Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Loving God for God's Own Sake

Theology for Ministry Conference
Fair Hills Resort, Detroit Lakes, MN
September 20, 2016
Luke 16:19-31


In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Persons pondering this parable have noticed that the rich man starts showing signs of being human only after he is dead.

In life, the rich man dwells aloof in regal splendor, described here with such an economy of words.   Dressed-to-the-nines, it’s as if the rich man has taken up residence at the Old Country Buffet, each and every day.

In life, so it seems, the rich man has no awareness of the beggar who is always there, lying at his gate, a man so famished that he even craved crumbs from the sweepings in the rich man’s dining room.
It is no surprise that the rich man likely had no direct dealings with the beggar who certainly must have been unclean--both hygienically and religiously--his only companions the feral mutts that roamed the neighborhood. 

One of the wondrous things that wealth can purchase, after all, is distance from beggars and other assorted riff raff….protection from their blank stares, their plaintive hands, their distasteful odor.

Only in death, does the rich man notice the beggar, lolling in the embrace of Father Abraham….and even more surprisingly only in death do we learn that the rich man actually did know the beggar’s name after all:  Lazarus, which means “God helps.”

But there is more. 

Only in death, does the rich man display concern for anyone other than himself.   He remembers the survivors listed in his funeral bulletin, the five siblings he had left behind him.  The rich man expresses urgent concern—not once, but twice—that they avoid the woeful fate that has befallen him.

How ironic, that the rich man starts evidencing signs of his shared humanity with others, only after his heart has taken its final beat. 

Perhaps this is simply an instance of what Benjamin Franklin described when he said:  Life's tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late.[1]

Is that what’s going on here in this parable—was the rich man simply “old too soon”—no, actually, “dead too soon and wise too late?” 

Maybe—or maybe not!

Look with me more closely at this parable.  

Yes, the rich man, tormented in Hades, does finally notice and name Lazarus—but to what end?     The rich man, far from acknowledging Lazarus as his equal, perhaps even his better, still regards Lazarus as someone beneath him….a lackey, an errand boy, whom the rich man requests Father Abraham to send forth—three times, no less!—to do the rich man’s bidding.

Even in death, the rich man still doesn’t truly recognize, doesn’t genuinely acknowledge Lazarus as a fellow child of Abraham.

And yes, the rich man, in his dire straits does finally remember his siblings who are still in their earthly pilgrimage—but what does he think they need the most?

By asking Abraham to dispatch Lazarus back from the grave into the world to “warn” his surviving siblings, lest they “come into this place of torment”—the only conclusion I can draw is that the rich man wants to have Lazarus return from his grave to scare the hell out of them before it’s too late.  

It’s as if the rich man envisions Lazarus, perhaps clad in heavy clanking chains, like the ghost of Jacob Marley in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol—a spook from the other side, sent to frighten the rich man’s siblings into doing the right thing before they, too, go down to the grave. 
In other words, for the rich man in Hades, the only thing that seems to count is raw, naked, self-interest.   Salvation is about saving one’s own skin at any cost.

And in this regard the rich man is still light years away from the Kingdom of God.   Father Abraham is correct:  there is indeed a chasma mega—a mega-chasm between Hades and the Kingdom of God.

Perhaps you have heard the old story about Saint Teresa [of Avila who] once dreamed she saw a woman running, carrying a flaming torch in one hand, and a pail of water in the other.   When Teresa asked the woman where she was going, she answered, “I am going to quench the fires of hell and burn down the mansions of heaven so that people will love God for God’s own sake, not because they fear punishment or seek reward.”[2]

This kernel of truth in St Teresa’s vision shines through in the final verse of our parable, where Father Abraham seeks to redirect the rich man’s too-late concern for his siblings:   “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead."

In other words:   the five surviving siblings of the rich man don’t need to experience an apparition from the other side of death.    They already have something far better—indeed they have always had safely within their grasp—all that they need to live the life God always imagined for them, in this world and in the world to come.   In short:  they have God’s own precious Word, right in their laps.

My dear friends, the conclusion of this parable draws us to what we most need to hear:    God has zero, absolutely zero interest in scaring anyone through the Pearly Gates.    What God does care about—passionately!--is drawing us, wheedling and wooing us into the only life worth living, in the Word that God graciously lavishes upon all who have ears to hear.

“They have Moses and the prophets,” as Father Abraham puts it.    Which is to say:  they have more than enough.

The five siblings have God’s own Word, right before their eyes, in their ears.

They’ve heard about God’s amazing, gracious creation of the earth, all its inhabitants and everything that exists.

They have the astounding saga of God’s liberation of his treasured people Israel.

They have been regaled by the tales of how God continually provided for his chosen people, with manna from heaven, water from the rock, a pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night, leading, always leading Israel from slavery into freedom, from the gloomy hall of death into the glorious sunshine of the Promised Land, “the clothes on [their backs] not worn out, and the sandals on [their] feet not worn out…”  (Deut. 29:5)

The rich man’s five siblings already have “Moses and the prophets,” God’s cascading promises, opening up that wide, broad place where peace and justice dwell, where the lion lies down with the lamb, where they’ll never be abandoned in their beggarliness.

The rich man’s sole survivors already have all the juicy stuff, plopped down right in their laps.   

They’ve gotten the message straight from God:
 Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
   I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
   and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire—did you catch that?—when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
   and the flame shall not consume you.  (Isaiah 43)

The rich man was indeed “dead too soon and wise too late,” because here he had always had all he ever needed, with Lazarus at the gate and “Moses and the prophets” right under his nose, always beckoning, enticing him into God’s own abundant, unending life.

There’s no magic formula here.  God has made it plain as the nose on your face:
 Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?
 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
   and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
   the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
   you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”   (Isaiah 58:6-9a)

The five surviving siblings of the rich man already had anything their hearts could desire.   They had “Moses and the prophets…”

….and in fact, you and I have even more:  because we have the rest of the story, the Gospels and the epistles and everything else….

And just to leave no stone unturned, this Word has taken on flesh and bone and lived among us.  We have Someone—Jesus!--who did in fact die, descend to the dead and then return from the grave, not to scare the bejeebers out of us but always, always, always to meet us with the sweetest of greetings:  “Shalom!  Peace be with you!   Now and forever.”

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.




[1] http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/b/benjaminfr132004.html
[2] Quoted by Alyce M. McKenzie, Matthew, Westminster John Knox, 2002, p. 41.

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