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Luke #59 Games People Play with God

Games People Play with God

Reading: Luke 16:14-31

Introduction: When my teaching career began at Columbia Christian College in Portland, Oregon, many years ago now, my wife and I attended a church that found itself rapidly becoming polarized over some issues that now seem rather unimportant, but at the time were driven by some strong personality conflicts among the members and eventually led to a church split. I will never forget one of the heated men’s business meetings, when one man was trying to explain his perspective on what was happening there at the church, and another man interrupted him with these words: “I know you, I know what you’re up to here. You may not know you, but I know you.”

While those two men really didn’t have a clue about each other, I have remembered that phrase often over the years since, and thought of it again this week, as it actually would have been true for Jesus and the Pharisees. They did not really know themselves, but he knew them. On the other hand, they could not figure him out at all. He claimed to be a holy man of God but he associated with tax collectors and sinners. He defied their understandings and expectations of righteous behavior. It was as though they weren’t reading from the same scriptures at times. That was never more apparent than in what Jesus had to say about money and possessions. The Pharisees knew well the promise of blessing in Deuteronomy 28: “Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your body and the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your beasts, the increase of your cattle, and the young of your flock.” They knew Psalm 1 very well: “the man who delights in the law of the Lord will prosper in all that he does.” These people were sure that the wealth that came to them was a sign of God’s blessing merited by their knowledge and obedience to the Law. They kept themselves from evil and evil people and found justification for what Luke calls their love of money.

In the ongoing story of chapter sixteen, remember that Jesus has just told the parable of the dishonest steward to his disciples and then reflected on the role of “unrighteous mammon” in securing eternal habitations. Trustworthy handling of money and possessions meant that money was not a personal possession but a stewardship from God, and people were to be trustworthy stewards. No one could serve two masters, and money had the potential always of becoming idolatrous.

When Jesus declares that humans cannot serve both God and money, the Pharisees who have been listening in on Jesus’ teaching to his disciples scoff at his ideas. Jesus responds with a strong critique of their self-justifying attitudes and behavior, saying that they may be able to justify themselves before other people, but God knows their hearts. “What is exalted among men is an abomination to God.” In the Old Testament, the term “abomination” was used most often for idolatry, and it is clear that lovers of money were guilty of idolatry while thinking they could justify themselves. “This is not the days of the law and the prophets anymore where you can read the text selectively to justify your own actions. The law and prophets were until John; now the kingdom of God is preached and people are compelled into it.” Tax collectors and sinners are entering while the supposed insiders are being thrust out. It looks like license to sin, but it is not. The fact that those people are coming in has not taken away even the slightest from the commands of God because these people are called to repentance. There are no games with God in the Kingdom.

To illustrate, Jesus uses another issue where the Pharisees had developed all kinds of rules and exemptions for interpreting God’s law. “Every one who divorces one wife and marries another commits adultery. He who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Jesus speaks it that bluntly at this point precisely because the Pharisees were engaged in a heated debate among themselves over the meaning of Deuteronomy 24. There, the Law says that if a man finds something objectionable about his wife, he can write out a certificate of divorce and be done with her. The debate obviously was over what constitutes a legitimate “objection.” In this context, Jesus says they are engaged in the wrong questions. God’s will is not that complicated unless one is trying to justify one’s actions, just as they were with their love of money.

With that explanation, Jesus then tells the story of Lazarus and the rich man. First the rich man is described in all his luxury—he wears the most expensive clothing. Every day is a party. The terms used to describe him eating sumptuously are the same terms used to describe the party thrown for the prodigal son. In contrast, there is the beggar outside his gate, Lazarus, who is full of sores, and wishes he could just get the table scraps that the rich man’s dogs eat. Instead he gets the dogs licking his sores.

But then comes the great reversal in which both men die and Lazarus goes to the great heavenly banquet where he is at table laying on the breast of Abraham. In contrast, the rich man goes to Hades, the realm of eternal death, and he lifts up his eyes and sees that his position and Lazarus’s position are now reversed. There is still a kind of naive arrogance as he calls out to Abraham for help. He knows who Lazarus is, and would appreciate Abraham sending Lazarus with some relief from the heat. Do you hear the language that says, “Lazarus is still servant to me”? But there can be no relief sent by Lazarus or anyone else. He had his chance in the other life. There he received good things while Lazarus was in torment. Now all is reversed and there is a chasm that is much wider than the gate that separated his fine dining from the beggar Lazarus on earth.

Still wanting some servant help--if not for himself, then at least for his family—the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to his father’s house to warn his brothers. “They have Moses and the Prophets,” Abraham replies. The rich man pleads, “No, that’s not good enough to get their attention. But if a man rose from the dead, then they would listen.” “No, if they can’t hear Moses and the prophets they won’t be convinced if some one should rise from the dead either.”

None of us has a Lazarus sitting outside the gates of our house this morning, so it is rather simple to look at this story and the commentary by Jesus that precedes it and say, “Those Pharisees just didn’t get it, did they!” But I wonder how different we really are?

In the late 11th century, the Crusades were launched by the Catholic Church in the name of restoring the Holy Land to God’s people. The need for soldiers to fight this war led to an unusual recruiting decision by Pope Urban II. Using his power as the Vicar of Christ, he offered full and complete forgiveness and absolution for any further acts of penance to every man who fought in the Crusades. It was called an Indulgence. 300 years later, the buying and selling of indulgences in the church appalled Martin Luther. People were treating God’s forgiveness as a commodity to raise money for the church and/or buy one’s salved conscience. It is easy to look at the Pope and the Catholic Church with their system of buying forgiveness by holy service, or even with cash, and think to ourselves, “They really got that all messed up, didn’t they!” But I wonder how different we actually are? I wonder how often going to church on Sunday and taking the Lord’s Supper functions as an indulgence or penance—a make-up call that covers the rest of the week? Or how about putting a “small portion” in the collection plate?

How often is our church life today a make-up call for the sinful behavior that we choose to engage in otherwise? How often does money become God of our lives? If forced to choose between money and God, would God not say to many of us, “you may not know you but I know you”? And then there is the language of the heart, only we don’t say, “God knows hearts!” We say, “In my heart, I know God wants me to be happy.”

Where is that text? What kind of games are we playing with marriage and divorce and remarriage today? The teaching is pretty plain in this text—marriage is for life! Anything less is adultery, a top 10 sin in the Bible. Luke’s audience does not have the benefit of a second or third opinion. There are no exception clauses here. But we have our own exception clauses today. If I’m not happy, God sure would want me to be happy! Do we really believe that because the kingdom of God has come, God now thinks less of marriage than he did in the beginning? And yet, we justify ourselves all of the time!

The three nets of Satan in ancient Judaism were sexual immorality, money, and idolatry. In our day, we talk about sex, money and power. The quest for power is at the heart of idolatry, isn’t it? Those are still the tools of Satan today. Those are the issues and the times we are most tempted to justify ourselves. I understand the need to offer forgiveness and to be a community of healing for hurting people. But there is also the demand for repentance that comes from Jesus. There is also the need to see our own idolatry, the need to see our own sin. How is it that this rich guy is obviously the loser in this story, but the highest goal for most of us is to get rich? How is it that we in this audience have more wealth than 99 percent of the world’s population, but we aren’t rich? It’s those people—we are just middle class!

In the days of the prophets Amos and Hosea and Micah, the people of Israel had become quite good at living life anyway they pleased through the week, and then looking very holy and pious on the Sabbath. They were great at making sacrifices and keeping holy days, and could even speak with confidence about the day of the Lord that they believed was coming. But Amos would respond with these words: “Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord! Why do you long the day of the Lord? The day will be darkness not light.” He then goes on to say, “I hate, I despise you religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs!” The people thought that as long as they got religion right at the sanctuary they could justify the way they acted the rest of the time.

What would he say about our songs this morning? What are the games we are playing with God? Have we seen Lazarus lately? The good news is that the kingdom of God has come, and God compels us sinners to enter in and sin no more. Does God have his way in your life, or do you have your way?

Delivered at Brentwood Hill, September 24, 1995 a.m.

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