Who Do I Think I Am?

I was struck the other day by the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16: 19-31). I’ve heard sermons and talks and done Bible studies on this passage, and the focus is always on the rich man. In life, he did nothing to help the poor beggar who was literally on his doorstep. In death, he ends up in torment, and seeing Father Abraham with Lazarus in Heaven, he tries to strike a bargain with Abraham to ease his own tormented soul.

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But I was struck by several things I had never considered:

  • Jesus named Lazarus, but not the Rich Man. This is a parable– a metaphorical story– so Jesus did not need to have specific names for any of the characters. He often told such stories with no names. This one contains a specific person, Lazarus, and very specific details about his earthly life. He was not just a beggar, but a beggar covered with sores and starving. Jesus even related that the “dogs came and licked his sores” (v.21). And Jesus makes it clear that the rich man recognized and knew Lazarus by name. Yet he had done nothing to help Lazarus when he had the chance. We never hear in the story whether or not Lazarus was ever cured or helped; we don’t know if he had been a wealthy or prominent man at one time, of if he had always been a diseased beggar. The point is that Jesus, and Abraham, and the rich man all KNEW Lazarus. He mattered enough to call by name. The Rich Man in this story also had a name. He probably was well-known in the town or city where the story took place. And we know that he had five brothers who were likely well-known and highly respected. But NONE of them are named in the story. Only Lazarus.
  • The Rich Man looks up into Heaven. He can see and recognize Lazarus and Father Abraham. But he never looks for, sees, talks to, or wonders about the Heavenly Father. He never asks for comfort from God– he doesn’t even ask a favor of the Patriarch– he only considers that someone like Lazarus should be made to help him and/or his brothers.
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  • Abraham explains that Lazarus cannot and will not be allowed to do as the Rich Man requests– but the parable does not tell us that Lazarus can either see the Rich Man or hear his requests, nor does it say that Lazarus is unwilling to help.
  • Jesus tells this story in a straightforward manner, even though it is a Parable and has hidden meanings. The Rich Man wants help in his hour of torment, even though he was unwilling to help others in their need. But he isn’t without feeling or pity– he loves his brothers enough to try to warn them. Jesus could have used this parable to say much more about Social Justice, and the plight of the poor and the wealthy. He could have said much more about greed or apathy. He could have pressed the point about loving one’s neighbor. He did NOT make some of the connections we add to this story. We often assume that the Rich Man is in hell only because he did not help Lazarus during his lifetime, and that Lazarus is in Heaven solely because he was oppressed and afflicted in life. But is that really what Jesus says?
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What struck me the most about this story is that I always look at it as an outsider. I don’t relate with either of these characters. Of course I don’t want to think that I am cold and selfish like the Rich Man in this story, but neither do I think I am Lazarus. So who do I think I am when I read this parable? Do I pat myself on the back for sending a check to a charity a couple of times a year, or speaking up for the poor or marginalized in my community? Do I indignantly point out all the “others” who are not doing their part to help? Do I see myself, not as a poor diseased beggar, but as someone who has been “oppressed” by nameless, faceless rich people– someone who deserves to be rescued and comforted while “they” suffer through eternity?

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I don’t have any answers as to how I “should” see myself (or others) in this parable. But I think Jesus wants us to grapple with some of the realities it presents:

  • Our world is filled with situations like that of Lazarus and the Rich Man–situations of injustice, struggle, disease, poverty, inequality, suffering, and luxury. And while it is clear that we should do what we can to help others, and to bring justice and mercy, and to reach out and connect with our neighbors in love, it is also clear that such situations are not for us to make blanket judgments. I know many who see poverty as a judgment– those who are poor are lazy or unworthy. And I know others who see luxury and wealth as a judgment–those who are wealthy are greedy and selfish and unworthy. God will not judge us by our circumstances or the injustices done against us. He WILL judge us by our response to Him– when we look toward Heaven, do we see Him, or do we see the place we think we deserve to be?
  • Our ultimate situation has very little to do with our earthly circumstances. Are we sick, poor, suffering, grieving, or in pain? God is aware, and He offers eternal comfort. We can endure and hope because we know that this is not all there is to life. Are we blessed with comfort and ease right now? We should not take our circumstances for granted, but be willing to share in our abundance, knowing that our future is sure, and that God will care for our needs as we care for others. But wealth or poverty, status or shameful circumstances, do not predict our eternal destiny.
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  • God sees us! He sees our circumstances, and He cares! He sees our heart and our motives. He knows our every thought.
  • We need to look with God’s eyes. The Rich Man in this story thought he was important– in life and even in the afterlife. He thought Lazarus was worthy only to serve him or stay out of his way as he enjoyed life’s luxuries. But he also thought he was more important than Heaven! Sitting in eternal torment, he was not humbled or repentant– he was still trying to see the world through his own self-importance. Lazarus may have spent his life thinking that he was NOT important– a beggar, alone, forgotten, and unwanted. But God knew his name and saw his suffering. Lazarus could have been bitter, cursing God for his circumstances, or spending his days trying to steal or take revenge on the Rich Man.
  • I need to look with God’s eyes, not only at who I am in relation to God and others, but at OTHERS in relation to God and to me. I may see someone like the Rich Man– selfish, pompous, self-important– and dismiss them as unlovable and unworthy of mercy or grace. But God sees someone He created; someone who is needy and lost– someone He loves enough to die for. I may see someone like Lazarus–hurting and forgotten– and think they are a lost cause or fear that they will prove to be “undeserving” of my help. But God sees someone He created; someone He aches with; someone He loves enough to die for!

When Christmas Wasn’t Merry

I know several people who had a very Merry Christmas this year. Some of them flew to exotic locations and spent Christmas on the beach, or in a big city with lights and dozens of family members. Some of them spent a cozy Christmas in a cabin with roaring fires and glittering snow-covered trees, eating sumptuous meals and unwrapping expensive gifts.

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But most of the people I know spent a Christmas that wasn’t “post-card” perfect. Some of them were alone in a small apartment with no presents and no heat. Some were working at a job they hate because they had no other option. Some were grieving loved ones lost in the past months. Some of them are facing economic mountains– debt, job loss, medical bills or taxes they cannot pay, no money for rent or groceries… Some are battling cancer or alcoholism, anger, or fear. Some are estranged from their families, or separated from loved ones because of COVID, or deployment, or divorce. And some are facing persecution, starvation, homelessness, disease, or war.

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Christmas comes, whatever our circumstances– and so does the Christ Child. Jesus didn’t come to the earth to bring us all “better” circumstances or worry-free holidays, but to deliver us from eternal death, and equip us to endure the circumstances we face in life. Jesus himself came in chaotic and stressful circumstances, and He came, knowing that He would face rejection, hatred, injustice, and death on a cross.

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There are millions of people who spent a “Merry” Christmas and missed the whole point. Some of us indulged in a gift-giving frenzy that left others in the cold. Some of us allowed envy, fear, greed, or bitterness to color our Christmas. In the process, many of us lost sight of the true gifts of Christmas– Peace, Joy, and Goodwill. In fact, “His divine power has given us EVERYTHING we need for a godly life through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness.” (2 Peter 1:3)

And these gifts are not temporary, like earthly Christmas gifts. They are always available, and they never break, expire, or grow dim. My prayer for this year(and the year to come) is that we all may find–and share!– these eternal and astounding gifts, this “inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade…kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4)

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Christmas Day may not always be merry in this life, but because of Christmas we can face an eternity that will never disappoint, and we have a living Hope that can carry us through even the darkest hours!

When God Gives You Lemons…

There is a saying–“If life gives you lemons, make lemonade!” In other words, if your life circumstances are “sour,” you should look for ways to make your circumstances into something sweeter.

Often, it seems like God gives us lemons–even when we pray and do what we know is “right,” it seems like our circumstances get no better. In fact, sometimes, they get annoyingly, frustratingly worse. But God does not abandon us; He doesn’t sit back and laugh at our frustration, or leave us to flounder in chaos with no hope. Sometimes, our circumstances are opportunities for God to make lemonade.

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When God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, He did not lead them directly to the Promised Land. Instead, He led them through the wilderness and to the shores of the Red Sea. There, they were trapped by the Egyptian army, complete with horses and chariots and trained warriors. But God’s plans were bigger than the armies of Egypt, and bigger than the sea. God made a path of escape through the sea, and used the very same sea to drown the enemy!

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What a miracle! But it wasn’t long before the people began complaining about “lemons” from God–the complained about the food, the journey, the scenery, and their leader, Moses. Even when God did many more miracles– bread from Heaven, meat from the sky, water from the rock, divine intervention in battles– the Israelites were still complaining about all the “lemons” in their life, and longing to go back to Egypt and slavery!

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There are seasons in life when it seems like God is giving us lemons–a job loss, an unexpected illness, a wayward daughter, a house fire, civil unrest… Struggles and pain will come into our lives; we should not pretend otherwise, or seek to deny them when they come. And God does not expect us to “make lemonade” all on our own. But He may allow us to be squeezed a bit; He may send the lemons today, and sugar next Monday. He may not give us a fancy carafe and cute little teacups. But He will give us all we need to make lemonade if we are prepared for the task. And usually, He will give us more than enough to set up a lemonade stand and serve others!

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Several years ago (2005), I had the opportunity to visit a settlement of Haitian refugees in the Dominican Republic. Multiple mission groups had banded together to provide basic needs– shelter, basic medical services, toilets and showers, etc. Service teams from Canada and the U.S. had come in to build two-room houses and set up a small clinic and school. Donations had come in– clothing, bedding, toothbrushes… Thousands of Haitians had been displaced after a bad hurricane season and massive flooding, and this refugee camp was home to nearly 150 families. Even with the donations, there were shortages– there was running water, but it wasn’t potable. There was rice, but few vegetables and very little meat. Aspirin and antibiotics were rationed, and most of the children were thin, and sad, half-clothed in rags and bare-foot.

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In the midst of all this, there was a miraculous donation– of flip-flops! Literally thousands of pairs of flip-flops–brand new overruns: different sizes, but all the same colors and style–more than enough for every person to have a pair. God had given the people of this settlement a LOT of lemons. Shoes were well and good, but the people needed water… The shoes were distributed– there were even a few left over. But about a week later, it was observed that most of the people were still walking around bare-footed. What had happened to the donated flip-flops? Were the people ungrateful? Were they too proud to use the new shoes? Too fearful?

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Not at all! These amazing people trusted that God could help them turn lemons into lemonade. They loaded the flip-flops into large bags, carried them (bare-footed) on their backs into town (the nearest town was nearly 10 miles away, but it was on the coast and attracted many tourists), pooled what little money they had to rent a booth at the beach, and SOLD the flip-flops. The money they made from the sale of the flip-flops purchased five-gallon jugs of drinking water. The jugs were carried back from town and shared among the members of this growing community. As they continued to sell the donated flip-flops, they purchased other small items– packets of laundry detergent, fly swatters, plastic dishes and cups–and established a small colmado (local store) within their own community. When I was able to visit again a couple of years later, the refugee camp was a thriving community– many of the houses had been painted, and had gardens and picket fences, on which clothes were drying in the sun. And while some children were still running in bare feet, many others had shoes. Some of the shoes were ragged and some were mismatched, but the children were happy and healthy. In the middle of the community, there was a beautiful church. Inside, there was a woman sweeping and singing songs of praise.

I share this story because it both encourages me and shames me. In this season of “lemons”– COVID-19 and violent unrest in my country– I have a choice. I can complain like the children of Israel. I can pray for God to take away the lemons; I can beg for Him to send me lemonade. Or I can look around for opportunities to use what He has provided– graciously provided– and sing His praises as I make lemonade.

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God, grant me the eyes to see your provision amid whatever challenges I face today. THANK YOU for the lemons you have given me today, and, when I am squeezed, help me to become a sweet and refreshing reminder to others of YOUR Grace and Joy.

Too Much of a Good Thing

My late uncle came to know Christ– really know Christ– later in his life.  He and my aunt spent their final years doing advanced Bible studies by correspondence course– hour after hour studying Hebrew and Greek, filling out paperwork, sending it in, and waiting for the next lesson (this was before the explosion of online classes and internet shortcuts).

When Uncle Fred was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), and he knew his time on earth was drawing to a close, he planned his funeral service, and it was incredible– uplifting, encouraging, hopeful!  This from a man who, earlier in life, had had anger issues, numerous issues with money, and serious doubts about God.  One of his favorite scripture passages came from Proverbs, and it surprised me a bit.  It wasn’t about promise or hope or power or expectation.  Instead, it was about discipline and correction and balance.

Proverbs 30:7-9 New International Version (NIV)

“Two things I ask of you, Lord;
do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God.

These verses offer wisdom, but the kind of wisdom most of us shun.  We’re happy enough to ask the first part– “Keep falsehood and lies far from me”–Yes, please.  I detest when others lie to my face, or keep information from me.  Except that’s not all that is involved here.  “Keep falsehood and lies far from me”– including far from my own mouth!  Teach me to be honest and trustworthy. even when a “white” lie or a fib would make things so much easier for me…Teach me to seek out, not the juiciest headline or the news story that glories in scandal and derision, but the truth, even if it convicts me!

walk human trafficking
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The second phrase is not too bad– “Give me neither poverty nor riches”– OK, I don’t want to be poor, and it’s probably not good for me to be super wealthy.  I’ll just be a comfortable middle-class sort of person.  Except the last phrase catches us– “But give me ONLY my daily bread.”  Excuse me?  I don’t know about some of you who may be reading this, but I don’t want ONLY my daily bread.  What about all those verses that say we can ask for ANYTHING in Jesus’ name and he will do it!?  What about being prepared in and out of season–what about savings accounts and retirement plans and having extra to give to those in need?  What about a cozy lake cottage or a really nice vacation?  Don’t I deserve to treat myself?  Haven’t I earned a few creature comforts?  I give to charity, and I volunteer at church.

view of tourist resort
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The next verse gives the reason, and also the test.  “Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.”  It’s tempting at this point to brush off the warning.  After all, I haven’t disowned God, have I?  I still go to church and write about prayer.  What more does God want of me…Who is God to ask more of me?  Who is the Lord to tell me what I can’t have…We don’t start out denying or disowning God, but we begin to question his ways, and our own obedience.  Similarly, we don’t think we are stealing or dishonoring God’s name, but how many of us have tried to “beat the system” to get ahead instead of turning to God or the church for help?  Tax breaks that are questionable, lying (see verse 8a again…) about our income to qualify for federal programs or grants, “borrowing” from family or friends with little or no plan for how to repay them…  I wish I could say I didn’t know anyone who had ever bragged to me about they had “cheated” just a little, or that I had a perfect track record in this area.

This passage is filled with wisdom, but it is not wisdom we teach in many of our churches today.  Yet it is exactly what God teaches by example and what he expects of us.  Did not Jesus pray for God to “Give us this day our Daily Bread?”  He didn’t ask God to pour out the storehouses of Heaven so we could add a pool in the back yard, or afford a new car, or get that extra pair of shoes or the latest new gadget.  Yet he prayed with the complete confidence that God would not withhold any of his needs or cause him to live in shame or starvation.

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It’s not as though God has commanded us to live as paupers and beggars– look at the way he provided for the Israelites in the wilderness.  He provided, quite literally, their daily bread/manna.  Just enough for each day, with a double portion for the Sabbath.  Just enough– just a sufficient amount.  No one had to worry about losing their food supply to theft, packing it up to travel, using it up before the expiration date, or comparing one brand to another to check for gluten or preservatives or recall notices.

No one had to worry about whether their shoes were the right color to match their favorite outfit, or if they had enough gas in the tank for their next move.  God provided all their needs when they absolutely COULD NOT.  And he provided more than just their basic needs– they had herds and flocks; he provided water and grazing for them, too.  He had caused the Egyptians to give them gold and jewels as they left Egypt, so they would have enough (and far more than enough) to make all the tools and objects for the tabernacle, and still have a medium of exchange when they reached their new homes in the Promised Land.

But God did not load his people with more riches than all the people around them.  He did not encourage them to seek out mansions and gobble up properties; they were commanded NOT to charge excessive interest on loans (and no interest to their own people), and warned about the dangers of pursuing riches over serving God.

Our current culture (at least in the U.S. and in much of the rest of the world) tends to be consumed by…consumption.  Having the newest and latest and best of everything.  Seeing to our own comfort and self-esteem and satisfaction– often at the expense of our devotion to Christ and our service to others.

man wearing gray long sleeved polo shirt near dock
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There’s nothing wrong with nice things– helpful tools, comforts, pleasures– God doesn’t want us to be miserable or full of a false humility that throws away opportunities and rewards.  But he needs us to see that not every “good” thing is the “best” thing for us.  We CAN be too rich, too thin, too smart, too proud…you get the idea.  Too much of a good thing can blind us to the BEST thing!

adult beautiful elegant eyewear
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I’m writing this on what would have been my uncle’s 85th birthday.  May this piece of wisdom that he cherished fall on good soil.  May our prayer this week be that of Agur, son of Jakeh, the author of Proverbs 30 and prophet of God:

Proverbs 30:7-9 New International Version (NIV)

“Two things I ask of you, Lord;
do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God.

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