Sunday, September 30, 2007

Year C: Proper 21 (30 September 2007)

Luke 16:19-31
Amos 6:1-7

Out of all the parables of Jesus, perhaps only that of the Prodigal Son is more graphic, more compelling, than this story of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man is not simply well-to-do, not merely “comfortable.” He is what we can justifiably call “filthy rich.” If he were living today, he would live in an estate with a high wall around it, wear only designer suits and imported shoes, and retain a five-star quality chef on his staff. And Lazarus is not merely “less fortunate,” he is the poorest of the poor. He sleeps in the gutter outside the gate of the rich man’s house. He would consider it a luxury to be fed scraps from the rich man’s table. His body is covered with lesions that are forever attracting stray dogs who find a perverse pleasure in licking them. One cannot imagine a more extreme disparity between the living conditions of two human beings.

In time, both the Lazarus and the rich man die. The disparity between them continues, but they trade places! Lazarus is carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham, which in the symbolic vocabulary of first century Judaism, is about as good as it gets. One could not ask for a greater honor or blessing. The rich man, by contrast, isn’t carried anywhere by anyone, he simply “dies,” and finds himself in Hades, which is a term from Greek mythology that signifies the generic abode of the dead. Traditionally, it’s not a place of particular suffering, but in the rich mans’ case it seems to be so, because he’s very hot and very thirsty!

Now, when we listen to a parable, there is usually an implied invitation to identify with one of the characters. So, which one of these characters do we wish to identify with? Well, by the standards of most of the world, most of us are pretty well off. But, to my knowledge, nobody in this parish enjoys a lifestyle remotely resembling the rich man in this parable. At any rate, he’s the “bad guy” in the story, so we wouldn’t be too crazy about being painted with the same brush anyway. How about Lazarus, then? He’s certainly the good guy, and it would be an honor to be seen in his company. But, come on now. None of us are that poor, nor are we likely to even know anybody that poor. If we can’t identify with Lazarus in his poverty, then, we surely don’t get to identify with him in the bosom of Abraham.

The cast of characters is shrinking. Abraham is still left, but that’s even more of a stretch than Lazarus or the rich man. Who does that leave, then? It leaves the five brothers of the rich man. When it becomes clear that he isn’t going to persuade Abraham to relieve his own suffering, the rich man intercedes on behalf of his five brothers who are still alive. He wants Abraham to send Lazarus back to the land of the living as a messenger, to warn his brothers to change their ways, to not make the same mistakes he made, so as to not end up where he ended up. Abraham denies this petition, replying that they already have all the warning they need in the Law and the Prophets, and even if somebody came back from the dead, that would not be likely to influence them.

But whether Lazarus warns them or not, what is it that the rich man wants his brothers to do? What is their task? Their task is simple—not easy, perhaps, but simple—that is: Repent. Change their ways. Live differently. Do whatever it takes to not suffer the same fate that has befallen him. It’s these five brothers who represent you and me in this parable; they are the ones we are invited to identify ourselves with. It’s still not too late for us. We can still do things in this world that will have a positive effect on our quality-of-life in the next. The task of the five brothers is also our task! Repent. Don’t make the same mistake the rich man made. Don’t end up where he ended up.

Repent. OK . . . repent of what? We need some more specific information here. What is it exactly that we are supposed to change? The answer, once again, is simple, though not easy. We are to repent of the improper use of money. And why is this so important? It’s important for the same reasons, and to the same extent, that faith is important. What Jesus is, in effect, trying to tell us in this parable is that the way we use our money is a primary sign of the quality of our faith. We might even say that the way we use our money is a “litmus test” of the quality of our faith. Anyone who’s taken high school chemistry has probably handled a piece of litmus paper, which immediately reveals the pH balance in any fluid into which it is dipped. The expression “litmus test” has become a figure of speech which indicates a conclusive, definitive revelation of who a person is or where a person stands. The way we use the money that has been entrusted to us is a “litmus test” of our honesty in our relationship with God. The word “faith” in the New Testament is an all-encompassing word. It isn’t just a matter of mental agreement with a doctrinal statement. It’s about the whole disposition of our lives—in heart, mind, body, and soul. To have faith in God is to be completely oriented toward God, without qualification or reservation. We can say we have faith, we can even feel that we have faith, but if we use money poorly, our profession of faith can be legitimately called into question. We need to examine how honest we are being, with ourselves and with God.

Now, I want to first be clear that it’s not a sin to have money, or material goods, or whatever it is we have, presuming we didn’t come by it dishonorably, that it isn’t the fruit of crime or shameless exploitation. But it is a sin not to use what we have as responsible stewards. The rich man of Jesus’ parable, in his first century “gated community,” had no notion of stewardship. He labored under the delusion that his money was … well … his money, his to do with as he saw fit, which in his case meant a lifestyle of lavish and decadent and self-indulgent consumption. You know, nothing is said about his ever being deliberately cruel to or scornful of Lazarus. The fact is, he was probably so self-absorbed that he never even noticed Lazarus being licked by dogs outside the walls of his estate. This is the sort of complacent ignorance that the Old Testament prophet Amos rails against when he goes on a tirade over those in his day who lived like the rich man of Jesus’ parable:

Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat lambs from the flock . . . who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp . . . who drink wine in bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of [their nation.]”

Once again, Amos is not describing people who are consciously or intentionally cruel. In fact, they may be people whom we would readily describe as “nice,” and be great conversation at a dinner party. But they are self-absorbed and self-indulgent. They see themselves as existing in a universe of their own, without any relationship to the larger fabric of society. They are not stewards at all. They are, in fact, squatters on God’s property. Amos’ warning through his prophetic ranting, and Jesus’ warning through his compelling parable, is that the eviction notice has been served and the sheriff is on his way.

A responsible steward, on the other hand, recognizes that the material and the spiritual are connected; there is no part of our life that is “secular,” there is no part of life that is outside the realm of God’s concern. One of the collects for Morning Prayer contains language that reminds us that “we are ever walking in [God’s] sight.” I think this is primarily meant to be comforting—whatever happens to us, God is watching over us. But it’s also a bit of a warning, isn’t it? Beware of trying to domesticate God, to housebreak Him, to keep Him in a box. God will not be tamed, and He demands the run of the house!

As good stewards, we recognize that we don’t own anything, in the last analysis. Words that are very familiar to most Anglicans speak this truth more clearly than anything else I might say: “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” Mark that well: “Of thine own have we given thee.” It was never ours in the first place. And this is not a completely foreign concept. We’re familiar with the legal principle of eminent domain—that is, the right of the public, acting through duly authorized processes, to require the sale of private property when it is deemed to be in the best interests of the public. Ownership, even in the secular realm, is conditional. And in the kingdom of God, it doesn’t even exist—God alone is an owner!

A good steward also recognizes that we live in a web of interdependent and mutually accountable relationships. The seventeenth century Anglican priest and poet John Donne is remembered by generations of high school English literature students for his poem which contains the lines “No man is an island, entire of itself … Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” We are connected to one another by the bonds of our common humanity. The rich man in Jesus’ parable, and the rich Israelites in Amos’ day, failed to see this connection, and that was their undoing. They thought they could hide behind their iron gates and high walls and security systems, and insulate themselves from the rest of the human community. They thought wrong, and regretted their mistake. It was too late for the rich man. It wasn’t yet too late for his brothers. It isn’t yet too late for us. There is yet time for us to become stewards.

When we are good stewards, our faith has credibility. Our witness as Christians in the world has credibility and power. We are more integrated and whole within ourselves. And if all that is not enough, we have the Christian equivalent of the “bosom of Abraham” to look forward to: Being a joint-heir with the one who sits at the right hand of God. It doesn’t get any better than that. Amen.

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