rich or poor?
16th Sunday after Pentecost – C (Proper 21) LSB #’s 349, 570, 814
Text – Luke 16:19-20
There was a rich man who was clothed in purple & fine linen & who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores.
RICH OR POOR
“Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! …If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, & buried with a stake of holly through his heart!” Such was the heart of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Later that evening, said Scrooge, caustic & cold as ever, “What do you want with me? Who are you?” “Ask me who I was.” “Who were you then?” said Scrooge, raising his voice. “In life I was your partner, Jacob Marley,” & …the spectre raised a cry, & shook its chain & wrung its shadowy hands. “You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, & yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, & of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?” Scrooge trembled more & more.
“Or would you know,” pursued the Ghost, “the weight & length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy & as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!” “Jacob,” he said, imploringly. “Old Jacob Marley, tell me more. Speak comfort to me, Jacob!”
“I have none to give,” the Ghost replied. “It comes from other regions, Ebenezer Scrooge, & is conveyed by other ministers, to other kinds of men. Nor can I tell you what I would. A very little more is all permitted to me. I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere. My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house – mark me! – in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; & weary journeys lie before me!”
“At this time of the rolling year,” the spectre said, “I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, & never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!”
Scrooge was very much dismayed to hear the spectre going on at this rate, & began to quake exceedingly. “Hear me!” cried the Ghost. “My time is nearly gone… I am here tonight to warn you, that you have yet a chance & hope of escaping my fate. A chance & hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.” “You were always a good friend to me,” said Scrooge. “Thank’ee!”
“You will be haunted,” resumed the Ghost, “by Three Spirits.” Scrooge’s countenance fell almost as low as the Ghost’s had done. “Is that the chance & hope you mentioned, Jacob?” he demanded, in a faltering voice. “It is.”
In A Christmas Carol, miserly old Ebenezer Scrooge is then visited by three spirits. They arrive at the behest of the ghost of Jacob Marley, who had been Scrooge’s business partner. The 1st two show Scrooge scenes from his past & present. Scrooge’s 3rd spirit visitor is The Ghost of Christmas Future. He shows Ebenezer Scrooge what lies ahead – death & disdain.
In Luke 16, we read, “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple & fine linen & who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores.” (16:19-20 ESV)
“The poor man died & was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died & was buried, & in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes & saw Abraham far off & Lazarus at his side.” (16:22-23 ESV) These words of Jesus pull back the curtain to show us something you & I urgently need to see before it’s too late. During his life the rich man did not even notice the poor man who was at his gate every day. Now, in the afterlife, he sees Lazarus & wants him to alleviate his suffering.
Ebenezer Scrooge was shown the path he was on, & he repented. However many chances the rich man had, he did not. In both stories the curtain is pulled back so that you & I can see the future & what it brings. This is helpful because most all of our time & energy is caught up in the pressing things of our day.
Thinking back to September 11th of 2001, how rapidly did the trivial concerns of life vanish? In just one year, most of us will barely remember what was pressing about September 25th of 2022. How much time & energy do we spend on eternal things, the things that moth & rust cannot destroy; the things that time cannot erase?
As Jesus speaks in the Gospel reading, He sets up a clear contrast between two men. The rich man represents the Pharisees whom Jesus had just described as “lovers of money.” (16:14 ESV) The poor man stands for all the outcasts of Jewish society, the deplorables of His day. They were the people who actually heard & welcomed what Jesus taught.
The rich man dressed in fine clothes & feasted every day. The average person might feast three times a year. The poor man, rather than being covered in fine clothing, is covered by sores & longs to be fed with what simply falls off the rich man’s table. His life on earth is pathetic & pitiable, & yet, it invokes no sympathy in the heart of this rich man.
The poor man clearly qualifies as the rich man’s neighbor, but the rich man’s heart is so full of himself that, although he knows Lazarus by name, he never once bothers to take notice of him. He never once stops to provide any care for him, as the Good Samaritan provided care for his neighbor. In telling this story, Jesus has zeroed in from the outer contrast of rich & poor to the extreme need of Lazarus & the extreme lack of love on the part of the rich man. Having made that point, Jesus shifts the scene from earth to heaven & hell.
Now, the man who was rich on earth is in such extreme need that he is longing for just a drop of water on the tip of Lazarus’ finger. He still sees Lazarus only as someone inferior to himself. However, now, Lazarus is the one who is feasting sumptuously.
In responding to the rich man, Abraham says, “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things…” That word remember means to read back & interpret the events of his past, but in the Gospel reading, Jesus is calling you & me to read back & interpret the events of our past. Have we been lovers of money who ignored the needs of our neighbors?
The excessive lifestyle of the rich man on earth revealed that inwardly his heart was not generous & merciful but proud & arrogant. Spiritually speaking, he was the poor man all along. The only conclusion for the Pharisees is this: if they don’t stop scoffing at Jesus’ teachings, they will find themselves with the rich man in eternal torment.
What conclusion do we draw from hearing the teachings of Jesus? You & I also have the words of Moses & the Prophets. Are we hearing them? In the Gospel reading, Jesus is giving us an urgent warning. Upon hearing this, all the trivial concerns of our lives should vanish. Only Jesus should remain as the focal point of our thoughts, words & deeds.
Only Jesus should remain, because He is the source of our repentance, precisely because He is seldom the focal point of our thoughts, words & deeds. As Lazarus was desperately in need of care, you & I are desperately in need of a repentant heart. Jesus came to earth in order to release prisoners of sin, death & hell, & though we believe we still struggle with unbelief.
There’s a lot of emphasis in the churches of our nation on the fact that Jesus loves
everyone, but the preaching of repentance has been downgraded, if not outright eliminated. The implication of many sermons is that it doesn’t matter if we reject some of the things that Jesus teaches. That is a dangerous road to travel & it’s not what Jesus reveals to us in the reading from Luke 16. Verse 31 closes with Jesus telling us:
“If they do not hear Moses & the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” You know how that has turned out. Jesus did rise from the dead & many people still reject, not only His warnings against sin & death, but they also reject His invitations to life.
Jesus offers them a heart focused on their Creator, but they prefer a heart that is focused on themselves & upon what they desire. Jesus offers to remove the chains that fetter them, the chains of their own making, & they refuse.
On the other hand, there is a tremendous amount of inequity & injustice in this life, but the cause is not certain people, or groups of people. Sin is the cause, the sin that lives in the heart of every single person on earth. What disturbs so many is that God does not fix that inequity or injustice in this life. His Son paid the price for it, but it still goes on.
Heaven is where God makes all things perfectly just, & there will be perfect equity because there will be no suffering of any sort. Kindness & generosity result from trusting Jesus. In heaven, everyone will be kind & generous for all of forever. Amen.
Just as I am, without one plea but that Thy blood was shed for me & that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee, O Lamb of God, I come, I come. Just as I am, though tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt, fightings & fears within, without, O Lamb of God, I come, I come. Just as I am; Thy love unknown has broken every barrier down; now to be Thine, yea, Thine alone, O Lamb of God, I come, I come. Amen. LSB 570:1, 3, 6.
 Dickens, Charles; A Christmas Carol, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/46/46-h/46-h.htm.
IN THE SIGHT OF GOD
15th Sunday after Pentecost – C (Proper 20) LSB #’s 905, 730, 738
Text – Luke 16:15
And [Jesus] said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”
IN THE SIGHT OF GOD
Feelings or facts, which one drives your decision making? Feelings are one of the gods that Americans worship today. When it comes to believing the Word of God or believing feelings, it is the feelings that often win out.
Rather than looking at issues from God’s perfect heart of love, & from His almighty perspective, we naturally prefer to look at things from the perspective of our own heart. How this plays out in real life is that people say with their mind, “I believe in Jesus,” even though their heart rejects clear aspects of the teaching of Jesus.
Listen again to the sermon text, “And [Jesus] said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.’” (Luke 16:15 ESV)
Are you a follower of Jesus? If you say you are, which Jesus do you follow? Is it the One that Jesus Himself claims to be? Or, do you follow a Jesus that you have created in your own heart? It’s from our heart that all kinds of sickness pour out. It’s here that human beings manufacture a Jesus of their own liking.
Here’s the struggle. We tell people things to make ourselves look good, but the truth is we are often lying & God sees that. He knows our hearts. We can’t cover them up with mere words. Jesus warned us, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” (Matthew 15:19 ESV)
Are you a follower of Jesus, or do you only claim to be? Remember, God knows your
heart! If you claim to follow Jesus, why do you reject any of His teachings? The reason is that even children of God still have a sinful heart. The struggle really boils down to the issue of repentance. We cannot escape our sinful nature, but we can reject what it tells us. In Baptism, God calls us to drown our sinful nature daily with contrition & repentance.
Maybe your heart still believes in evolution, even though Jesus’ teaching clearly makes the point that He created everything. The Bible states that God created simply by speaking His Word & that when He was done all of it was good. There was no death, no survival of the fittest, and no superior species devouring the inferior ones.
When you complain about the mess that our world is in, is it because you see life evolving to a higher plane? If we are evolving there is no reason for anyone to complain about the brokenness of life. The very fact that we expect things to be better is evidence that we have an awareness of God even if we refuse to acknowledge Him.
Seeing what is happening in our world it is obvious that human beings are not evolving, but rather descending into an abyss of cold-hearted depravity. The opposite of evolution is occurring in our culture because people no longer feel, in their hearts, the desperate need for God. Their mind may tell them they need God, but their heart refuses to believe it.
Are you a follower of Jesus, or do you only claim to be? Why do you reject any of His teachings? In Matthew 19, Jesus taught, “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father & mother, &, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (19:18b-19 ESV)
The closing part of that verse is very clear, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That rules out kneeling on someone’s neck until they’re dead. It rules out canceling other people. It rules out rioting & looting & setting fire to cities. The parable of the Good Samaritan shows us how a priest & a Levite saw a man along the road who had been beaten & robbed. Their mind understood that he desperately needed help, but their heart spoke of fear so they passed by. Then, a Samaritan came along, someone who was hated & despised, yet he helped the man & spent his own money to care for him.
God also calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. If we follow Jesus we are to love those who are afraid to reject the teachings of evolution. We are to love any woman who is pregnant by helping her to care for her needs & for the needs of the child she is carrying. When Satan or the world throws fear into her face we are to encourage her with love & support.
In Matthew 19, Jesus taught, “You shall not murder.” To the mind, it’s clear that murder is forbidden by Jesus, but that feelings drive human decision making, is made clear by the number of people who say they follow Jesus & yet support abortion, or vote for people who do.
To the mind, “You shall not murder” is very clear. It’s the heart that refuses to accept God’s authority. Across the United States there are laws against destroying the eggs of birds like Canadian Geese, but the State of Michigan will be voting this fall on a measure that would allow the abortion of human children in the womb, anytime for any reason.
The motto Pro Choice is exalted by the men & women of Planned Parenthood. Now, compare that to the last sentence of the sermon text, “For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.” When God’s own people become an abomination to Him, what happens? The OT & the four Gospels make it perfectly clear.
Refusing to love our neighbor as yourself is an abomination in the sight of God. Abortion & the teaching of evolution are abominations in the sight of God. People read the Word of God with their mind, but often their heart refuses to believe what that Word tells them. Contrition & repentance are needed even though they leave us feeling totally vulnerable before God. And that’s where the dishonest manager of the Gospel reading comes into play. He’s caught red-handed, with nowhere to hide. He’s left at the mercy of his master & feels totally vulnerable to his wishes. But, the master does not throw him into prison. Rather, because he is merciful, the manager is given a 2nd chance. The manager takes full advantage of the master’s mercy.
The almighty God is our master & He too is merciful. His greatest desire is not to cast us into the prison of hell, but that we take advantage of His mercy. Will you allow your pride to stand in the way? Will you allow your desire to avoid feelings of vulnerability to block your path to eternal life?
Right here, right now, you are already saved by Jesus’ blood. All that you can do, of your own power, is to refuse His gift. Many people do, as Jesus warned in Matthew 7: “For the gate is wide & the way is easy that leads to destruction, & those who enter by it are many.” (7:13b ESV) The Gospel lesson encourages us, not to be dishonest, but to take advantage of God.
The heavenly Father wants us to take advantage of His mercy & His forgiveness. He wants us to take advantage of all the blessings that He offers us. We struggle with that because our sinful nature doesn’t want to accept charity. Our sinful nature wants to be independent rather than dependent. It wants to be autonomous, beholden to no one.
That’s why it’s difficult to be poor. That’s also why people who are wealthy tend to live on larger & larger estates, where they can isolate themselves more & more from people of lesser wealth. That kind of self-isolation is not God’s design for us. He knows where that leads us, only to eternal death, if we remain on that wide & easy way.
Knowing our sinful helplessness, the heavenly Father sent His heavenly Son to rescue us, purely out of mercy & love. People who cave in to evolutionary teaching need to see God’s love demonstrated in their lives by people who believe in Jesus’ teachings. People who seek out abortion as a solution to their struggles need to see God’s love demonstrated in their lives by people who believe in Jesus’ teachings. People, who don’t love their neighbor as themselves, need to experience love from people who believe in Jesus’ teachings.
Christ has done that for us no matter how often we fail; no matter if facts or feelings drive our decision making. His children are never an abomination in the sight of God. Amen.
The world seeks to be praised & honored by the mighty yet never once reflects that they are frail & flighty. But what I truly prize above all things is He, my Jesus, He alone. What is the world to me! The world seeks after wealth & all that mammon offers yet never is content though gold should fill its coffers. I have a higher good, content with it I’ll be: my Jesus is my wealth. What is the world to me! Amen. LSB 730:2-3.
Drawing near to jesus
14th Sunday after Pentecost – C (Proper 19) LSB #’s 609:1-3, 6-7, 608, 611
Text – Luke 15:1
Now the tax collectors & sinners were all drawing near to hear Him.
DRAWING NEAR TO JESUS
I’m going to venture that every one of us in this room has lost something important. Whether it’s the car keys, or a wallet, or a child, we know what that stress & fear is like when we have lost something valuable. Are we going to find it? When, where, how soon? Will it be safe until we find it; will it be harmed or stolen?
It can be difficult to focus on anything else, even other important matters, until the lost item is found, hopefully safe & sound.
On the other hand, imagine searching for something, not because of fear, nor clouded by thoughts of fear. Imagine searching for something, not because it was lost, not because you needed it in order to function. Imagine searching for something simply because you love what you are searching for? That scenario paints a completely different picture.
In the sermon last Sunday, we heard that a substantial number of the Christians in the early church were enslaved people. They had little hope of improving their station in life. They had no means by which to give their children hope for a better life than that of their parents. People were born into the upper class or the enslaved class & one of them held all the power.
It’s not difficult to understand why much of the early Christian church was made up of enslaved people. They were drawn to the teachings of Jesus because He treated them with dignity & offered them hope for this life & for the next. This week, Luke writes that the poor, disabled, lame & blind, along with tax collectors, were drawing near to hear Jesus.
You may notice that I expanded the list from the sermon text, which read, “Now the tax collectors & sinners were all drawing near to hear Him.” In Jesus’ day it was thought that people ended up poor, disabled, lame & blind because God was judging them for their sin. They were people too disadvantaged even to serve as slaves. And tax collectors were typically Jews who were seen as betraying their own people in working for the hated Roman government.
All of them were hopelessly outcast from mainstream Jewish society. In our independence minded culture, that doesn’t sound like such a terrible thing. In the Jewish culture it was the equivalent of being outside the kingdom of God. They were treated as if they were not even alive.
Not only did Jesus treat them as if they were alive, He truly cares about them. They responded by following His words spoken immediately before the sermon text, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Luke 14:35b ESV) And that’s where the Gospel reading begins today, “Now the tax collectors & sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus].”
And that was driving the Pharisees mad. They just could not believe that Jesus was God because if He were He would know who these people were. The Pharisees had already judged the sinners & tax collectors as not deserving of the kingdom of God. They had disowned them & written them off as undeserving of life.
It boiled down to a very simple problem. Either Jesus was wrong, or the Pharisees were wrong. As sinful beings, at times we go about the business of solving that kind of problem like Russia & Ukraine are doing. It too is very simple problem. Either Zelensky is wrong, or Putin is wrong, & they are fighting a war to see who wins. The scale of destruction is easy to see.
In many problems, human beings turn to science for solutions. If we can just examine what’s happening we hope to solve our problem. With the Covid 19 pandemic people were literally screaming “Just follow the science.” However, the science was way too slow & people couldn’t agree on what they were discovering. The scale of destruction is now easy to see.
As in all societies, there are many problems here in the United States. All kinds of people today are confused about gender. Are the people who are confused right, or is Jesus, their Creator, right? In this case, the science of DNA is very clear, but many people are afraid of the answer it gives.
Due to the recent Supreme Court decision, the battle over abortion is raging across our nation. People who end up pregnant do not always want to be a mother. But it is God who creates life. How can sinful beings solve that problem? One of the greatest obstacles to solving the problem is the inability to have even a civil discussion about the concerns of each side.
Ultimately, all problems in our lives come from sin. God has provided us with answers in His Word. Some people are willing to hear what their Creator has to say. Sadly, many others are not. In the verses right before the sermon text, Jesus describes that sad reality of those who absolutely refuse to hear what the God who created them has to offer:
“Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Luke 14:34-35 ESV)
Jesus is warning the Pharisees about the danger of refusing to hear what Jesus is offering. Those who refuse to listen will be removed from the permanent place of God’s kingdom, which we often refer to as heaven. This is simply a fact, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Jesus has already paid for the sins of every single human being.
Sin no longer separates us from heaven. Unbelief, the refusal to hear, is what causes the salt to lose its taste. For the salt that has lost its taste Jesus has come – searching. He does not take the judgment of men, about who is salt & who is not. Jesus alone makes that final determination. No religious leader of any stripe can keep one of God’s children out of the kingdom. The parables in the Gospel reading describe the great effort that is expended in order to find those who are lost, whether they are lost in gender confusion or whether they have aborted a child. Jesus searches for all His children, no matter what their sins. He even searches for us when we fail to love others who are lost. Yes, Jesus even searches for you!
Ezekiel gave us these words, “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep & will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, & I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds & thick darkness.” (34:11-12 ESV)
And the best news of all is that Jesus searches for you & for me, not out of fear, nor out of need because He cannot function without us. God’s own Son searches for you & for me because He loves us. We are His precious creation. You & I have purpose & meaning determined by the Almighty God of the Universe, even before we were born.
Jesus already knows where we are lost & He personally searches for us in the exact place where we need to be found. You can rest in that love no matter what problems of life are hounding you, or dragging you down. Neither abortion or gender confusion or climate change can steal you away from Christ Jesus. His love is too great & that’s why He searches. Amen.
Lord, to You I make confession: I have sinned & gone astray, I have multiplied transgression, chosen for myself my way. Led by You to see my errors, Lord, I tremble at Your terrors. Yet, though conscience’ voice appall me, Father, I will seek Your face; though Your child I dare not call me, yet receive me in Your grace. Do not for my sins forsake me; let Your wrath not overtake me. For Your Son has suffered for me, given Himself to rescue me, died to save me & restore me, reconciled & set me free. Jesus’ cross alone can vanquish these dark fears & soothe this anguish. Amen. LSB 608:1-3.
RADICAL FAITH – RADICAL REQUEST
13th Sunday after Pentecost – C (Proper 18) LSB #’s 809, 845, 851
Text – Philemon 20
Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
RADICAL FAITH – RADICAL REQUEST
On June 17, 2015, a man named Dylan Roof entered a church in Charleston, SC & was invited to join the Bible study that was going on. After about an hour of being with the church members as they studied the Word of God, Dylan stood up & began shooting. He killed nine people that day in cold blood.
Two days later, family members of the victims, one after another, spoke words of forgiveness to Dylan at his first court appearance. In the Spirit of true Christian faith, they refused to allow Dylan’s hatred to infect their souls. Those family members of the victims are proof that the Christian faith has an extremely radical aspect to it.
It’s that radical nature of the faith that frightens Satan the most. That radical aspect of the Christian faith is what causes all authoritarian governments to fear Christian freedom. Any government that attempts to restrict Christian speech proves itself to be on the wrong side of God’s history.
Of course, not everything that Christians say comes from God. In this life, even God’s children struggle mightily against sin. And there are plenty of people, often they are pastors, who claim to be speaking for God, yet their words come from Satan himself. In a world full of sinful people, true Christian faith will always request that we love others in radical ways.
St. Paul gives a very concrete example of that with his letter to Philemon. For his day & time, over 2100 years ago, it was a very radical request that Paul made of Philemon. And though our cultural understanding of slavery is entirely different today, St. Paul’s example calls us to have a faith that is just as radical. Martin Luther described that radical aspect of faith in Jesus while commenting on the Lord’s Prayer:
“…we who would be Christians must surely count on having the devil with all his angels & the world as our enemies & must count on their inflicting every possible misfortune & grief upon us. For where God’s Word is preached, accepted or believed, & bears fruit, there the blessed holy cross will not be far away. Let nobody think that he will have peace; he must sacrifice all he has on earth – possessions, honor, house & home, wife & children, body & life. Now, this grieves our flesh & the old Adam, for it means that we must remain steadfast, suffer patiently whatever befalls us, & let go whatever is taken from us.
That is a radical description of the Christian life, totally at odds with the prosperity gospel popular in our nation today. And what is the antithesis of the prosperity gospel? It is no prosperity. It is slavery. Luther’s comments on the Christian life could also be used to describe what slavery is like. The child of God:
“…must sacrifice all he has on earth – possessions, honor, house & home, wife & children, body & life.” And, when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, by Satan, Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, & Him only shall you serve.’” (Luke 4:8 ESV)
Granted, Jesus also said, “No longer do I call you servants… but I have called you friends…” (John 15:15 ESV) My point is this, it is not a one-sided issue. The Bible does at times reference us as servants & as slaves. Jesus calls us friends & He calls His friends to serve God & to serve our neighbor with everything God gives to us.
In this life, following Jesus is first about death to sin & to self. It is a surrendering of all my wants & desires. As that death occurs then comes resurrection. Martin Luther also counseled us to die to sin each day & to rise again, each day, to new life. The Holy Spirit works that in us as we remain in Jesus through the Word of God & through His Sacraments. Apparently the Holy Spirit worked that death & resurrection in the slave Onesimus, who was in the culture of their day owned by a master named Philemon. In a world that had little in the way of a middle class, there were wealthy people & the rest of the people lived in poverty. Poverty & death may be a better description.
If you were fortunate enough to be born to wealthy parents, & they decided to keep you, you were a member of the upper class. Pretty much, everyone else, was subject to slavery. The Jewish culture was different, but it was just a tiny fraction of the world’s population by that time. The Christian faith was made up substantially of the enslaved class of peoples.
Crucifixion was known in the Roman world as the slave’s death. A book entitled Crucifixion has this to say:
“In the person & the fate of the one man Jesus of Nazareth this saving ‘solidarity’ of God with us is given its historical & physical form. In Him, the ‘Son of God,’ God Himself took up the ‘existence of a slave’ & died the ‘slave’s death’ on the tree of martyrdom, given up to public shame & made the ‘curse of the law,’ so that in the ‘death of God’ life might win victory over death. In other words, in the death of Jesus of Nazareth God identified Himself with the extreme of human wretchedness, which Jesus endured as a representative of us all, in order to bring us to the freedom of the children of God.”
Hopefully you can see the attraction for enslaved peoples to the Good News that Jesus taught. By offering eternal life, Jesus was bringing the hope of freedom to a class of people that had zero hope for freedom in this life. In the letter to Philemon, St. Paul was making an appeal to a brother in Christ to put that freedom into effect already in this life for a fellow brother.
In that culture, at that time, it was a radical request. Onesimus was a member of the lower class of people. He had been enslaved by Philemon, a member of the wealthy class. In those days that meant that Philemon provided Onesimus with food, clothing & shelter which Onesimus would not have had otherwise. At some point, Onesimus stole some of Philemon’s wealth & ran away. By God’s providence, Onesimus ended up in contact with St. Paul & was converted to Christianity. He became a different man. He was helpful to Paul who was in prison at the time. Under those circumstances Paul writes to Philemon who had also been converted to Christianity under the tutelage of St. Paul.
In those days legal remedies were common for runaway slaves. It’s one reason that crucifixion was referred as a slave’s death, but Paul writes to Philemon & appeals to him out of brotherly affection not to press charges. Beyond that, St. Paul informs Philemon of the conversion of Onesimus & asks Philemon to accept Onesimus back as a fellow brother in Christ.
It’s a radical faith that Paul lives & wants to pass on to those who come after him. And that radical faith that Paul has desires that the faith of Philemon be put into action. To accept Onesimus as a brother in Christ will not only cost Philemon the work that his slave would do, it will also cost Philemon’s pride as he had been betrayed by Onesimus when he ran away.
With our American context of slavery, it can be really difficult to think in the same terms as Paul. Yet, Paul does not try to cancel Philemon or shame him, but he simply counsels him to treat Onesimus with love & respect as a brother in Christ, even though Philemon could resort to legal means that would be harsh to say the least.
Who might we forgive in our own lives simply because of Jesus Christ? You can probably think of one or two, that would require a radical faith on your part to accomplish. Paul could have used the Law to order Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a brother, but instead he uses the Gospel which does not make demands of us.
Instead, Paul invites Philemon of his own saintly nature to accept this former slave just as he would accept Paul who was the spiritual father of Philemon. This is the same way in which our heavenly Father invites us back to His altar for Holy Communion. Jesus appeals to our saintly nature to live out the radical faith that He has instilled in us. It’s the faith that Jesus instilled in the family members who forgave Dylan Roof even though he deserved none of it.
This letter illustrates the attitude of the Apostles & of Christians toward social problems. Paul does not plead for Onesimus’ liberation. He focuses solely on Christ as the source of reconciliation, & he asks Philemon to consider that as his motive.
Labor Day focuses on the rights or the plight of workers. Paul points to love & respect of all as the answer. Obviously laws are necessary to protect workers, but the legal system of man can never do the job that God’s love can do. The letter to Philemon shows us the greater reality, & the eternal reality, under everything we see & hear.
May we hear God’s Word today as it has come to us through the Apostle Paul as he works to reconcile his brothers in Christ. May that Word also work reconciliation in our lives. Amen.
Where charity & love prevail there God is ever found; brought here together by Christ’s love by love are we thus bound. Forgive us now each other’s faults as we our faults confess, & let us love each other well in Christian holiness. For love excludes no race or clan that names the Savior’s name; His family embraces all whose Father is the same. Amen. LSB 845:1, 3, 6.
 Luther, Large Catechism, Lord’s Prayer, p. 65.
 Hengel, Crucifixion, p. 88-89.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet