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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost - 09/25/2016

At this point in Luke’s gospel one is ready to say to him, “Enough already! We get it; you’ve made your point; we need to change how we think about money.” Way back at the beginning of Luke, in Mary’s Magnificat you get “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” When Jesus preached in Nazareth he read from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes you get “Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the Kingdom of God,” and “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”

And now in chapters 14, 15 and 16 there has been parable after parable relating to money and its place in our lives along with the inequity between the rich and the poor. We don’t really know if Jesus himself delivered all these parables in the sequence in which Luke has them, but there’s no question that Luke puts them together for a reason. He sees economic inequalities and care for the poor as a major focus of Jesus’ teaching as Jesus consistently upsets expectations regarding the rich and the poor and who is blessed and who isn’t and so Luke makes a major focus of his gospel.

You would think that by now we’d get it and in a sense we do. We know what Jesus is saying about the idolatrous place that money can take in our lives; but knowing that, mostly we don’t let it bother us too much. We like our possessions and that includes not just needs but a few wants as well. We like having money to spend so we can enjoy the good things life has to offer. Economic security for the future is also important to us. So we know what Jesus is saying, but we kind of like life the way it is and so, life goes on.

The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is the last in this sequence of parables that revolve around money issues and you wonder if Luke made it the last one intentionally as something of an exclamation point, an effort to provide a final warning. It’s been called an apocalyptic parable, an apocalypse being that rather strange genre of writing that shows up in a few places in the Bible, the most notable of which is the book of Revelation.

A common feature of apocalyptic writing is that it includes a visionary journey, sometimes involving time travel into the future or the past or both, and it can include going to different places and spaces, sometimes up to heaven, sometimes down to the underworld, sometimes just to other parts of earth. Along the way the traveler can frequently encounter angels and other strange creatures of varying shapes and colors, sometimes with them changing shape and color. There can be battles and coronations and other life changing events. Typically the traveler then returns from the journey with an urgent message or warning, one which often includes a call for repentance and faithfulness.

Those kinds of things happen in the book of Revelation, but today we’re not talking about Revelation, we’re talking about the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus and it contains similar elements. In this story, a rich man dies after enjoying a lifetime of blessings, blessings that included fancy clothes and fine foods. Blessed as he was though, he died having ignored the needs of the poor during his lifetime. As a result, he winds up in Hades. At about the same time, a poor man, Lazarus, who used to lay at the gate of the rich man’s house hoping for scraps from his table, also dies but he is carried away by angels to be with father Abraham.

In the parable, we then embark on an apocalyptic journey. First, Jesus takes us to Hades to view the agony of the rich man, far from his comfort zone, now being punished and tormented. From there we’re privy to another vision, a heavenly vision where Lazarus is resting in comfort at the side of Abraham as the earthly tables have turned. Our vision also reveals to us that the rich man is able to see Lazarus far off in heaven, the same Lazarus who he had effectively been unable to see when he lay outside his gate every day.

The rich man begs father Abraham to let Lazarus come to him with water to quench his thirst but he is denied that request. He then asks that Lazarus be allowed to go to the rich man’s brothers to warn them so that they might avoid his fate. Again though, his request is denied. It’s too late, the chasm between the rich man and Lazarus is too great. Besides, the rich man is told, if they haven’t listened to Moses and the prophets what makes you think they’ll be convinced by a man returning from the dead? And there it ends.

I wonder though if Charles Dickens was channeling this parable when he wrote about Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. It too is about an apocalyptic journey. You remember it starts with a frightening visit from the ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s old business partner. With that visit and vision Scrooge gets the first warning about what his future will be if he doesn’t change. He sees Marley’s ghost dragging the chains he forged in life, chains made of cashboxes, keys, padlocks and the like, all things intended to secure one’s wealth, all things that represented the path that Scrooge was currently on.

After first dismissing this vision as a product of indigestion, Scrooge is then taken on an apocalyptic journey. He goes first to his painful, loveless past as a boy and a young man, then to the present where part of what he sees is the warmth and love of the Cratchit household, poor as they are, and then finally a frightening journey into the future led by a dark spirit who never speaks but only points and gestures. The final vision Scrooge sees is that of his own lonely grave.

It’s at that point that he asked the question that sheds light on today’s parable. “Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of things that will be, or are they the shadows of things that may be, only?” Those listening to Jesus tell the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus could have asked the same question. Is it intended to render a final verdict? Does it represent what will be, or is it a warning concerning what may be if things don’t change?

Quite clearly, what Jesus and Luke give us here is a story intended to emphasize the point that has been made throughout the gospel, a point which we get, but one which we have trouble acting on. It’s not a prediction of actual future sufferings or future blessings. It’s not intended to foretell things that will be, but only to show the shadows of things that may be.

Throughout this sequence of parables Jesus had been addressing people who were comfortable with the way things were, comfortable with themselves. The parable then was a warning that things were not the way they were supposed to be, not when the rich, in their comfort, were blind to the needs of the poor. The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is a wake up call…but did it wake them up, does it wake us up, or do we sleep through it?

You remember of course that Ebenezer Scrooge did wake up from his apocalyptic journey and made a remarkable turnaround, becoming charitable including paying Tiny Tim’s medical expenses, being like a second father to him, being “as good a man as the good old city ever knew, or any other good old city, town or borough in the good old world.” Having sounded the warning, Charles Dickens provides the happy ending we want for his story with his vision of the good Scrooge. Jesus sounds the warning but then leaves it for his audience to provide that definitive happy ending…or not. Like Dickens’ vision of the good Scrooge, Jesus, through his life and teaching does give us a vision of the good things of his kingdom, good things that include the blessings that come with sharing what we have.

In this sequence of parables, Jesus shows what is possible here and now as he turns worldly expectations upside down in ways that reveal his kingdom. Our theology tells us that we’re made right in God’s eyes not by what we do but by what Jesus does for us in his death and resurrection, but with his ethical teaching he shows that following him isn’t just about what happens when you die. We have a calling in this world. How we live does make a difference. In particular how we share our blessings, especially our material blessings, makes a difference for others and for us.

We do get it. Jesus and Luke have made their point. But…do we get it enough to let it bother us?

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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