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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 09/29/2013

In case you hadn’t noticed, Jesus was a pretty good story teller.  When he was asked a question, he almost never gave a straight answer.  Usually what he did was to tell a story.  You’re all familiar with stories; you read them or have them read to you or of course we watch stories on TV or the movies.  Stories in any form require the use of our imagination but the need is especially true when you read a story or hear a story; your imagination has to work to envision the characters and setting and so forth; a good author makes it easier, but still, you play a role.  That’s why it’s sometimes disappointing when they make a movie out of a book you’ve read and it’s not like you pictured it.  That’s not always true; sometimes it’s done really well, but  actually that’s why I’m not a big fan of Bible movies.  They become literal depictions of what are supposed to be imaginative stories and in my opinion anyway, you lose something when you do that.

One thing about Jesus is that he told really short stories, parables we call them.  Even the longest of them which I think is the Prodigal Son isn’t very long, you can read it in a couple of minutes.  With such short stories, much is left to the imagination and that would seem to be part of what Jesus was up to.  He wanted people to think about things, to wrestle with things and draw their own conclusions, difficult though it might be sometimes, painful as it might be sometimes.  But apparently Jesus thought it was better for people to sort some things out for themselves rather than just be told what to do or what to believe and then of course for most of 2000 years the church has turned that around and told people what to believe and what to do.

Anyway, today’s parable; the rich man and Lazarus.  It starts with a rich man but right away Jesus provides a clue as to which way the story tilts.  The rich man isn’t given a name but in the next verse the poor man is identified right away as Lazarus.  That’s a hint about what’s going on and note that it’s a reversal of what might be expected.  The norm is that we know the names of the rich and famous, it’s the poor who are nameless and faceless so again, this is a hint that Jesus is up to something.  These two, the rich man and Lazarus live in the same world but because of the rich man’s indifference the circles of their world don’t overlap; they touch because Lazarus is right outside the rich man’s door, but their lives don’t overlap.

In life their worlds don’t overlap and in death they don’t either.  In another reversal, the poor man winds up at peace, at rest with Father Abraham, while the rich man is consigned to the fires of Hades suffering eternal torment.  Their roles are reversed as now the rich man is the beggar, begging for just a drop of water on Lazarus’ finger to cool his tongue.  But it’s too late.  The divide between them is too great and can’t be crossed. 

The rich man accepts that verdict for himself but asks that Lazarus be sent to his brothers to warn them so they can escape the same fate.  In life the rich man got what he wanted, he could command the likes of Lazarus to do things and they would, but not now.  Father Abraham says those brothers have already got all they need, Moses and the prophets.  If they don’t pay attention to them, someone returning from the dead isn’t going to convince them either. 

On the surface of things this parable is easy to figure out.  The poor man, Lazarus, suffered in this life but in death receives comfort; the rich man enjoyed life but suffers in death for his failure to pay attention to the likes of Lazarus.  The moral of the story then is that we should do what we can to help those less fortunate than ourselves.  It’s a good conclusion, a good moral.  It’s not a surprise or anything but even if we already know that’s what we should do it never hurts to be reminded of it.

So I could stop right here and leave it that but I don’t think you would have gotten your money’s worth if I did that but if you want to tune me out right now and just focus on that as the lesson of the day, that’s fine; I’m going to keep going though. 

I had someone tell me last week that she didn’t like parables.  She said she didn’t like how they usually leave you with more questions than answers and she wants answers; she wants to know what it means.  On the surface of things then, she might like this one because again, the moral seems pretty clear.  However, allow me to introduce some ambiguity into things; actually it’s not me, it’s Jesus.

Jesus knew his Bible; he knew about Father Abraham the great ancestor of the faith; he also knew about Moses, the lawgiver and in this parable he mentions both.  There still is a clear and simple moral here about care for the poor and love your neighbor, but by including Abraham and Moses there’s also a subtle reminder that life and faith aren’t necessarily always that simple because of the difference in what Abraham and Moses represent.  Abraham was the gentle father figure to whom God had made promises of land and descendents even though at the time both seemed very unlikely.  But based on nothing but God’s grace, the promise was made and Abraham and his people were the ones through whom the Lord would tell his story. 

Jesus knew that, but he knew about Moses too, Moses the lawgiver, Moses to whom God issued the big IF.  If you obey my commandments, then I will be your God.  If not, look out; it may not go well with you.  Jesus knew the tradition and he knew both of these figures were part of it; he knew that unconditional grace and the if/then demands of the law were part of it. 

It does seem pretty clear that the main thrust of this parable is moral teaching concerning care for the poor.  Like I said, if you want to just run with that, you can.  But by including this Abraham/Moses dynamic, Jesus does give those who want to wrestle, something to wrestle with.  

Which one of these great characters do we identity with?  Abraham or Moses?  Is God’s love for us unconditional or conditional?  As Lutherans we talk a lot about grace, I try to hammer it home with the confirmation student; God’s unconditional love and acceptance is central to who we are as Lutherans.

But that’s not the whole story.  We also teach the 10 Commandments, the difficult conditions of discipleship.  In the parable Lazarus is saved by grace, note that it doesn’t say anything about Lazarus being a particularly good person; it just says he was poor which is not a virtue.  At the same time the rich man is convicted by the if/then demands of discipleship; that’s his reality, seemingly separated from grace.  So which is it?

If you choose to wrestle, you’ll probably find that it’s both.  We all need God’s grace.  We need to know that God loves and forgives us no matter what, the door isn’t closed from his side.  But we also need to know that what we do does make a difference.  The conditions of the commandments were given for a reason, to help us live as God would have us live.  There is tension between unconditional and conditional, but it’s healthy tension.

Parables aren’t predictions; it’s important to remember that.  For us, they’re open ended.  We can’t change the end for the rich man, but we can change it for ourselves as we live between Abraham and Moses and what they represent.  It creates some tension but then we have Jesus too.  Someone has returned from the dead for us and He stands with us between Abraham and Moses.  He stands with us, even as we wrestle.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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