September 25, 2016-Proper 21 (Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

September 9, 2016 | by Nichole Torbitzky

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Jeremiah 32:1-3a & 6-15 Psalm 91:1-6 & 14-16 1 Timothy 6:6-19 Luke 16:19-31 Amos 6:1a & 4-7 Psalm 146

Luke 16:19-31

This is the most vivid and detailed depiction of hell offered by Jesus.  I would suggest that we take this as we take any other parable: as a teaching story, rather than a detailed description of the afterlife. Once again, Jesus connects our eternal disposition with our ethical behavior in this life, particularly with how we steward our money in relation to the vulnerable. It may be interesting to note to your congregations that Jesus sees the gates of heaven as open to the righteous even before his death on the cross.  It may also be interesting to note that Lazarus is not depicted as a follower of Christ or even as a particularly righteous person.  He is taken into heaven because he has suffered so much in his earthly life.  It may be safe to assume that Lazarus is living as righteous a life as possible to a man in his position.  It has been made clear to us that the Rich Man has not been living as righteous a life as possible for a man in his position.

Even from hell, the Rich Man feels entitled and better than Lazarus.  The Rich Man calls from hell and doesn’t address Lazarus but instead address Abraham.  Even from hell, the Rich Man sees Lazarus as less-than.  He entreats Abraham to command Lazarus like a servant to be at his disposal.  Lazarus doesn’t get a voice in this parable, and perhaps that is best.  It would be difficult to feel empathy for a hypocritical Lazarus who, in his good fortune, refuses to ease the suffering of one in need.  Rather Abraham refuses for him, reminding the Rich Man about justice.  Lazarus suffered in this earthly life and his reward simply for suffering (not necessarily for living a righteous life) is eternal ease.  Implied in this exchange is not that the Rich Man deserves hell simply because he was rich, but because he misused his wealth.   The Rich Man deserved hell because he had the ability to help and did not

There is some deep justice in this passage that claims that our judgment will come based on what is possible for us in this life.  This is both a promise and a threat.   God will keep offering us the best possible and hoping that we take the opportunity to turn our little corner of the world toward the good we can manage.  This parable, in keeping with Luke’s major themes, is about justice and responsibility.  It claims that there will be justice on the grand scales of existence, and we have some say in just exactly where that justice will be meted out.  If we behave properly in this life then justice will be served here and in the hereafter.  If we don’t behave properly then justice will be done in the hereafter.  Justice done in this world benefits all of us here and eternally.  It is by far the better choice to behave with justice while we are still alive.  We can assume that if the Rich Man had behaved properly then he too would be in heaven.  But, since he did not, his eternal disposition is one of torment.  Justice will be served one way or another, so better to do it right in this life.

Once again, we have to ask about how salvation comes to humanity.  Does proper behavior earn our place in heaven with Abraham?   The answer doesn’t clearly line up with Protestant notions about unearnable salvation as a free gift.  Jesus clearly implies that selfish behavior in this life affects our place in eternity.  We can address this apparent contradiction with Jesus’ last line in this parable, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’  Salvation is indeed a free gift, but many, many people cannot accept that gift because they are too sure of their own abilities and the things of this world.  Not even a resurrection from the dead will convince them of their dependence on God.  It stands to reason that the Rich Man ends up in hell, but even there he has no idea that righteousness cannot be bought or commanded.  Instead salvation has to be a gift accepted.  In terms of salvation, we are like Lazarus, unable to help ourselves.  We must depend upon the grace of God.  Once we recognize that dependence, then the self-righteousness exhibited by the Rich Man should be replaced with a kind of living that transforms the world into a place where justice is achieved both here and in the hereafter. The Rich Man is in hell because he cannot accept the grace that means giving up our own righteousness and relying upon God and then living out that grace.

It is the living out the grace part that is central to this story.  Contrary to how Americans like to live our lives, our command from God is to care for the poor and vulnerable.  This simply cannot be ignored or spiritualized.  But it can be preached with grace,compassion and maybe even humor, because the majority of the people sitting in our pews have so much more in common with the Rich Man than they do with Lazarus.  Here is an old joke, but a favorite of mine that can help set the tone of the conversation.

There once was a rich man who was near death. He was very grieved because he had worked so hard for his money and he wanted to be able to take it with him to heaven. So he began to pray that he might be able to take some of his wealth with him.

An angel hears his plea and appears to him. “Sorry, but you can’t take your wealth with you.” The man begs the angel to speak to God to see if the rules could be bent.

The man continues to pray that his wealth could follow him. The angel reappears and informs the man that God has decided to allow him to take one suitcase with him. Overjoyed, the man gathers his largest suitcase and fills it with pure gold bars and places it beside his bed.

Soon afterward the man dies and shows up at the Gates of Heaven to greet St. Peter. St. Peter seeing the suitcase says, “Hold on, you can’t bring that in here!”

But, the man explains to St. Peter that he has permission and asks him to verify his story with the Lord. Sure enough, St. Peter checks and comes back saying, “You’re right. You are allowed one carry-on bag, but I’m supposed to check its contents before letting it through.”

St. Peter opens the suitcase to inspect the worldly items that the man found too precious to leave behind and exclaims, “You brought pavement?!!!”