Twenty-Sixth Sunday: Fake Love

Amos 6:1a, 4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31

One of the main features of Luke’s Gospel is his collection of moving parables.  This week we get the Rich Man and Lazarus.

The first two readings prepare us.  The prophet Amos is writing just before the northern kingdom of Israel will be conquered.  He says, “Woe to the complacent in Zion!”  They are comfortable in their riches.

“Yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph!”  I think there is a double entendre here.  In the prophet’s present, Joseph refers to the two tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim (Joseph’s sons), the first and the final of the northern tribes to be conquered.  But in history, it also refers to the poor brother sold into slavery.  Amos argues that Israel will be conquered because they don’t care for their poor brothers. 

“Like David, they devise their own accompaniment” on the harp: metaphorically, their actions form the accompaniment of their affections.  Complacent hearts bear fruit in complacent lives.


Against that complacency, our final reading from First Timothy says, “pursue righteousness.”  Paul reminds us that God gives life, and that Jesus gave testimony—two ways of saying we should be active, not complacent—and then points to the fulness of the commandments.

He concludes by reminding us to prepare for the coming of Jesus, the King of Kings, whose Lordship we must recognize—and contrasts that to the God in “unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see.”  Its like Paul’s version of what First John says, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”  It makes no sense to call God, or Jesus, Lord, if it doesn’t affect the way we live in this world.

And it points us forward, to Matthew 25, “when did we see you hungry?”, and to Luke’s more colorful version of the same parable, the Rich Man and Lazarus.


Where Matthew 25 moves directly from our treatment of the poor to our judgment when Jesus comes again, Luke’s version dwells in the human relationships.

The rich man has purple garments and fine linen, and dines sumptuously every day.  But he doesn’t have a name.  He is depersonalized by his wealth.

The poor man has a name.  Lazarus is a Greek version of the Hebrew name Eleazar (or El-azar): God helps.  He looks to the crumbs that fall from the man’s table, while sickness oozes from his own body.  I always thought the dogs who licked his wounds were humiliating him, but I wonder if they are his only friends.

The poor man’s death is rich in relationships.  The angels carry him, to the bosom of Abraham.  I can’t find any other places where heaven is described this way—the parable is making a point about how relational heaven is.  It’s not just individuals floating in the ether with a depersonalized God.  Heaven is family. 

Luke says that the poor man and the rich man see their fortunes reversed.  But that reversal is not the whole story.  It’s not just that accounts are balanced.  It’s their quality of relationships that brings about the reversal.  Lazarus isn’t in heaven because he’s poor, but because he leans on God.


The story takes a sophisticated turn when we see the rich man in hell.  Again, we are not told directly why he is in hell—but it plays out in the story.

“Father Abraham,” he calls.  A great theme of the Gospel is what it means to be a child of Abraham.  Many of the Jews think it is their birthright.  Jesus proclaims it a matter of faith.  The rich man has one, but not the other.

In our translation, Abraham says, “My son.”  But it’s important that he doesn’t say “my.”  He doesn’t recognize him as a true son of Abraham.  He just says, “child”—who knows whose child.

The rich man is pretending to have a relationship he doesn’t have.


Then he pretends to have another relationship.  Again trying to call Abraham “father,” he says, “I have five brothers.”  No surprise, he asks that Abraham make Lazarus his messenger boy, to warn his brothers.  He cares, he says, about them, while instrumentalizing Lazarus.

But how often Jesus tells us that it is no love to love only those who give to you.  If the rich man had no concern for Lazarus at his gate, Abraham is not impressed by this “love” for his brothers. 

And we learn something about them: they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets.  That means, first, that they aren’t true children of Abraham; they may have his blood, but not his faith.  And it means, second, that they too are ignoring the call of Moses and the prophets to love your neighbor and care for the poor. 

In short, Abraham calls him out on false love.  It’s easy to say we love others.  But the Gospel calls us to a more radical love. 

And so too, Abraham says at the end, it’s easy to say you believe in the resurrection of the dead.  But true faith means hearing the call of the Gospel and the call of the prophets, which includes the cry of the poor, and the call not just to love those who are convenient, but to love with the heart of Jesus.  Only that love can welcome us into the family of heaven.

How do you fake love?

Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Cheat the World

Matthew’s Gospel has the famous story of the talents: those who make money get more.  To contradict a worldly interpretation of that parable, Luke’s Gospel gives a very different version, which we read this Sunday.

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Our first reading, from the Prophet Amos, sounds the theme: “Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land!”  Interesting that they ask, “When will the new moon be over . . . that we may sell our grain, and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat?”  They observe the Law.

But they also say, “We will diminish the ephah, add to the shekel, and fix our scales for cheating!”  They cut corners.  They “buy the lowly for silver.”  And “The Lord has sworn . . . Never will I forget a thing they have done!”  Maybe we should start worrying about the way we do business.


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Our Gospel immediately follows last Sunday’s Prodigal Son.  Jesus tells the story of a steward getting fired “for squandering his property.”  His solution is to squander it more: “How much do you owe my master?”  “One hundred measures.”  “Quickly write [a new bill] for fifty.”  To get his employer’s debtors to “welcome me into their homes,” he helps them cheat his employer.  Pretty rotten. 

And somehow, Jesus says we should copy that conniving steward.

The key verse might be the one right after our reading ends.  Next week we will read Luke’s story of the Rich Man and Lazarus.  But we skip five verses between that story and this one.  The first of those verses says, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him.”

In last week’s Gospel, he told the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son—and the celebrations when they were found—to contradict the Pharisees’ scandal at him welcoming sinners.  But all of those stories leave us open to thinking that the real goal is to have prosperous farms, money, and parties.  We, who are like the Pharisees not only in our lack of mercy but also in our love of money, might get the wrong idea.

So Jesus launches into this story, and next week’s, about the Rich Man and Lazarus.


Here’s the moral Jesus draws from this strange story of the dishonest steward: “Make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

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It’s one of Jesus’s weirder analogies, but it works: We are the dishonest steward.  The boss is this world.  He is going to fire us; he rejects us; he does not care for us; he will not provide for us, he will fail us. 

And so like the dishonest steward, we should cheat him right back.  Waste his money.  Deny his values.  Take his wealth away from him and use it for better things.  Serve God, not mammon.  Use the things of this world, not to grow richer in this world, not to impress the boss who will fire you.  Use the things of this world, as the dishonest steward did, saying, “I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes”—or rather, as Jesus later explains, “into eternal dwellings.” 

Focus not on what the world wants.  Cheat the world, and do what God wants.  That means, for example, caring for the Poor Man Lazarus.  It means that instead of cutting corners and trampling on the needy, you give and don’t count the cost.


“What is exalted among men,” Jesus says, in the second verse between this week’s reading and next’s, “is an abomination in the sight of God.”  Live by a different standard.

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The fifth and last verse we skip is Luke’s only treatment of divorce: “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.”  All the strength and punch of Jesus’s teaching.  But Luke cuts it down, and puts it in a different context.  What does it mean to live Jesus’s teaching on marriage?  It means rejecting worldly standards.  You can better understand what he says about marriage, Luke thinks, if you learn not to be worldly about money.

Our reading from First Timothy adds a parallel about government.  “There is one God.  There is also one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”  So approach even government, not with worldly perspectives—not with tribalism, not with attempts to get more money or honor or whatever for you and yours—but with a desire for unity, working for peace and quiet, not for war.

It’s not enough to follow the Law—observing the sabbath, or avoiding adultery, and then looking for how you can cheat your neighbor to get more money.  Jesus calls us to a new standard.  Subordinating our financial life to that standard is a good start in living a truly converted life.

Where could you cheat the world by being kinder?

Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Action of the Father

This Sunday we read—again: we read it during Lent, too—the magnificent story of the Prodigal Son.  But the context of the story, at the opening, is the Pharisees and scribes complaining, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 

We can think about this in terms of action and passivity.  Jesus seems to his critics to be too passive, as if he doesn’t care.  His answer is that they don’t understand just how active the Father is.


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We start with Moses arguing with God over the Golden Calf.  God tells Moses his plan “that my wrath may blaze against them to consume them.”  It often seems to us that God is active in punishment, and passive in relenting.  Because Jesus is not destroying sinners, he seems to be at odds with this active God of the Old Testament.

That wrath is real.  There is punishment.  But the surprising thing we learn is that punishment is God’s inactivity.  Salvation is his activity.

In our story, God has already acted to save them.  But they choose to worship a molten calf—which is dumb.  For God to ignore them is to leave them alone in the desert, worshiping a god who cannot save.  What we call, and experience as, wrath, is the misery that will happen if God does not save us.  Punishment happens when God is not active.

Instead, Moses reminds God of his promises.  God has acted to make those promises, and God has promised to act.


We begin three weeks reading First Timothy.  Paul begins by talking about God’s mercy toward him, which has rescued him, not from Egyptian slavery or the desert of Sinai, from from blasphemy and arrogance.  “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” to get us out of this mess. 

It seems ironic that Paul ends this touching discussion of God’s mercy and our sin with a benediction that sounds cold: “To the king of ages, incorruptible, invisible, the only God, honor and glory forever.” The link is action.  God is not weak, he does not fail, he does not flop.  He is the strong God—the God of salvation.



Jesus warms to his theme with two short parables.  He takes from Matthew the story of the man looking for his sheep—acting!  He adds to Matthew’s version the action of laying the sheep on his shoulders, and then calling together his friends and neighbors to celebrate. 

Then the story, unique to Luke, of the woman looking for her coin, who lights a lamp, sweeps, searches carefully—then calls together a celebration. 

He is turning inside-out the perception of the Pharisees.  They think he allows sinners to come because he is passive.  He describes himself as the most active.


And consider the father’s action and the sons’ passivity in the Prodigal Son. 

The Prodigal demands—what the Father has earned.  And the Prodigal wastes.  Action?  Of the lowest kind.

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A famine comes.  From the Prodigal’s perspective, the famine is the non-providence of God, God the Father not taking care of him.  But we can see that God was caring for him.  Contrast the Prodigal’s behavior, which is busy but accomplishes nothing, with God’s behavior, which is slow and steady, and accomplishes much.  Which one is really active?

We can see more about the Prodigal by looking at his Elder Brother.  They are opposites in way, to be sure—but also similar. 

The Elder stands outside, refuses to enter the house.  When the Father comes to him, the Elder says, “not once did I disobey”—a very inactive way to respect his Father.  And he says, “You never gave me” (an accusation of inaction) even a young goat to feast on with my friends.” 

The Father says, we feasted together.  The Elder’s accusation is not that he didn’t eat well.  His accusation is that the Father didn’t help him wander off.  The Father wanted him close. 

So too the Prodigal, who cares for his Father only so far as he can take stuff and leave.  When he returns, he is willing to confess, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you,” but only so that he can get bread, like those who are not sons.  How richly ironic is statement, “I no longer deserve to be called your son.”  He doesn’t care about being a son; doesn’t care about the richness of that relationship; doesn’t care about the intense action, in this parable and in the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, of celebrating together.  He confesses his sin only because he doesn’t mind sacrificing his relationship so that he can sit outside and eat.


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But how active is the Father.  He gives.  And then he watches.  “While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.  He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.”  Where the sons are limp and stand outside, the Father rushes to embrace.

He calls for a robe, and a ring, and sandals—not necessary things, just celebratory actions.  He calls a feast.  And then, while the Elder pouts outside, “His father came out and pleaded with him. . . .  Now we must celebrate and rejoice.”

They might accuse Jesus of being passive, for letting sinners come to him.  No, he says, I am active, like the Father.  You, who only want to stand outside and criticize, and demand your rewards, you are the passive ones.

Where is Jesus calling you to the greater action of his love?

Twenty-Third Sunday: Loving the Slaves

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus tells us to hate our family.  It’s a shocking passage.  And an interesting aspect of Luke: Matthew only tells us not to love our family more than Jesus, Mark skips the passage altogether—and Luke tells us to hate our family.


The Lectionary perfectly pairs this Gospel with our one reading from Paul’s letter to Philemon, the shortest book of the New Testament, which is also about the transformation of relationships. 

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Philemon is the master of the slave Onesimus, who has been working with Paul.  Paul’s discussion of this slave is thick with irony.  Paul appeals for Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother, not a slave.  But he says he sends him back to Philemon because “I did not want to do anything without your consent”: Paul affirms Philemon’s freedom to make his own decisions—maybe Philemon can do the same for Onesimus.  “So that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary”—by freely freeing Onesimus to do what is voluntary, not what is forced.

Onesimus serves Paul, but with diakonia, chosen service, not as a doulos, a slave.  And Paul, himself in chains, in prison, commands Onesimus not as a slave master, but as a father.  He does not use Onesimus, but calls him “my own heart” (the Greek is splagchna, “my guts,” where I really feel things).

Paul appeals to Philemon to be “a partner,” a koinonos, who participates in the koinonia, communion, with which he has opened the letter. 


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Philemon adds to our reading from Luke the idea of transformed relationships.  Luke’s stark language, “if anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother,” makes us think of ending relationships.  Paul shows us that our relationships must be transformed—radically, so that the one we viewed as a slave, the person we trampled on, becomes our “beloved brother,” and the flesh relationships, our earthly beloved brothers, melt away into the real love of the Christian communion. 

That sounds pleasant—but it is very hard.  One can imagine the division it would bring to a household if, for example, you started freeing slaves, or giving up property, or befriending those your family thinks are beneath you.  Our Gospel reminds us that this kind of transformed relationship is a way of carrying our cross, of dying to the old man and beginning a radically new life.


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Our Gospel opens with “great crowds traveling with Jesus”: a communion of friendship with the Master, which is a good thing.  But Jesus “turned”—or, “twisted around”—“and addressed them.”  He walks with them as friends, but he also turns to address them as Master.  To walk with Jesus we need to accept his authority to challenge our life.  Many among those “great crowds” are happy to be his friend, but less happy to be his disciples.

The shocking line, about hating father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters—and even our own life—is only one sentence, though an important one.

The next sentence proclaims that we have to carry our cross.  We are still on the road to Jerusalem.  Just before he set out on that road (9:51) he had announced that he was going to be killed (9:22) and so, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (9:23).  He predicts only his own death—for his disciples, he predicts the cross, which means carrying on our own two shoulders the implement of our death. 

Love is lovely.  But the love of Christ passes through the way of the Cross.  To say that it requires hating our earthly loves is to say that they must die with Christ before they can rise again.


He says the same thing another way with two parables.  If you’re going to build a tower, you need to calculate the cost—the cost of discipleship—and lay the foundations.  Christian love isn’t just happily doing what comes naturally.  It means embracing the cross.

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The second parable takes another angle.  Heading into this battle, we discover that we are outnumbered.  We cannot win—this is a battle where we will die.  Realizing that, we need to “ask for peace terms.”  When you’re outnumbered, those peace terms mean asking the other party what you have to do to avoid annihilation.  In the Christian life, on the one hand, we realize that we need the Strong Man’s help: the things that make for peace are the gifts of Christ. 

But on the other hand, to accept those gifts is to accept the transformation he demands.  And in the final sentence of our reading, the demand is not to hate our family, but to “renounce all his possessions”: all the relationships we metaphorically cling to, and all the material things we literally cling to.  Somehow, like Philemon, we have to free our slaves, find those we treat as less than human and embrace them as our brothers.  The love of Christ comes only through renunciation.


Our first reading, from Wisdom, then, reminds us of something essential.  Weighted down by our bodily concerns, we can scarcely make wise decisions about earthly things—so to know higher things, the things of God, we need to shut up and listen.  We who walk on the road with Christ need to let him turn and speak to us as Master, and demand of us what we would never embrace on our own. 

What slaves is Jesus calling you to befriend?