September 29, 2013 – Pentecost 19

Luke 16:19-31

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Pentecost 19 Sept 29, 2013  (Ps 147, Deut 15:7-11, 1 Tim 6:6-19)   Luke 16:19-31

Even if someone rises from the dead – other readings posted at end

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Gospel means good news. The gospel of Jesus Christ is always good news. Though our gospel reading today sounds a bit like one of those stories that starts by saying, we’ve got good news – and we’ve got bad news.

First the good news. This rich man is the one and only person Jesus ever describes as in the hot place, with no way out. (I hear this very short list as good news.)

This rich man today in Hades, an ancient word for a sort of long-term-after-life-interim-residence on the way to heaven or hell – though the destinies of those going either direction seem already determined as Jesus tells it– this rich man is the only one in the whole New Testament we ever hear of in hell. Good news.

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Then there’s also bad news. We don’t have to be Adolph Hitler to end up in hell. This guy sweating it out in Hades today is no serial killer – not guilty of genocide – hasn’t mugged anyone in dark alleys. All he’s done to get where he is to treat his neighbor like a piece of furniture he doesn’t notice.

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And there’s more good news – and more bad news… The good news is that Jesus tells this story to the Pharisees – the zealous religious leaders who (in Luke) always seem to thinking well of themselves, looking down on others. Just before where we’ve read today, St Luke tells us the Pharisees are lovers of money. They’ve scoffed and mocked at Jesus as he names money as our most popular idol and talks about God favoring the poor and humbling the rich.

The good news is that this is probably a parable told first and foremost for Pharisees. A story told in very colorful language to get the attention of those who are hard of hearing… And the good news is also that parables often turn out to be about something deeper than we see or hear at first…

In fact this is the second story in a row in Luke’s gospel that begins with the words, “There was a rich man…” And last week the rich man in the parable of the dishonest-but-shrewd manager actually ended up looking like a stand-in for God himself.

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The bad news however is that even though Jesus tells this story for Pharisees, St Luke doesn’t exactly rope it off and tell us it’s just for the arrogant and idle rich, not the rest of us. The Pharisees of old are history now anyway. Now it’s the inner Pharisee in me I need to most beware of. The Pharisee within who whispers that I’m better than others… I deserve the privileges I have… and it’s not my job to care for neighbors outside my gate…

The bad news is – this guy could be me on a bad theological hair day – one of those hard-of-hearing-near-sighted-proudly-self-defensive-days… (Neighbor who? Hungry, where? Never saw the guy…That kind of day…)

At least I don’t dress in purple any more – the color of the most expensive clothing in Jesus’ day, worn just by the rich. (Back in high school days I did consider dark purple shirts with black jeans the height of fashion – but those were $7 shirts, and that’s ancient history).  I did used to like to pig-out on french-fries and burgers every day – but no longer – hey, I don’t even eat much red meat – it’s expensive and bad for the heart (which I don’t need).

But I can still identify with the rich man’s wanting to live-it-up and enjoy life to the hilt. And frankly Jesus seems to be awfully tough on this guy. I’ve even asked Jesus, “Is this guy’s behavior really bad enough to land him in hell? At least he didn’t have him arrested for begging or vagrancy. Probably he  thought feeding Lazarus would keep him from job-hunting and lead to welfare dependency?

(There are beggars who take advantage of the generosity of others to avoid working…) But this really doesn’t seem to be the direction Jesus is preaching in today…

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The good news is that Jesus is telling this story for me – and everyone – to keep us all out of hell. Telling a story of truth and consequences to change behaviors that might get us in deep hot water if we’re not very careful.

This story is probably a parable – though there are some notable dissenters to that theory, including Martin Luther, God-father of the Protestant church, and John Wesley, Grand-ancestor of Methodism, both of whom believed this story was not parable, but historic truth.

If this story is a parable, it’s the only one Jesus ever tells where any of the characters has a name – Lazarus, meaning “God will help.”  And I don’t know if this is a parable or not….Since Jesus, as usual, leaves a lot unsaid.

Jesus doesn’t tell us how this rich man got to be rich and failed to notice poor Lazarus lying at his gate. Nor does he tell us how Lazarus got to be poor.

What Jesus does tell us is that now the rich man is in torment and roles are reversed, as the one who was above now begs relief from the hands of the one who was below.

My parents had a record of Josh White singing African-American folk songs when I was young. I remember the song called ‘Dip his finger in the Water’ (that starts out) – Tell Old Father Abraham, pray let Lazarus come – and dip his finger in the water just to cool my tongue, cause I’m tormented in the flame…’

Not having been brought up in church, I was unfamiliar with the story of Lazarus and the rich man, and puzzled by the rather cheerful sound of this song about a rich man tormented in hell… But Josh White’s album notes helpfully explained – this song was a favorite among the poor, who were very used to being mistreated and overlooked in this lifetime…and didn’t mind smiling a little over the rich man’s misfortune in the next life.

And in the heat of his torment, now we notice the rich man does recognize Lazarus, after all – suddenly recognizes Lazarus well enough to beg Abraham to send Lazarus, asking for him by name… (Pray let Lazarus come..)

He also recognizes Abraham – as a father of faith whom he should approach for help. He does know, on one level, what he should do.

And Abraham listens politely, and calls him “child”  – “Child, remember – during your lifetime you had all the good things – and Lazarus had all the bad things happening to him. Now he’s comforted here. Now you’re in agony there. Now there’s no way for him to get from here to there – or for you to get from there to here. There’s a chasm now between us that can’t be bridged… ”

Now the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers to repent. Which sounds like maybe compassion at last. But on closer listening we notice – the rich man’s still treating Lazarus as someone there just to do his bidding. There’s still a vast chasm of misunderstanding between this rich man and reality.  Even as he’s asking help now for others –  he’s still only asking for his own brothers. (What credit is it to you, Jesus says, if you love your friends and family? Every one can do that.)

Meanwhile, here’s Lazarus in paradise with Abraham. Just as Jesus has predicted, saying (back in Luke 6) blessed are you poor, yours is the kingdom of God…Woe to you who are rich, you’ve had your comfort…

The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus from the dead to warn his brothers. Long before Dickens and Scrooge and A Christmas Carol, some one returning from the dead to warn the living was already a familiar plot for storytellers of old in the ancient Near-East. The one warned was often a rich man, like Scrooge, like the man in today’s story, who isn’t doing right by the poor. Usually in these stories of old, whenever someone comes back from the dead to give a warning, the one duly warned now gets the point and repents.

Which makes the way Jesus tells the story all the more disturbing.

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Jesus preaches against greed and teaches radical generosity always. This  story is part two of last week’s teaching about the impossibility of serving both God and money – and our need to make friends for ourselves by using filthy lucre to serve God and neighbor – (helping God save us from perdition in the process)…

But maybe this story Jesus tells today isn’t really even about money – as much as about being able to see and hear our fellow human beings as brothers and sisters loved by God. (Our basic Sunday School teaching every week.)

First Timothy tells us the love of money is a root of all manner of evil. Money itself is not called evil – though John Wesley, our Methodist forefather liked to  compare handling money with handling poisonous snakes – ‘it can be done safely,’ he said – ‘as long as we’re aware of the danger, and schooled in proper handling technique’– meaning giving generously to God, the poor, and the church.

First Timothy commands the rich to be rich in generosity, good deeds, and sharing –  saying put our hope in God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. All good things are given by God. We can enjoy all good things – if we share all good things generously. This is the law and the prophets. This is what Jesus teaches and commands us also.

But unless we can hear the law and prophets – who tell us clearly – God is always looking out for the poor and humbling the rich – we won’t be able to hear what Jesus tells us either. If we don’t believe the word of God telling us our hands must be open to the poor always (Deuteronomy 15) – if we don’t believe the psalmist telling us God gives food to the hungry and lifts up those bowed down (Psalm 146) – we won’t believe Jesus either –

Even risen from the dead.

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We do hear the law and prophets – we do hear and believe Jesus – we do care for the poor. Some of the time, at least… Most of the time, all of us, I hope and pray. All of us, all of the time, praying to be going on with Jesus to be with him in perfection of love… by his grace…

We also know we live in a world that doesn’t believe the law and prophets, doesn’t believe Jesus, doesn’t care for the poor, most of the time. A world that often tries to imitate the rich man, eating and dressing like royalty, every day…and… Let the poor eat scraps and lie there on the ground outside the gates… That’s not our problem…

We live in a world that greatly resembles a gated community, rich and privileged inside, poor and powerless outside the gates of pride, power, and privilege…

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But the good news is – that Jesus, God’s first Word –

God’s Word of life, who brings life and life eternal in abundance –

will have the last word…

The Good News is Jesus – telling us to look and listen, hear and see – help others see and hear with us…

And if we’re willing to look and listen for Jesus, always –

Jesus will always be looking out for us – and listening to us, always…

So the last word really is always

Very Good News….

(if we’re listening…)

Amen?

(Amen.)

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Deuteronomy 15:7-11

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, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”

1 Timothy 6:6-19

Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.     In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.