Do we demand too much from God? Often our attitude to God is one of questioning his actions, or even his existence. God why is there suffering? God if you are there, why don’t you do this? The Gospel passage assigned for this week talks about faith and then the position of a slave working on a farm. In Jesus’ day, it was common to use the most vivid language. When Jesus says, if you had enough faith you could uproot a mulberry tree, he was emphasising that faith was the greatest force in the world. Next, Jesus goes on to say that a slave will not be served at the table by his master. Rather, the slave serves the master first and then helps himself to food and drink. Moreover, he is not thanked for simply doing his job. The juxtaposition of these two passages is significant. Yes, God can do anything for us and is willing to do so but this is not our right which we can demand. God is God and we are his beloved creatures who have sinned. Ask for the biggest things in your life but do not demand because no servant is greater than his master.
Is a sin something that we do wrong? In the Bible passage this week, Jesus tells the story of Lazarus and the rich man. What had the rich man done wrong? There is no indication that he was violent; no indication that he was a thief or dishonest. He did not even try to forcibly remove Lazarus from the gate to his house but, rather, seemed happy for Lazarus to receive the scraps from his table. Yet the rich man ends up in hell. Why? The problem with the rich man was not so much what he did, but rather what he didn’t do. He lived in the lap of luxury while the world around him was in poverty. People were starving and were in pain and yet he did nothing about it. He didn’t even seem to notice that Lazarus existed. Surely, on a few occasions at least, he could have invited Lazarus and others to dine with him. After all, he ate exotic foods every day of his life while Lazarus couldn’t even fend off the dogs who licked his sores. As always, we need to engage with this story and put ourselves into it. In this country we live an opulent lifestyle compared with most in the world. We are all probably behaving more like the rich man than we care to admit. Our sin is not that we have done wrong in the eyes of the law but rather that we have not done enough in the light of this passage.
Should we ever use worldly values in dealing with others? The Bible passage this week is the story that Jesus told of the shrewd manager. This is one of the most difficult passages to understand in the whole of the New Testament. The reason is that all the actors in the story are dishonest. Moreover, the owner commends the manager for being dishonest! Perhaps the owner is not meant to be a figure representing God, but this is unlikely when seen in the context of all the other parables of Jesus. For example, the owner in the parable of the vineyard. What then is the main purpose of Jesus telling this parable? I think it is this. To repeatedly reject all worldly values is not always very efficient and it is often not wise. Elsewhere in scripture Jesus admonishes us to be “as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves”. God is sovereign over all things and calls us sometimes to embrace the values of the world in furthering His kingdom. After all, some of the greatest hymns of the church were theological words put to well-known secular tunes. Seen in this light, the words of Jesus in the parable of the shrewd manager begin to make sense: “I tell you, use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends. In this way, your generosity stores up a reward for you in heaven.”
Do we welcome into the church, and into our lives, people who have a very different past from our own? In the appointed Gospel passage for this week Jesus says: “there will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents more than over ninety-nine just people who have no need of repentance!” In order to fully understand the significance of these words and the context in which Jesus said them, we need to know the common sayings of strict Jews in Jesus’ time. One of the pharisaic sayings was: “there will be joy in heaven over one sinner who is obliterated before God!” For Jesus it was not about destruction of the sinner but, rather, salvation of the sinner. Jesus backs this up with two very well-known stories. The first story is of a shepherd who risks his own safety to recover one lost sheep from the flock. The second story is of a woman who loses one of ten silver pieces and then hunts for it until she finds it and her set is once again complete. In both these cases there is exuberant joy. In the case of the sheep, these would often belong to a village. To lose one sheep was to reduce the assets and productive capacity of the village community. Frequently the villagers would wait with anticipation late into the night until the shepherd returned with the lost sheep carried on his shoulders. What infectious joy would then spread through the whole of the village. This, said Jesus, is what God is like. God is passionate about as many of us as possible coming back to Him if we ever stray away. These people, often with a different past from our own, need to be made fully welcome in the church and, indeed, we should rejoice enthusiastically over their return.
Do we know what true discipleship means? In the Bible passage assigned for this week, Jesus urges his followers to count the cost. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and to the horrors of the cross, and yet the people around him think he is going to become an emperor. Jesus is keen to dispel this falsehood immediately. Accordingly, he spells out that true discipleship means sacrificing everything for the Kingdom of God – even those things which are most dear. It is a sad reality that in the church today there are many people who attend and many people who follow religion, but they are not true disciples of Jesus Christ! Jesus says to all people who want to be disciples, have you really counted the cost? Have we counted the cost? Have we weighed up the fact that in following Jesus our priorities must change forever? To illustrate the need to count the cost, Jesus uses two illustrations. Firstly, who would want the humiliation and embarrassment of starting to build an extension to a house which would never be finished? Secondly, a nation’s army would never choose to go war against a much bigger force that would ultimately prevail and destroy all that country’s citizens. In the same way, we must think carefully about what being a disciple means. The Christian way is about sacrifice and hardship. However, if we choose this steep path, the Holy Spirit will walk with us and Jesus will be there to greet us at the top. That makes it more than worthwhile.