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:
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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: