A sermon for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 29, 2019
Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
“If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
There is a deep irony to this last sentence of today’s Gospel. The Gospels are not written as mystery stories with a surprise ending. They are the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ who rose from the dead. This story that Jesus told is not about the dead, it is about the living. The story starts, “There was a rich man…”
A lot of the stories in the Gospel of Luke talk about rich people: The rich young man who asked Jesus how he might attain everlasting life; the rich man who tore down his granaries to build bigger ones; the rich man who had a steward; the rich tax collector Zacchaeus who followed Jesus. Rich people were a fact of life in the ancient world, more noticeable than now, perhaps, because there were fewer of them and the gap was even bigger than it is today, since there wasn’t really much if any middle class. Jesus did not condemn any of these people for being wealthy, the gospels, especially the Gospel of Luke, observe how they behave.
In the Gospels, the stories are there to be readily understood, to make their point clear. And one thing that was clear in the ancient world was that if you were rich, you were free to act. Slaves’ lives were very circumscribed and most of the things that they did were things they had to do. The rich had plenty of discretion and choices available to them. They could choose among comforts, places they might go, when to be generous, and they were responsible for what they did. Most people were poor and had far less discretion. But in the case of a rich man, it was clear: he had choice in what he did and the responsibility for it. But we have choices and responsibility too, even when we’re not rich. Jesus’ stories that mention rich people aren’t told because his words only applied to rich people. He was just using his hearer’s understanding of what it meant to be rich in that day and age, to illustrate that all of us are responsible for our actions.
So Jesus is telling a story. A folk tale or a parable, really. It’s about a rich man and a beggar whose name is Lazarus. That is to say, a person responsible for his own actions and someone who was suffering and unable to take care of his own needs. The rich man is described as feasting sumptuously every day—that appeared to be the sum total of his occupation. In fact, the rich man isn’t even given a name because there isn’t anything to say about him beyond that he was only taking care of himself, and ignoring the needs of others, or, in this case, Lazarus. He’s characterized by self-indulgence and self-pity. Even after the rich man dies and is begging Abraham for relief, he wants Lazarus to be used as a slave, to bring him water.
This story isn’t moralistic in the way we moderns understand fables. It’s not saying that the rich man learned anything after he died and was in the same miserable condition as Lazarus. Look what he does: He asks for the servant to return from the dead to warn the members of his family about his heritage or legacy. He still gives not one whit for Lazarus the beggar, nor the people of Israel—he cares only for himself and his own. And there’s no reason to believe that the brothers he wants warned were any different. They weren’t going to change and respect the warning of Lazarus—even if a man were raised from the dead.
This story is about the respect of the living for the living. The prophets spoke to Israel about justice, about respect for the poor and the weak. The books of Moses spoke about respect for the strangers living in the land. The rich man in this story had no excuse—because of his wealth he was fully responsible for his actions. His lack of compassion was his own, it was not forced on him by God or by circumstances. Yet somehow, he behaved as if it was. “Let Lazarus bring me water.” “Send Lazarus to warn my brothers.” As if some special personal warning would guide them to take care of their interests, as if God owed them those things that they denied to other human beings, as if their only problem was a lack of information. This man’s life was impoverished because he lacked compassion and mercy, the basic building blocks of an abundant spiritual life. He was free and able to avail himself of all the generosity of God, the wisdom of the Torah, and the passion of the prophets, but instead he looked to himself, to his own self-centered benefit—and ultimately, self-pity. There was no magic solution, some astonishing miracle was not going to change that. We are called to be God’s people, to rejoice in God’s gift of love to us, to rejoice in the opportunity to live generously and not like this man who time after time, dove deeper into self-indulgence and self-pity.
This story is deeply ironic. Jesus WAS raised from the dead. And the people of his time didn’t listen to Jesus, anymore than they listened to all the prophets of Israel. As we heard this morning from Amos, one of the earliest of the prophets in the Old Testament:
Alas for those who are at east in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria. Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.
God has raised Jesus from the dead, exactly so that we may listen to the prophets rather than have our ears stopped by the indolence of self-satisfaction. There is no point in gathering riches—it is in living life for others that we are richly blessed.