Saturday, October 09, 2010

The Great Reversal

Sermon preached on the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (September 26, 2010) at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Amos 6:1a, 4-7; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

The passage from First Timothy ends with an interesting expression:

So that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

Just what is real life? How do you know real life when you see it on the street? In many ways we live in a world that swirls around these questions. Seems like everyone is trying to get us to buy into what their vision of real life is.

Jesus had (and has) a vision of what real life is. And low and behold, although he is speaking 2,000 years ago and across a great cultural divide, the competition about just what real life is has a lot to do with money and wealth. That certainly hasn’t changed a great deal, has it?

So what is real life according to Jesus?

Well, you may remember that last week’s Gospel reading, which was the first part of chapter 16, ended with the words

You cannot serve God and wealth.

That’s not, however, where the story ended. Jesus having said that, Luke tells us

The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.

Why does Luke call them “lovers of money,” and why do they ridicule Jesus for saying that you cannot serve God and wealth? Largely for this reason: The Pharisees of Jesus’ day took Deuteronomy chapter 28 very seriously. Deuteronomy 28 begins by saying:

If you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth; all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the Lord your God.

And the chapter goes on for 12 more verses describing these blessings. Almost all of them have to do with the accumulation of wealth.

At verse 15, the tone switches.

But if you will not obey the Lord your God by diligently observing all his commandments and decrees, which I am commanding you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you.

And the rest of the chapter describes the many curses that will come from disobedience, again many of them having to do with the inability to accumulate wealth.

We’ve talked about this before. This strain of theology exists throughout the Bible: if you do good, you will prosper in life; if you are disobedient, you will fail it. And ever since humankind has thought this was how God operated, we have also tended to take it one step further and believe that wealth was a sign of God’s favor and poverty a sign of God’s displeasure.

That’s what most Pharisees of Jesus’ day believed. Truth to tell, it is what most people believed in Jesus’ day. And it is also true that many, if not most, Christians still believe this in our own day.

So when Jesus says “you cannot serve God and wealth,” he is saying something quite radical, ridiculous and dangerous in the ears of most people who heard him. What do you mean you cannot serve God and wealth? Wealth is a sign of God’s favor!

No, Jesus says in verses that follow the Pharisees’ ridiculing of him. No, you are using the Scriptures to justify yourselves. God knows what is in your hearts and that is what matters. Prizing wealth is an abomination to God.

And then he tells the parable we just heard about Abraham, Lazarus and the rich man. It is a short story in three scenes.

Scene 1: We are introduced to a rich man, who remains unnamed. He is very rich indeed. He wears purple—the most expensive cloth and a symbol of authority—and feasts like a banquet every day. At his gate (his house had a gate—another sign of great wealth) lay a poor man named Lazarus. Lazarus is the only character in a parable of Jesus who gets a name. Lazarus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Eliezar, which means, “God helps.”

Lazarus is beyond poor. He is ill, he is hungry, he is unclean. The dogs lick his sores. There is no indication that the rich man has any idea who he is.

Scene Two: Both men die and what happens to both may not be what we expected. The rich man is simply said to have been buried. Lazarus, however, is taken by the angels to be with Abraham.

Stop here for a moment. Jesus is using an old folk tale here, known in almost every culture of the Middle East. It is not meant to be a story that describes definitively Jesus’ view of the afterlife. That is not his point at all.

On to Scene Three: The rich man is in torment in Hades, but he can see Abraham and Lazarus, far away. He calls out, no doubt pitifully, “Father Abraham, have mercy. Send Lazarus to get me some water.” Aha! He knows who Lazarus is, and he assumes that in the next life Lazarus will keep his lowly station, although hopefully he will be a bit more useful than he was in the past.

No, Abraham says, Lazarus has his reward now. You got all your goodies in your past life. And the great chasm you created and observed on earth between yourself and the poor outside your gate has been carried over into eternity and there is no crossing it now.

“So send Lazarus to warn my brothers so they don’t end up like me!” Still with trying to get Lazarus to do his bidding! The guy is clueless.

“They don’t need Lazarus,” Abraham, says. “They have Moses and the prophets.” The rich man knows that the likelihood of his brothers listening to Moses and the prophets are slim to none. “No, Father Abraham, they will believe if someone comes to them from the dead.”

“No,” Abraham says, “they won’t. They’ve got to open their own eyes and make their own decisions.”

What is Jesus saying by telling this old tale? He is reaching back into his tradition—to a different strain than attracted the Pharisees. He is reaching back to the prophets like Amos that we heard this morning, but also to Moses, even to Deuteronomy, a different voice in Deuteronomy that the rich man had never heard. Deuteronomy 15:4 declares

There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy.

And then in verses 7-9a:

If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought…

Jesus is saying we must care about the poor among us and seek to meet their needs.

Or else we will go to hell? I don’t know, as I said I am sure that this story is not meant to define Jesus’ theology of the afterlife. But it must be admitted that Jesus on many occasions left open the possibility of eternal separation from God. It is a possibility, I think, of our own making. The rich man built his chasm with God on earth, by building it with the poor.

Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, in the great parable of the sheep and the goats (chapter 25), that how we treat the least of his brothers and sisters is how we treat him. He is saying here in Luke’s Gospel that the relationship we form with the least of his sisters and brothers in this life is the relationship we will have with them in the next life—only there will be a great reversal of fortune—the reversal Jesus’ mother sang about on that day she visited her cousin Elizabeth.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.

Both Christianity and Judaism, as religious traditions, insist that those who are poor in the community must be taken care of by those who have wealth. It begins with the gift of a compassionate and generous heart, for which we should all pray this day and always.

A colleague of mine at Bishop’s Bible Study this week asked, “Where’s the good news in this? I don’t see any.” I said in an e-mail to her later (because we were almost immediately interrupted by the arrival of the speaker for the second half of the program). You don’t see any good news in that story because there isn’t any good news for you or any of the rest of us who live comfortably. The good news isn’t always for us. Sometimes it’s for other people. I am asked to rejoice in someone else’s good news and challenged to help make it real.

So what is real life? Real life is when compassion and generosity reign and chasms are being filled and walls torn done.

Let us be about this work and this life of compassionate and generous service.

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