Friday, November 14, 2008

Good News and Good Works

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is anointed with the Holy Spirit at His baptism (3:22). No too long afterwards, He goes to Nazareth and declares: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives…to set at liberty those who are oppressed…” (4:18). Jesus Christ is anointed with the Spirit and then inaugurates His public ministry by declaring that he will bring good news and good works to the poor. Later on in His ministry, Jesus was asked by messengers of John the Baptist if He was the Christ. Jesus replied: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them” (7:22). The coming of the kingdom of God and the ministry of the Messiah was characterized by good news and good works of healing brought to the sick, poor, and marginalized. Jesus tells John the Baptist that this is the sign that the Messiah had come. And the kingdom of God continues to advance today through His body, the Church. The Church, which is baptized with the same Spirit of Christ, is also called to participate in His Spirit led mission of preaching good news and bringing good works to the poor.

Now one might ask: How can the Church perform exorcisms, bring miraculous healings to the sick, give sight to the blind, and raise the dead? My answer: It is true that some of these extraordinary things were characteristic of Christ’s ministry and may not be as rampant among us. However, can the Church bring good works of healing to the poor in less extraordinary ways? If it does not, how is it participating in the Spirit led mission of Christ? Let us take a look at the Gospel of Luke and see what lessons we can learn for our mission.

On the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus says: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh” (6:20-21). And then Jesus pronounces woes on those who do not think they need anything from God: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep” (6:24-25). The idolatry of money and possessions is a significant theme in the Gospel of Luke. In Luke 12, Jesus tells the Parable of the Rich Fool. In that parable, the rich man’s farm produces an abundance of crops. Instead of helping those who do not have an abundance of anything, he builds bigger barns and boasts: “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (12:19). But then God says to him: “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (12:20). Again, we see that the rich fool’s problem was idolatry. In the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus there was rich man who was feasting extravagantly everyday. Outside of his home there was a beggar named Lazarus who was covered with sores and was hungry. The rich man does not feed him but allows him to starve to death. Again, we see the problem is idolatry. The same theme is taught when the rich ruler comes to Jesus and asks what he should do to inherit eternal life. After the rich man declares that he has kept all Ten Commandments, Jesus challenges him in the area of idolatry: “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (18:22). The rich ruler was unable to do this because he found refuge in his money and not in God. He was rich towards himself and was unable to be rich towards others.

What implications do these teachings have for our mission? In our Churches today, we are extravagant in our spending on ourselves, but stingy in the area of social ministry. Additionally, we spend large amounts of money on things that are not essential. We want to build our own kingdoms and forget that we are servants in Christ’s kingdom. He is King and He lives and reigns over the Church. If we create a large budget that is dependent upon voluntary giving, what are we going to do when giving is down? What are we going to do when the economy is bad? Many churches and institutions today are suffering today because like the rich fool, they want to build a building when they already have one. They want to create a staff position when they do not need one and that position could be filled by a volunteer. Whenever we make spending decisions, we must make sure that we are spending on necessities and not luxuries. We must make sure that as we go on with our ministries, we remember whose kingdom it is that we are trying to advance. It is not our own. It is Christ’s.

Once we as the Church repent of idolatry, then we can serve the poor without expecting repayment. Today, we often value church members who are big givers. Conversely, we do not value those who are unable to give because they are poor. It seems that we have forgotten what the ministry of Christ was characterized by. On the Sermon on the Plain Jesus says: “If you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount” (6:34). The teaching of Christ is that we would serve those who will not serve us. When Jesus was at the Pharisees house he says: “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you” (14:12-14). Jesus teaches us to give and serve the poor who cannot repay us. If we feed the poor and transform our communities we may not grow our church or grow our budget. But the kingdom of God will advance and Christ says we will be repaid at the resurrection of the just (14:14).

It is not the rich who are likely to be responsive to the Gospel message but the poor. We often get down because the Gospel is rejected by our friends and family. However, Jesus tells us that the poor are the ones who are going to be the most responsive to the Gospel. In the Parable of the Great Banquet, many are invited to the eschatological feast with God. Unfortunately, many also reject the invitation because of worldly concerns. So God says: “Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame” (14:21). It is true that the poor, crippled, blind, and lame may not become good tithers or get involved in a lot of church activities. However, at the feast in the kingdom of God they will be the ones who are there.

The challenge for us today is to participate in the Spirit led mission of bringing good news and good works to the poor. We are called not to build our own kingdoms but the kingdom of Christ. We are called not to be internally focused but externally focused. We are called not to serve ourselves but the poor. We are called not to make up our own idea of church and mission, but to participate in the Spirit led mission of Jesus Christ.

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