Year C, Pentecost 16 Luke 16:19-31 It’s that time of the church year when many of the Gospel readings are confusing, depressing or distressing. Last week’s was confusing. This week’s seems clear as a bell, and a little distressing. We are Episcopalians and we don’t typically talk about things like judgment and eternal damnation, which might make us reluctant to study this Gospel text. But this reading from Luke is about the more than judgment and consequences.
The final line of our reading from last week was, “No slave can serve two masters for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” After that, we have 5 verses that we skip before we come to our reading for today. Those 5 skipped verses are important because they create a connection between last week’s reading and this one as well as providing some context. Right after Jesus says that you can’t serve God and wealth, the author of the Gospel writes, “The Pharisees who were lovers of money, heard all this and ridiculed him.” Bad move Pharisees. Bad move.
The Pharisees get a bad rap when we Christians talk about them. Sometimes it’s fair, but often not. There were some good and devout Pharisees who cared for the poor. There were others who didn’t. There was one thing that all Pharisees had in common. That was that they knew the Hebrew Scriptures—which for us is the Old Testament. Chapter 28 of Deuteronomy says that if you obey the commandments, “The Lord will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your land…” You will vanquish your enemies. You will be successful in all things. Therefore, the Pharisees weren’t wrong to associate obedience and faithfulness with wealth and prosperity.
Jesus wasn’t contradicting them as much as he was attempting to deepen their understanding and he did that by setting an example in the way that he lived and the company he kept. He lived with just what he needed. He certainly spent time with the rich and powerful, but he spent most of his time with the poor and oppressed because that was who needed him the most. Those were the people who were so often forgotten and ignored.
However, it seemed his example wasn’t quite enough, so he did what he often did when confronted with a stiff necked audience, he told a story. This is a fairly well known story. There is a rich man and a poor beggar who sits outside his gates. The rich man feasts every day behind his high walls. He is wrapped in the finest clothing. He has everything he could possibly want. But he ignores the beggar at the gate. There were no social safety nets back then. The rich were the only safety net. Many wealthy homes even had a bench outside the gate for the poor to wait for handouts. But this rich man couldn’t even give away his leftovers to the poor soul who waited outside his home every day. The wealthy man goes to hell and Lazarus goes to heaven and is seated by Abraham (that’s a good seat in heaven).
Many people think that Jesus is vilifying rich people with this story. It is much more nuanced than that. Remember, he was talking to the Pharisees who were lovers of money. But they were also supposed to be followers of the law. At the beginning of this sermon, I quoted Deuteronomy 28—about how those who obey God will reap rewards. Chapter 15 of Deuteronomy says that “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy, to the poor in the land.” The Old Testament is full of passages commanding the faithful to take care of the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the strangers in their land.
So this put the Pharisees in a pickle. This rich man clearly was not obeying God’s law in his treatment to the poor. How did he get so rich? Maybe there isn’t a direct correlation between being successful and being faithful. Maybe success and wealth can even insulate us and enable to be become blind to certain needs of the community.
What is particularly tragic about this rich man is that even when he is sent to hell, he still doesn’t learn his lesson. He is still bossing Lazarus around asking him for some water. He then demands that Lazarus sends a message to his brothers. But here’s the kicker, he doesn’t even know what to say in the message. He just asks that his brothers be warned so they don’t end up in hell with him. To that Abraham responds, “They have Moses and the prophet; they should listen to them.” But no, the rich man says, if someone comes back from the dead, then they we will listen. Abraham replies, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (A bit of foreshadowing there.)
When we read and interpret parables, we often find ourselves identifying with someone in the parable. Usually when I read this one, I find an uncomfortable familiarity with the rich man. I am not rich by many standards, but compared to most in our world, I definitely am. I have passed by many people asking for money. Sometimes I give them something, sometimes I don’t.
But I wonder if in this story, we are actually those 5 brothers who the rich man wants to warn. When Abraham refers to Moses and the prophets, he’s talking about Holy Scripture-the Bible. We have an Old and New Testament now. And in that New Testament is a story about a man named Jesus who told these wonderful stories, cured the sick, loved the unlovable, died a horrible death and then returned from the dead so he could prove that he was the Son of God and maybe, just maybe, you should listen to what he taught. We have more than we need to be disciples of Christ. We don’t need someone coming down from heaven to tell us some great secret, because we have it all. And one of the most consistent teachings in the Bible is that we care for the poor, the hurting, the oppressed, the marginalized. It’s in the Old Testament. It’s in the New Testament. And it’s definitely in the words and actions of Jesus.
We can read this parable as one of judgment. This is what happens when you are selfish and don’t help people. Or we can put ourselves in the position of one of the brothers. We can read this parable as an opportunity to be better. Those opportunities never end.
I could give you countless examples that I have seen at St. John’s of people caring for the poor, the oppressed and the hurting. I see how much you care and it humbles and inspires me. However, I think it’s also important that we never get too comfortable with what we are doing. We must allow ourselves to witness the suffering in our community and be uncomfortable. The problem with the Pharisees is that they were able to separate themselves and even use their faith to justify that separation. Our faith should not give us excuses to separate, but inspire us to remove the chasms between us, to love deeper and seek God in all people.