God Helps

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately studying the parables, in connection with the Bible class I’m teaching on Sunday mornings. Last week, we looked at the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, Luke 16:19-31. (Go ahead and get your Bible – I’ll wait. Or click here to open another window with that text.)

One of the first controversies people get bogged down in concerns whether this is a fictional parable, or a true story that Jesus somehow knew through His divine awareness. The argument has often been made that it must be about real people, since Jesus calls “Lazarus” by name – something He does in no other known parable.

I must respectfully disagree. “Lazarus” is a form of the Hebrew name, “Eleazar,” which means, “God helps.” It was a very common name, and doesn’t have to mean anything other than a good storyteller giving a fictional character a familiar name. In fact, its significance may be in its Hebrew meaning: the rich man had many resources on which he could rely, but this poor man’s only help was from God.

One thing that I’ve learned in my recent study of the parables – people use them to preach and teach all sorts of screwy things. Many interpreters seem to regard the words of Jesus as a blank screen onto which they can project whatever point of view they’re wishing to promote.

That’s especially true with this text. To one writer, this story is the perfect opportunity to preach that the actions we take in this life have permanent, eternal consequences. Another guy used it to talk about the reality of a literal heaven and a literal hell. Others had even more far-fetched interpretations. Now, some of what these guys say is undoubtedly true, but in my opinion, they miss the point Jesus is trying to make.

To understand His point, we have to back up a few verses in the chapter. Earlier in Luke 16, Jesus had been speaking about having the right priorities when it comes to money, and understanding that our money is an asset, a tool, that God has given us, and we must be wise and responsible in using that tool for God’s glory. In Luke 12:21, He talked about the foolishness of storing up wealth for oneself, but failing to become “rich toward God.”

Meanwhile, the Pharisees, “who loved money” (Luke 16:14), were “sneering” at Jesus. They had totally bought into a version of what is today called the “prosperity gospel:” the idea that God rewards His followers materially, and that earthly riches are a sign of God’s favor. (There are plenty of TV preachers and others today who audaciously proclaim this same falsehood.) But it is in response to the cynical, sneering Pharisees that Jesus tells this story.

His point, in my opinion, was to teach that we have a responsibility to use our money, as well as our time, our talents, our possessions, and whatever else God may have given us, in such a way as to glorify Him. If we use our wealth only to make ourselves comfortable – as this man did – then we have failed to love God with “all our heart,” and we have certainly failed to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”

Lazarus, according to the story, hung out every day near the rich man’s garbage cans, hoping just to eat the scraps that were being thrown out. His only companions were the stray dogs that he competed against for dinner. Did the rich man know he was there? Did he even see him?

It’s easy to condemn the rich man for his failures, even as we let ourselves “off the hook.” But Jesus doesn’t let us off that easy. Many of us have become quite skilled at NOT seeing those around us. Who are the needy among us? Who are the friendless near us? Who is the co-worker that just wants someone to talk to? Who is the neighbor living in unwanted isolation, hoping for a knock on the door? We rationalize our failure to help; we excuse ourselves by thinking about the “wrong choices” that “the poor” have made, to put them where they are.

Do we know that? And even if we do, are we really that self-righteous and smug? Is that how God treated us? In another place, Jesus talked about the need to remove the plank in our own eye before we worry about the speck in our brother’s eye. Many of us are quick to give ourselves “grace” for the wrongs we have done; can we not find some grace to help others?

Ultimately, in the story, Lazarus was “helped” by God. May God “help” each of us to see and reach out to those around us.

Do You Trust Me?

All of us are faced every day with many questions.  “What should I wear?,” “Where do you want to eat?,” “When are we leaving?”  But there are questions, and then there are questions.  And in John 11, Jesus asks Martha a question that is definitely in that second category.

The chapter opens with Jesus learning that Lazarus, his friend, was sick – but mysteriously, Jesus does NOT immediately head for Bethany, the village where Lazarus lives.  Instead, Jesus delays for a couple of days before leaving.  The disciples are just as puzzled as we are by his behavior.

Jesus arrives to find Lazarus has been dead for four days.  Lazarus’ sister, Martha, goes out to meet Jesus on the road, and she immediately begins with the accusations.  “If only you had been here, my brother would not have died!”

We have to understand some of the cultural forces at work here.  With their brother dead, Martha and her sister Mary didn’t have a lot of economic options.  It wasn’t like they were getting a big life insurance check when Lazarus died.  And you certainly don’t get the impression that they were financially wealthy – after all, they lived in Bethany, which means, “House of the Poor.”  You wouldn’t expect to find a lot of money in a place called “Poor-town.”

So Martha, ever the practical one, was probably looking past her grief, already wondering how she and Mary were going to get by.  There weren’t very many jobs available for women.

“If only you’d been here, my brother would not have died.”  It’s a sentiment that many of us have wanted to shout at God at one time or another.

  • Where were you, God, when my child was killed?
  • I have dedicated my life to you, God.  How could you let my business go under?
  • How could you make my wife suffer with cancer like that?

There are many other versions of those questions, but you get the point.  Where is God when it hurts?

In his book “God Came Near,” Max Lucado says

You see, if God is God anywhere, he has to be God in the face of death. Pop psychology can deal with depression. Pep talks can deal with pessimism. Prosperity can handle hunger. But only God can deal with our ultimate dilemma — death. …He has to be God in the face of death. If not, he is not God anywhere.

So when Martha confronts Jesus for apparently being AWOL when he was needed most, Jesus doesn’t flinch.  He says, somewhat cryptically, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha thinks Jesus is talking about something off in the future and says, “Yes, I know he will rise again in the resurrection in the last day.”  (As if to say, “That’s not going to be of much help now.”

But Jesus stuns her (and us) when he says, “I AM the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies.  And whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”

And that’s when he asked THE QUESTION.

“Do you trust me?”

Now, your translation for that verse probably says something like, “Do you believe in me?,” but I don’t think that does justice to what Jesus is really saying.  You see, for many people, to BELIEVE is something that takes place in the mind.  It’s a matter of giving intellectual agreement.  Yes, I believe I should watch my diet and exercise more.  Yes, I believe that wearing seat belts is good.  Yes, I believe that Jesus is the Son of God.

We say we believe those things, but we may or may not actually DO anything about it.  That’s because in our language, BELIEVING something doesn’t necessarily mean ACTING on that.

But Jesus is not asking Martha if she understands his words intellectually.  He’s asking, “Do you trust me?”  And it’s the same question he asks us today.  He wants to know, even when we don’t understand what is happening, or why, do we trust him?

  • Do we trust him in the hospital waiting room?
  • Do we trust him in the police station and in the courthouse?
  • Do we trust him when our most cherished dreams come crashing down?
  • Do we trust him as we hold the hand of one who is slipping away?
  • Do we trust him at the cemetery?

The fact is, it’s easy to trust him when life is going well and everyone is healthy and there’s plenty of money in the bank.  But what about when “things fall apart, and the center does not hold?”  Can we still trust him then?

Now of course, we know the end of this story.  We know that Jesus went to the cemetery and called out Lazarus and there is a great happy ending.  But put yourself in Martha’s sandals here.  She didn’t know any of that.  All she knew was that the brother that she loved was dead, her world was upside down, she had no idea what was coming in the future, but here stands Jesus in front of her, asking her to trust him.

Martha gives the answer for eternity.  “Yes, Lord.  I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

Good words, but more than that.  It’s the response of a broken but trusting heart.

It’s still the response he’s looking for today.

(Max Lucado quotation taken from The Question for the Canyon’s Edge.)