In the middle of working through a particularly difficult challenge with ethical dimensions to it, my Convene Team asked me to step out of my facilitative role and provide some perspective on the 16th Chapter of Luke. It sent me back to the work I’ve done with this text over the years, updating it for a Convene audience. Here is the result:
When you paint yourself into a corner, you get paint on your feet as you leave the room.
We can find ourselves painted into an ethical corner as well. Here is an example:
· Kim, one of my first neighbors, was unable to work and financially dependent upon an abusive husband and father of one of her two children. Leave him, and she would be unable to provide for her children and might lose custody. Stay, and her children might be lost to her as well because her husband (and she) were dealing drugs from their apartment.
Ethical paint on our feet doesn’t just happen as a result of our choices. It can be forced on us. That is, we can be shoved into the unpainted corner through no fault of our own. Another example:
· The earliest Quaker settlers in what is now Philadelphia. By the 1690’s they were some 3,000 people. William Penn, however, had returned to England and had been imprisoned by Mary, Queen of Scots. About that time, a pirate named Babbitt commandeered a ship and raided Philadelphia from the shore. Now what to do? Babbitt raided with boldness and clearly intended to do it again. Do nothing, and more people and property would be harmed. Seek to arrest Babbitt, and not only would pacifist convictions be violated, but harm could be inflicted here as well. What to do?
We are frequently painted into corners by others, and truthfully, we can consider ourselves experts at placing ourselves there of our own accord.
We run into these quandaries in our families (consider the meshing of two parenting styles, especially when all the grandparents are living AND nearby. No matter what the young mother or father chooses, someone takes offense).
We run into these quandaries at work (I wrote of one of the best illustrations in the book “A Christian view of Money: celebrating God’s generosity,” soon to be released in its fourth edition, about a florist who serves their largest customer while he orders a dozen roses for his wife and his mistress. Are you part of the problem if you serve such a customer?)
We run into these quandaries in the marketplace (How does one practice justice AND thrift? It is often difficult to do both. For instance, I can buy only fair trade coffee, but that drives up a cost of living and can interfere with money I would otherwise contribute charitably or use for my family).
Luke’s gospel, 15th and 16th chapters, give us a guiding ethical principle when faced with such quandaries. I consider it of equal value to the Golden Rule. Simply stated it is:
Make friends for yourselves that will welcome you into eternal homes.
Typically, bible students work with chapters 15 and 16 of Luke by breaking them down into units of smaller stories or discourse: lost sheep, lost coin, lost son, dishonest manager, Jesus’ teaching on divorce/remarriage, and Lazarus and the rich man. They can also be considered as a single literary unit, and that is the purpose of this study. Doing so, we discover how they revolve around this ethical principle of making friends who welcome us into eternal homes.
The scene opens with Jesus being criticized for relating to tax collectors (known cheats) and sinners of all types. Those criticizing him were the religious leaders of the time, similar to someone today being criticized when seen leaving a place where the irreligious people of our day gather (coffee shops? sites of political demonstrations? cannabis bodegas?) so that you might relate to them that God, in Christ, no longer holds sin against any of us.
In response to this criticism, Jesus begins a narrative that rivals the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). It begins with the stories of three lost things that are then found:
1. A lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7)
2. A lost coin (Luke 15:8-10)
3. A lost son (Luke 15:11-32)
In each story there is an anxious searcher:
1. A shepherd (the lost sheep is in his care)
2. A woman (the coin was entrusted to her)
3. A father (the son is his progeny and heir)
In each story the lost thing is found and celebration follows. In each story the moral is explained (something we might note that Jesus does not appear to always take pains to do): God, and the citizens of heaven, rejoice over sinners who repent and return to a love relationship with God. The meaning is clear to those who would critique what we might call Jesus Evangelism: sinners who repent is God’s priority. Further, our Savior wishes it to be a priority for us as well—so much so that it moves beyond responsible priority to privileged joy.
Those can be hard words to hear for those of us who focus life around keeping a community pure—of herding the remaining 99 sheep, or counting the remaining coins, or ministering exclusively to the older son in these stories. But, hear these stories we must, and we must reflect and adjust so we more fully reflect the gospel we received and now reflect to others.
If we do not make the adjustment, the next story in the sequence perplexes or feels offensive to us. The pure community does not want to hear illustrations of sinful people held up as examples for how the faithful should live. But here is the Savior doing that very thing, giving us a story of scoundrels:
· An absentee landlord who charges steep rent for use of his land.
· A manager who is not collecting rent, and cares more about his relationships with the renters than with the landlord.
· Tenants who aren’t making payments.
The landlord discovers the mismanagement, announcing the firing of his manager, and demands that the books be put in order. This places the manager in a pickle, or, in the spirit of these reflections, he is standing in the corner of a room with a freshly painted floor. The door for his exit is at the opposite end. What to do? The only work available to him now is life-destroying hard labor. If not this, he will be forced to beg, from the people he has been charging the steepest of rents.
He hits upon an idea. If he cooks the books, he will win friends that will welcome him into their homes. He will not lack and he will not have to do hard labor because they will be grateful. Further, by cutting these new deals with the tenants, the landlord is going to begin receiving payment again. How will he be able to complain?
Once again, Jesus explains the parable. Corrupt people do not hesitate to use economic means to win friends. We who belong to the kingdom are interested in a life beyond this one, so we use the substance of this world—even dishonest wealth—to open the way to heaven. If we cannot learn to do this—to show this priority in an impure, painted into the corner world—we will not be able to enjoy the real wealth of God’s kingdom.
To make it even more plain, Jesus says we are subject to one master alone. Our master will expect absolute allegiance, and interaction with the other is subject to the first allegiance. These two masters—God and money—are not antithetical by the way. Some people with means choose to serve God, just as there are many who choose to serve money, whether or not they have it. The dishonest manager made his choice to use money to continue his access to material things. We who serve God can choose to use money to point the way to heaven.
All this has been said to those who thought Jesus wrong to offer the kingdom to sinners. Jesus replied with stories that clearly demonstrate offering the kingdom to sinners is one of God’s priorities.
And so it should be for God’s people. The next parts of Luke’s narrative, in particular, cut deep. Luke makes sure we understand why: the Pharisees who were criticizing Jesus loved money. They used their positions to accumulate money for themselves. They used it to set themselves further apart from those they perceived as sinners. The story Jesus told of the dishonest manager exposed them and their love of money to all who heard the story.
Luke tells us the Pharisees derided Jesus for this. They didn’t hide it. Their murmuring and angry reactions invited further response from Jesus. He does so in a surprising way, talking about divorce, remarriage and adultery.
Keep the principle of this generous making of friends who welcome us into eternal homes, in mind, as we consider further. Jesus tells the Pharisees that the law they pledged themselves to remains in place. But it is a return to the law’s principles and an abandonment of the traditions built up around it that Jesus calls for. In his day, the idea of marriage was in place, but so many interpretations of what constituted chastity and fidelity were added, that a man could divorce his wife for talking loud enough that the neighbors could hear. Jesus goes back to the original principle. Divorce followed by remarriage breaks the covenant of fidelity. Adultery is the result. There are no excuses.
It’s curious that this conversation about divorce, remarriage and adultery would be his reply to those who loved money and were angry that he had exposed their mammon allegiance. It is curious he would be so firm on sin when he was the one hanging out with sinners.
But if we return to the central ethical principle we find insight. We are to make friends for ourselves that welcome us into eternal homes. This is how we walk out of a painted-in corner and get the least paint on our feet. This is how we abandon the impossibility of our position to find a fresh start when all has gone wrong. If the wonderful provision of God’s grace was not there for us along the way, who would we be? How could we ever hope to start again? So, we can rejoice greatly, deeply, long and strong, that God’s grace is God’s priority.
This means whether we are a lost sheep, a lost coin, a lost son, a dishonest manager or a divorced/remarried person, God chooses to no longer hold our sins against us.
It is important that we hear this!
1. Some of us have not been painted into the corner very often. We become concerned that sin gets cheapened when “sinners” start showing up everywhere, especially when someone who has struggled (as we all do, really) rises to a leadership position. We’d rather live in denial about the human condition.
2. Others of us have been painted in frequently—perhaps forced there by the corrupt actions of others. We expended much energy to explain ourselves and to live beyond the stigmas now assigned to us.
This message of Jesus needs to be heard anew. Sin is sin. No excuses. There are no lesser wrongs as far as God is concerned. Whether we meant to or not; whether we are perpetrator or victim doesn’t matter. All of us are both in some form, and we all stand alienated from God and each other and ourselves. But now, in Christ, God does not hold these sins against us. We can cross those painted floors to Jesus, abundantly wet paint splattering our feet. Further harm may be done as we do. Perhaps a marriage will end. Perchance a job gets lost and we struggle to provide for our family. Possibly, an investment we make gets corrupted by someone for a wicked purpose. But it is no longer the painted floor we look at. If we do, we stop taking the next step toward the lighted doorway that beckons.
To reduce this principle as simply as I can: the Christian is called to uphold God’s righteous expectations as well as God’s priority of extending God’s grace to others who have not yet responded. This is impossible to hold in balance unless we live by this ethical principle of making friends for ourselves who will welcome us into eternal homes.
May I point out that we live in an era where churches, and perhaps all of North American society is dividing—realigning—by which side of the imbalance they choose? Some say they uphold God’s word because they still teach about sin. At the other end are those who so much want to be known for tolerance that they equate tolerance with grace. The first affirm sin and end up denying grace, no longer living by God’s priority. The second cannot rejoice over someone who repents and transforms. What is the point of serving a God who is all judgment? And what is the point of serving a God who tolerates everything and anything? Why call together a community of faith or expect ethical practices when there is no faith that God forgives and saves, or, when there is no belief of righteous and upright courses of action?
Jesus isn’t quite done yet. There is one more story: that of Lazarus and the rich man who ignores him. Lazarus suffered outside the home of this rich man. Luke tell us Lazarus was ptokos—a Greek word that specifically describes such destitution that only death awaits. The rich man ignored Lazarus altogether—wearing fine clothing, decorating his home endlessly, feasting sumptuously with friends. There was no use of money for the poor. At each feast, this man and his friends would tear at the meat with their fingers and teeth, the wipe the grease on nearby pieces of bread that would be discarded. Lazarus longed for these crumbs, but none were given.
Both men die. Lazarus is now in paradise. The rich man is in torment. He has no friends there. No friends welcome him into eternal homes. The only recognizable face is across a fixed chasm—where the rich man sees Lazarus in comfort. How the roles have reversed! But no matter how he begs as Lazarus once did, nothing is granted. There is no generosity for the rich man. There is no generosity for those the rich man wishes to warn.
So…just as Abraham said to the rich man. Just as Jesus said to the money-loving Pharisees, those of us living in the wealthiest society this world has ever known: God has done everything necessary to provide access to his eternal home. It was proclaimed by Moses and the prophets. It was made complete in Jesus. It now lives in hearts where the gospel has reached. We are to use the material wealth that has come to us in such a way that those who are lost, those who are destitute, and those who are dying will be the first to welcome us as we leave this temporary life and enter our eternal home.
In the end the welcome into eternal homes is built by the life of generosity, not from loving money, not from living in judgment, not from keeping others at a distance, and not from denial of what is wrong.