Sermon on Deuteronomy 15:1, 7-11 and Luke 16:19-31 for Pentecost +19, September 25, 2016
Deuteronomy 15:1, 7-11
Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts.
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.”
“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.'”
Everyone wants to know what will happen after death. What will the afterlife be like? Unfortunately, this parable of the rich man and Lazarus will not help us at all. The setting is in the afterlife, that is true. But none of the details are right. The truth is that the bible is really spare on details about the afterlife, leaving us with more questions than answers.
Whatever the afterlife is like, it is not like two places within sight of each other, in which people can see what the other folks are doing. The place where the rich man goes is not called hell, but Hades. That is a Greek word for the realm of the dead. In some Greek texts, it is a place of suffering for really bad people. Obviously Greek mythology is not a good starting point for Christian theology.
We are not told that the rich man did anything bad, but there he is, suffering. So it makes the reader curious.
Jesus did not tell us this parable to give us insight into the afterlife. In fact, Jesus did not make up this parable from scratch. It is based on a story that scholars trace back to ancient Egypt. It follows a common trope about the reversal of fortunes in the afterlife.
Justice as Reversal of Fortunes
The reversal of fortunes story line is an attempt at an answer to a problem. The problem is that life is unfair; in fact grossly unfair. Throughout most of history, most people were poor peasants who suffered, while an aristocratic elite lived sumptuously.
That is how they lived, and that is how they died. And yet we all have this sense that justice ought to be done. Slaves know that slavery is not right. Oppressed people long for freedom. Hungry people want to be fed, and they want their children to be fed. People need homes to live in. We need medical attention. And when we see that some people have more than they can use of everything, and others suffer deprivation, we call it unfair.
But that’s how life is; life is not fair. So if there is such a thing as justice, if fairness is ever going to happen, perhaps it happens in the afterlife. If so, then the afterlife is full of reversals of fortune. The rich suffer while the poor are finally satisfied. I think that fairness impulse is what motivates these stories of reversals of fortune in the afterlife. That does not make them true, but the impulse is understandable.
So, why did Jesus uses this kind of a story? What was he getting at? I believe that Jesus was teaching something profoundly important that we need to learn, and it is all about what God wants from us. So let us dive into the story.
First, the characters. This is the only parable in which one of the characters is named. Lazarus, a Greek name. In Hebrew, Lazarus is Eliezer. We remember him from the Hebrew bible; he was Abraham’s servant. Eliezer also shows up in tales the Rabbis told. He would walk in disguise on the earth and report back to Abraham on how his children are observing the Torah’s laws about the treatment of the widow, the orphan, and the poor. His name literally means “God helps.” In this parable, God’s help comes only in the afterlife for poor Lazarus.
What do we know about Lazarus? Only that he is desperately poor and sick. He would sit at the gate of the rich man, longing, Jesus says, “to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.” His situation is completely miserable. The dogs, unclean as they were, would come and lick his wounds. Finally he died.
What do we know about the rich man? Initially only that he is extremely rich. From his purple linen dress, the clothing of the super-rich in those days, to the fact that he ate sumptuously, not on banquet occasions, but every day, he like a king. Even the word for gate indicates the gate of an estate. But he dies too.
Their fortunes are reversed in the afterlife. Lazarus is taken to “Abraham’s blossom”. In those days, tables were low to the ground. At supper, people reclined on one side, heads towards the table. If you were at a place of honor next to Abraham who would have been at the head, you could reline back against his chest. So Lazarus is honored next to Abraham, finally getting the feast he has longed for.
The rich man is in Hades, being tormented. The Greeks came up with this idea as a way of getting justice done after a life of being bad.
Guilty for What?
But what had the rich man done that was so bad? This is where it gets a bit complicated. You see, in the ancient biblical tradition there is a strong line of teaching that says, if you are righteous, you will be blessed by God. Prosperity was a blessing the righteous were supposed to enjoy. Abraham himself was a prime example. He was righteous and blessed. He was rich.
But there is a counter-tradition as well. As the Israelite monarchy developed and wealth was concentrated in the ruling elite, the majority of the people became poor. There was even debt-slavery. Imagine how much like being back in Pharaoh’s Egypt that must have felt like.
And poor people tend to do what is available for them: they cry to the Lord for mercy and for justice, just as the Israelites did in Egypt.
So the tradition developed that God was often on the side of the poor against their rich oppressors. It was not that the rich man was bad just because he was rich, it had to do with how he got rich, and his relationship with the poor.
The Biblical Responsibility Theme: Moses and the Prophets
Throughout the bible there is a constant theme that we are connected to each other by bonds of responsibility. Those with means are responsible to care for the needs of the vulnerable, specifically, the widow, the orphan and the resident non-citizen, or alien.
Moses’ law, as we heard this morning, required that every seven years, all debts had to be forgiven and all debt slaves set free. If the law of Moses was followed, there could never be a permanent poor class in Israel. There are frequent reminders and requirements in the Law of Moses to care for the widow, the orphan and the alien, or non-citizen. Moses’ law is all about responsibility for each other, in other words, the common good.
The prophets likewise, were constantly reminding the people that God puts justice above religious practice in importance. Micah, for example, asks what God wants from people? He suggests all the things you bring with your sacrifice to the temple: burnt offerings of calves or rams or oil. He asks, is that what God really wants from us? He answers his own question:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Moses and the prophets agree about the requirement of responsibility for the common good. It is the bedrock of Jewish ethics, and therefore of Christian ethics. This is why, at the end of the parable, when the nameless rich man asks Abraham to send someone to warn his rich brothers to start living differently, Abraham refuses. He says flat out that they already know what to do. Why?
“‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’”
The Rich Man Betrays Himself
The conversation between Abraham and the rich man shows where the problem lies. Did you notice that the rich man asked Abraham to tell Lazarus,
“to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue;”
This tells us a number of important facts. First, the rich man knew Lazarus and knew him by name. He cannot claim ignorance of his existence nor of his condition. He simply did not care. He did not do anything about the suffering right in front of him; he knew his name, and ignored his need. This is so much worse than the victim in the parable of the Good Samaritan who is a stranger to those who pass by. This is willful neglect.
Second, even in the afterlife, the rich man treats Lazarus like a second-class servant. He can be called upon to fetch water. The rich man assumes that he is superior and that Lazarus is inferior. Perhaps he thinks that Lazarus deserves his fate. Maybe he is being punished by God for sins he committed. In any case, the rich man assumes he is in charge and can treat Lazarus like a servant. When you are superior, you do not feel the need to care for the common good of inferiors.
I have never lived in a place in which there were not groups of people who felt superior to others. I have lived, for a summer in Kenya, Africa, where the Luo and the Kikuyu despise one another. We all know about the Hutus and Tootsies of Rwanda.
But this is not an exclusively African problem. How about the caucasian Serbs and Croats. I can show you mass graves they made for each other. How about the way Europe tore itself apart not that long ago when it was Germans hating French and English, and receiving it in return?
Sowing the Wind, Reaping the Whirlwind
In the bible there is a line that says people have “sown the wind and are reaping the whirlwind.” (Hos 8:7) Now, we are reaping the multi-generational whirlwind of sowing animosity between blacks and whites in our country. I have worked in the inner city, so I have seen the conditions there up close and personal. It is horrible. Not a single one of us would ever imagine raising our children in those terrible conditions.
If this parable teaches us anything it must teach that we are responsible for the common good, and that it matters to God. God looks at Lazarus and the rich man, and sees no basis for one to feel superior to the other. God wants us to look at people as God does. We are superior to no one; not to blacks, not to hispanics, not to Muslims or native Americans, not to the disabled or challenged, nor anyone.
Finding Solutions: beginning with us
So what is the solution? We did not get here overnight, and now the problems we have are deep. Solving them will require a massive commitment to the common good.
But it starts here: we recognize that material conditions of human beings is a spiritual matter. It mattered to Jesus. It matters to God.
So, if it matters to God, it must matter to us. And that means that we start by saying: I am not OK with the current reality. Things must change. It must begin with me.
Any form of racism or discrimination is an affront to God, the creator of all humans.
And any set of conditions that keeps producing poor people who have no way out is also an affront to God. I am not OK with the fact that this rich nation cannot solve the problem of poverty. I am especially not OK with the fact that many do not even think it is a project that matters. Well, it matters to God.
It is not wrong to have money. But it is wrong to not care for the real needs of human beings. The sin of the rich man in this parable was his neglect of his human responsibility. The theology behind it is that all humans matter to God, our Creator.
So, as people of faith, and as followers of Jesus, we hear a resounding call to take up the spiritual work of the common good. The question we all are called to reflect on today is this: Where will God lead you to address his work for the common good in our context?
Let us begin each day with the spiritual practice of gratitude. We reflect on all the things we have that are gifts of God. From clean drinking water to safe and secure homes, from good health care to excellent food, we are so blessed. Let us begin by gratitude to God for our blessings.
Then, we turn our grateful attention to those in need and respond as God calls us to respond.