or fast? Or pray? Or worry about the commandments or how I live my life? Why worry about sin? There is no hell, and if there is heaven God is going to let me in no matter how I live my life. Fear does not work any more. And promises of heaven only seem to work with jihadist terrorists. So what are we to make of today’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus if I can’t use it to scare anyone?

Let’s start with Abraham since he is in my opinion the real central character. Notice that Lazarus doesn’t speak, and the rich man only speaks with Abraham; even when he requests a favor from Lazarus, he asks it through Abraham. So Abraham is the central character. What was Abraham to a Jew? Abraham was the father of many nations (Genesis 17:5). He is the father of Jews, Christians and Moslems. In the Bible’s language, Adam was the man of dust, the first man. But no one in the Bible looks to Adam as his/her father. They look to Abraham. The rich man now calls him father Abraham, but while he was alive, he ignored the man at his doorstep who also had Abraham as his father!

lazarus-and-the-rich-man

So the poor man Lazarus is carried to the bosom of Abraham in the parable, while the rich man looks on from afar. What else does Abraham represent in the Bible? He represents hospitality. In Genesis 18, Abraham and Sarah welcomed three men to their home in the desert, and without knowing it they offered hospitality to angels. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2 – clearly referring to this incident) In our own tradition, we represent the three men who visited Abraham and Sarah as angels, but angels who also represent God. And that’s because in the Genesis story, Abraham addresses the three men as Lord – Yahweh! So when Jesus tells us, I was hungry and thirsty and you gave me food and drink; I was naked and you clothed me – he was thinking of Abraham’s kindness and hospitality. Abraham is our example of hospitality. The rich man calls Abraham his father, but he did not do what Abraham did.

Finally, in that same chapter 18 of Genesis, the three men who visit Abraham and Sarah are on their way to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. When Abraham hears of this, he pleads with God and bargains. What if there are 50 righteous people there, will God still destroy? No, God will spare the place for the sake of the 50. What if there are 45? I will not destroy it. How about 40? And so on. Finally, what if there are 10 righteous people there? For the sake of ten I will not destroy it, God says and walks off. And we know the rest of the story. The rich man perhaps remembered the story of how Abraham was even able to bargain with God so he now hopes Abraham can do some bargaining on his behalf.

So Abraham represented three things relevant to the two men in today’s parable and to us: their/our common fatherhood, hospitality, and intercession with God. The rich man failed in all three, and Abraham had nothing with which to help him. Remember, Abraham had pleaded if there were ten righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah! The rich man in today’s parable was not a righteous man – Abraham could not plead for him.

Finally, the rich man begs for a message to be sent to his brothers. Ah, there’s the fear motivation. Maybe they can be scared to doing things differently so they don’t end up in the same place as he. It doesn’t work that way, Abraham replies. Fear does not work – he could be speaking to today’s people. If the man’s brothers haven’t listened to Moses and the prophets, they won’t believe even if some one should rise from the dead and go to them. And here my message today re-unites with last week’s message. When people think they’re just fine thank you, they don’t need Jesus. And they don’t need the church or the sacraments. And they certainly won’t be scared by any parables such as the one we heard today. So let’s do for them what Abraham would do. Treat them as our brothers & sisters, offer them hospitality in our hearts and whenever they do return, and above all, lets intercede for them. Let’s pray for them. Then we might become the church that draws people back.


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People of the Second Coming

 

Touch is the message of today’s gospel reading. The poor man Lazarus was untouchable, except by the dogs who licked his wounds! He was one of the invisibles, one of the people that we choose not to see because they might trouble our conscience or our easygoing relationship with life. And he who did not touch Lazarus when he lay at his doorstep wanted to be touched by Lazarus in Hades. Touch or the lack of it joined them in life and in death. One refused, the other couldn’t because of the chasm.

An icon depicting the whole Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)

An icon depicting the whole Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)

There is an important message here: Be careful about what or who you reject! It leads to hardness and coldness of heart. That’s not exactly what happens in the parable, but the chasm that separates the two men after death is a symbol of the chasm that opens in our lives when we refuse to reach out and touch.

We need to start seeing our Liturgy as missional. What happens in the Liturgy? The Lord touches us and we touch the Lord – in communion, of course, but also when we greet and embrace each other! At the end of Liturgy, we hear the words, “Let us depart in peace” and we respond, “In the name of the Lord.” We leave the Liturgy “in the name of the Lord” by going out to touch the world as Jesus touched the world. “In the name of the Lord” means as representatives of the Lord, standing in the place of Jesus, doing what he would do! Too bad our Liturgy became a little cluttered with extra words over the centuries, but those words at the end capture the mission of Liturgy. Liturgy teaches us that we are here for the life of the world.

This is the Church’s moment, like it was 2,000 years ago. The world has lost meaning, like it did 2,000 years ago in the Roman Empire. The gospel spread like wildfire because it touched people with a genuine message and fellowship.

People wait for the second coming of Christ – but is it possible that the second coming has been present in the world for these 2,000 years? Of course we believe in the future return of Christ in glory, but is Christ not already present in the world? Is he not present in people like the poor man Lazarus (“inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these you did it to me”)? And is he not present in every one who strives to live as a disciple of Christ? Today’s saints are an example of that “second coming” that I speak of, the one already present in the world!

sfintii-cosma-si-damian-doctori-fara-de-arginti-protectorii-casniciilor-18432458Saints Cosmas and Damian were twin brothers who lived in the 3rd century. They were physicians and are venerated among a whole group of saints in the Orthodox Church who are called “Unmercenaries” because they healed without receiving payment. And they not only attended to human illnesses, but they also healed animals.

1101CyreniaKyrannaOn this same day (Nov. 1st) the Orthodox Church also commemorates Saints Cyrenia and Juliana, two women who dedicated their lives to helping orphans and widows, gave monetary and material aid whenever they could, always expecting nothing in return. They died as martyrs in the early years of the 4th century.

These unmercenary saints are like the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet – because “she loved much.” Jesus touched our humanity because He loved much! “Love never ends,” Paul told us today in that marvelous reading. It never ends because there are always unmercenary disciples of Christ who are touching the wounds of humanity. This is the only way the church can be the church! Not by building monuments to our own egos, not by shutting ourselves off in religious or ethnic ghettos – but by touching people with unmercenary love, expecting ABSOLUTELY NOTHING in return or as response, including conversion. Love with no strings attached. Being people of the second coming!