Sunday, February 12, 2012

Not helping a sin? 2

... continued from yesterday
Luke's best example of what a poor person looks like is the poor man Lazarus outside the rich man's house (Luke 16:19-31). This is a parable rather than an actual story. And this is not the Lazarus of John's gospel, whom Jesus raises from the dead. It is a poor beggar who sits outside the home of a wealthy man.

The parable probably wants us to picture this beggar living off of the generosity of the rich man.  Perhaps at some point during each day, the scraps from the house are tossed out and Lazarus eats them along with animals. Perhaps we are meant to think he has leprosy or some other skin disease, for the dogs lick his sores.

Meanwhile, no sin of the rich man is mentioned explicitly. Would the original audience of Luke simply have associated sinfulness with the rich man's wealth?  It is more than possible. Are we to think of the fact that Lazarus lives off scraps from the house as a key indication of the rich man's sinfulness?  It is more than possible. The rich man lives in luxury and does nothing substantial to help Lazarus.

To Luke's audience, it was probably an obvious sin that the wealth of the rich man could be so close and yet Lazarus continue in his squalor.  Help was so close, so available, and yet apparently un-offered outside of scraps.  It is likely  because of the way wealth was viewed in general and because we find this theme explicitly elsewhere.

In Matthew 25, those who are sent to the "eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (25:41) are those who had the opportunity to help but did not.  "I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me" (25:42-43). Nothing is said of faith in Jesus in this passage.  Judgment is entirely according to works done toward the needy.

Similarly in 1 John 3: 17, John the elder seriously questions whether a person can truly be a child of God "if anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them."  We are so used to the truth in Paul that we become right with God by faith that most of us overlook the substantial parts of the New Testament that look for works of this sort as the most important indications of who you are.  James summarizes it in this way: "You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone" (Jas. 2:24).

I am usually hesitant to speak of a "biblical" perspective on an issue.  The reason is because the different books of the Bible addressed different contexts and situations.  When you read these books carefully, it can take some serious theological work to identify what the Christian perspective is amid these diverse situations.  This work is complicated by the fact that every word of the Bible was first written to people who have been dead for about two thousand years and more.  Connecting these instructions to their world to our world, again, can require some serious theological work.

But amazingly, the entirety of the biblical texts are united in their sense that God wants his people to care for those who cannot take care of themselves.  It is true in the Old Testament Law.  It is true in the Prophets and the Writings of the Old Testament.  It is certainly true of the gospels and Acts.  It is true of Paul and the letters.  It is ironic that so many Christians today are so sure about so many things that the Bible does not clearly teach or that do not clearly relate to today and yet they question, even vilify those who take the biblical position on helping the poor today...

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