of messages on hymns of Charles Wesley. We’ve looked at a couple standards, and
one that has fallen into disuse. Today we look at one that was never published
in his lifetime and never made major hymn collections. But it vividly recreates
themes of Luke 16, both the story of the shrewd unrighteous manager we shared
with the children and the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Wesley borrows
much of his lyric from the biblical text, enough so that some people say that
if we lost the Scriptures, we could recreate much of it from Wesley’s 9000
will structure our reflection today, both phrases used to describe social
for the poor man Lazarus to be “at our gate”, we will examine the social agenda
of the Wesleys and the early Methodist movement.
we consider the great chasm “between you and us”, we will examine the salvation
language of the story, including echoes found elsewhere in Luke’s gospel.
of the social agenda of the Wesley’s with the Three General Rules of the
United Societies, written by John Wesley for the people called Methodists. For each of these simple rules, Wesley offers
examples of what it means to follow them, and these examples include many
social and economic dimensions, particularly in the first two rules (excerpted
text, available at umc.org and in The Book of Discipline of The United
taking of the name of God in vain.
profaning of the day of the Lord, either by doing ordinary work therein or by
buying or selling.
buying or selling slaves.
giving or taking things on usury–i.e., unlawful interest.
up treasure on earth.
without a probability of paying; or taking up goods without a probability of
paying for them.
possible, to all men:
their bodies, . . . by giving food to the hungry, by clothing the naked, by
visiting or helping them that are sick or in prison.
the faith, in works of mercy and works of piety, that will deepen our love for
God and transform our lives in holiness
Wesleyan idea that “there is no personal holiness without social
holiness”. But the Wesleyan practice was
even clearer than the rules. Methodist
converts, in the early years, were encouraged to emancipate their slaves. AND, the Wesleys worked to abolish the slave
trade entirely. One of the last letters
John Wesley wrote was to the leader of the abolitionist movement in the English
parliament, William Wilberforce, encouraging him to stay the course. If you want to learn the Wilberforce story,
be sure to watch the wonderful film Amazing Grace).
Wesleys came of age in the Industrial Revolution and were at the forefront of
recognizing that our economic systems are bigger than we imagine. We benefit from child labor and exploited
workforces in other countries so that we can wear inexpensive clothing. We benefit from clear cutting of the Amazon
rain forests and displacement of the native peoples so that we can print all
our digital documents on paper. We
benefit from unsafe conditions in mines both here and around the world so that
we can have the energy and metals we want.
Wesleys recognized that we are stuck in systems much bigger than any single
person, systems that are ruled by “unrighteous mammon”, that old English term
for the god of Wealth. And, since we
cannot extricate ourselves fully from these systems – we’ve all got to wear
clothes, use paper, and consume energy – the Wesleys worked to change the
systems. “There is no personal holiness
without social holiness.” They were
involved in abolition, in prison and debt reform, in medical care. They were supportive of the founding of
Sunday Schools, originally designed to teach literacy and faith to the working
children of industrial cities before the advent of public schools. And, all of this social transformation was
combined with the evangelical appeal, the invitation to men and women and
children to follow Jesus with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.
of the things I hope for as we expand our mission in hands-on, person-to-person
service through our ActionChurch initiatives is that it will function as a
springboard of discipleship for many of us. We are all called to “pray without
ceasing” and many of us pray best with a hammer in our hand at a Habitat project,
or helping a child with homework at Lighthouse, or packing flood buckets at the
Mission Central HUB, or serving the Lord’s Table at Smith Health Care. This is
my hope, and we are already seeing it happen.
I have another hope for our expanding mission: that we will find some practical
ways to attack “Unrighteous Mammon” and the systems of poverty, injustice, and
racism in our area. I look at the story
of this rich man and Lazarus and the phrase: “at his gate”. The rich man could not claim that he was
unaware of Lazarus. Lazarus was at his
gate every day (Jerome, ACCS, 261).
Every day he had an opportunity to help one person. And every day, he refused opportunity. Instead, every day, he gave his devotion to
“Unrighteous Mammon”, to Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is Good” mantra (Wall Street).
especially in the wealthy West. Even us
hard working regular folks are wealthy, at least when we compare ourselves to
the global average. The Scripture is
strange and uncomfortable.
Uncomfortable, because it highlights Jesus’ attitude toward wealth –
that we don’t need it, can’t depend on it, don’t own it, and have it only to
serve and give. Strange, because the
salvation elements in the story raise questions about our simplistic view of
salvation by grace through faith.
story told with the children, the one about the unrighteous manager who “made
friends by unrighteous mammon”, that one is a strange one too. Jesus is teaching righteous people to use
“unrighteous mammon” and he is using an unrighteous person as a positive
example. Like this story of the rich man
and Lazarus, there are apparent salvation questions that are wrapped up in our
economic choices. That’s a tough nut to
chew. We’ve been told over and over that
salvation is by God’s grace through faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). Sometimes we forget the next verse in
Ephesians, that God “created us for good works”.
stories are parables, so there are not direct parallels for every feature of
the story – to salvation theology, for example.
At the same time, salvation is clearly a part of the story. This chapter follows right on the heels of
Luke 15, that wonderful chapter focused on the lost sheep, the lost coin, and
the lost sons. Remember what happened to
the younger son in the far country, hungry for the pig food? The Scripture says that he was “longing to be
fed” (15:16) – the very same Greek expression used for Lazarus as he looked at
the crumbs from the rich man’s table (16:21).
And, like Lazarus, it was the younger son who was welcomed to the
salvation feast at the father’s table.
And, what happened to the older son as he refused to go in, protesting
his father’s generosity? His father came
out and addresses him with the same term (in the Greek text) that father
Abraham says to the rich man: “My child” or “My son” (15:31 and 16:25). And, like the rich man, it was the older son
who found himself outside the feast, looking in. (See Joseph A. Fitzmyer, 1985, The Gospel
According to Luke X-XXIV, Anchor Bible 28A, pp 1131-1133.)
of Hippo, Bishop of Hippo who lived in the 4th and 5th
centuries, preached: “Jesus kept quiet about the rich man’s name and mentioned
the name of the poor man. The rich man’s
name was thrown around, but God kept quiet about it. The other’s name was lost in silence, and God
spoke it. Please do not be
surprised. God just read out what was
written in his book. . . . You see, God
who lives in heaven kept quiet about the rich man’s name, because he did not
find it written in heaven. He spoke the
poor man’s name, because he found it written there, indeed he gave instructions
for it to be written there” (Sermon 33A.4, excerpted in Arthur A. Just, Jr.,
editor, 2003, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament III:
Luke [ACCS], 261).
Father Abraham says in the story, “Between you and us a great chasm has been
we examined the social agenda of the Wesleys and the early Methodist movement
and we tied that to the phrase, “at his gate.”
In the second theme, we examined the salvation language of the story,
including its echoes of the story of the two lost sons, and tied that to a
second phrase in the story, “between you and us a great chasm”. The rich man had a choice in this life: To
serve and get to know the beggar at his gate OR to live his life in line with
the social divide, the chasm that separates social classes. He chose the chasm, and found the chasm
mirrored in the next life as well. In
fact, he couldn’t get over the different social location in Hades; he still
thought of Lazarus as a man who served.
Scripture gets intensely personal, practical, and tough when this happens. Then I read some lines from another Augustine
sermon, this one on the shrewd manager:
life that was going to end. Would you
not insure yourself for eternal life?
mammon of iniquity, so that they too, when you begin to fail, may receive you
into eternal shelters.” It is easy, of
course, to understand that we must give alms and a helping hand to the needy,
because Christ receives it in them. . . .
When you give alms to all different types of people, then you will reach
a few who deserve them. . . . Let in the
unworthy, in case the worthy might be excluded.
You cannot be a judge and sifter of hearts.
chasm do we face? For that rich man, it
would have been the most uncomfortable and unnatural thing to reach out to
Lazarus, to introduce himself, to get to know him . . . never-mind actually
help him. The call of Jesus is clear:
Cross your chasm now and be sure to cross the chasm for eternity. Where to start? The problems in our world are so big and we
don’t have the mind or skill of a Wesley.
Start at your gate. Pray for open
eyes to the needs right in front of you.
At my gate, and at yours, there are people in need. Jesus loves them, and if his love lives in
our hearts, then we will be moved with love as well.
someone goes to them from the dead, then they will repent.” Well, Jesus took care of that. And he proves his own statement. We still have to choose to cross the
chasm. We still have to choose to love
and serve the poor. Jesus gave us the
example of chasm-crossing: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus
Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by
his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).