9/29/2019 Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost The text is Luke 16: 19-31.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Luke’s recounting of Jesus telling the parable of the ‘rich man and Lazarus’ is an example of ‘apocalyptic’ writing. This is a prime example of a word’s earliest meaning being modified over time to take on a totally different connotation. The Greek word, ‘apokalypsis’ is translated nearly unchanged into modern English. However, the definition seems to have undergone quite the transformation. While the modern term denotes catastrophe, annihilation, or even world-ending Armageddon, the original meaning is ‘to uncover’ or ‘to reveal’. It refers to exposing something that was previously hidden. This type of revelation text appears throughout scripture and is most obviously spelled out in the last book of the bible; the book of Revelation itself.
But as it pertains to this morning’s reading, what is being revealed by Jesus, through Luke, is also rather apparent, right? Lazarus the poor beggar is rewarded and given a place in heaven just because he lived a life of abject poverty. And the unnamed rich man is condemned to eternity in flames in Hades based solely on his life of wealth and privilege. Amen, see you next week!
Well, maybe it’s not quite so obvious. Apocalyptic revelations tend not to be the most obvious conclusion drawn from a text; usually, the point to be revealed requires a deeper examination. Let’s consider the rich man and his advantaged lifestyle. The text tells us he dressed in fine linen clothes and that they were purple in hue. Only the very wealthy or royalty could afford to own clothes colored purple, due to the fact that the dye itself was exorbitantly expensive. It was extracted from a species of sea snail found in the Mediterranean Sea, and thousands of these mollusks were required to obtain a small amount of the actual purple dye. Thus, only the very rich could afford such colored clothing. And we’re told that he ate extravagant meals every day. In Jesus’ time, the average Judean’s diet consisted mostly of bread, grains, vegetables, olive oil, and the occasional fish from the Sea of Galilee. Meat was a rare luxury; families would splurge on some lamb or mutton if times were extraordinarily bountiful. We must assume that Luke’s rich man, living behind his gate, ate whatever he wanted every day in whatever quantities he desired.
Contrast this with the destitute life of Lazarus. We’re told that he ‘lay’ at the gate of the rich man’s home. The Greek word hints that he was more likely ‘thrown’ or ‘dumped’ at the front of the gate; perhaps simply discarded by his family, hoping either the rich man or his guests would be benevolent towards him. And it turns out that he would have been satisfied with even the crumbs that might have fallen from the rich man’s banquet table. There could not be a more extreme comparison between rich and poor. One the one hand, one man is dressed in royal purple and enjoying daily feasts. On the other, one so impoverished that even table scraps would be welcome.
The rich man’s wealth is not what condemns him; that would be too obvious a revelation, and this isn’t the way Jesus tells us the kingdom of God works. Here is a hint; after both men die the rich man asks Abraham to ‘send Lazarus’. Not once, but twice. Once, to bring water to him, and again to warn the rich man’s family not to make the same mistakes he made. From this we can assume that the rich man was aware of Lazarus’ presence at his gate. He must have had to step over him as he came and went from his home. Rather, it was the rich man’s disregard of Lazarus’ plight that resulted in his eternal punishment. The truth revealed by this parable is that it isn’t the rich man’s wealth and privilege that convicts him, but it’s his unwillingness to show mercy to another that sentences him to the flames.
He had the opportunity daily to recognize this apocalypse, the revealing of the truth of his refusal to even acknowledge Lazarus as one of God’s children. And, even in death he still doesn’t ‘get it’. Even then, he assumes his privilege remains. He believes that Lazarus should do his bidding; after all, he was rich and Lazarus was a poor beggar. He was, to his detriment, unaware of the role reversals that occur in God’s kingdom, where things are not as they are in the world. Where ‘the first will be last, and the last shall be first’. Father Abraham, nonetheless is gentle in his reproach, as he firmly reveals the truth of the kingdom; the Law of Moses is explicit. Since the rich man chose not to abide by God’s Commandments to ease the suffering of others, the flames shall be his reward.
The revelation goes further; Abraham tells the rich man that, if his brothers won’t abide by the Laws of the Torah, which are the fundamental rules for Jewish life, even a risen Lazarus won’t help them ‘see the light’. Recall that this entire passage recounts Jesus telling this parable to his followers. It seems that he is warning them that there are those will not be convinced to follow the ‘Way’ of Christ even after his own resurrection. And this revelation has proved to be true; over 23% of Americans, when asked about their religious affiliation reply; ‘none’. And as this number increases, the number of those professing a Christian faith is showing the strongest decline.
It’s fair to say that the rich man in the parable doesn’t ‘get it’; he clings to his uncaring ways even in death. And, according to the research a quarter of this country’s population doesn’t ‘get it’ either. And the worst part is that a good deal of this is our fault. The reasons people give for not having any religious belief are many; from church scandals to an inability to reconcile faith with science, to a mistrust of organized religion. Some of these reasons are beyond the church’s ability to counter. But as it was revealed to the rich man in the parable, there is much we can do to show that we ‘get it’, that we understand the apocalypse, the revelation. We are called by Christ to be his hands and feet in the world. We are to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and be a place of shelter for those in need. Those who find fault with religion in general and Christianity in particular, often cite what they feel is hypocrisy between what Christ teaches and how those who profess to be his followers act. And in many cases, they make a rather valid point. But we can counter these criticisms quite easily. We can show that we understand the revelation made known to the rich man. We can do this by acting in the ways that Jesus teaches us.
There are many like Lazarus in our community. Perhaps not lying right outside our gate, but we don’t have to travel very far to encounter them. They are the ones that would be happy just to have the crumbs that fall from our table. Emanuel is engaged in the discernment of the future of this assembly of God’s people. What is determined will serve as the legacy for those who have gone before and will be how we in the present will be judged.
The Mission/Outreach meeting held last Sunday was an indication that the people of Emanuel, do in fact, ‘get it’. The desire to discover the ‘why’ of who we are was the prevalent topic. ‘Why’ are we the church”? ‘Why’ do we gather for worship, and beyond? ‘Why’ must we expand our mission as Christ’s hands and feet outside our walls? Lots of good questions, followed by lots of great ideas. I am heartened by the knowledge that the revelation of Christ’s mission for the world (and for Emanuel) is understood and that there is a yearning to pursue a greater role for this church. The next Mission meeting is a week from today, October 6, after worship. Everyone is invited so that next steps may be planned, based off of the ideas that have already been discussed, and any that you feel called to share. Emanuel has the opportunity to be known as ‘the church that…’ whatever ‘that’ might be. ‘The church that feeds, clothes, shelters, teaches, comforts, welcomes’? Please join us next week and help Emanuel to be ‘that’ church.
The truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ has been revealed to us; we are to serve as his hands and feet, in thankfulness for the gift of his sacrifice and God’s grace. Our thankful response to this revelation should be apocalyptic!
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious God, guide us to act in accordance with the truth revealed by the Good News of your son Jesus. Give us the strength and the will to be your Christ’s hands and feet, active in this world. Unlike the rich man, we have been convinced by one ‘risen from the dead’.
And the people of God say…Amen.
Now let us go forth into the world and try not to walk past any Lazarus we might encounter lying outside our gate!