Monday, September 30, 2013

The Point of the Story

The scriptures referred to are 1 Timothy 6:6-19 and Luke 16:19-31.

I have gone to Hell. Hell, Michigan, that is. It is an unincorporated town which has capitalized on its unfortunate name to sell merchandise. But though I can't find it on the internet, I swear it once had an attraction that featured tableaux of famous sinners in hell. My brother and I, having seen the billboards, pestered our parents until they stopped and reluctantly bought tickets. It wasn't much. Mannequins behind glass represented Pontius Pilate and other Biblical bad guys in hell. I remember the one with the rich man from today's gospel looking longingly at a ghostly hand with a single drop of water hanging from its index finger. It was the most impressive exhibit of an admittedly disappointing tourist trap.

I think we often draw out of this parable lessons that Jesus didn't intend. Such as trying to construct a spacial map of heaven and hell. I think Jesus has Abraham and the rich man within viewing and speaking distance of each other for storytelling reasons. If their locations were absolutely removed from each other, the crucial interaction between the two couldn't take place. I don't think Jesus is as concerned about constructing a realistic picture of the afterlife as he is making his point.

And what is his point? To discern that, we do need to map out the larger section of Luke's gospel in which we find this pericope.

In Chapter 15, the Pharisees are muttering about Jesus' company, which at this point is made up mainly of tax collectors and sinners. So Jesus tells the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the so-called prodigal son. The point of those is how much God and his kingdom rejoice over those who repent. In the prodigal son, Jesus introduces a righteous son, who is furious over his father's willingness to forgive. The righteous son is depicted as being faithful to the father, in contrast to the younger son. He is obviously a stand-in for the self-righteous Pharisees. But then Jesus seems to question whether they are really as faithful as they would like others to think. So he tells the story of the dishonest steward, who fiddles with the books when his master decides to fire him. The Pharisees instantly pick up on the subtext and mock Jesus. In response, Jesus says, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight.” In other words, diminishing what people owe God in order to win friends is not acceptable. And Jesus follows this up by talking about how the least stroke of the Law is more permanent than heaven and earth. He singles out the lax divorce standards of his day.

Which brings us to our gospel passage. How does this thread of repentance and faithfulness to God's law manifest itself in this story?

Last Sunday, I quoted at length a passage from Deuteronomy in which God commands his people not to be stingy to their poor brothers and sisters. It actually says, “If there is a poor person among you, one of your brothers within any of your gates of the land the Lord your God is giving you, you must not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother.” (Deut 15:7) After painting a picture of the rich man's extravagant lifestyle, where does Jesus place poor sick Lazarus? At the man's gate! So the rich man is violating not just the spirit of God's law but a specific commandment. The result is that, unrepentant, the rich man goes to hell.

Remember, last Sunday we established that having wealth is not a sin, provided one has earned it through honest, hard work and is generous to others. It's this last condition that the rich man in the Jesus' parable has violated in a rather flagrant manner. He had to pass by and perhaps step over Lazarus every time he opened his gate. He didn't even give the poor man his leftovers. This guy is callous.

Why was he like this? People are motivated by 3 categories of emotions: their needs, their desires and their fears. It's quite possible that the man got rich simply trying to meet his needs. Or possibly it was his father, since the man has 5 brothers that are in the same situation. So this guy may have inherited his wealth. And he had more than he needed. So why wouldn't he share?

It could be the desire to simply have more. Some people can't give up even a small part of what they have because they have this pathological need to have more. It may be a competitive spirit. I have heard of millionaires who don't really need a bigger yacht but want one bigger than that of their neighbors or a rival. That's just greed and selfishness.

Some people have bought into the idea that more stuff means more happiness. Our whole marketing industry is built on this. They sell you stuff you don't need on the premise that you will be happier if you purchase it. But those who buy into this idea eventually run into the law of diminishing returns: the more stuff they get, the less kick they get out of it. After a while it is no longer new, no longer shiny and mysterious, and they have to get more stuff to get that rush again. (I think some people who marry very often are like that.) And some people are able to delude themselves for their whole lives with such an obsession. Others realize that this constant inflammation of desire is a fraudulent way to live and get disillusioned with accumulating material possessions. It can lead to repentance or it can lead to despair. Is that what happened to the rich man in the story? He should have died a great deal later than poor starving Lazarus. Did he kill himself out of disillusion and despair? (Although that level of detail is not really important to the point of the story.)

One last motivation for acquiring lots of money or possessions is fear. Some rich people started out quite poor and it is fear of ever being in that state again that drives them to succeed. The sad thing is that they can never relax and enjoy their wealth because of the nagging fear that it could all go away. Such fear is really a lack of trust in God. It is not believing that he will provide your needs. It is doubting his goodness and love.

Paul in our passage from 1 Timothy has learned to be content with the basics: food and clothing. He has seen how the frantic scrabbling for riches has derailed many lives. And he has learned that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.” That's a much better translation of the original Greek than the old King James version. It is “a” root, not “the” root, and it is “all kinds of evils,” not “all evil.” But while it may not be the cause of everything that's wrong with the world, it can certainly account for a lot of it. Money is necessary for buying what we need but if you fall in love with it, then your relationship to wealth and material goods becomes warped. It's easy to hoard but hard to give away what you love. 

We have people starving and living in poverty in this world, not because there is insufficient food or money, but because it is so unevenly distributed. It is because of the secular version of the Golden Rule: he who has the gold makes the rules. For instance, it is the boards of directors and CEOs who determine that not only is their work more valuable than the people who actually turn out the products they sell or perform the services they offer but that it is hundreds of times more valuable. Specifically, the average CEO makes 273 times what the average worker makes. In 1965, it was only 20 times as much. The average pay for CEOs at the top 350 companies, including stock options, is $14 million. That means, if they worked 40 hours a week for 50 weeks with 2 weeks paid vacation, their hourly wage would be $6730.76 or more than $112 a minute. Makes you wonder why they balk at paying people more than $7.25, the current minimum wage. Or to put it in terms they understand, what they make every 3.8 seconds. I'm not saying that what they do isn't valuable but is what they do every 2 and a quarter hours worth as much as what a minimum wage employee does in a whole year? Because that's the equivalency.

Henry Ford decided to pay his workers enough that they could afford to buy the cars they made in his factories. A lot of poverty, at least in the industrialized parts of the world, could be alleviated if employers paid their employees enough to live on. It's not like we have CEOs moonlighting to put food on the table.

As we said last time, there are wealthy people, like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and J.K. Rowling who are generous. But those who aren't generous are driven by selfish greed or a fearful distrust of God's goodness. Jesus doesn't specify what motivates the rich man in his parable. Because while I'm sure Jesus was telling this story partly as an illustration of his earlier statement that you cannot serve both God and money, that's really not the main point of this story. And I think, like the lurid picture of hell Jesus paints, we get so caught up in the politics of money that we don't pay attention to the moral of the story.

If it weren't for the last 4 verses of this passage, we might conclude that Jesus is just teaching us about the punishment for being an uncaring rich person. But the rich man is not so wrapped up in his agony that he doesn't think of others. Lazarus may not have meant anything to him in his earthly life, but the rich man does worry about his 5 brothers, whom he obviously thinks are as tightfisted as he was. So he asks that, if Lazarus can't bring him a drop of water, (remember: he never did anything for Lazarus), could he at least return to earth to warn his brothers? Notice that Abraham doesn't say that Lazarus couldn't, just that, as good Jews, they should hear regularly the teachings of Moses and the prophets, with all of their commandments to help the poor.

The rich man knows his brothers only too well. God's word won't move them to change their self-indulgent and uncharitable lifestyles. But if Lazarus came back from the dead, they would repent. Notice anything telling about this? Apparently his brothers would recognize Lazarus as someone they knew who had died. That means they also had passed the beggar by without doing anything for his hunger or his sores. The rich man is right. They are going to join him if they don't turn to God.

And that leads us to our moral. Abraham replies, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

Jesus took the thread he'd started on repentance, on how wealth corrupts and leads to unfaithfulness to God and brought it around to the main point: resistance to repentance even in the face of resurrection.

All of the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, tell of how Jesus raised the daughter of Jairus, the synagogue leader, from the dead. In addition Luke tells us of how Jesus raised the son of widow of Nain from the dead. Wouldn't you think that would cause any clear-thinking person, including Pharisees, to accept what Jesus said and did as coming from God? You want to say “Yes.” But did it? No. In fact, Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead was the tipping point in the plot against Jesus. Rather than saying, “He is from God,” his enemies said with dismay, “Everyone is going to believe in him!” But not them! They were were more concerned over their position and their relationship with Rome than with the obvious implications of a man who raises the dead and speaks for God.

How could this be? Actually, scientists have discovered it is very hard to change people's minds even when they are faced with evidence that undercuts their belief system. In studies they found that people nitpick news reports and scientific studies that contradict deeply-held beliefs, looking for exceptions and flaws. And if they find just one, no matter how tiny or irrelevant to the main thrust of the argument, they will seize upon it as sufficient reason to disbelieve the whole lot. They will even lose the ability to do basic math if, say, shown charts and figures that disprove their beliefs.

Think of the folks who still say President Kennedy was not shot by Oswald despite all the scientific recreations that showed no need for a second shooter and even that a bullet fired through one body will tumble in flight causing the odd trajectory that also wounded Governor Connelly. Think of the people who believe that commercial jets alone did not bring down the Twin Towers, despite all the forensic and engineering evidence that they did. Think of all the people who think Jesus never existed, despite all the documentary and historical evidence, accepted by every reputable historian, that he did.

Classicist Michael Grant wrote a book about the gospels and when he got to the resurrection of Jesus, he said as a historian he could not treat it as he would any other event in Jesus' life. And yet he admitted that it was difficult if not impossible to understand the change in the disciples and the phenomenal growth of the early church without the resurrection being real.

Jesus knew that even his resurrection would not convince his most hardened critics, those who could not be objective, nor listen to the evidence. (Perhaps that why he rather cheekily names the proposed resurrectee in the parable after the friend he raised from the dead.) People will believe what they want to believe, especially when changing their position would be inconvenient or embarrassing. The cost is just too high for most people. Sir Anthony Flew, the renowned atheist philosopher, was viciously attacked by his former admirers when he changed his mind on the existence of God. When C.S. Lewis gave up his faith in atheism, admitted that God was God and prayed, he described himself as "the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England." Paul not only gained enemies when he turned from persecutor of the church to its foremost missionary, but it took a while for other Christians to trust him. There is a cost to turning your thinking and life around. It is the rare individual who can do it.

But Jesus wasn't aiming for the average person who has made up his mind and doesn't want any inconvenient facts to confuse him. He was aiming for the open-minded, the person who is willing to examine his pre-conceptions of the world, the person who can be persuaded by the moral truth found in the Bible, the person who knows he needs to change the way he is living and who would be prepared to follow Jesus even before hearing of his resurrection.

Jesus' resurrection changed the people who knew him and those they encountered who were open to the good news. The authorities who had Jesus killed, though they could not produce his body and thus quash the story of his resurrection, did not change their minds. It would have been political suicide for Pilate or even Caiaphas the high priest to admit to the public that they were so wrong as to condemn and crucify the Messiah--assuming they could even admit such a thing to themselves. In fact, it would take 300 years before any governor or emperor would be brave enough to declare himself a Christian. And even then they tried to make their “Lord” serve the state's agenda.

People's needs, desires and fears can motivate them to change. They can also motivate them to stay the same, when change costs too much and scares them too badly. They didn't crucify Jesus for being a supporter of the status quo. And when he rose, those who had too much invested in the political, religious and economic status quo, tried to ignore it. They went on as if nothing happened. Because if they didn't believe Moses and the prophets they wouldn't be convinced even if someone rose from the dead.

Jesus knew this. He knew not everyone would come to him, just as he knew that not everyone who said they would follow him would give up their other masters, whether they were their desires for wealth or popularity or power or to be safe. Those are most of humanity's main desires. And the last, “to be safe,” points to our greatest fears: pain and death. Following Jesus is not safe. Never has been. Jesus said, “anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Because if you carry your cross, it keeps your mind on the essentials, the point of the story, of our story, of history itself: that God is love, love expressed concretely, self-sacrificial love. The point of our cross is that it reminds that this is how we must live our lives. It is a reminder that one day we will die. But it is also a reminder that death is not the end of the story. It is in fact the prologue to a new story, the story of a new life in a new body in a glorious new creation where there is no pain or death or mourning or crying, for God will wipe away every tear and he who is Love Incarnate will be with us forever.   

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 272

The scriptures read are Ezekiel 9-10, Psalm 74 and 1 John 4.

Ezekiel 9. 6 Executioners are called in. Those horrified by the state of the city are marked by a 7th man. The executioners are dispatched. Ezekiel is upset. God says the land is overflowing with murder and injustice. Time for payback.

Ezekiel 10. The mobile throne of God with the cherubim and wheels within wheels enters the temple. One of the executioner is given hot coals from under the throne.

Psalm 74. There is a paucity of musical versions of this psalm. Luckily, this guy seems to have done tuneful versions of each psalm. His singing ends at 5:10 and then he follows it with a message.

1 John 4. Here the spirit of the antichrist is found in those who deny Christ's incarnation. It sounds like Docetism, the heresy that Christ only appeared to become human. The false prophets could be early Gnostics who thought everything material was evil. Thus Christ could not have had a real body. Nor could he have really died for us. That guts the heart of Christianity: that God so loved the world that he sent his son, who did not cling to his divinity but became a man, lived as one of us, fulfilled the law, died for us and rose bodily. Otherwise, it's shadowplay, illusion. The gulf between God and humanity is absolute, unbridged.

John understands the heart of reality: that God is love. Not that God is loving, but is love itself, is the eternal ongoing act of the Father loving the Son loving the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit. People who truly love are born of God and know him intimately. God shows us his love in sending his son that through him we might participate in that living love. Thus we should love each other.      

If we love God, we need not fear judgment or death. Real love expels fear.

And you can't love God and hate people. The two are so inseparable that a denial of one is a denial of the other. True love of God leads to love of people.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 271

The scriptures read are Ezekiel 7-8, Psalm 73 and 1 John 3.

Ezekiel 7. We're hit with a whole lot of images that say that time is up. Judgment is here for the people of Judah, their arrogance, their idolatry, their violence.

Ezekiel 8. Carried to Jerusalem in a vision, Ezekiel sees in the Temple of God various idols being worshiped and even people bowing to the sun. God condemns this and also violence. The two go together--abandoning God and mistreating those created in his image.

Psalm 73. A folk approach to this psalm.

1 John 3. We are God's children and when Jesus comes, we will become like him. Even now, following Christ means giving up habitual sins. You can't indulge in sin and think you're living out God's life. You can't live in Christ and not love your brothers and sisters.

The seeds of murder and violence are found in hate. Jesus gave his life for us out of self-sacrificial love. Being like him means a life of self-sacrificial love, not indifference to those in need.

God's love in our hearts "shut[s] down debilitating self-criticism." It frees us up to ask him boldly for what we need and to love one another.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 270

The scriptures read are Ezekiel 5-6, Psalm 72 and 1 John 2.

Ezekiel 5. Another enacted parable. As harrowing as the act is (shaving your head and beard with a sword!) the reality is more harrowing. Again this is God's judgment on his people who have turned their back on him.

Ezekiel 6. Ezekiel preaches to the mountains of Israel where the altars and high places of idols were built. Those altars will stand no longer, nor will the people who worshiped there.

Psalm 72. We have a Celtic-flavored version of this psalm tonight.

1 John 2. Jesus is our advocate with God when we sin. The true sign that a person loves God is that he obeys God's commands. The foremost of those commandments is to love. Which means you can't hate a brother of sister in Christ.

BTW, the term antichrist only appears 4 times in the Bible and only in 1st and 2nd John. And notice that John is using it to describe former Christians who have left the Body of Christ and deny Jesus, not a mysterious end-times person as in the Left Behind series or numerous Apocalyptic films. An antichrist is simply someone who denies Christ. It is a descriptive term.

And there's nothing about holing up and fighting. Just maintain a deep connection with God through Jesus, your anointing, which sounds like the Holy Spirit because the anointing teaches a Christian everything he needs to know and that's the Spirit's job.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 269

The scriptures read are Ezekiel 3-4, Psalm 71 and 1 John 1.

Ezekiel 3. The scroll tastes good. But Ezekiel's job telling his people God's prophetic words won't be easy because of their rebelliousness. Then Ezekiel is taken away by the Spirit to a Tel Abib which is a ruins where the flotsam of a flood is deposited. There he observes the human equivalent, fellow Jews caught in the flood that was the Babylonian assault on Judah.

God makes Ezekiel liable for the deaths of those he does not warn. So he is like a watchman on a city wall. If he warns people, then it is on their heads if they don't heed his warning. But if he refrains from warning them, then what happens to them is his fault.

But first God's going to make Ezekiel mute for a while.

Ezekiel 4. The first enacted parable. Using a brick and an iron skillet Ezekiel is to enact in miniature the siege of Jerusalem. He is also to lie first on his left side for 390 days, a day for each year Israel sinned, and on his right for 40 days, a day for each year Judah sinned. He is to live on a crude bread and limited water for the whole time. God does relent when Ezekiel objects to cooking his bread over human dung and lets him use cow dung for fuel instead. This symbolized the poor non-kosher food of the besieged people of Jerusalem, whatever they can scrape together and rationed to boot.

Psalm 71. Though only based on a few verses of the psalm, this is the best musical version I could find.

1 John 1. If not written by the same John who wrote the gospel, this was written by someone in the same school of theology. In this first chapter he uses many of the same words: Life, Light, Word.

We are reminded that we are sinners but also that if we confess our sins, God is gracious enough to forgive us. The first step is to admit your sins. The second is to accept God's forgiveness.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 268

The scriptures read are Ezekiel 1-2, Psalm 70 and 2 Peter 3.

Ezekiel 1. Part of the first wave of Jewish exiles to Babylon, Ezekiel, unlike Jeremiah, was not in Jerusalem when it fell 7 years later. Part of his ministry was to make his fellow exiles face the fact that they weren't returning to Jerusalem, and certainly not an intact city, anytime soon. And he did it largely through enacted parables. Also freaky visions.

First freaky vision: in a dust cloud, something like ball lightning and within it, 4 creatures, each with 4 faces and wings. Plus wheels within wheels. Like a gyroscope? That's Peterson's translation and as good as any. It's very hard to picture these angelic creatures, but they are carrying a clear dome and above that is God's throne. So perhaps they are some form of cherubim. I tried to find an artist's rendition on the Internet but all the images are bizarre in the extreme as are the websites that feature them. It's safe to say that what Ezekiel saw defies description. When he saw it , he fell to the ground. As would anyone, I think.

Ezekiel 2. God speaks to Ezekiel, calling him, "son of man," or human. God tells him he is to speak to his rebellious people. He gives Ezekiel a scroll to eat. On both sides of the scroll are words of gloom and doom.

Psalm 70. Striking pictures accompany this straightforward contemporary take on the psalm.

2 Peter 3. Apparently people were beginning to doubt Jesus' return because it hadn't come already. But we are to view this as God giving everyone plenty of time to repent and turn to him. The correct attitude is to realize this life, this world could end anytime. But the important thing is how you live, not to dwell on the details of the end. Rather think of it as the beginning of the new creation.

A reference to Paul and an admission that he isn't always easy to understand. But don't let folks twist his writings or any scriptures. Keep your feet on the ground and grow in grace and understanding of Jesus Christ.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 267

The scriptures read are Lamentations 5, Psalm 69 and 2 Peter 2.

Lamentations 5. A grim picture of the aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem, the new normal of living there. You really didn't expect a book called Lamentations to have a happy ending, did you?

Psalm 69. Though it only covers the first 9 verses, this version captures perfectly the mood of this lament. In its own way, so does this haunting Anglican chant, though by doing the whole psalm the upbeat ending is also reflected gloriously. 

2 Peter 2. I wonder how cult leaders handle this chapter when doing Bible studies or preaching. I bet they don't because their typical M.O. is laid out clearly. Not only are their the outrageous heresies but the sexual promiscuity and greed that inevitably come out in these charlatans. If more people read this chapter, less folks would be tricked by these conmen. The Bible reserves the harshest language for hypocritical and destructive religious leaders. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Dirty Money

The Gospel for today was Luke 16:1-13.

I was intrigued by a story I found online. Ron Shaich, the millionaire founder and CEO of the Panera Bread restaurant franchise, was taking the SNAP challenge. That is, he was going to try to live on the $4.50 that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program gives as the average daily benefit per person. In shopping for the week, he realized how hard the choices are for those on this government program. Less desirable but filling carbs cost less than fruits, vegetables and meat. And covering your meals for a week with just $31.50 is daunting. By midweek, the man who confessed never knowing real hunger said thoughts of food had become all-consuming, making it hard to concentrate on anything else. Why is he doing this? It might have something to do with his Panera Foundation and its efforts to create non-profit “pay what you can” community cafes that address the problem of hunger. He points out that 1 in 6 Americans do not know where their next meal is coming from. 1 in 4 of those are children. 35% of those people are working. They just don't make enough to be able to eat regularly and pay other bills as well.

Another reason Shaich is taking the SNAP challenge, along with 26 members of Congress, is that the House of Representatives voted this week to cut $40 billion from SNAP, which only goes for food. It will remove 4 million people from SNAP. This is hard to understand in a nation which is both the third richest country in the world and yet where just last month a Gallup survey found that 20% of Americans struggled to afford food in the last year. And, mind you, the benefit only comes to $4.50 per person per day.

September is Hunger Action Month. It is an effort to draw attention to the fact that 49 million people, including 16 million children, are food insecure. That's a term for those who don't starve every single day but must skip meals often for financial reasons. Shaich knows of one gentleman who comes regularly to one of his Panera Cares community cafes wearing a full suit. He goes to the “pay what you can” cafe before job interviews so he can be alert and so he doesn't take food away from his family. A lot of people are now on SNAP (formerly the food stamp program) because of the recession. Losing their jobs due to cutbacks, or even the failure of the company they worked for, put millions of folks in situations where they could not get food regularly. Food pantries have been inundated by a surge in demand that has outstripped their resources. The food pantry on Big Pine has seen an uptick in the working homeless they help, including families where both parents work but the family is living in their car. Meanwhile 95% of the income gains of the so-called economic recovery have gone to the wealthiest 1% of the population, who make an average of just over $1 million and who have seen their incomes rise by 215% since 1999 and 31% since the recovery. Some say the the real winners are the top 1/10th of 1%, 315,000 individuals who own one quarter of this nation's wealth, most of it made in the stock market.

The Bible doesn't condemn wealth per se. It is OK to be rich, provided one's wealth comes from honest, hard work and the person recognizes his wealth as a blessing from God and so is generous to the poor. In the Bible national provisions were made for the poor. It was mandated that ancient Israel collect a special tithe every 3 years of the increase of the produce so the poor may eat it. Every 7 years fields are to be let go fallow so the poor may eat from them. And at every harvest a corner was to be left for the poor to harvest. All debts were canceled every 7 years. These commands are all found in Deuteronomy, which also says, “There will be no poor among you, however, because the Lord is certain to bless you in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as an inheritance—if only you obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow every one of these commands I am giving you today.” (Deut 15:4-5) It's a big “if” and of course, Israel failed miserably to follow God's commands. God acknowledges this just a few verses later, saying, “If there is a poor person among you, one of your brothers within any of your gates of the land the Lord your God is giving you, you must not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Instead, you are to open your hand to him and freely loan him enough for whatever need he has. Be careful that there isn't this wicked thought in your heart, 'The seventh year, the year of canceling debts, is near,' and you are stingy toward your your poor brother and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you and you will be guilty. Give to him and don't have a stingy heart when you give, and because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you do. For there will never cease to be poor people in the land; that is why I am commanding you, 'You must willingly open your hand to your afflicted and poor brother in your land.'” (Deut. 15:7-11)

As we said, Israel wasn't too good at obeying these laws. So the prophets, such as Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Micah, called God's people on the carpet for not only neglecting but actually exploiting and oppressing the poor. The courts were rigged against them. According to the prophets, these sins go hand in hand with having the wrong attitude toward God. After all, human beings are made in God's image. If you worship something other than God or if your heart really isn't in your worship of God, it's likely to come out in the way you treat those created in his image. And, sure enough, the peoples surrounding Israel who worshiped fertility gods practiced human sacrifice, especially offering children as burnt offerings to Molech. Also they tended to stratify their laws. In the famed Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, punishment for crimes varied with the class of the person aggrieved. If a nobleman injures a lowborn person his punishment was a fine; if a lowborn person injures a nobleman, he could be executed. God's law does not differentiate between classes. The laws apply to all, even the king.

Let's face it: some people are poor because they made poor decisions. And certainly the Bible doesn't defend people who are poor through their own foolishness or laziness. But there are a lot of other factors that can make you poor, even when you do all the right things, stuff over which you have no control.

Losing your job, for instance. The middle class has shrunk and the lower class has expanded largely due to the people who lost the jobs they had going into the recession. If your company lays off a lot of people including you, or if your company goes under, you just as unemployed as someone who never went for a job. And you are often treated the same. It's a dirty little secret that many personnel departments prefer to hire people away from other companies rather than hire those who are out of work. During the boom years, they may have reasoned that if you weren't working, there must be something wrong with you. But in view of the train wreck that the economy has gone through, you may be no more responsible for being unemployed than the passengers of a real train wreck are for being stranded and wounded. But the thinking in a lot of companies hasn't arrived at that epiphany yet.

And there are a lot of people who have graduated with nice shiny knowledge and skills who can't find a job. They find themselves competing for entry level jobs with more experienced people who lost good jobs, had to lower their expectations and go for less-well-paying jobs. Sometimes that's all they can get especially if they were laid off in their 50s, too close to retirement for many companies' tastes. Other people retired, saw their 401Ks evaporate and had to re-enter the workforce just to survive their so-called golden years. And the low-paying job they took may, ironically, have been one their grandchild otherwise might have gotten.

And that's for people not originally poor. How hard is it to climb out of poverty when you're born into it? When you're dealing with hunger, dangerous neighborhoods, poor schools, bad health, a broken home, a chaotic family life, a lack of good role models, no influential friends or family members to give you a recommendation or a loan? Those who succeed in spite of these factors are rare. They are justly praised for beating the odds. But they are the exception. We can't expect everyone to be extraordinary.

God knows that the world is not fair, nor is it a meritocracy. Jeremiah asks, “Why does the way of the guilty prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?” (Jer 12:1b) The question is asked in Psalm 73 and Job 21 as well. God himself says in Jeremiah 5:27b and following, “...they have grown fat and sleek. They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy. Shall I not punish them for these things? says the Lord. And shall I not bring retribution on a nation such as this?”

Some people have always been greedy and sought to ignore the needs of the less fortunate. But until recently, the Christian ethic of stewardship or some form of it has been accepted by the general public. The idea is that your money and your possessions are not really yours but gifts from God of which you are the steward. They are not for you to hoard but to share.

But for the past several decades a form of intellectually-defended selfishness has arisen to challenge the idea of stewardship. The most influential person to develop and spread this idea was Ayn Rand. A refugee from Communist Russia, she brought with her only its atheism and a bitterness from seeing her father lose his business. Like a lot of people who suffered under one extreme, she was drawn to the other extreme. Though she claimed to be influenced by Aristotle, she rejected his idea of the golden mean, that truth and virtue lie between 2 opposite errors or vices, as courage lies between cowardice and foolhardiness. Instead she said, “There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.” No compromise then. And if the forced sharing of Communism is bad, then selfishness must be good. She actually wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness and declared, “If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.” Everyone in the world is either a maker or a taker, according to Rand. And the makers have the right to do whatever is necessary to keep what is theirs.

Like the communism she despised, Ayn Rand based her ideas on a grossly simplified concept of how the economic world works. As Marx had tunnel vision in regards to the worker, Rand had tunnel vision in regards to the business owner. Karl Marx wrote as if the owner of a business had no major costs other than paying his workers, as if there were no such thing as overhead, for instance. Thus everything he makes over payroll was profit and therefore suspect in Marx's mind. Rand wrote as if the business owner owed none of his success to anyone or anything else, as if public education, government grants, and a massive public infrastructure did not greatly help the individual entrepreneur. She had no use for the government. Instead we should rely on the rational self-interest of the wealthy makers to build roads, hospitals, and the things that government usually does. It's not like they, the private owners of what are usually public utilities, would gouge us for using such things, is it?

This is a badly flawed, dichotomous and rigid view of the world but one which has captured the imagination of some influential people in politics. They may not be brave enough to embrace her more outrageous views on religion or morality but they like the idea that, as Rand said, “Money is the barometer of a society's virtue.” They like the idea that those who succeed financially are automatically virtuous. The unspoken corollary is that those don't make lots of money are somehow immoral. And if altruism and sacrifice are evil, then one needn't go out of one's way to help others. The only way to succeed is entirely on one's own without the aid of others.

But we as Christians recognize that not only are we helped by others but that our primary help comes from God. All we have is gift and grace. For instance, how many successful people are there with a congenital disability? So your basic health is a gift, not an achievement. How many hideously ugly people are successful? Today even singers, whose voice not appearance should be all that matters, look like supermodels. No popular singer today looks like Kate Smith or Ethel Merman or Mama Cass Elliot. It's all about marketing. But having good looks is a gift, not an achievement.

How many of the most successful persons truly started at the bottom? Bill Gates, who just reclaimed the title of richest person in the world, having been merely the richest person in America for the past 10 years, had wealthy parents. His father was a prominent lawyer and his mother, the daughter of a national bank president, was on the board of First Interstate Bancsystem. This enabled him to drop out of Harvard to start his computer company. Warren Buffet's father was a 4-term Congressman who had a brokerage firm. Carlos Slim, who was the world's richest man during the years that Bill Gates wasn't, is the son of a man with a successful real estate company. I'm not putting these men down but neither are they Horatio Alger stories. All of them had a head start toward success. They did not arrange their birth into wealthy families. It was a gift.

And as I said, God is not opposed to wealth. But it is a gift from God. And as such God expects us to be good stewards of those gifts and that means being generous to those whose gifts do not garner them worldly wealth. And based on the Bible I don't think God is happy with a country where the top 5% have 62% of the wealth, and the the bottom 95% must divide up the remaining 38% of the nation's wealth. In fact, the top 20% of Americans own 80% of the wealth leaving the other 80% of our countrymen to live on just 20%. And remember, 49 million Americans don't know where their next meal is coming from.

Which is another reason why I think Jesus was being sarcastic when he gave mock praise to the dishonest steward in today's gospel. Every commentary twists itself in knots trying to explain why Jesus admires this crook. I don't think he did. Verse 14 says, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things and sneering at him.” I think they knew they were the target of this parable. Jesus in other places accused them not only of loving money but of coming up with loopholes for rules that said you had to support your aged parents or which put money ahead of people. And he calls the money in the moral of the story “dishonest.” It would be legitimate to translate it “dirty money.” And Jesus is saying we should use it to make friends? Furthermore, your friends can't welcome you into the eternal habitations of heaven, no matter how much dirty money you use to bribe them. Only God can. Considering that what he says after the supposed moral of the parable totally contradicts it, I think it's safe to say Jesus is satirizing the way the Pharisees act as custodians of God's law, making exceptions to make friends. This parable appears to run contrary to everything else Jesus says because he is being ironic. He's showing how absurd it is to think God will reward you for cheating.

And will God be happy if we discount the hundreds of references to caring for the poor found in his Word? Does he prefer that we have all the latest electronic gadgets and fastest internet and hottest fashions and coolest cars and most awesome video games when that money could have been used to help someone who needs a meal or a place to stay or decent medical attention? Not by what we see in Matthew 25:31-46 where it says when we neglect the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned and the immigrant, we are neglecting Jesus himself.

Which shouldn't surprise us because Jesus was poor. How do we know that? Because when Mary and Joseph presented him at the Temple, they offered two turtledoves or pigeons, which according to Leviticus 12:8 was the offering of those too poor to afford a lamb. He didn't support himself by working while spreading the gospel and healing people. We learn in Luke 8:1-3 that his ministry was supported by women of means. At the cross he arranges for his beloved disciple to care for his mother. Why couldn't his brothers support her? Because they were poor? 

Jesus knew what it was like to suffer the kinds of things that happen only to the poor and he suffered them for our sake. He knew what it was like to be hungry and thirsty. He knew what it was like to be an immigrant, having lived in Egypt in his early childhood. He knew what it was like to be unjustly imprisoned. He knew what it was like to be naked, for he was stripped of his garments at the cross. And when we see people in these states we need to look at them as if they were Jesus suffering and respond appropriately.

Bill Gates has stepped down as CEO of Microsoft and runs the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which is the largest transparently operated charitable foundation in the world. He has vowed to give away 95% of his wealth over his lifetime. Warren Buffett has said that he doesn't believe in dynastic wealth, or as he calls it, “the lucky sperm club.” He announced he will give 83% of his wealth to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, starting with 10 million shares of his Berkshire Hathaway Inc, worth at the time $30.7 billion, the largest charitable donation in history. J.K. Rowling, a faithful member of the Scottish Episcopal Church, has set up a charity that fights poverty, helps children and one parent families, and funds research into multiple sclerosis. She has given so much to charity that she is no longer a billionaire.

None of us is in danger of claiming the same. But all of us are richer than half the population of the world who live on less than $2.50 a day. And 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day. What can we do about that? We needn't be billionaires or millionaires to help people out. We merely need a will and a way. And we have ways. Our denomination ministers to the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the neglected, all over the world. Do we donate what we can to those ministries? Our church supports the local food pantry at the Methodist church. Do we buy something for it every time we shop?

We cannot go back in time and clothe or feed or comfort Jesus when he needed it in his earthly life. But we can feed and clothe and visit and welcome those in our midst who were created in God's image and for whom Christ died. They are all about us. And what we do to the least significant of them, we do to Jesus. 

The Bible Challenge: Day 265

The scriptures read are Lamentations 3-4, Psalm 68 and 2 Peter 1.

Lamentations 3. Jeremiah is the traditional author of Lamentations (the Hebrew name of which is "Alas"). Is this Jeremiah speaking from experience? Or is this a representative survivor of the fall of Jerusalem? At first what he describes sounds like a beating taken from the Lord.

And then we get to verse 21. What follows is a beautiful poem to God's mercy. He speaks of God's mercies being renewed each morning. Of God not willingly bringing grief to humans. (Did verse 30 about turning one's cheek to the smiter stick in young Jesus' mind when he studied the scriptures at his local synagogue?)

There is also the episode of being thrown in a pit about to drown. Is Jeremiah being poetic about being thrown in the muddy cistern? But then God hears his cries and comes to his rescue, saying "Do not fear." God and his angels say that a lot.

Lamentations 4. We're back in the besieged city of Jerusalem, starving. People are boiling and eating their children. True? Or a rumor?

"The evil guilt of my dear people was worse than the sin of Sodom..." Don't tell the Westboro Baptist Church! It will mess up their theology.

It was the sins of the prophets and priests who brought this about. On their hands was the blood of the just. The writer is horrified that the king, God's anointed, was struck. He can't believe it.

Laugh it up, Edom. You're next!

Psalm 68. You're about to hear a very popular song inspired by this psalm. It's also inspired a lot of creative takes. I've run across a Holy Hands version and a mime version but this tango version takes the cake!

2 Peter 1. We have everything we need to live the Christian life, because God has incorporated us into the divine life itself. So keep adding from what God offers to what you already have: to your faith add goodness, and then knowledge, and then perseverance, and then godliness, and then mutual affection, and then love.

The second half is about not accepting made up stories but eyewitness accounts. And it's not a matter of personal opinion but God speaking through his prophets whose words are captured in scripture.

BTW, just 100 days are left in the Bible Challenge! You're in the home stretch!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 264

The scriptures read are Lamentations 1-2, Psalm 67 and 1 Peter 5.

Lamentations 1. Zion/Jerusalem, anthropomorphized as a woman deserted by lovers and friends, laments her fate while she admits her culpability for her plight.

Lamentations 2. Images from the siege: death, starvation, even cannibalism is implied. God's people at their lowest.

Psalm 67. A beautifully shot video that spans the earth gives this version of the psalm a truly global feel. It goes from space to an eagle's eye view to rush of closeups. Enjoy.

1 Peter 5. Peter is especially concerned that pastors sincerely and diligently care for their flocks. And they should stay humble.

Some last advice to stay calm, be vigilant and faithful.

Then some greetings, including the familiar names of Silas and Mark. That young man really gets around.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 263

The scriptures read are Jeremiah 52, Psalm 66 and 1 Peter 4.

Jeremiah 52. This historical epilogue covers a lot of material found in 2 Kings 24-25 and even events previously mentioned in this book. The release of king Jehoiachin at the end gives a glimmer of hope.

Congratulations! You have just finished 44 of the 66 books of the Bible! That's 2/3s of the Book! Keep it up!

Psalm 66. Here's a Scottish metrical version of the first 5 verses of this psalm. While I don't know the language of this hymn, the tune is familiar. But mostly I like how energetic the organist is. Finally, this Christian version starts at the end of the psalm and jumps around and adds Jesus but is very catchy.

1 Peter 4. A reminder that Jesus has gone through everything for us and knows firsthand about suffering. We need to give up the old self and start thinking like him.

Don't let your old friends drag you down. Listen to the good news. Love each other. Love covers a multitude of sins. And it motivates us to be generous and compassionate.

God has not left the building. Suffering for Christ is not unusual. We are on the front line. Trust God.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 262

The scriptures read are Jeremiah 50-51, Psalm 65 and 1 Peter 3.

Jeremiah 50-51. When it's time for Babylon to face God's judgement, they will get what they deserve. What they did to God's people will be done to them. Persia will defeat Babylon.

Psalm 65. Here's a chanted version of the Psalm from a group of Greek Orthodox monks. The video features views of Mt. Athos, which is entirely populated by monastics. If you wish, you can compare it with this example of the Western tradition, from King's College Cambridge.

1 Peter 3. Peter gives general advice to wives and husbands. He tells wives to submit to their husbands. He tells husbands to honor their wives and while he does call them "weaker vessels" he says they are joint-heirs with their husbands. That can only mean heirs of Christ, and so falls within Paul's principle that male and female are one in Christ.

After some general advice about avoiding evil and doing good, Peter tackles the problem of innocent suffering. It's better spiritually, he points out, to suffer for doing good than deservedly suffering for doing wrong. After all, Jesus did the former. So we're in good company.

Peter then mentions Jesus preaching to the spirits in prison. This odd and isolated reference is where some traditions get the doctrine of the harrowing of hell. All the Old Testament saints standing around in shadowy Sheol were released by Jesus between his death and resurrection. I like the image of that but, unfortunately, this is the sole slender thread on which that teaching rests.

Peter makes a connection between Noah's flood and baptism and in an oblique way with the resurrection of Christ. Did he crib the linkage of the last two from Paul or was this a common theme in the early church?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 261

The scriptures read are Jeremiah 48-49, Psalm 64 and 1 Peter 2.

Jeremiah 48. An extended gloom and doom prophesy against Moab. And, yet, in v. 31 God says, "But I will weep for Moab, yes, I will mourn for the people of Moab. I will even mourn for the people of Kir-heres..."

Jeremiah 49. Now it's the turn of the Ammonites, then Edom, Damascus, and others. Yet there are passing references to restoration in some of these denunciations.

Psalm 64. I don't think I've included a dance version of a psalm--until now! Click here.

1 Peter 2. Peter, "Rocky" would be an approximate nickname today, starts out talking about a living stone, Christ. He was rejected by the builders but turns out to be the keystone.

Not only is the stone a foundation but others will stumble over it.

Don't get too cozy with this world but do obey its authorities.

Remember that as Jesus suffered, so we might as well.  

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 260

The scriptures read are Jeremiah 46-47, Psalm 63 and 1 Peter 1.

Jeremiah 46. On second thought, the ultra-short chapter 45 should be seen as a prologue to these prophesies regarding the King of Babylon defeating Egypt, whose army will suffer mass desertion. God really doesn't like all those Egyptian gods. But there is hope for God's people.

Jeremiah 47. Doom for the Philistines, too. Jeremiah asks God to put up his sword.

Psalm 63. A version of this psalm of longing for God that really captures the mood.

1 Peter 1. Peter almost immediately writes about the resurrection of Jesus and getting brand new life through it. It was the event that turned this man who through cowardice betrayed his friend into a fearless herald of Jesus the Messiah.

The church is going through a time of persecution and suffering. Peter says this will test and prove his readers' faith. He reminds us of how Jesus suffered for us first.

Peter calls for diligence, reminds us to be holy. He says " one another as if your life depends on it."

Your new life comes through God's living Word, in other words, Jesus, the Word who was with God in the beginning and who is God.

Sunday, September 15, 2013


The scripture referred to is Luke 15:1-10. 

Not many of us own sheep or livestock of any kind, so it is difficult for most of us to identify with the loss of one farm animal. And few of us are so poor that the mislaying of one coin would be a major disaster. I was thinking of illustrating the concept of losing something, finding it and rejoicing with the common phenomenon of misplacing one's phone today. Then I thought a better parallel would be my recent misplacing of my paycheck which meant driving all the way back to the jail to find where I left it. That was rather harrowing especially since I could swear I had brought it out to the car. But the first example is not a real tragedy. The worse case scenario is you have to get a replacement phone. So it's really just a major pain in the neck, specifically re-entering all your phone numbers. And the second, while it would be painful financial blow, would probably mean I would have to wait until I could get the check reissued.

A better example can be found in the BBC America series Broadchurch. It is a different kind of mystery, showing the aftereffects of a murder on the family, the town, and even the police. And it begins with a parent's worst nightmare. As the family gets up and gets going in the morning, nobody misses Danny. He has a paper route. It is only when he doesn't show up for a soccer game that his mother wonders if something is wrong. She asks other kids about him and they haven't seen Danny. She calls his other friends, parents, various people in the small town, looking for him, with panic rising in her voice, eyes and movements. This being a murder mystery, her quest does not end happily. But to any parent whose ever lost track of a child and gone on a frantic search, the feel of that sequence is exactly right. As is pretty much the rest of the series.

This week's episode takes place 2 months after the murder. The father has returned to work and the teenaged daughter goes back to school for the first time since her brother's death. But everyone is glancing at her, speaking to each other under their breath, and she abruptly walks out of class. When her mother comes to get pick her up and finds her gone, she is instantly anxious. She has just lost one child. Only bad scenarios are playing out in her head. She calls her husband, who leaves work and together they try to track her down. When they find her, at the home of a new boyfriend, they are upset. Then she explains that, as much as she loved Danny, she could not stand everyone looking at her as “the dead boy's sister.” The parents understand only too well. They are known as the dead boy's parents, both in town and in the national media. So the dad proposes they go to the local arcade to just have some fun as a family, something they have not done for a long time. They are rejoicing over finding the daughter they had feared lost.

It's odd that our Gospel reading from Luke 15 cuts off just before getting to the parable of the prodigal son. Because in it Jesus moves from rejoicing over lost things and animals to rejoicing over a lost child. And that is crucial. The prophets of the Old Testament spoke of God's people as a wild vine, or straying sheep, or occasionally as an unfaithful spouse, but rarely as sons and daughters of God. But Jesus does, often. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9) “But love your enemies, do what is good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High.” (Luke 6:35) Paul really develops this theme. He says, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” (Romans 8:14) And in 1 John 3:2 it says, “Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared, but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”

C.S. Lewis, paraphrasing St. Athanasius, the champion of the Trinity at the Council of Nicea, put it this way: “The Son of God became a man to enable men to become the sons of God.” This does nothing to diminish the unique sonship of Christ. He is the only begotten, the unique Son of God. We are adopted children as Paul put it. He chose us out of his great love. But we are nevertheless his children and his heirs.

Which is why he is so dead set on saving the one, though 99 are safe. If you had 6 kids you wouldn't think the disappearance of one was an acceptable loss. You would concentrate all your efforts on that one kid. At that point, to quote Captain Kirk, the needs of the one outweighs the needs of the many. The lost cannot be dismissed as the least of our problems.

A lot of the drop in the number of churchgoing Christians is due to people not perceiving themselves as lost. You don't feel that you are lost if you don't think there's anywhere you have to be. One of the advantages of my ministry at the jail is that most of the people there know they are not where they ought to be. And many realize that it is all or mostly their fault. They know they have sinned and fall short of the glory God intended for us. And they are looking for a way back to God and his path through life. They are eager for help in the form of prayers, scripture and Bible study.

The average person may not think they are lost because they do not think that there is somewhere else where they can be. Part of this is do to the increasing secularization of people's outlook. If they don't think there's a God or heaven, then they aren't going to think they have gotten off-track or that there is a destination in this life. 

But what I tend to run into is people who have drunk the Koolaid of cheap grace. They fully believe that God loves them as they are and so see no reason to change. They will get into heaven with no trouble because God is a big softie and a pushover when it comes to excusing sins.

Dumbing down the gospel and making “converts” but not disciples is largely responsible for this trend. Easy evangelistic tools like the “Four Spiritual Laws” and methods that over-emphasize “being saved” while de-emphasizing the crucial aspect of taking up one's cross and following Jesus have led to a large number of people who think because somewhere in the past they prayed the “sinner's prayer” or attended church when they were younger, they are Christians. That's like the guy who thinks, because he played football in school, he is still an athlete, despite the fact that he weighs twice what he did then and his involvement in sports consists almost entirely of his watching them on TV.

In life, you grow. You can either grow stronger or grow weaker. You grow more flexible or you grow more rigid. You grow more knowledgeable or you grow more clueless. The spiritual life works the same way. You grow stronger in your faith or weaker. You grow in integrity or you grow more lax. You grow wiser or you grow more foolish. But if you're alive, you don't stay static. Only the dead do.

The biggest cause of preventable deaths in the US is smoking tobacco, killing 435,000 Americans, which is nearly 1 in 5 deaths. Poor diet and physical activity are responsible for another 365,000 or 15% of deaths. Alcohol kills 85,000. Together they make up about 37% of the deaths in this country, way more than car crashes (43,000), firearms deaths (29,000), sexual behaviors (20,000) and drug use (17,000). In other words, though they kill 10s of thousands of people each year, the things that kill most people on TV and in the movies kill a small minority of people in real life. The really dangerous causes of death are gradual and don't involve violence or criminal activity.

The things that kill our spiritual life are similar. Most folks drift away from God. They stop praying or reading the Bible the way the high school athlete stops running or lifting weights. They stop going to church or go sporadically or go to one that feeds them spiritual junk food rather than the solid food of a deeper understanding of the God of the Bible. As with a high school acquaintance, their relationship with God was often rather thin to begin with and over time, it slips away. That's the average lost sheep today.

And increasingly, the lost in the West are young people who never went to church unless they were going for the baptism, wedding or funeral of a family member or friend. Or on those occasions where they were with their grandparents and went to a Sunday service. Their parents, professing to give them a choice, presented them with nothing, took them to no smorgasbord of churches, synagogues, mosques or ashrams, presented them with no selection of scriptures to read, spent no regular time giving them a comprehensive world view or ethical system. They never developed a relationship with any religion, much less with God.

I encounter people from this millennial generation at the jail a lot, people whose whole understanding of religion was gleaned from cultural references in movies or TV or comic books. Their exploration of God begins when they've hit rock bottom. I've put together little handouts with the most basic beliefs and practices of Christians to help them get a start. That way they can read the Bible—and they read it more avidly than most churchgoers—provided with a kind of Mapquest or basic itinerary to find their way through the 66 books and 31,000 verses of the Bible, a daunting task for the unchurched.

I field a lot of FAQs, frequently asked questions that you or I learned in Sunday School or through the Catechism. I give them basic concepts and tools for understanding the Bible. Such as: some passages in scripture are descriptive and some are prescriptive. Some merely describe behavior and we needn't and sometimes shouldn't see them as examples to follow. Like large swathes of the historical books in the Old Testament from Judges to 2 Chronicles, which depict the depths to which God's people sink when they don't listen to him. Other passages are prescriptive. We read them and, as Jesus said to those who heard his parable of the Good Samaritan, we are to “go and do likewise.” Usually when we read this passage in Luke 15 we think we are reading a description of God as the shepherd who seeks the lost lamb or as the woman who scours her home for the lost coin. And that's true. But with the Great Commission Jesus passed the torch to us. As the Body of Christ, we are now delegated to find and rescue the lost. He doesn't need us to accomplish this task. As he did with Paul, God can and does speak to individuals and turn their lives around. But he has elected to let us in on his mission. He has chosen to give us roles in his plan to bring the gospel to all people. It is a privilege for us to be entrusted with this charge. It is also our duty. There is no “if you'd like” or “if you have the time or inclination” in the Great Commission.

But the way to find the lost is to look where they were last seen, not put up a place and think, “If we build it, they will come.” We don't want to be like the guy in the old joke. You know, the fellow on his hands and knees one night under a lamppost, searching the ground. Someone approaches and asks what he's doing and he says he's looking for his keys. The person asks where he lost them and he says, “Way over there.” “So why aren't you looking over there?” the person asks. And he says, “Because the light is better over here.”

The lost aren't looking for us. We need to look for them. And we need to look everywhere. Jesus went were people were: seashores, fields, hillsides, roads, wells, homes. Paul went to riverbanks, forums, marketplaces, palaces and prisons. Philip did a little drive-by evangelism. Well, it was the Ethiopian who was driving by in his chariot but Philip saw his opportunity and took it. They didn't hang around a church waiting for folks to drop by. They didn't wait in the light for the lost to come to them. They brought the light to the lost.

And when they found them, they talked the lingo of the lost. Paul used sports analogies and quoted popular playwrights. Jesus used stories about everyday life and filled his parables with the things and folks you'd see in his world: farm workers and plows and shepherds and slaves and seeds and vines and children and widows and wine and tax collectors and builders and nets and wedding banquets and sheep and crosses. We will have to translate those into the stuff we find in our not so rural and agricultural world, like salespeople and computers and divers and checkout clerks and emails and Facebook and the homeless and single mothers and beer and IRS agents and construction workers and crab traps and receptions and cats and lethal injection.

Jesus was also aware of his audience's needs. He could be harsh with religious hypocrites and those in power but he didn't take those who sought him out and rub their noses in their sins. He acknowledged that the woman at the well had 5 husbands and was living with another man but didn't get sidetracked onto the subject. He didn't further humiliate the woman who had been grabbed in the act of adultery and stood in a public place awaiting her execution. He didn't dress down Zacchaeus for cheating people under the guise of collecting taxes. When the disreputable woman was washing his feet with her tears, Jesus didn't ask what she had done that made her such a pariah. These people knew their sins and shortcomings and under Jesus' influence they turned their lives around. Jesus knew when to afflict the comfortable and when to comfort the afflicted.

The important thing for Jesus was not to establish how righteous he was but to reach out to the lost. He said, “It's not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick.” And he was the old-fashioned kind of doctor who made house calls. He never knew where he was going to lay his head because he saw that those who needed him were everywhere. Imagine how many sandals he wore out, traveling the highways and byways of a land about as long as the Keys and several times wider. Why did he do that? Because, as 2 Peter 3:9 reminds us, “God is not willing that anyone should perish but that all should come to repentance.”

That's an essential truth to remember. “God is not willing that anyone should perish...” Why did Jesus hang around with tax collectors, let women of dubious morality wash his feet, touch lepers, heal on the Sabbath, pardon women taken in adultery, reattach the ear of a member of the mob who had come to arrest him, and do other scandalous and surprising things? Because God is not willing that anyone should perish. Why did he tell us to welcome immigrants and visit those in prison? Because God is not willing that anyone should perish. Why did he send out the Twelve and later the 70 to preach the good news and heal people? Because God is not willing that anyone should perish. Why did Jesus give us the Great Commission to go into all the world, making disciples of all nations and baptizing people and teaching them? Because God is not willing that anyone should perish.

We can stick with the 99 sheep who are sensible and safe. We can enjoy the pastoral setting and good food and fresh water our shepherd has led us to while tut-tutting over those foolish enough to stray and sending up an occasional prayer for them. Or we can plunge into the woods and do a grid search of the wilderness and scour the deserts and look among a sea of faces for the lost. We can look for those who are clueless that they have taken the wrong path and those who are trying to their hardest to find the way home and those who have given up on ever getting back. And if we bring just one person home, be they tired or hungry or thirsty or sick or fresh from prison or from another country or all of the above, then...THEN there's going to be rejoicing in the kingdom of heaven, from the cherubim and seraphim around the throne to the stars singing and the spheres ringing all the way down to every sinner saved, which means all of us, who have heard his voice and felt his touch and known the undeserved, unreserved grace of Jesus Christ, our chief shepherd, who owns the sheep on a thousand hills, and who keeps a watchful, loving eye on every single one.  

The Bible Challenge: Day 258

The scriptures read are Jeremiah 44-45, Psalm 62 and James 5.

Jeremiah 44-45. Incredibly, the survivors who fled to Egypt will not give up idolatry nor return to Judah. So God's judgement will fall upon them as well. It is interesting that they use the same excuse churches do for not changing: "But we've always done it this way!"

Chapter 45 is more of a postscript to 44. Odd it should be that short. Archbishop Stephen Langdon, the guy who divided the Bible into the chapters we now have, must have fallen asleep in the middle of 45, woke up the next day, thought he'd finished with the chapter he was working in and just picked up with the next number. (The old joke was that he did his work while on horseback traveling from parish to parish. Whenever the horse stumbled, he inadvertently made a mark in his Bible and that became a chapter.)

Psalm 62. This rousing if loose paraphrase of psalm 62 is practically the only version available. It is a good song so enjoy it!

James 5. This is the only book in the Bible that does not distinguish between the rich who got that way through honest hard work while being generous to the poor and the rich who did it by exploitation and cheating workers out of their pay and even murder. It sounds like it was written by someone from Occupy Wall Street. I wonder how rich televangelists and prosperity gospel preachers and religious CEOs interpret these verses?

James closes with a list of good advice. Be patient waiting for Jesus' return. Quit complaining about each other. Pray. Sing. Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another. Don't give up on those who have strayed.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 257

The scriptures read are Jeremiah 42-43, Psalm 61 and James 4.

Jeremiah 42 & 43. The remnants of Judah ask Jeremiah to pray for them and swear to do what God tells them. That's great until he tells them what they don't want to hear. Stay in the devastated land of Judah and you'll be safe. Go to Egypt and the Babylonians will come back and do to Egypt what he did to Jerusalem. Of course, the people rebel against that and go to Egypt, dragging Jeremiah and his secretary Baruch along. God warns them again. It never does any good, does it?

Psalm 61. The plaintive tone of the singer suits this psalm.

James 4. Desiring stuff that not yours or that's not good for you is what causes fights and arguments. Don't cheat on God with the world's enticements. God won't sit back and allow you to do that.

Get serious about following Jesus and obeying God. Don't trash talk your fellow Christians. It hurts the cause of the good news of God in Christ.

The future is not real...yet. Your 5-Year Plan is fiction. You have no idea what tomorrow will bring; it could be anything. Take that into account. Remember everything is conditional, based on God's will. Like Jesus, underlying every prayer is the acknowledgement is that God's will, not ours, be done.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 256

The scriptures read are Jeremiah 39-41, Psalm 60 and James 3.

Jeremiah 39. All the stuff that God had warned about and which Jeremiah prophesied happened. Zedekiah's last sights were horrible. We've read most of this in 2 Kings 25, although I don't remember it mentioning all the nobles being killed as well.

How did Nebuchadnezzer hear of Jeremiah? From the folks who defected to the Babylonians before the fall of Jerusalem?

God remembers Ebed-melek, who got Jeremiah pulled out of the muddy pit. The Ethiopian will see the sacking of Jerusalem but will not be harmed. Kindness repaid.

Jeremiah 40. Only the poorest of the poor, ie, those the Babylonians felt had nothing to offer their country or culture, are left behind. Jeremiah, freed by the Babylonians, decides to settle with them rather than go to Babylon.

Some of the Judean officers hiding out pass on to the new governor a rumor of a plot for his assassination.

Jeremiah 41. He should have listened to the rumor. Ishmael indeed kills the governor and a lot of others, escaping with hostages. They are rescued, Ishmael escapes, but the hostages and their rescuers decide to go to Egypt rather than hang around for the aftermath of the assassination of the man the king of Babylon appointed.

Psalm 60. Apparently not a lot of people want to set to music a psalm that begins "You have rejected us, God..." Rather than subject you to a rap version or a kiddie song based on just one verse by the Scripture Lady, I give you this nice tune from the Genevan Psalter.

James 3. A warning about the damage you can do when you open your mouth and talk unwisely.

And following from that, wisdom, like faith, is best judged by the behavior that issues from it. Anyone can sound wise. But true wisdom is seen in a holy life and getting along with others. Echoes of the 2 great commandments.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 255

The scriptures read are Jeremiah 36-38, Psalm 59 and James 2.

Jeremiah 36. When Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis realized that having all the medical staff wash their hands between patients and before and after procedures saved a significant number of lives, he became a fanatic about it. He was a huge pain in the neck and people hated him for it but he was right. He was just trying to save lives. Jeremiah was like that. Not even the king can stand his prophesies and he has been banned from going to the temple. Here's what he does instead.

The king's chilling response to a prophesy from God shows that God is right to bring judgment on him.

Jeremiah 37. I was was in a dungeon similar to the one that Jeremiah was put in. It was in Jerusalem under the church of St. Peter in Gallicantu (here) which is built over what is traditionally the site of Caiaphas' palace. If so, then one of the cisterns below may have been where the high priest kept Jesus overnight before dragging him off to Pilate in the morning. I can see why Jeremiah did not like it.

Jeremiah 38. An Ethiopian eunuch to the rescue. Perhaps God repays the Ethiopians by having Philip tell the gospel to the eunuch in Acts, making him the first ever Gentile convert. Anyway, this Ethiopian, Ebed-melech, is responsible for getting Jeremiah out of an even nastier cistern.

The king can't stand not knowing what God has to say and so secretly consults Jeremiah. It is not all bad news. If the king gives himself up, he and the city will survive. But the king is too cowardly to do that, so it looks like the predicted destruction will go on.

Psalm 59. I rather like this simple rendition of the psalm over slicker versions.

James 2. James, who may very well be James the Just, Jesus' brother and head of the church in Jerusalem, is here illustrating Jesus' disregard for wealth and position in treating people. Don't discriminate against the poor or grant the rich special favors. The first shall be last and the last first.

"Love your neighbor as yourself," the second Great commandment, is the key to all social ethics. James also points out our tendency to pick and choose which commandments in Scripture to follow. That's like choosing to smoke instead of taking heroin. Neither is healthy. If we want to be Christlike, we can't say, "I obey this ethical command from the Bible but not that." God wants us to live by them all.

Which leads to a discussion of faith. This section is what made some in the church hesitate to accept this book as scripture. James appears to be contradicting Paul in regards to being saved by faith and not by works. James isn't saying that, though. Peterson indicates that in his paraphrase. "Isn't it obvious that faith and works are yoked partners, that faith expresses itself in works." (Read the whole passage from 2:14 on here.) Paul would agree. He never meant that because we are saved by faith and not by works that we won't do works as a natural outcome of trusting God and being transformed by Christ through his Spirit living in and acting through us. As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:10: "For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." Good works don't save people but saved people do good works as a result of God making them into new creations, new people.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 254

The scriptures read are Jeremiah 34-35, Psalm 58 and James 1.

Jeremiah 34. God sends a message to Zedekiah that assures him that while the Babylonians win and take him captive, he will die a peaceful death.

But then the king decides to free Hebrews that are slaves, as he should after every 7 years. But then the king thinks better of it. This reneging on human responsibility caused God to renege on his promise to spare the king.

Jeremiah 35. Jeremiah describes this odd clan that does only what their grandfather told them to do. Why can't Israel and Judah be that obedient to their God?

Psalm 58. Couldn't find any decent sung versions. Here is an instrumental version with the words.

James 1. There are no wisdom books in the New Testament except the book of James. As I did in Proverbs, I'm to just pick out a few of the verses that stick out: "God is impervious to evil and put's evil in no one's way. The temptation to give in to evil comes from us and only us."

"God's righteousness doesn't grow from human anger."

"Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world."

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 253

The scriptures read are Jeremiah 31-33, Psalm 57 and Hebrew 13.

Jeremiah 31. Image after image of restoration. God will not abandon his people and they will come back to their home and to Zion.

The key is the new covenant God will make with his people. This time it won't be carved into stone but into their hearts.

Jeremiah 32. The Babylonian army is besieging Jerusalem and Jeremiah in in the royal jail for predicting that Babylon will win. Yet while he is in prison, Jeremiah is told to buy a field as a prediction that God will restore things eventually. But in the short term, he will let the Babylonians loot and burn the city.  

Jeremiah 33. The coming destruction is like the demolition that comes before building something new.

We get a glimpse of the Messiah and God's assurance that he will not let his covenant with David's descendant fall apart.

Psalm 57. Fascinating combination of the first half of the psalm sung in Gujarati and a sweeping view of the Indian countryside from a train. For the second half I offer this contemporary Christian version of the psalm.

Hebrews 13. Lots of good advice as the letter wraps up, encouraging hospitality, identifying with prisoners, sexual fidelity, contentment with what you've got, supporting your pastors, etc. I like the push to go outside, to go out of your comfort zone, metaphorically going where Jesus went to be crucified. The church shouldn't be a fallout shelter but a supply depot and rest stop for those following Jesus.

It ends with a beautiful benediction.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Freeing the Slaves

Slavery goes back before written history. The earliest evidence for it is found in graves in Lower Egypt dating to 8000 BC. It was a near universal institution, especially in agricultural societies. As late as the beginning of the 19th century, 3 quarters of the earth's population were slaves and serfs. You could become a slave to pay off a debt, as punishment for as crime, because you were a prisoner of war, because you were abandoned at birth or because you were born to a slave.

In the famous Hammurabi Code the sentence for helping or harboring an escaped slave was death. But in Deuteronomy 23:15, 16 it says, “Do not return a slave to his master when he has escaped from his master to you. Let him live among you wherever he wants within your gates. Do not mistreat him.”

Slavery obviously predates the writing of the Bible. Its existence is accepted as a fact, yet the Bible does not see slaves as mere chattel but as human beings. Thus in ancient Israel they were able to own property, earn money and even buy themselves out of slavery. Those who sold themselves into slavery to repay a debt were released every 7 years and every Jubilee year. Slaves were treated as members of God's people and joined in the Sabbath rest. Biblical slavery was therefore unlike slavery in the US, because it was not necessarily involuntary, lifelong or based on race. The more humane treatment of slaves comes from the fact that the Israelites were once slaves in Egypt. God makes that history explicit in the places in which he commands them to treat their slaves fairly.

The Greeks however did not see slaves as anything other than property. To them slaves were part of the natural order; only citizens were considered human beings. By the time of the New Testament, the population of the Roman Empire, due largely to her wars, was made up of 25% slaves. The Romans did make slavery more humane. They realized that the more freedoms they allowed their slaves, the more productive they were. Nevertheless, an escaped slave had to be returned to his master. And the master was allowed to punish a runaway slave by beating, whipping, branding or even crucifying him.

Paul wrote in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor gentile, neither slave or free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” When Paul used the popular form of the Household Codes in his letters, he did, as was typical of the day, tell slaves to obey their masters. But he also reminded masters that that their slaves were their brothers and sisters in Christ and should be treated appropriately. And in 1 Corinthians 7:21, Paul told slaves that they should take advantage of opportunities to gain their freedom. But he meant lawfully. He did not support the anarchy that arose every time there was a slave revolt. The most famous is the Third Servile War, in which Spartacus led 120,000 slaves against the might of Roman. Like the previous slave rebellions this was unsuccessful and the 6000 survivors were crucified along the Appian Way. Violent uprisings did not lead to freedom or the abolition of slavery in the Roman Empire.

So Paul has a real problem on his hands when he found out that one of his most helpful coworkers in the ministry was a runaway slave, Onesimus. We are not sure how this discovery was made. Perhaps the return of Epaphras from Colosse triggered the disclosure. Legally, though, Paul must return him to his master. What made it more difficult was that Paul knew the owner: Philemon, a wealthy Christian who lets the Colossian church meet in his home. Paul wants to keep Onesimus in his ministry but can't, not without Philemon's consent. And it appears that Onesimus has stolen from his master, probably to finance his escape. Philemon would have every right to punish his slave severely and even have him killed. So Paul is faced with a real moral dilemma. The way he deals with it is a beautiful example of how to work for the right in a culture that is wrong.

Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon but with a letter. The contents of that letter, except for the last 3 verses, makes up our New Testament reading.

Paul introduces himself as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. He is probably writing while imprisoned in Rome. It is ironic that Paul, who has lost his freedom, is writing to secure the freedom of another man. And notice that Paul for once doesn't identify himself as an apostle. This is a personal letter. But by reminding Philemon of his imprisonment, Paul would probably elicit sympathy from him. And that's the right state of mind for his purpose.

Paul greets Philemon as a dear friend. He mentions Apphia, who may have been Philemon's wife. He also mentions Archippus, whom he calls a fellow soldier, and who is a partner in Paul's ministry in nearby Laodiccaea. It's possible that the 2 churches met together. Paul also sends greetings to the church that meets in Philemon's home. But it is obvious that Paul is speaking directly to Philemon throughout most of this letter.

Paul tells Philemon that he prays for him and thanks God for Philemon's love for fellow Christians and for his faith in Jesus. Paul prays that Philemon sees all the good that his sharing of his faith is doing. And his love gives Paul joy and encouragement since he sees how his fellow church members are being refreshed through Philemon.

Because of the greatness of Philemon's Christian love, Paul refrains from commanding him to do what what Paul thinks is his duty. Instead Paul will make his appeal on the basis of that same Christian love. Calling attention to his age and his status as a prisoner, Paul gets to the heart of the matter.

Paul is making an appeal for Onesimus, who has just delivered the letter and was probably waiting, rather nervously, as his master read it. Paul calls the slave his child. He obviously means that spiritually. Somehow Onesimus encountered Paul—perhaps he heard one of the apostle's associates preaching and because of his fervent faith was brought to Paul, who was under house arrest. Onesimus makes himself invaluable to Paul. He is growing in the faith. And then Onesimus' secret comes out. Either Epaphras recognized him or upon seeing Epaphras, Onesimus confesses. Either way, a man who has become like a son to Paul is now revealed as a fugitive who must be returned.

Paul tries to lighten the moment by making a play on words. Onesimus is a slave name. It means “useful.” So Paul says, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now indeed he is useful to you and to me.” A slave that runs away has relieved his master of his usefulness in a sense. But now, as a Christian worker, he is useful, certainly to Paul. But how is he useful to Philemon? Based on Paul later calling Philemon his partner, a business term but obviously in this context meant in the spiritual endeavor to spread the gospel, I think he is saying that Onesimus is useful as a fellow Christian who is doing God's work.

Paul says that sending Onesimus back is sending a piece of his heart. Again, he is indicating how important Onesimus is to Paul, reinforced by the mention of how he serves Paul during his imprisonment. And notice that Paul says that he regards the slave as serving “on your behalf.” In other words, Paul is saying “I give you credit for what Onesimus does for me.” He is his slave. But, of course, it makes it harder to punish a slave who is a credit to you.

Paul would like to keep Onesimus with him, working with him, but doesn't want to do so without Philemon's permission. Again Paul is not ordering Philemon to assign Onesimus to Paul's mission but giving him the opportunity to do so on his own.

Now the next verse makes it sound like Paul is giving Onesimus back for good, which would seem to contradict the idea that he wants Philemon to send the man back to Paul. But Paul says, literally “Perhaps for this reason he was separated [from you] for an hour, that you could [have] him eternally.” Notice the passive voice: “he was separated.” Didn't Onesimus do the separating? Or is Paul implying that God had a hand in this? Did he have a purpose in permitting Onesimus to escape, to find Paul, to become a Christian, to work in ministry under Paul? Perhaps.

The "for an hour" is obviously an idiom for “a short time.” But how could Philemon have the slave for eternity?

Paul says, “ longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” Onesimus is now a brother in Christ to Philemon and he will be so for eternity. He is also Paul's brother in Christ. But how is he much more so to Philemon?

Paul writes, “If you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” Paul first made Onesimus a stand-in for Philemon; now he is making Onesimus a stand-in for Paul! How can Philemon punish the slave if he is to treat him as he would Paul?

Of course, there is the matter of what Onesimus took when he escaped. Philemon has a right to restitution. Paul says if any thing was damaged or owed, Paul will repay it. He signs this IOU with his own hand. Paul is on the hook for whatever Onesimus took.

Then Paul writes, “I say nothing about your owing me you very self.” How can that be? Paul brought the gospel and through him Philemon learned about Jesus and God's grace and was saved. So Paul was instrumental in Philemon becoming a new creation, a new person in Christ. Onesimus owes a debt to Philemon but Philemon owes a bigger debt to Paul.

That is why Paul says, “Yes, brother, let me have some benefit from you in the Lord!” In other words, “How about I forgive the debt you owe me for your life in exchange for you forgiving Onesimus and giving him a new life?” Christianity is all about forgiveness. It is about second chances and new life. Paul is saying that Philemon can give Onesimus something that will be analogous to what Paul gave Philemon. He can show his fugitive slave the mercy and grace that Christ showed to Philemon when he was introduced to him by Paul. That love and faith found in Philemon for which Paul thanks God has a perfect opportunity for expression here. That is why Paul says, “Refresh my heart in Christ.” In other words, show me that Christian generosity I've heard so much about.

Our reading concludes “Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” And what could be more than sending Onesimus back to Paul, on loan from Philemon? Freeing him. If he sends Onesimus back as a free man then Paul never has to worry about him being pulled back, such as when Philemon dies and his heir inherits his property which otherwise would include Onesimus. It would also validate what Paul wrote over and over in his letters to the churches: that there is no difference in Christ between slave or free. Philemon would be an example of a man going beyond human law and living by the law of love proclaimed by Christ.

Did Philemon actually free Onesimus? I am as confident that he did as Paul was confident that he would. This is a private letter. If Philemon refused, he could have destroyed the letter and no one would know. But he released it to the public. When Paul died and Paul's letters were treasured and churches were exchanging copies, the letter to Philemon was as well. Would Philemon let this happen if he had denied Paul's plea?

There is other evidence. Ignatius, a bishop and martyr of the early 2nd century, wrote to churches as he went to Rome and his death. He praises the Bishop of Ephesus, who succeeded Paul's protege, Timothy. And that bishop was named Onesimus. And when the letters of Paul were collected, it would be natural for Bishop Onesimus to make available the letter in which his spiritual father, the apostle Paul, pleaded for his freedom.

It became common for Christians in the Roman empire to free their slaves. It was Christians, like William Wilberforce in Britain and John Rankin in the US, who fought to repeal the slave trade and slavery itself. As of 1981, slavery was officially illegal in every country of the world. 

Yet it still exists. Poor parents sell their children to people who work them in factories in Asia or who have them harvest cocoa beans in Africa. Warlords kidnap children and make them into child soldiers. Girls in poor countries are enticed with offers of good jobs in the first world only to find themselves slaves in the sex trade. 800,000 human beings are trafficked across international borders every year. The crime of human trafficking generates $31.6 billion worldwide, coming in just after drug trafficking and tied with arms sales. 80% of the estimated 27 million modern slaves in the world are female and half are minors. 38% are commercially exploited for sex. And unlike drugs or guns, you can resell a human being for sex over and over again.

Last year I was invited to a presentation on Commercial Sexual Exploitation of children. I learned that Florida is the 3rd highest state for human trafficking. The average age a child enters the sex industry is 12 to 13 years old. 1/3 of the children who run away from home each year are recruited into prostitution and/or pornography within 48 hours. Child pornography is the fastest growing crime in the US, up by 2500% over the last 10 years. Meanwhile, a pimp with an average of 4 to 6 girls can make from $150,000 to $200,000 a year. Each girl has a quota of $500 to $1000 a day and must have sex with 10 to 15 men a day. That's thousands of men a year! 8 out of 12 child prostitutes have had an abortion. 78% acquire a sexually transmitted disease. 100,000 to 300,000 children in the US are at risk for Commercial Sexual Exploitation. Yet there are only 200 beds available for such victims in the entire nation! I came out of that presentation thinking, if there is a just God, there is a hell for those who participate in and perpetuate such things.

We however have tools that Paul did not. In our era, government and law enforcement agencies are dedicated to fighting such things. In addition, we have the power to vote and to petition our government and to publicize injustices and to fight them globally. We don't have to pussyfoot around the subject of slavery. We didn't inherit a society that was dependent on it. We can reject industries and businesses that are built on it, like companies that offer low priced clothes we know are made by children overseas. Or online classified ad sites such as that owned by the Village Voice which makes $17 million a year and whose personal ads serve as a major way for pimps to market underage prostitutes. We can donate to and join activist and support groups like or We can look for the signs of modern slaves, such as someone who is not free to come and go as he or she pleases, who is not allowed to speak for his or herself, who is unpaid, paid very little or only paid through tips, who has no control over his or her money, who owes his or her employer a huge debt, who works excessively long or unusual hours, who isn't allowed breaks, who shows signs of malnutrition, or mental, physical or sexual abuse, and who works or lives in a place with oddly high security measures.

Paul went against the culture by pushing for Onesimus' freedom. We too must go against a culture that sees pornography as consequence-free, prostitution as a victimless crime, and the exploitation of the defenseless as standard operating practice, and even good business. He sought to bring freedom, one person at a time. We have more resources and government-guaranteed free speech that he didn't. But like him we serve a God who liberates people, who hates oppression and exploitation, and whose son kicked off his ministry by quoting Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the captives and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” And I have seen nothing that says we don't have the same mission today.