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Will You Listen?

Sermon – 10/17/04
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke 16:19-31

We have been exploring Paul’s first letter to Timothy and now we go back to the gospel of Luke which is the gospel for this year for reflection.

The story this morning, from the 16th chapter of Luke is a story that is found only in Luke’s gospel:

There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.  And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.  The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom.  The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom.  And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame’  But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now is comforted here, and you are in anguish.  And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass form here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’  And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’  But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’  And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’  He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.’”.

One of the tricks that preachers and other interpreters of scripture use to help us get into the text, to bring out the meaning of the text, is to invite people to identify with a character in the story.  If you were going to identify with someone, who would it be?  If I asked you:  imagine yourself as that rich man with Lazarus, decked out in fine clothes, feasting sumptuously at every meal and enjoying the good life, grabbing the gusto while you can, only to find yourself in the next life in torment, how would that make you feel?  On the other hand, if I invite you to imagine yourself as Lazarus who is in agony in this life, who never has enough to eat, who is constantly ill and injured and then you find yourself in the next life in paradise – then how does that make you feel?  Those are different perspectives, aren’t they?

Both are very powerful, but I would suggest to you that the key to this story is to identify neither with Lazarus nor the rich man.  But you’re still in the story.  Just not one of those two.  And you’re not father Abraham, obviously.  So who’s that leave?  Who’s left in the story?  The brothers, the brothers – and for the sake of this community we’ll say the sisters.  The brothers and sisters – the family of the rich man.  That’s our place in the story.  I’m going to let that ferment for awhile in your mind, and we’ll come back to it in a bit.

The two principle characters in this story—the rich man and Lazarus—are really caricatures of wealth and poverty at opposite ends of a spectrum.  They’re the extremes.  And most of us are somewhere in-between, aren’t we?  So it’s difficult for us to identify with someone who is on either one end or the other.  Now I have to say, I have met people as desperate as Lazarus – I know there are people like that.  But at the same time I can’t say that I’ve ever met anyone as callous as this rich man.  Maybe they exist, but not that I’ve met.   People used to say of President Ford that he would take the shirt off his back to give it to someone in need.  If ever confronted with anyone in need, he would do whatever he could for that person.  But give an extra nickel for the school lunch program?  Or other such things, no way.  I don’t know if that’s true or not, it’s a caricature, it makes the point that even of those at the top of society, the rich and the powerful, when they are confronted with that genuine need—personally—they’ll respond.  I think any of us would.  The person who is NOT moved by the sight of someone as desperate as Lazarus truly is a soul that is in jeopardy.  And that of course is part of the message of this text. 

But because these caricatures are so extreme it’s easy for us to be in quick condemnation of the rich man.  Because who is going to identify with anyone that callous?  And even in Hades, in torment because of such callousness and indifference towards Lazarus, he still sees Lazarus as someone who should serve him.  Who should bring him a cool drink, who should run errands for him to his family.

Clarence Jordan, the author of the Cotton Patch Gospels, describes the response of father Abraham to the rich man like this:  “Lazarus ain’t gonna run no more your errands, rich man.”  The main point of this story, however, is not about this extreme contrast between the plight of the poor and judgment on the uncaring rich or the divine reversal of their fortunes, but the real point of the story becomes evident when the brothers are introduced into the story and it takes a unexpected turn.  We’re going to get there in just a second, but not yet. 

A couple other quick notes to make.  We called this a parable, but it really doesn’t fit the definition of parable.  Parables are normally things about everyday life – a farmer spreads his seed on different kinds of soil, a woman who loses a coin searches the house diligently until she finds it, the shepherd who loses a sheep and goes out to find it, receiving an invitation to a banquet.  Everyday things, out of which Jesus draws some profound lesson, a point he wishes to make.  I don’t know about you, but I haven’t been to Hades.  Hades is not a part of our every day experience.  Although, living in a state that is officially on that line of undecided in the presidential election where we are so bombarded with political ads of President Bush and Senator Kerry have become fixtures in our living room, and we expect them to be here every week to visit us, it comes pretty close!  For some reason, I have this urge, every couple minutes, to stop and say:  My name is Dan Bryant and I approve this message!

The location of this story is the mythical Hades that is neither heaven nor hell but is a place in-between.  It is sort of a holding cell – a place where you sit and wait for the final judgment.  It’s from this that comes the notion of purgatory that some believe in.  Now I don’t think that Jesus is advocating belief in such a place but this is rather a literary prop.  It’s a means to tell the story because Jesus wants to have this dialogue between the rich man and Abraham and the only place the dialogue can occur is there in Hades where they both will be.  In other words, be careful of ‘literalizing’ the story – of making too much out of it, debating whether or not there really is such a place like that, flames of torment, and the like.  That’s not the point of the story.

Lastly, this contrast between the rich and the poor, and the divine reversal of fortune is a major theme in Luke’s gospel.  From the very beginning in the first chapter, in the Magnificant, Mary sings:  “God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty”.  Jesus’ first spoken message in the synagogue in Nazareth:  “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor”.  Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, known as the sermon on the plain because Jesus speaks from a level place, says:  “Blessed are you poor, yours is the Kingdom of God”.  And then Luke’s version adds the reverse of that – not found in Matthew’s version – “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your consolation”.  Much the same as the rich man in this story.  And then just prior to this story, Jesus condemns religious leaders who are lovers of money and tells them that you cannot serve two masters, you cannot serve God and Wealth.

And so we have here a classic Lukan perspective on the gospel where the rich and the poor trade places.  And therefore we expect some hard-hitting punch line to conclude the story like that story of the rich young ruler who can’t sell everything that he has and goes away very sad and then Jesus says:  “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God”, remember that?  “It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle”.  Now, that’s hard.  That’s hard. 

Well, this story then, instead of having that kind of punch line, takes a turn.  We don’t expect it – it comes as a surprise.  The rich man, for the first time, shows concern for anyone other than himself and he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers.  Now take note of the two elements of the final exchange between Abraham and the rich man.  First, that the rich man wants his brothers to repent.  Now repentance is another one of those major themes of the gospels – John the Baptist tells the crowds to “bear fruits worthy of repentance”.  And Jesus says “I’ve come not to call the righteous but to call the sinner to repentance”.  When told of the Galileans murdered by Pilate he responds:  “Do you think that they were worse sinners than anyone else?  No, I tell you unless you repent, you will meet a similar fate”.  Repentance means to turn around, to go the other direction.  And so we take it to mean to turn away from sin and to turn toward God, to turn toward following Jesus. 

But what is the relationship here in this story between the plight of Lazarus, the rich man’s judgment and repentance?  There’s nothing said about faith in the story, about faith in God, or following Jesus.  In fact, the rich man all but confesses his faith by calling on Abraham as father Abraham – it was a way of saying ‘I too am a descendent of Abraham’.  I too am a Jew, one of God’s people, those who worship God in the Temple.  It’s not a question of his belief in God, and so repentance in this context is not a matter of correct belief but a matter of correct deeds.  As James says:  “Faith without works is dead”.  The message of repentance then to the brothers is not that they should pray harder, believe more, but rather that they should pay attention to those poor folk outside the gate of their home.  That’s the message of repentance. 

The second matter is this question of being convinced by someone who rises from the dead.  And this is most obviously intentionally an irony.  The one who’s resurrection is central to the Christian message is telling us that everything that we need to know is already in the Hebrew scripture – in the writings of Moses and the prophets and if that’s not enough for us, neither will be the resurrection.  So what do Moses and the prophets say about the plight of Lazarus?

Deuteronomy, commonly known as the 5th book of Moses, says:  “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land your Lord your God has given 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 that may be” (chapter 15, verse 7 and 8).  The prophets?  Isaiah 58:  “Is not this the fast I choose to loose the bonds of injustice?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house?”.  It’s a pretty clear message.  This is the repentance the rich man would have his brothers do.  But Abraham says, if they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, why should they listen to one who rises from the dead?  In other words, failure to hear ordinary means of revelation does not merit extraordinary means of revelation. 

And this is the crux of the problem that applies to all of us, rich or poor, liberal or conservative, young and old, male and female.  We are very good listeners when we want to be.  When it confirms our prejudices.  Don’t confuse me with the facts, I’ve already made up my mind.  And if it doesn’t confirm that pre-conceived notion of what we have then it’s right wing or left wing propaganda.  And this of course is especially true in election years, and more so I think this year.  What, 90% of the electorate already had their minds pretty much made up before the campaign began?  And the problem is not that we have too few undecided but that we have so few truly willing to listen to both sides.  Ideology, instead, determines the facts.  We hear what we want to hear.  And I think we’re all guilty of that to one degree or another, at least I know I am.  And so we engage in meaningless slogans and exaggerated characterizations of the opponent. 

One of the great stories of political heroism, if there is such a thing J, this year, came out of Alabama earlier this year.  A story of how listening to the Bible caused the governor of Alabama, Bob Riley, a conservative Republican, to attempt a dramatic change in the Alabama tax code.  Now governor Riley regularly hosts Bible studies in the Capitol, big believer in the public display of the 10 commandments, and all of that, and he became convinced that Jesus would want a different tax structure in his state.  Nothing new there, I mean we all think the tax structure should be different, you know?  But what’s interesting is how he went about it.  He said:  “I spent a lot of time reading the New Testament and it has 3 philosophies:  love God, love each other, and take care of the least among you.  It is immoral to charge somebody making $5,000 a year an income tax.”  In fact, his proposal actually went further, eliminated the income tax for anyone making under $20,000 a year.  And, it came as a result of the work of a seminary trained lawyer.  I think that’s interesting – all lawyers ought to be seminary trained.  Maybe all preachers ought to be trained in law school J.  But the seminary trained lawyer who wrote a book and published an article that caught his attention and caused him to do his own Biblical study and to re-think some of his policies.  And as a result, his proposal dramatically decreased taxes upon the poorest part of society, increased those for the top 1/3, and greatly increased public support for public education and human services.  It was a bold plan, Biblically sound, and politically foolish.  It lost by a 2-1 margin at the polls, got creamed.  But give Governor Riley credit for taking an unpopular position on the basis of his faith.  What would Jesus do.

And you see, Governor Riley is a brother of the rich man, who did listen to Moses and the prophets.  And he listened to Jesus.  And what is more striking and remarkable in this day and age, he listened to the folks on the other side of the aisle.  Especially those who have been saying for years that economic justice, the plight of Lazarus, is a religious issue of fundamental importance to public policy.  Now if a conservative Republican is willing to listen to liberal Democrats, then how much more so should the reverse also occur?  That liberals need to listen to conservatives on issues of reverence for life, family values and the like, and issues most important to them.  That these are not simply religious matters applicable solely to individual morality and choice but also they are valid public policy concerns.  Those are the kinds of discussions we need to have.  In other words, listening to the gospel, to Moses and the prophets, for the voice of God means we have to listen to each other, to hear what the other side is saying.  And one of the great models I think for that is the class Jeff (Miller) teaches in the first hour, that I know many of you attend.  I never get to attend – I don’t know what you’re discussing there.  Could be talking about the overthrow of the minister for all I know J.  But engaged in that kind of discussion on the critical issues in society and how our faith informs us, how our theology informs us on those issues.

This afternoon we’re going to have another opportunity to talk about the ballot measures before us.  To clarify what they’re about, and to share our different perspectives on those issues, as Christian people.  I believe that is a sign of a vibrant Christian community when we can have lively dialogue on the critical issues of the day as a matter of our faith because we have a multitude of perspectives.  So don’t be put off if your Pastor has a different perspective – no surprise there.  There are other perspectives here, and we need to hear more from those perspectives.  I don’t share my perspective with you – not that I ever would on a controversial issue J -- I don’t share that perspective because I want to convince you that I’m right.  Well, maybe I do J.  But that’s not the point, that’s not the important thing – the important thing is that we all can articulate why we believe what we do as a matter of faith and to say this is how my faith informs me on that.  And as a church, we don’t have to agree with one another on such, we just need to love each other, to show our respect for each other in those different opinions.  And to support the Ducks, you know – you can do that!  If we can do that, then we can all get along.

One more thing – as brothers and sisters of the rich man, the question we must ask ourselves is this:  who are we going to listen to, or more fundamentally, are we willing to listen?  To really listen?  Back in the days when I worked in the youth ministry office of our denomination in Indianapolis, we used to sing a song a lot written by a Disciple of Christ minister, Daryl Theris, worked at the Christian Board of Publication, says: 

The Lord gave us ears that we might hear
The sounds of hurt and pain and fear
But we stop our ears to shut off the sound of a world that’s crying and dying all around
There’s a world out there, the Lord calls you to listen. 

There’s a world out there, don’t you hear it cry?
There’s a world out there, won’t you stop and listen?
Won’t you listen?
Listen, listen, listen.

The Lord gave us life that we might live
And gave us himself that we might love
But love isn’t love when it doesn’t care and choose the suffering cross to bear.
There’s a world out there, the Lord calls you to listen.

There’s a world out there, don’t you hear it cry?
There’s a world out there, won’t you stop and listen?
Won’t you listen?
Listen, listen, listen.


That is the message of Jesus in Luke’s gospel – will you listen?


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