Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Repentance in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Luke 16:19-31

In this parable, the use of the word “repent” is fairly simple to understand. The unnamed rich man, upon awakening in hell, sees the poor man, Lazarus, in the “bosom of Abraham.” The rich man first asks Abraham to send Lazarus to put water on his tongue, to relieve his agony. After Abraham assures him that this is impossible, because of the great chasm fixed between the place of reward and the place of punishment, Lazarus asks another favor. He asks that Lazarus be sent back from the dead to warn his brothers, so that they will not also come to the place of torment that has taken him. Abraham’s response is simple—no: “They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.” This is followed by the exchange in which the word “repent” (in the strong sense) is used:

He said, “No, father Abraham, but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent (metanoēsousin).”

He said to him, “If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if one rises from the dead.”

Luke 16:30-31 (WEB).

The main point of the parable is, of course, in the last verse—those who ignore the law and the prophets will not be persuaded to repent even if someone rises from the dead. This point was very graphically proved to be true by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, which only a relative few people have ever believed, in spite of the abundant evidence. Only those who are willing to listen to God can be persuaded of Jesus’ resurrection. Not many of the wealthy and powerful (like the unnamed rich man in the parable) are willing to listen. See, I Corinthians 1:18-24. “It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.” Matthew 19:24

There is, however, a secondary point made by this parable, and it is what illuminates the meaning of repentance. The rich man, in hell, knew that his brothers needed to repent. He told Abraham that if someone would go to them from the dead, they would repent. But of what would they need to repent?

The preceding verses tell us what it is in the unnamed rich man’s life that needed repentance sooner than it came. Verse 19 says not only that he was rich, but that he lived like an emperor (dressed in purple) and lived in luxury every day. He was not only wealthy, he flaunted it. Verse 20 then shows that, in his wealth, he was indifferent to poverty on his own doorstep. The poor man, Lazarus, begged at the rich man’s gate, but was allowed to eat only the crumbs that fell from his table, along with the rich man’s dogs—dogs that, as an added indignity, licked poor Lazarus’ sores. These verses alone would give us a good clue that a major part of the rich man’s sin was self-indulgent misuse of wealth and indifference to the needs of others around him.

That Jesus’ is highlighting exactly this sin is also shown by what happens after both the rich man and Lazarus die. Lazarus, the poor man who was forgotten by the rich, God remembers by name. He is Lazarus. The rich man is never named; he is just the wicked rich man. In hell, even the nameless rich man remembers Lazarus by name, and tries to continue treating him as a servant! He asks Abraham to send him to relieve his distress. Abraham’s answer is that, on earth, the rich man received his good things, and Lazarus evil things, but now the tables are reversed. The rich man is in torment, because he treated his good things as his own.

It is at this point, seeing that there is no hope for any relief of his own torment, that the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers. Here, another sin of the rich man and his brothers is revealed by Abraham—they do not listen to Moses and the prophets. In their self-indulgence, they will not listen to God. But the summation of the law of God is “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-40). Their self-indulgence ignored the first commandment; their indifference ignored the second. Such people will not be persuaded, even though one should rise from the dead.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Drought, National Sin and National Repentance: Both Sin and Repentance Start with the Church

Two days ago, my friend David Epps of Topeka wrote in an e-mail he sent to me (and to his mailing list):

If you haven't already, start praying about this in your church, your home group, your prayer circle, and your personal prayer times. Call regional prayer meetings. In the Bible, drought is always associated with judgment when God's people have drifted away from Him. He is calling us back to Him. It's not just our nation that has strayed, it's the American Church.

What will it take for the Lord to get our attention? More earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, economic hardship, terrorism, and political upheaval? More drought?

In his e-mail, Pastor Epps provides links to some very convincing online resources about the extent of the drought in the U.S. For instance, there is a map prepared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and posted on the Drought Monitor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that shows quite graphically that two-thirds of the country, including all of the major corn and soybean producing areas, are suffering drought conditions presently. In many of these areas, the drought is moderate to extreme or even “exceptional.” (Topeka itself, where Pastor Epps and I live, is in an “extreme” drought area that has a lot of crops burning up). On the other hand, the 12-Week Animation on the same site shows how drought has spread over the center of the country in the last 3 months—an image that is really quite convincing that a hand larger than our own is at work. Finally, the “Objective short term drought indicator” gives some approximation of how little the drought is likely to respond to a few short-term showers in various locations. A longer-term increase in precipitation is needed—and seems unlikely to come quickly enough to prevent massive crop failure this year, as Jason Samenow notes in a Washington Post blog entry. This will be felt as higher prices for the affluent, and famine for the poor in America this fall and beyond, though how effectively we will be able to keep the plight of the poor in this famine hidden, quiet and non-violent remains to be seen. (Times were already hard, and much of the world seems to be rioting right now.) This fact pattern certainly has the same appearance as many of the Biblical examples of God’s judgment of His people.

In support of his statement, Pastor Epps also quotes the following well-known verse, which is commonly glibly quoted to ask for attendance at prayer meetings and Christian political “events,” then ignored in its other details:

“When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place. (2 Chronicles 7:13-15)

I note that this verse is often used to promote political “events” among Christians in the U.S. to highlight Pastor Epps’ insight into the real problem. He is not calling for anything political. He recognizes that the problem isn’t political, and won’t be fixed by political action to wipe out what Christians perceive as social evils. Instead, the problem originates with sin in the Church. In reaching the conclusion that the nation’s economic problems actually originate in the Church, Pastor Epps is in agreement with my article “A warning concerning idolatry,” which I posted in October 2000 and which has, unfortunately, never in the intervening years been shown wrong.

However, my pastor friend has suggested only a part part of the solution. He wants churches to call prayer meetings. But if all we do is have prayer meetings, all we will have done is to hold some more religious “events.” Instead, we need to pay attention to all of the instructions of 2 Chronicles 7:14-15. God didn’t just tell Israel to respond to drought, famine and plague with prayer. He also told them to humble themselves, to seek God’s face, and to repent--to “turn from their wicked ways.”

Humility is necessary because it is the contrary of the underlying attitude of sin: pride and self-sufficiency. This comes in several forms. There is the pride that boasts of what I have and what I have accomplished, not recognizing—or outright rejecting—that it is God who gave it to me. Rom. 1:20-24, 28; I John 2:16. There is the pride, like that the tempter induced in Adam and Eve, which says I know better than God how to run my own life. This pride leads to individual self-sufficiency: if I make my own decisions, ignoring God, that makes me like God, a god unto myself. See, Gen. 3:4-6. The closing stanza of William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus” perfectly epitomizes this attitude: “It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” Finally, when people living in individual self-sufficient pride recognize that they are, individually, not sufficient, instead of returning to God as their source, the tendency is to partially substitute collective self-sufficiency for individual self-sufficiency. This is the “Doctrine of Babel” of which I have previously written. As a larger culture, we still believe ourselves collectively capable of building towers to heaven—whether through science, through our governmental and corporate institutions, or simply through our collective cultural expressions of defiance—to bring God down. On the other hand, while the American Church is not in outward and active defiance of God, as a group we still tend to trust in our collective institutions—government, corporations, private charities and religious organizations—to meet our needs. We tend to look to these institutions first, rather than to God. This is pride. It needs to be counteracted with humility.

Humility, thus, leads directly to turning to God. The Thessalonians, Paul wrote, “turned from idols to serve the living and true God.” I Thess. 1:9. To be effective, these two must occur simultaneously. We must turn from our idols—ultimately, worship and service of ourselves and our institutions—and simultaneously turn to service of the true God. This is the only course that avoids judgment. As I have explained elsewhere, God is light, and if we are walking away from Him in service of ourselves, we are walking in darkness. Stumbling into judgment is the expected result of walking in darkness; indeed it can be said that our blindness while walking in the darkness is the beginning of our judgment. If we turn around, and start walking in God’s light, we will then begin to see clearly our way out of judgment. But if we turn around, and start walking in God’s way, in the light, our behavior will change. This is repentance.

Repentance addresses the sins that keep us from God. But what are the sins of the Church? Surprisingly, the primary sins of the Church which are both causes and symptoms of God’s judgment, are not, as some may think, a lack of religious works, the abortion rate in our (no longer Christian) culture, tolerance of homosexuality, declining church attendance, inadequate church offerings, or the failure of our organized political action to maintain control of our government. Rather, the primary sins of which the Church must repent involve greed and its glorification in Christian circles, arrogance and its glorification in Christian circles, the abandonment of truth in favor of comfortable lies (yes, even in the Church), our robbery and mistreatment of each other, our approval in practice of lying, slander and gossip (what are we saying about our political leaders?), and our indifference toward the poor. I posted some years ago a fairly exhaustive set of quotations from Old Testament prophecies that show that God judged his people Israel for exactly these things—they abandoned Him, exalted themselves (through various idols), and started to mistreat and oppress each other. (See, “Prophecies for America”). We have no reason to expect that God will treat America better than His own chosen nation, when God’s people in America (the church) are involved in or approve and glorify the same things that brought judgment to Israel.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

“Unless You Repent, You Will All Perish,” the Parable of the Spared Fig Tree, and the problem of evil in Luke 13:1-9

In this passage, Jesus provides a response to the problem of evil—“if God is just, why is there so much senseless suffering in the world?” But the response he provides is not an intellectually satisfying answer to the “why?” question about God. Instead, it is a provocative answer that points back at the questioner. The response is, “trust God and work on yourself!” Look at the sin in your own life, repent, and bring forth fruit worthy of repentance.

Jesus uses the word “repent,” in the strong sense, twice in responding to a question about apparently senseless, violent death in Luke 13:1-5:

1 Now there were some present at the same time who told him about the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered such things? 3 I tell you, no, but unless you repent (metanoēte), you will all perish in the same way. 4 Or those eighteen, on whom the tower in Siloam fell, and killed them; do you think that they were worse offenders than all the men who dwell in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no, but, unless you repent (metanoēte), you will all perish in the same way.”

This passage reports Jesus’ response to what was, apparently, a report of a current event reported by some members of the crowd that had gathered around him. No commentator I have consulted has been able to identify any specific event recorded in other sources that involved murder of worshipers in the Temple by order of the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate during the likely time of Jesus’ ministry. There were recorded instances of murder in the Temple prior to Jesus’ ministry, some commentators suggesting the Galileans in view here may have been the followers of Judas of Galilee, a rebel who met his end at the hands of the Romans (though not Pilate, who was not yet in office) in 6 A.D. (See Acts 5:37). However, all commentators appear to agree that ordering the murder of a group of Galileans in the Temple, while offering sacrifices, on the vaguest suspicion of sedition, is consistent with what is known of Pilate’s character. Thus, most commentators state that, although there is no other record of this particular incident outside the New Testament, it likely occurred. This leaves the question of why these interlocutors brought the incident to Jesus’ attention.

There are at least two possibilities. The incident may have been brought to Jesus attention for political motives, by his enemies, in an attempt to induce him to denounce Pilate and Roman rule (something they attempted frequently). On the other hand, the incident may also have been raised to embarrass Jesus by presenting him the essentially unanswerable question of the reason for individual human suffering in a context in which he would be forced to say that worshippers—people doing the right thing—died in such a horrible way because of the extremity of their sins. Surely Jesus would have to say one of these things or the other—either the deaths were an example of the injustice of Pilate and Roman rule, or they were an example of God’s justice because the deceased Galileans were great sinners.

But Jesus avoided this trap by pointing at the sins of those who brought the story to his attention. From the Galileans’ violent and apparently unjust deaths, no conclusions may be drawn about how bad their sins were compared to those of others. They were sinners, and the wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23). But those who raised the issue were also sinners, and also due to receive the wages of their sin. So comparing sins and asking whose sins are “worse” makes no sense in this context. Jesus therefore denied that the Galileans who were killed with their sacrifices were greater sinners than Galileans who survived that day. The real message of the incident, and of Jesus’ teaching about it, is that the only hope is repentance. “Unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way”—that is, senselessly, meaninglessly, as the reward of your sins. Because the sins of the Galileans, and of Jesus’ hearers, is directly in view in this story, it is clear that the “repentance” of which Jesus speaks is a turning from sin.

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Jesus then amplified his point by recounting the story of a group of people in Jerusalem who died suddenly and apparently randomly in an accident, when the Tower of Siloam—which was apparently a tower on the city wall near the Pool of Siloam—fell on them. No other ancient source records this particular accident. Jesus apparently refers to it to move the discussion away from meaningless deaths that have a political cause to meaningless deaths that have no apparent cause other than perhaps the wrath of God. Several commentators, in fact, point out that a tower is a place people would go to feel safe! So, in this instance, what these 18 people trusted to bring them safety unexpectedly killed them instead.

However, Jesus’ point about the fatalities at the Tower of Siloam is the same point he made about the Galileans Pilate killed in the Temple. The accident at the Tower of Siloam didn’t kill these people because they were the worst sinners in Jerusalem. It killed them merely because they were sinners, like everyone else in Jerusalem and like all of Jesus’ audience. We need not look beyond sin, beyond our own sinfulness, for an explanation of death, whether it comes “normally” or in some particularly gruesome way. The only hope lies in repentance. “Unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way”—meaninglessly, senselessly.

Jesus then illustrated his point, and shifted the focus more securely to the lives of those raising the question, by telling a parable:

6 He spoke this parable. “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it, and found none. 7 He said to the vine dresser, ‘Behold, these three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and found none. Cut it down. Why does it waste the soil?’ 8 He answered, ‘Lord, leave it alone this year also, until I dig around it, and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit, fine; but if not, after that, you can cut it down.’”

Luke 13:6-9 (WEB).

The point of this parable, in the context of the question implicitly raised in verse 1 and answered in verses 2 through 5, is that, far from being arbitrary and vengeful, God is patient. The tree here may represent either the individual questioning God, or the nation Israel—there are commentators on both sides of this question. However, I think it most consistent with the sense of verses 1 through 5 to understand the tree here as an individual before God. This usage would also be consistent with John the Baptist’s usage of the metaphor of the “trees” in his warning to the crowd in Matthew 3:7-10 and Luke 3:7-10. In that warning, explained more fully in a previous posting on John the Baptist’s message of repentance, John warns the people that “the axe lies at the root of the trees” and “every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down.” (Matt. 3:9 & 10). This is entirely consistent with Jesus’ illustration in the passage here before us—in which the owner wants to cut down the fig tree. (Luke 13:7). Indeed, the owner wants to cut down the fig tree in this passage for the same reason John said the axe was already at the root of the trees—this tree, like the trees in John’s metaphor, is unfruitful. (Compare verse 7 with Matt. 3:8). Because the point of Jesus’ parable is that God is merciful and patient with us, the gardener requests, and the master grants, the tree one more year, during which time the tree is to be fertilized and given every opportunity to produce fruit. For the tree in Jesus’ parable, the repentance spoken of in verses 3 and 5 of the larger passage is to be shown by fruit bearing.

Jesus’ parable in Luke 13 doesn’t identify the “fruit,” showing repentance, which will have to be seen on the tree if it is to be spared. That was not the point of the parable. However, John the Baptist had already identified the required fruit, the “fruit worthy of repentance” (Matt. 3:8), in his preaching using the metaphor of the trees. In John’s preaching, that “fruit” was clearly changes ethical behavior, beginning to treat each other with love and true justice, renouncing greed. (See Luke 3:10-13). The fruit of repentance involves a radical change in behavior.