Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Gaps Between Neighbors

Luke 16:19-31
October 6, 2013
William G. Carter

Some folks regard the parables of Jesus as simple morality tales, as lightweight little stories with a heavenly meaning. But judging by the reaction, they are more explosive than that. Remember that Jesus was killed. He was murdered because he told stories about parents full of aggressive grace, or business owners who cut a break for their unscrupulous managers.

Jesus spoke parables that undermined the social order of life as we know it and he made people angry. He still does, if anybody pays any attention to him. Just when you thought it was safe to go back to church, he tells a story that proves that life is not fair. Goes like this:

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.”

Life is not fair. There was a rich man and there was a poor man. There you have it; everything else is commentary.

The rich man dressed in purple. Not in plaid or burlap, but in the color of royalty. We have no reason to think he was royalty, but he dressed that way. The color purple was rare and expensive. Purple was worn only by kings and queens … and wannabes.

Not only that, he wore fine linen. One scholar says that’s a technical term, referring to a quality Egyptian cotton.[1] You don’t wear fine linen on top of purple, you wear it underneath. In other words, this guy was so rich that he wore swanky underwear.

And the poor man? How was he covered? He was covered with sores. He was too weak to sit up. Certainly he could not afford to care for himself. The only health care he received was from the neighborhood dogs who showed him affection and applied free salve to his wounds.

Inside the house, the rich man had plenty to eat. He feasted abundantly every day. It says, “every day.” The scholar Ken Bailey says that is the evidence the man was a Sabbath-breaker, never taking a mandated break from extravagance and requiring his servants to make him a banquet when God’s Law required all of them to rest. And every day, he stuffed his stomach.

And the poor man? Nothing to eat. Not even a crumb or a leftover, nothing. It sounds like those high-priced restaurants in Manhattan that toss the throw-away food in the dumpsters and then sprinkle it with lye to keep the homeless people away.

Life is not fair. Anybody doubt that?

This week, parents were panicking in Mississippi because they found out at the last minute that government-funded Head Start programs were shut down. Some of these parents have two or three part-time jobs, the only jobs they could find. They couldn’t take their little kids to work, much less leave them at home, and they needed to show up for those jobs. Meanwhile a congressman was quoted as saying, “Of course I will take a salary, even after voting to shut down the government. I have a nice house with a big mortgage, and I need the money.” [NOTE: after an outcry, this individual did recant...after this sermon was preached.]

Life is not fair. Jesus is not telling us anything that we don’t already know.

But then he tells us about death. The poor man dies and the angels carry him into heaven, where he rests in the arms of Father Abraham. He is held and comforted. The rich man dies, has a funeral (that’s a nice touch), and he ends up in hell. Presumably the flames are burning away his purple and fine linen.

Life was not fair; how about death? Is that fair?

Our perspective depends on where we stand. Some folks see this as a Robin Hood story, pushing us to rob from the rich and give it to the poor. They will quote what Jesus says earlier in this Gospel: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God … But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” (Luke 6: 20b, 24)

Of course, wealth, poverty, and the afterlife are not quite that simple. Jesus is not slamming anybody for being rich. According to the Book of Genesis, Father Abraham had been an extremely wealthy man. Scripture says he was “very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold” (Genesis 13:2) – and he is in heaven. No, money does not keep you out heaven. You can’t take it with you. You have to leave it here. But it doesn’t automatically keep you out. And neither does this parable tell us what we should do. It offers no imperative at all.

Other people would see this as a Jacob Marley story. It’s only October, but do you remember Jacob Marley who we hear about every December? Marley’s Ghost goes to warn stingy old Ebenezer Scrooge: “Mankind was my business! The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” He warns Ebenezer, who doesn’t pay him any attention.

The most curious part of the parable is how the rich man in hell tries to maneuver Father Abraham into helping him out. First of all, he is pretty hot down there, and he wants the poor man to cool him off. The rich man still thinks he’s in charge. That doesn’t work. But then he wants Father Abraham send back Lazarus from the dead to warn his own five brothers about the snares of wealth. Abraham says, “Nope. They already have a Bible that says you shall love your neighbor as much as yourself. If that doesn’t do it, they aren’t going to be motivated by a resurrection.”  

The rich man says, “They need to be warned!” Father Abraham says, “They already have a Bible. That’s the only warning they are going to get.”

Some say this is a Jacob Marley story. Some say it is a Robin Hood story. Anybody care what I think? I think it is a grace story. It is all about grace.

There is the grace that carries a poor man into the arms of heaven. He did not earn it, he could not buy it, and maybe he wasn’t even seeking it. He is weak and cannot save himself, and God rescues him and holds him forever. That is the essence of grace. The person with nothing is given everything. Life damaged him with unfairness, and now he is restored. This is the grace of God. Sooner or later, it is given to those who need it.

What about the rich man? He had grace too. Father Abraham says as much. He calls him “child.” He says, “Child of Abraham, remember that during your lifetime, you received your good things.” Can you hear the grace of that? His wealth, it was a gift of God! I hope you don’t think he earned it. There are a lot of people who work very hard all of their days, and they will never gain what that man had. He has been blessed with riches!

But that old Sabbath Breaker squanders it only on himself. Look at him in his purple robe and his high-priced imported underwear. It’s all about him, to the exclusion of everybody else. Even in death, it’s all about him, hollering from hell, “Send down Lazarus to cool me off!” Wow, he knew his name! But he could never be bothered to invite Lazarus to share in the grace that God had freely given to him. Oh no. He could only hoard it for himself.

Do you know what the problem is with having a lot of money? I mean, it is World Communion Sunday, and globally speaking, everybody here has a lot of money. Do you know the problem with having a lot of money? Money can create gaps between people. Money has the power to splinter families, to the point that they will no longer speak to one another ever again. Money can divide neighbor from neighbor. Money can entice some to hoard it and others to steal it. Money can damage human relationships. Money can insulate people from human needs lying right outside their gate. But it need not be so. There is an alternative, and you know what it is.

I remember the young bride and groom. They saved and saved for their wedding. They had a lot saved for their honeymoon. “Where are you going?” I asked. They said, “Jamaica!” They went off to Jamaica, just married. She was going to get her hair done up in corn rows. They flew down there, and the resort staff said, “No reason to go anywhere; everything you need is on our resort property.” It was a great getaway.

One night after a sumptuous feast, they decided to go for a walk. Strolled out the side gate, down around the bend, and stepped into a settlement of the worst poverty that they had ever seen. He in his purple muscle shirt, she in her corn rows. They saw open sewage in the ditches, tin roof shacks, people with tired eyes looking up at them. A local woman said with a weary smile, “You must have lost your way. Let me show you the way back.”

They came to see me after they returned. Didn’t know what to say. They told me the story. We sat for a bit. Finally she said, “What can we do?” I looked at her and said, “I don’t know; at least, I don’t know yet. But you can pray for God to show you what to do. And you can thank God for showing you what a lot of people ignore.” That’s where it starts.

Because I’ll tell you the truth: the grace of God makes its home in us when our eyes are opened and our hearts are enlarged. And grace is given to be shared.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Ken Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008) 382.

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