September 29, 2013
Year C, Proper 21, 19th Sunday after Pentecost
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
As promised, we continue to follow the lead of St. Luke in a long series on the moral hazards afforded us by the fact of our being material beings living in a material world. In particular, St. Luke is guided by Jesus Christ to bring to the fore the truth that wealth, or at the very least sinfully unequal distribution of wealth, that the growing chasm between the haves and have nots is fundamentally corrupting. Ontologically, eternally corrupting. This week, the lesson comes in the form of one of the lesser known parables, the parable of the Lazarus and the rich man.
This is a very simple story. There is a rich man, and deposited on his front porch is a very poor man named Lazarus. The rich man feasted, while right outside the poor man hungered, longing for crumbs from the rich man’s table. His only comfort was the attention of dogs who licked the sores that covered his body, while of course the rich man’s body was covered with purple and fine linen. Well, as these things happen, both the rich man and Lazarus die. Angels carry Lazarus up to heaven to be with Abraham, while the rich man is buried, and finds himself under torment in Hades. A little different than the purveyors of the prosperity gospel would have us believe as to the nature and fate of the wealthy, post mortem. I am just reporting our Savior’s words…
In his subterranean torment, the rich man sees Abraham and Lazarus far across a chasm, and begs, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool my tongue…” I don’t think treating Lazarus like a servant is going to help matters for the rich man; and he doesn’t even ask Lazarus for help, he asks Abraham to order Lazarus to help. And Abraham, he says, “no.” Then the rich man panics, at least, at least “send him to my fathers house – for I have five brothers – that he may warn them…” “No,” say Abraham. Finally, Abraham replies, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” The scene fades to black.
This parable is the end of a little diatribe Jesus launches at a group of Pharisees who are ridiculing him. Jesus rebukes these “lovers of money,” saying, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.” That is quite a set up for this sharp, even shrewd parable. So what is going on here? What is this parable about?
Obviously this is a piercing critique of the imbalance of wealth and the moral hazard that comprises a comfortable life. When we are comfortable it is much, much harder, on many, many levels for us to encounter the suffering of the other. Being well fed, many of us have never had the experience of going to bed hungry or waking up hungry with no idea where you would find food that day. Or not knowing where you will sleep tonight, or how you will get the car you depend on to get to work fixed, or what to do about that toothache because you can’t afford a dentist. And lacking that experience, we can’t fully appreciate the depth of the suffering. I don’t have those experiences and that makes it harder for me to appreciate or even notice the suffering we all see right here in Eugene. That interpretation is straight forward, is an accepted traditional reading of this parable, and is applicable to each and everyone one of us in this room. We may not be the 1% or the 10% here in the United States, but virtually all of us are in at least the top 5% globally, so our judgmental pointing fingers, well mine at least, had better point home, too. That is an overarching story here, the perils of wealth without responsibility.
But under the arc of the narrative is the heart of this parable, the immensely challenging question, how do we know what we are supposed to do? I mean really. Sometimes I don’t want to figure this out for myself. I want the whole truth and nothing but the truth, the undeniable truth, written on stone tablets by the hand of God kind of undeniable truth, but that is not how it works. That is what Jesus is saying through the voice of Abraham.
God is not going to send someone back from the dead to prove to us that x, y, or z is truly the will of God, well not very often, at least. And even when God does, there are those of us who still doubt in the way of Thomas. Even the true presence of God won’t necessarily convince, convict or transform our hearts or earthly behavior. Hear Abraham’s answer, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” This answer reminds us unequivocally that we live in a state of indeterminacy and ambiguity. Holy ambiguity perhaps, well, most definitely holy ambiguity, but ambiguity is the true state of things and that is about the least comfortable place for most of us to reside.
Who here wants answers? Who wants to know what is right and what is wrong? What to do and what not to do? What to invest in and what not to invest in? What to spend our money on and not spend our money on? Who wants to know with blessed assurance that the money we give to a person flying a sign at a street corner is going to be put to the life saving use the sign promises and not to the temporary relief of the sickness constantly looming over the heads of heroin addicts, meth addicts, alcoholics, whatever. Who wants that surety? We all do.
Wouldn’t you love a warning: “that career path will corrupt you eternally!” or the message, “you are wasting your time, and Mine,” sayeth the Lord. “Don’t buy that Monsanto stock, really, follow your heart there.” And don’t participate in that 403 (b) that purchases that stock, or that clergy pension group that invests in I have no idea what or our parish endowment that is similarly invested in unknown ways. About 1% of our budget is funded by a distribution from our endowment. Is that the karmic money laundering we spoke of last week? Will we put it to good use? Surely, but wouldn’t it be nice to know for sure what we are risking? And our annual stewardship campaign is launching, today. Don’t you want to be assured that the money you pledge to this community not only goes to pay the electric and phone bills and to keep me here, but is also putting your values into action? Your deep religiously formed values. We all want that kind of assurance, we all want at least some of that simplicity (well so long as the answers match our situations, right)? Of course we want it, but that is not the contract. That is not the covenant we have with God in Christ with the Holy Spirit. The Triune God will teach us, but it is up to us to decide what the lesson is, and what to take to heart and what to do and how to live our own lives. Maybe that is the consequence of our mythical feasting at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and our expulsion from Eden. We are separated from God in very real ways. It is up to us to reconnect, the invitation is there, freely given by grace alone. But how to read that invitation, let alone answer it, now there is the problem.
As one commentator puts it very plainly, “There is no act of communication that that rises above our finitude and our sinful penchant for self-serving misreadings. We are always located in the situation of hearing a word from another and trusting it – or not.” And what closes that gap? Faith. And what builds faith? Practice.
When we sit in private prayers, with our rosary, or a BCP saying Morning Prayer, or walking the labyrinth or thinking about your sick aunt at a stop light, we begin to span the chasm between us and God. When we gather here in corporate worship, our praying does shape our believing and our acting and our knowledge of God’s will. When you approach this table and receive the most precious body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, you encounter the eternal and actual presence of God, really, that is what it can feel like, sometimes. Sometimes when the moon is aligned just right and your blood sugars are on and you had enough but not too much coffee… that feeling of consolation you might feel is what resting in the arms of a loving God feels like. That feeling, that feeling of consolation and presence is a close as we get to the living God. And in those moments, those fleeting moments of encounter with the divine, you know what you are supposed to do. Your mind is calm, your body is relaxed, a smile is born on your lips and faith blossoms in your heart. Faith that you do know right from wrong. Faith that you do know, or that you can know the consequences of your actions, that you can notice, empathize with, even share in the suffering of the least of these in our midst, and that when your body, mind and spirit are open to the self-evident truths of the universe, you will be called to act, for others, with Love. That is what Jesus Christ promises, and it is, I am afraid, up to each of us to do that work. And all of this, church, the sacraments, the mystical body of Christ that we inhabit here together, all of it is to get us to the point that we get even a faint inkling of what God intends for us and the rest of it. We’ve got our work cut out for us. AMEN