Spiritual Journey: A Riches to Rags Story

 Looking at his disciples, [Jesus] said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
 Blessed are you who hunger now,
    for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
    when they exclude you and insult you
    and reject your name as evil,
        because of the Son of Man.

“Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

“But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
    for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
    for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
    for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

–Luke 6:20-26

I have often seen these first three verses from our featured passage on literature for poverty relief organizations. Ripped out of context and applied literally, this would mean that Jesus is saying that the physically poor, the hungry, and the depressed somehow have more merit in the eyes of God, and that rich, chubby, happy people are doomed. Hmm. Seems to me there must be something more here than meets the eye–the spiritual eye!

The first four verses are easily recognized as a parallel passage to the beatitudes of Matthew, chapter 5. A key to understanding this passage is looking at the similar one. Matthew 5:3 states: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Jesus must be referring to poverty of spirit, not physical poverty. He is talking to people who recognize their spiritual need, their spiritual poverty in the sight of a holy and righteous God, because they will depend on Jesus for salvation. They rely on God’s mercy and grace, his spiritual charity, and not their own righteousness, and so the kingdom of God is theirs (Romans 3:21-24).

In verse 21 above, it is again not literal food Jesus is talking about. Matthew 5:6 speaks of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. How often Jesus spoke of himself as being living bread and living water! (John 6:51; John 4:10) Similarly, it is not those who are unhappy about justifiably sad events, but rather those who mourn over and regret their sin that are comforted. (Luke 18:13)

Verse 22 is the key to the whole passage. When are people especially blessed? When they have physical needs? No. Here, Jesus makes it clear he’s talking about his followers. It’s when we are hated, insulted, and called evil because we bear the name of Jesus. Just like the prophets and Jesus himself, every one of us who commits our life to glorify God will suffer. But even though we suffer here for a little while, Jesus reminds us to rejoice because our reward in heaven is eternal.

Unlike the passage in Matthew, Luke adds four woes to show a reversal of fortune in the spiritual realm. The first woe is to the rich. Does that mean that wealth is bad? No, some notable examples of faith were very well-to-do, including Abraham. Again, this must be taken in the spiritual sense: those who consider themselves wealthy before a holy God because of their own righteousness. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day felt like they were pretty righteous folks, and relied on their own interpretation of their Law for their feeling of spiritual security.

Again, Jesus said, woe to the well fed, or those who didn’t eat up Jesus’ parables or drink in his spiritual words. Woe to those who joke about or make light of their sin, and who want everyone to speak well of them in public, instead of saying what is true and right. Just like the false prophets in the past, they will tickle the ears of their listeners, seek glory for themselves, and lead people away from God. Woe, Jesus says, for the day is coming, if they do not heed his warning, when the tables are turned, and they will be without comfort, they will go hungry, and they will mourn and weep.

There’s a similar reversal of fortune found in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31:

 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Again, there is a tendency to just read this as a parable about the rich not lifting a finger to do anything for the poor.

This cannot be simply a parable about how the poor go to heaven and the rich go to hell. As mentioned previously, Abraham himself was wealthy beyond imagination. Here in this parable he is comforting Lazarus at his side. So if Abraham is in heaven, why and how did he get there? Why is the other rich man in hell? Why is Lazarus in heaven?

Throughout the bible, Abraham is held up as a model of faith, not in himself, but in God. The bible says that when God promised Abraham a son in his old age, that he “believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). God promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the night sky. Abraham’s spiritual children are all who, like him, believe God, and are credited righteousness: “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9).

We know Lazarus did not go to heaven on his own merit. Poor people are just as needy spiritually as you and me. So here’s the deal. Did you know that the name Lazarus means, “whom God has helped?” Lazarus is just like those in our featured passage who are poor in spirit. He is hungry for God and covered with all sorts of spiritual sores that need healing. Even the dogs have more empathy and spiritual sense than the rich man!

So who is this rich man? In context, Jesus had been talking to his disciples, sharing another parable, and when the Pharisees overheard it, they sneered at Jesus, because they loved not only wealth, but also their way of life, their practices, their culture, their own wisdom, their own selves more than the lives of those around them. Jesus said to them: “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight” (Luke 16: 15). They were supposed to be Israel’s religious leaders and teachers, but they held sinners in disdain and refused to help the most spiritually needy right under their upturned noses.

It would be like people today, especially modern-day religious leaders, who get wealthy without giving a crumb of real spiritual food to their flocks. Or individuals and religious leaders who weigh down people with many “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots,” before helping them understand Jesus’ only required work for entrance into heaven: “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29). Or individuals and religious leaders today who like to mix extra-biblical material with orthodox Christian thought, polluting the faith with heretical ideas that do not glorify God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, but rather man. Simply put, the rich man is a pseudo-religious figure who cares nothing for the eternal well-being of the wretched soul lying just outside his doorway.

Am I trying to minimize the role of humanitarianism and the importance of aiding the poor in society? Never! Jesus himself tells us how we should care for and have friendship with the poor and disabled in our communities. He said, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed” (Luke 14:13-14). I’m only pointing out the spiritual overtones of these passages. God does not want us to look at our own works and say, “Well, I have gone to church every Sunday, I have given so much to the poor–hey, I’m a pretty decent and kind person. Thank God I’m not like [insert least favorite political candidate]. I’m sure he will let me in heaven.”

That is the attitude of Luke 18:9-14:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Note the reversal of fortune at the end? We seem to have it all backwards, upside-down, & inside-out! Isaiah 64:6 states it best: “How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” So, no. God doesn’t want us to rely on or boast about what we do. He wants us to say, “I believe in Jesus. I’m sure he will let me in heaven because I know he died for me . . . even though I missed church about half of the Sundays this year and I didn’t give five bucks to that homeless man today because I thought he would buy a bottle of cheap booze with it. Dear Jesus, forgive me. What should I do?”

Jesus: “The next time you see the homeless man, at least buy him a sandwich and a soda. I would prefer that you do this though, because the kingdom of God is all about relationship with me and other people: The poor and disabled are not just projects. They are potential friends. Eat with him. Listen to his story. Tell him about me. The sandwich will be gone in fifteen minutes. You’ll leave him in sixty minutes. If you and my other children keep doing this and more for him until he believes in me, then he will not only be off the street, but he will also be with me forever in eternity, just like you, and you will have gained a new friend. You will be so moved by the whole experience that you will actually look forward to worshipping me on Sundays and doing more.”

When you think about it, don’t you just want to tell everyone you can about Jesus? Don’t you wish everyone could experience the grace of God and come live in heaven with you? I do. Ahem. Let me say that I have not always had that attitude. God matured me over the years (yes, years!), and has helped me understand him in such a loving way that I want other people to know my God in all his awesomeness. Let’s pray for the heart to want to take as many people with us to heaven as we can, with God’s help. Hey. Even the rich guys dressed in purple and fine linen need our prayers, too.


Hide and Seek

“Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”  He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” –Genesis 3:8-10

 

Do you hide from your Heavenly Father when you know you’ve done something wrong? How about when you are thinking about or feeling angry enough to do something wrong? Maybe you mask hiding from God with excuses, like, “I’m too busy to read the bible and pray,” or, “I just need to take a break.” Don’t feel too bad. I hide, and the first human couple hid, too. But I have learned over the years to trust God’s love for me much more. I’m learning to pray when I am first tempted, not after (when I have usually failed).

I have most recently learned to pray as soon as I get angry. It doesn’t have to be a formal prayer on your knees with hands folded–just a quick mental S.O.S. to God. I don’t know about you, but it seems that most of our troubles begin when we get angry. We lash out at people, disagreements flame into yelling matches, we hurt people we love. In society, our fuses are eerily short. A man gets cut off in traffic and in his anger, forces the offender off the road, or worse yet, fires a gun and kills him. The Dylann Roof’s of the world shoot dead some of the most loving people on the planet. Nations are easily offended by another country’s culture or aggressive attack and return the volley, fueled by longstanding hatred. And hatred is just anger concentrated and focused, like a laser.

In the bible, Cain is our first example of the bitter fruit of anger. “The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering,  but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.  Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?  If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:4-6)   I appreciate the image of the verb “crouching” here, like a wild cat. When we get angry, sin is right outside our door, waiting to maul us like a powerful lion. We are no match for it. We must pray before acting, or anger will overpower us like it did Cain.

One of the consequences for Cain’s murder of his brother was that he would be “hidden from [God’s] presence.” (Genesis 4:14) Sin separates us from intimate relation with God, not because it is his will, but because it is our nature. Adam and Eve disobeyed God, which removed their total trust in that close-knit relationship with their Creator. Notice in our featured verse that the reason Adam hid was that he was afraid.

So too, the level of trepidation we feel about coming to God with our temptations and weaknesses may be one measure of our closeness to him. When you think about it, is it harder to ask for help or forgiveness from an acquaintance, or a close friend? I’m never afraid to ask my husband for help or forgiveness, because I know how tender-hearted he is toward me. Asking a stranger for help or forgiveness, on the other hand, makes me feel not only nervous because I don’t know how they will react, but also awkward because I feel vulnerable. Aren’t those two scenarios similar to how we can approach God?

Thanks to our faith in Jesus, though, we have regained the same trusting relationship with God lost by Adam and Eve before the fall. What does the bible say? “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven,  Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14-16)

The word “confidence” in the original Greek is “parresia.” It means “freely, boldly, plainly, with assurance, openness, frankness.” If you have a good relationship with your spouse, this is the same type of comfort level God would like us to have in our relationship with him. Jesus was born in an earthly body and was tempted in every way we are, so he can also empathize with our feeble flesh.

I read a quote once that illustrated the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is like seeing a man in a row-boat that’s filling up with water, and you call for help from shore. Empathy is like jumping in the lake, swimming out to the boat, and helping him bail water. Now that’s what Jesus does when we’re about to sink! Just as he left his glory in heaven to die for us on the cross, he comes to save us every time we call on him in prayer.

We can trust our heavenly Father’s love and mercy because of this empathy. Even though Adam and Eve sinned and caused the fall of mankind, what did God do? He made them clothes to cover their shame. (Genesis 3:21) What a tender, small gesture of God’s kindness and empathy. Perhaps he was looking into the future, when he would clothe each of us with robes made white in the blood of the Lamb. (Revelation 7:14)