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Introduction to Scripture
As Jesus began today’s parable, “The Rich Man and Lazarus”, his audience would likely have settled back to enjoy a familiar morality tale about how the wealthy are blessed and the poor are condemned by their own laziness.
Proverbs, for example, abound with this lesson:
Proverbs 10:4 Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth.
So, everyone would have expected the rich man to be affirmed as the story’s hero, while Lazarus would be the butt of the lesson, but once again Jesus was about to pull the rug out from under them.
Jesus wasn’t disputing those sections of scripture that promise blessings to the righteous.
Rather, Jesus was calling them back to the fullness of the Bible and its long, consistent themes about helping the poor.
Jesus spent more time talking about money than he did about prayer because it can so easily displace our love of God and love or our neighbor.
In today’s passage, Luke says that Jesus addressed those who were lovers of money, and later Christian teachings built upon Jesus’ teaching.
For example, in 1 Timothy 6:9-10 the Apostle Paul says, Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
Jesus and Paul’s warnings were not about having money per se, but loving money – making it all-important, or at least so central to our lives that we lose sight of God and our neighbors.
God Comforts the Agitated, and Agitates the Comfortable
Luke 16:19-31 October 4 2020
Today’s parable of the “Rich Man and Lazarus” might make us very uncomfortable when we realize that just having change in our pocket or purse makes us wealthier than nearly half the world’s population.
Having a car, even an old clunker, makes us wealthier than 92% of the world’s people who will never have such a luxury.
Having a home with running water, makes us the envy of over 1-billion people living today.
But Jesus does not condemn us for the blessings we have, but as the Lord of our life, he wants to be an active part of how we manage every part of our life, including – maybe especially – our money.
U.S. currency has the phrase “In God We Trust” printed or stamped on it.
Jesus wants that to go both ways – also that God can trust us with how we use our money.
Luke 16:14 The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.
Jesus didn’t address today’s parable to those who “loved money” in order to lay a guilt trip on them, but because their attitudes about money were distancing them from God.
Luke 16:13 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
You may have seen studies that report that as we become wealthier, we become less generous.
As our income goes up, our giving goes down – and that is true on a macro level, but looking more closely at the data, it turns out to not be quite that simple.
First, contrary to those reports, when all things are equal, our giving, in fact, increases with rising income.
That’s what we’d hope: with more money, we become more generous with our wealth.
But all things are not equal, and that is where Jesus’ teaching is particularly poignant.
And this is the second point: In places where there is the greatest and most obvious income disparity, on average, people’s giving goes down as their income goes up.
How could it be true that we become less generous where we see the most need close at hand?
Over the past decade, several studies – including one published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – have confirmed this based both on government income and giving data, and then through lab experiments to verify cause-and-effect rather than simple correlation.
One more time – because this is counter-intuitive but it is the heart of Jesus’ concerns:
If we live in a place where we observe minimal income disparity – like no obvious homelessness or nearby deteriorating neighborhoods – when our income goes up so does our giving.
But, as we become more aware of income disparity close at hand, our giving actually decreases as our income increases.
The authors of some of these studies speculate that this is triggered by a sense of entitlement – seeing people struggling in poverty in a roundabout way leads the wealthy to think that they are more self-sufficient, important and deserving than others.
Then, their feelings of entitlement might help high-income people justify to themselves their good fortune, leading them to feel that they are more important than others and so believe that resources rightfully belong to them.
In addition, the authors speculate that high inequality induces stress in the higher-income people who worry more about losing their elevated status and thus hold tight to their money.
Either way, being exposed to inequality can make us focus more on wealth – loving our money either because of feeling entitled or because of fear.
Jesus does not condemn us for having wealth, but he holds us accountable for how we view our wealth and what we do with it.
There is nothing subtle about how Jesus sets-up the story.
The first man is more than comfortably well off; he is flat-out rich.
He wears purple linen clothing that reek of wealth just as a tailored silk Armani suit would today.
And the Greek word for “gate” in verse 20 is not what you’d use to describe a tidy garden fence but is the word reserved for soaring portals – the kind of huge wrought-iron gates you see outside Malibu mansions.
And as I mentioned earlier, the Greek suggests that Lazarus didn’t just find himself begging at this gate but was “dumped” there.
Lazarus was abandoned, hungry, lame, diseased, and so was covered with weeping sores that stray dogs sniffed and licked.
But this parable isn’t about pity, so Jesus won’t let us depersonalize the poor into a vague one-size-fits-all economic class.
Significantly, this is the only parable in which Jesus gives a name to one of its characters.
The poor are real people with a name, a history, and dreams for their families – each one adored by God.
Furthermore, the narrative shows that the rich man knew Lazarus by name.
So, while the rich man might at first have appeared to be guilty of just a passive failure to address a situation he didn’t know about, in fact, he knew the person and his condition well.
In recent chapters of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan to expand the common notion of who is our neighbor.
After that, he told several parables about being lost and found – the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son.
With today’s passage coming right on the heels of those lessons, it might be that Jesus is teaching that the rich man was not so much blessed as he was lost – lost every bit as much as the wayward sheep, the misplaced coin and the prodigal son.
So, the issue isn’t simply that the man was rich, or even that he demonstrated no compassion toward Lazarus.
Rather, it is that his wealth had prevented him from relating to Lazarus as a fellow child of God … and so his wealth had shut his gate on his own participation in Kingdom life.
And did you notice that even speaking from hell the rich man still presumed to order Lazarus around because his wealth had blinded him with a sense of privilege?
So, rather than celebrating the rich man whose righteousness made him rich, as would the traditional folk tale, Jesus’ parable links our spiritual wellbeing to how we relate to and care for others.
Once we delude ourselves into imagining that we are sufficient unto ourselves, or once we cannot feel compassion for others, or once we’ve started to view ourselves as entitled to our wealth and privilege, we have lost something that is deeply and genuinely human.
At that point, we are, indeed, lost.
In the familiar folk tales of that era, the person in hell’s request to send an angel to warn their family of the dire consequences of their behaviors would have been granted and there would be a happily ever after ending.
But here again Jesus reverses expectations.
Now the rich man is told that from beginning to end the scriptures have already spelled out how to live.
Luke 16:29 Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.”
Abraham seems to be saying, “If they won’t listen to the living voices of Scripture, neither will they listen to a dead man tell them the exact same things.”
The rich man dug a chasm between himself and his neighbor Lazarus, and since he was never willing to bridge the gap, the rich man was left cut-off from his humanity and from God.
To bridge those gaps – that is why Jesus came to us.
He came to forgive sins that separate us from God, our community and our best self.
And he came to show us how to live in ways that bring justice, peace and health to ourselves, and to our neighbors.
From the very beginning of the Jesus movement, different people and various cultures were drawn to different styles of prayer and worship.
Different people tended to emphasize various parts of the Jesus message differently … sometimes strongly disagreeing with one another.
But in the end – and even though too often we forget this – we are all God’s loved children.
For today’s World Communion service, I invite you to envision people all over the world partaking in this sacrament.
People who speak different languages, who sing different hymns, who worship in massive cathedrals in Europe, or refugee camps in the Middle East, or store fronts in inner cities, or auditoriums in Texas, or secreted house churches in China, or white steepled churches in New England … all sharing the body and blood of Christ who sacrificed his life for you, for me, and for each of them.