18th Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 25
September 26, 2010
My friend Chris Kramer calls this story Yuck Theology. It is pretty yucky with the dogs licking the poor man’s sores and the poor man arriving stinking and infected in Abraham’s bosom while the rich man arrives in all his finery in Hell. Jesus is telling an apocalyptic story in which the results of what is happening today are extended into the future. The hope of apocalyptic stories is that people will wake from their blindness and change their ways so that a different future emerges instead. Who is supposed to hear this story? Luke has just described the Pharisees as lovers of money, and Jesus is really giving them a hard time.
In his lectures “How Lutherans Interpret the Bible,” Mark Allen Powell discusses social location as one of the tools of Biblical understanding and interpretation. Social location describes the position you hold in your culture: whether you are rich or poor, male or female, sick or healthy, employed or un or underemployed, etc. If you are rich, or at least comfortable, you will most likely hear this story differently than if you were scrabbling to make a living. The rich man is not a bad man. He might even be a wonderful husband and father. His error is his blindness. He does not even see the man right outside his gate who suffers. The crumbs from his comfort would have made a big difference to the man outside, but the unnamed rich man doesn’t even notice him. One of the things that captures my attention in this story is that the rich man is so used to having his way in the world that he is giving orders even from Hell. Lazarus is the one who is named in this tale, and the rich man orders him to come and wait on him.
If you were the outsider, the poor and outcast, you would hear this story with hope. Luke is the writer who gives us Mary’s song: the poor are lifted up and the rich are sent away empty. Jesus is singing the same song for us today. Is this what God’s kingdom looks like? I was reading Mary’s song while I was in Guatemala at Christmas time, surrounded by the indigenous poor. Society there is so divided between rich and poor that there truly is no closing the gap. As I read Mary’s words, my heart was stricken. In all the years since these stories were told, things have not changed a bit. The wealthy, the comfortable, the secure still act with impunity, giving tokens to the ‘needy’ while still building $82 million yachts for themselves.
Why is Jesus being so hard on these religious leaders? It is because he wants them. He wants them to recognize that it is not keeping the purity rules and scrupulously giving the amount required by the temple taxes that makes them God’s people. What makes them God’s people is that God loves them, and the reason that they have what they need is not because they are better than anyone else, it is that they have been blessed. Jesus wants them to wake up to the way that God’s people live – with generosity, welcoming all who come and making a way for all people to live.
Economics is a zero-sum game. If we are rich it is because someone else is poor. If we have food to spare it is because someone else has less than enough. God gives generously, so that God’s people can share their bounty so that all have enough. But God is not patient with those who grasp at their blessings, thinking they deserve them. God’s justice is the same as God’s righteousness. God expects us to be God at work in the world, bringing in the kingdom, a different economy. In God’s economy, the more you give, the more you receive. The final proof of that is the death and resurrection of Jesus, who gave his life to seal all the promises of new life for the whole world. It is on that cross that we see how far God is willing to go to change the world, and our hearts. It is in that resurrection that the new world has begun. We can live it now.
The only thing that prevents us from enjoying the new life which has been won for us is our own blindness and inability to trust that God’s economy is different than the system we are used to. Jesus wants those Pharisees to fall on their knees and bless God for such rich blessings. He wants them to turn from their self-satisfied rule-keeping and reach out to bring in the new world which is open to them. Who is supposed to hear this story? You decide for yourself.
And now may the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.