Pentecost 16 Sept 29, 2019

(Ps 146, Amos 6:4-7, 1 Tim 6:6-12) Luke 16:19-31

Dip his finger in the water *

Jesus hears his mother, while he’s still in the womb, singing about God filling the hungry with good things, sending the rich away empty (Luke 1:53). We’ve heard Jesus preach “Blessed are you poor, yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, you’ll be filled…” and “Woe to you rich, you’ve had your comfort… Woe to you who are full now, you’ll be hungry…” (Luke 6:20-26). So maybe we’re not shocked to hear Jesus tell this parable today. If it’s a parable.

Most consider today’s gospel reading a parable, though Jesus never names it as such. And John Wesley, our Methodist founder believed its not a parable. If it is a parable, it’s the only one told by Jesus in which any character has a name. The name Lazarus means “God will help.” A name that makes sense only if the story is literally true. Or true on a level deeper than literal.

I think our story today is a parable. I hope it is, because Jesus occasionally employs hyperbole (exaggeration) in some of his parables – to accentuate his point. And I hope Jesus is exaggerating here to get our attention. But I really don’t know if it’s a parable or not or if Jesus is exaggerating. So I’m trying not to make assumptions….And I remember…

The popular book a few years ago by Mitch Albom titled The Five People You Meet in Heaven – about people you meet again in the after-life. Thinking – if St. Luke the gospel writer were to title this story Jesus tells today he might call it– One of the Few Persons We See in Heaven – and The Only Person We Meet in Hell. Elsewhere in Luke’s gospel we overhear Jesus tell a crucified thief next to him on the cross, “today you’ll be with me in Paradise.” Elsewhere we glimpse Jesus flanked by Moses and Elijah of old, transfigured in heavenly light. Here today, Jesus speaks of Abraham and Lazarus, together, in the heavenly realm.

But the rich man of our story today is the only person we ever see in the New Testament in hell – more literally Hades – an ancient word for the grey-area of afterlife between what we call hell – and what Catholics and some Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox believers call purgatory.

I don’t think Jesus intends to open up discussion of purgatory today. But I will note in passing – in some versions of purgatory the flames are not literal – and in all versions are meant to purge and purify souls so as to be able to ascend to heaven. I don’t recommend ever aiming for purgatory – since we really don’t know if it exists – and if it does, we don’t know how hot those flames are, or how long it might take for purification to happen…. Best not to go there… But I suppose… We can say there is some good news in this parable – in that this rich man today is the only person Jesus ever describes as suffering in the afterlife…

Although, there’s also some bad news – in that, apparently, we don’t have to be Adolph Hitler or a serial killer to wind up in hell or hot water. Seems like all this rich man in Hades has done to get there is to treat poor Lazarus who used to live by the gates of his gated community like one of the stray dogs that licked poor Lazarus’ sores. Which has me remembering…

***

My parents had a record I grew up listening to of Josh White, African American singer-guitarist, and his brother Bill, singing a ballad about Lazarus and the rich man called Dip his finger in the water:

Tell old Father Abraham, pray let Lazarus come – dip his finger in the water just to cool my tongue, cause I’m tormented in the flame…

On the liner notes for the record album, Josh White describes this song as much-beloved among descendants of slaves – whom, he said, sometimes didn’t mind imagining slave owners (and owners of share-cropping plantations that came after abolition of slavery)… suffering… There’s many versions of the song, including one by Elvis on one of his gospel albums. Both Josh White’s version and the Elvis version have an almost shockingly cheerful sound – as they sing of the rich man suffering in the afterlife for all the pain and suffering he’s caused those whom he’s treated as if they were a sack of cotton – while feasting on the abundance of wealth generated through the labor of slaves, servants and sharecroppers, who barely survived on the meager rations they were allotted. Singing now, of the rich man pleading to Abraham: Dip his finger in the water just to cool my tongue, cause I’m tormented in the flame…

In an earlier stage of life I too could feel cheerful – imagining the cold-hearted rich, and the suffering poor and oppressed of the earth – experiencing radical role-reversals – just like in this parable told by Jesus. I don’t feel cheerful about such thoughts any more. But I confess I still sometimes pray for those who pile up wealth while ignoring and-or abusing the poor – to be converted – by experiencing the misery they cause others first-hand for as long as it takes… to bring about the necessary changes. However… over time I’ve noticed…

However tough Jesus can be on the rich and powerful…He’s also pretty tough on those who judge others more harshly than they judge themself. And over time I’ve also come to realize… Relatively speaking… the rich and powerful – perhaps includes me, in the global big picture. There’s over 800 million people hungry today in the world; 40 million go hungry some of the time in the US. There’s plenty for all, if we share. But our parable is about when we don’t share… I’m not rich, comparatively, in this country. But I’ve got a lot more to share than the average person in the world. So I’m thinking about all the parts in the gospel drama… As…

Now the rich man is in Hades – and roles are radically reversed – as he cries “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, send Lazarus to dip his finger in the water and cool my tongue; for I’m tormented in the flames.” And we notice the rich man recognizes Lazarus, well enough to beg Abraham to send him. And the rich man still thinks of Lazarus as a slave – who exists to cater to his wants and wishes…

Father Abraham listens politely – calls the rich man “child” affectionately – “Child, remember – during your lifetime you had all the good things – Lazarus had all the bad things happening to him. Now he’s comforted here – and you are in agony. Now there’s no way for him to get from here to there – or for you to get from there to here.” As if to say – this is the unfortunate but entirely predictable outcome… of the bad choices you made in life.. That are not reversible now.

By contrast, we never hear Lazarus complain, even when he’s got nothing. He appears gentle in spirit. Perhaps he was praying for the rich man – not just to give him food, but repent and be saved.

And now the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers to repent. But again – he’s still treating Lazarus as less than a human being – as one who exists to do his bidding. The rich man has clearly not repented – even as he’s asking repentance for his brothers. He’s still concerned only about his own kin. Even sinners love their family, Jesus says. Godly love means loving all our neighbors, especially those most in need, Jesus says.

People coming back from the dead to warn the living was an old familiar theme already at the time of Jesus. In folklore ancient and contemporary, someone returns from the dead to warn the living – who change their ways and avert disaster. Usually, like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, the one warned is a rich man, like the man in today’s story, who isn’t doing right by the poor. In the stories of old there’s usually enough conscience left in the one who sees the messenger from the dead to result in repentance. Which makes the very realistic, still contemporary-sounding realism of Jesus, all the more shocking. As Jesus suggests – “If only people would listen to the word of God…while they’re living…”

And yes, perhaps the main message of the story Jesus tells isn’t about money. (Money is never just about money.) The parable is mostly about seeing our neighbor in need, and responding with deep compassion. But at the same time this story definitely is about money. ‘Where our treasure is’ (Jesus tells us in our Thought for the Week) – ‘is where our heart will be also.’ Our check book, bank account statements and credit card bills testify to our faith… ‘It’s harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,’ Jesus says, than for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle.’ But all things are possible with God, Jesus also says.

Jesus preaches always against greed, and teaches radical generosity. But Luke’s gospel also features Abraham as a major supporting actor in the gospel drama. Abraham was rich – and very generous. As was Job – rich and generous – and suffering – like Lazarus – not because of anything he had done.

Abraham and Job embody the spirit of the law of Moses, which tells us our hands must be open always to the poor (Deuteronomy 15). Methodists have a slogan– “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” All good. But the biblical message is even more about Open Hands to the poor. Likewise, the prophets cry out against wealth and luxury while others go hungry, as in our reading from Amos…

Neither the Law nor the prophets nor the gospels say money in and of itself is evil. As 1st Timothy says, it’s the love of money, not money itself, that leads to all kinds of evil.

Of course money can be used for great good. Money, rightly used, can help feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give shelter to the homeless, provide health care for the sick and ailing, comfort and care for those in nursing homes….

Of course greed is deadly. So also is grinding poverty. All good things are from God. We can enjoy all good things – if we’re good at sharing. Biblical economics is all about first things first. Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness – give generously to God and God’s people – feed the hungry – care for the needy – put luxuries lower on every list – support the work of Christ’s church. This is the law and the prophets that Abraham and Jesus reaffirm today.

So I’m thanking God for our Pumpkin Patch ministry in support of the Bourne Food Pantry, as we begin our new pumpkin season today. I’m thanking God for our Childrens Clothing and Backpacks for School Children and Thrift Shop ministries, and all community outreach… Thanking God for our worship and fellowship – and all our being together in community with all whom God brings into our lives. This too, is the Law and Prophets and Gospel.

And I’m thanking God most of all – that the One who fulfills all the law and prophets – is the One who has returned from the dead – the One who speaks his true words of life for us – so that we – and all who see us following Jesus – can learn from Jesus with us – how to live a life truly worth living… in the land of the living… Forever.

Thanks be to God. Amen.