Sermon delivered at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, Perkasie, PA
Today is one of those Sundays when all our readings, together, give us one big and blended image of God. And, despite the images of fire and the word “Hades” in the Gospel, despite how nervous talking about money makes us, I think this image of God is one of love, and fairness, and justice—and then… more love.
To begin with, it’s important to remember that today is Sunday. Sunday is a mini-Easter. Every Sunday the reason we drag ourselves out of bed, is because Jesus dragged himself out of the tomb. Today, regardless of how condemning and uncomfortable our Bible readings are, we declare by standing up and singing: that death no longer is in control.
As the Church we confess that Christ has swallowed up all sin and death, Christ has gone before our selfishness. He’s gone before our bad habits, to the horror of the cross. It’s done.
So the scenario from Luke’s Gospel is not a prediction, or a sketch of a real post-death scenario of an actual selfish person. It is a parable, for us, to teach us what reality and God are actually like.
There is a saying that inexperienced preachers love parables, because they think parables are so simple. With this one in hand, the inexperienced would say, “Darn it rich people, be better!” Experienced preachers so the saying goes—as Pastor Krey, our resident experienced preacher, knows—are more wary. Parables are really, really complex. Jesus’ mind is amazing. I’m beginning to see the experienced preacher’s point.
And here’s why: the parable does a fascinating thing—it reveals what Jesus knew about the worldview of the people of Israel at the time of its telling. Take our psalm today. This is much older than Jesus, the psalms were the hymnal of the ancient Hebrews, of David and the kings.
This is one of my favorite psalms, so hear this wonderful poem again, and see what you think:
Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
Do not put your trust in [rulers],
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
God upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked God brings to ruin.
The Lord will reign forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord!
You can see, the Hebrew people believed strongly that the poor deserved help, and the low deserved to be lifted up. They believed God’s chosen people, Israel, was supposed to care for the misfortunate and the have-nots. And the prophet Amos makes that painfully clear as well in his bitter pleas to the very comfortable folks of ancient Israel.
So, if you believe God is like this, what happens when you see, everyday, that the poor are oppressed? What happens when you see, generation after generation, that your people have been smashed down and pushed around by the Babylonians and then Alexander the Great and then the Roman Empire?
What happens is exactly the beliefs we see illustrated in Jesus’ parable. The Hebrew people figured God’s justice must be postponed until another world, that the unpunished cruel ones now, will be dealt with later. They believed that finally the score is settled elsewhere, and the poor misfortunate ones—like Lazarus—are carried off by angels to be in the bosom of Abraham, to be with the blessed ancestor of all of God’s people.
Jesus knows his followers believed in a postponed justice. In this parable Jesus is not making a declaration about what is going to happen. Instead, Jesus knows we, his followers, think like this, and he uses this image of punishment in another world to teach us.
So, in this parable the poor man is named Lazarus—literally in Hebrew: “God is my help.” And the rich man is an unnamed place-holder for the kinds of cruel or selfish people that often inhabit God’s world. In this tale that Jesus tells, the rich man cries out from the punishment that the Israelites believed would make the world come out fair.
First this “rich man” talks right past Lazarus, and asks Abraham to ask Lazarus to cool his tongue with his finger… which is just funny. He’s dead and in Hades and still can’t see Lazarus as a human being and he’s still giving hifalutin orders. And Abraham points out the great rift in relationship and love that lies between them. Having replaced the love of God and human beings for the love of money, the rich man is now very alone.
But then the rich man does have an unselfish impulse after this, and asks if Abraham would warn his siblings back in the land of the living, so they don’t have to experience his pain and separation. Abraham’s answer is full of irony. He says: the entirety of the story of our people—the rich man’s people too—is that God loves us so much that God saved us. We are supposed to remember what it was like to be in Egypt, poor and hopeless—and act accordingly to others.
The rich man goes on. “No, no, father Abraham, that’s boring, have someone come back from the dead instead.” Abraham says, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
Now, Jesus is so clever, because like I said before—Sunday is our mini-Easter. And every Sunday the reason we come to this place is because Jesus did rise from the dead on a Sunday morning. If Hades and deferred judgment is the thought bubble of his audience, Jesus the parable-teller pops it with this tale. He says, “I know you think it’s like this.” But after he emerged totally transformed from the tomb, Jesus says, “It’s actually like this.”
But doesn’t our selection from the letter to Timothy certainly push us to look at ourselves and our wealth? And there is a very important and famously misquoted line there. The author of this letter writes, “But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires… For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil…” Note: it is not “Money is the root of all evil.” It is “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”
According to recent numbers, America has the highest GNP of any country in the world. On the other hand, the U.S. is the 12th richest country in the world per capita—far from number one on that score, but still very wealthy. Which means: among the 25 richest countries for which there is data, the United States has the highest level of income inequality. The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil…
Jesus is very good at making us nervous, and making us see that on our own we are in deep trouble. After all, Father Abraham is right—God is just. And has given us Moses and the Prophets. We don’t deserve a second chance. We are very selfish, and the love of money, the love of being able to do what we want, has got hold of us and our nation tightly.
But God, in Jesus Christ, redefined justice. Despite the fact that Father Abraham said “no” to the rich man’s plea for someone to rise from the dead… today is Sunday. And together we confess the strangest and most unbelievable thing called the Resurrection.
And that’s because, as a Franciscan monk has wisely said, “Jesus taught us not to ‘be right,’ but to ‘be in love.’” Our Jesus teaches us what God is: God is not a postponed system of rewards and punishments. God is an always new invitation to a life of overflowing love.
Just ask yourselves, what did Jesus do in his ministry on this earth, in our flesh? Exactly what the psalmist wrote: Jesus executed justice for the oppressed; gave food to the hungry; set the prisoners free; opened the eyes of the blind; lifted up those who were bowed down; watched over the strangers; upheld the orphan and the widow; and the way of the wicked he forever brought to ruin. Building in its place a clear and simple path of love and forgiveness.
Jesus was Resurrected in this world. Jesus dines with us at the communion table in this world. The power to bring God’s justice to the world is here, and now. Today is Sunday, and this love of Jesus lives now in his Church and in your hearts.