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Sermon for Sunday 29 September 2013

FIRST READING Amos 6:1a, 4–7

1a Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria, 4 Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; 5 who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; 6 who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! 7 Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.

PSALM Psalm 146

1 Hallelujah! Praise the LORD, O my soul!
2 I will praise the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.
3 Put not your trust in rulers, in mortals in whom there is no help.
4 When they breathe their last, they return to earth, and in that day their thoughts perish.
5 Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help, whose hope is in the LORD their God;
6 who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; who keeps promises forever;
7 who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger. The LORD sets the captive free.
8 The LORD opens the eyes of the blind; the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous.
9 The LORD cares for the stranger; the LORD sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked.
10 The LORD shall reign forever, your God, O Zion, throughout all generations. Hallelujah!

SECOND READING 1 Timothy 6:6–19

6 Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; 7 for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; 8 but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. 9 But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. 11 But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you 14 to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 which he will bring about at the right time — he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. 16 It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. 17 As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, 19 thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

GOSPEL Luke 16:19–31

19 There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house — 28 for I have five brothers — that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”


In 1994, on my second tour of the Middle East, I was stationed at King Abdul Aziz Airbase, in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The base was split into two parts; the maintenance area where the planes were located and the housing area some 5 or so miles away. The gated and guarded housing area, consisted of modern high-rise apartments, some were 6 stories high and some were 5 stories. Each building had four, five bedroom, three bath apartments per floor. It was by far the nicest Temporary duty accommodations I had during my Air Force career. We enjoyed a very nice dining facility and our laundry was taken care of by a service. By most standards we were treated like royalty, plenty of food, top quality housing and we were very well clothed. Outside this secure, gated complex was, for lack of a better term, a slum.
This blighted area housed third country nationals who came, or were brought, to Saudi Arabia to work, or in some cases, to serve the Saudis. Many of these TCNs, as we called them, were actually indentured servants. They were people from very poor nations who owed money to “employment agents” and had to work for many years, for little to nothing, to pay off their debt. These folks provided the manual labor in the country and were very poor; they were minimally clothed, poorly fed and had little in the way of shelter. Each evening I would take a walk around the perimeter fence and would see the folks sitting outside their shacks cooking their meager meals without even as much as a chair to sit on. For the most part they would squat around the door or cooking fires and spend their evenings. And to be honest, other than an occasional glance, I never really paid them much attention, nor did I ever stop and wonder about what they thought of me, inside my luxurious gated compound. Looking back on that experience it reminds me of the parable in our gospel lesson for this morning.
“There was a rich man,” said Jesus, “who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, the rich man looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony …”
As always, there are two types of people in the world. There are those who like surprises, and there are those who don’t. Those who don’t like surprises believe they have their lives all figured out and under their control. They’re confident in what they expect, and where they’re going. Those who love surprises look at life differently. They expect the unexpected. They live with purpose, but not necessarily with a plan. Jesus was both; He knew what was coming and He also loved surprises. The parables Jesus tells, especially in Luke’s gospel, time and time again, offer big surprises.
Consider first, the party-boy “prodigal son” who is welcomed back with open arms by his father, after squandering half of everything his father had ever earned. Next He tells the story of a cheating, scoundrel of a servant, a story we heard last week, who is praised by his employer for his cleverness. Now in this week’s gospel text, the final fates of a rich man and a poor beggar are revealed to be exactly the opposite of what Jesus’ audience would expect.
Presumably, Jesus had been speaking to His disciples throughout this section of Luke. But He’s also been addressing a secondary audience, a gathering of Pharisees who were listening in on His lessons, grumbling among themselves about His teachings (15:2), and finally, flat-out, “ridiculing” Him (16:14). Convinced of their own firm footing on the path to righteousness, these Pharisees had no doubt that they were among God’s favored ones. But Jesus surprises them with His parable of the “rich man and Lazarus” which reveals a huge sinkhole in that pathway of righteousness these Pharisees were traveling — a sinkhole that would forever separate them from a home in God’s kingdom.
Jesus begins today’s parable by describing the life and conditions of an impressively “rich man”. In church tradition, the Latin translation of the term “rich man” is “plousios,” translated as “dives,” and has become the “name” of this exceedingly wealthy man. But Jesus Himself doesn’t provide this man with a name. He does, however, provide plenty of other details about this individual; details that reveal just how highly privileged a life he lived.
For example, Dives wears “purple and fine linens,” the most expensive clothing possible. Purple cloth was not only extremely expensive to wear; it was also restricted in its use to those who were either royalty, or for those who had met with approval of the Roman government. Purple, then, was a sign of uber-wealth and super-power, among the chosen elite. At this point in Jesus’ story, a first-century hearer would have thought of the wealthiest person they could think of. For us, as 21st century hearers of Jesus’ story, we would think of people like Bill Gates, Donald Trump or the prince of Dubai.
This rich man’s feasting “every day,” suggests that he hosted formal banquets, a “fiesta,” on a daily basis. This was a truly outrageous extravagance, even among the “lifestyles of the rich and famous.” Additionally, Jesus also notes that this rich man had his own “gate.” As with the wealthy today, this man lived inside the security and safety of a gated compound. His living space was out-of-sight and off-limits to anyone but those he expressly admitted. For one as wealthy as this purple-robed glutton, the “gate” served as the entrance to his private world, and it would have certainly been grand and opulent. While we have no way of knowing how large or deep this gateway might have been, it was certainly more than a mere hole-in-the-wall. It would be reasonable to expect that there would have been a sentry’s room, as well as stables for visitor’s horses and chariots. Apparently there were dogs as well, perhaps guard dogs who served as guardians of that gateway.
Next, Jesus reveals that also within this gate, there was a poor man. As with the rich man, the plight of this poor man is outlined in detail. He’s described as lying down within this gate, which suggests he may have been crippled in some way and was unable to sit up or stand. His condition apparently makes it impossible for him to work or even actively beg, so he’s hungry. His body is covered with sores, open, oozing wounds that invited the resident dogs to lick at them. It had to have been a gross sight for all the “movers and shakers” who daily passed through the gate.
Yet this obviously indigent outcast, an individual who would have been declared “unclean” and so ostracized from any social contacts, is given a name by Jesus — Lazarus. Interestingly, he’s the only individual in all of Jesus’ parables who is identified by a name. It’s a name that means “God helps,” and it’s also the name that’s shared with a man who was a close friend Jesus, Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary.
The first century Pharisees, hearing this parable, would have been shocked by how the fates of these two individuals eventually ended up. But there’s also a “surprise” for us twenty-first century readers who think we know this story. For us, it’s hard not to hear centuries of commentary “experts” condemn the bad old rich “Dives” for his mistreatment of poor Lazarus. However, interpreting this story this way is a misreading of the parable’s portrayal of the rich man.
Despite his obvious wealth and status, when Dives has an unclean, crippled, indigent man dumped at his gate, he doesn’t call the local authorities or kick him to the curb. Instead the rich man allows this destitute, visually repulsive outcast to reside in the gateway to his elegant estate. Dives provided the equivalence of a “homeless shelter” for Lazarus at the very entrance to his own home. This sheltering of Lazarus can be seen as kindness and was a real surprise to those listening that day.
I wonder how many indigents, drug addicts, pan-handlers or mentally disturbed people, do you think are allowed to take up “residence” at the entrance ways to the private homes of Bill Gates, Donald Trump or the Prince of Dubai? The answer isn’t shocking: zero. If anyone of these ever showed up, it would only take one call to security and the problem would be solved. Any “suspicious” characters would immediately be booted as fast and as far as possible. The same was true in the first century; but not for “Dives.” In his own way, he showed a level of compassion.
But what about those of us who aren’t among the rich and famous? How many of us would let a homeless person, ill and dirty, sleep in our driveways night after night? Or more accurately, take up residence in our carports or garages? That’s in essence what “Dives” did. His high-class guests, coming through his gate to attend his daily banquets, had to ride or walk past the puss-oozing Lazarus. Instead of rose blossoms and swans, as they entered into his private estate, Dives’ guests got the presence of a crippled beggar with putrid, oozing sores. According to first century thinking, this was doing something. It was seen as a gift. It was an act of charity and consideration. But that — Jesus insisted — to the surprise of those listening, still wasn’t enough. Lazarus understandably “longed to dine on the sumptuous food served up at the rich man’s tables.” And this leads us to another possible misunderstanding or misinterpretation of this parable.
Most commentators argue that Dives let Lazarus starve. But that’s not what the text says. The text doesn’t say he starved to death. The gateway where Lazarus resided was the place of comings-and-goings. It had people in and out all day and night. It had dogs that felt cared for enough to stick around — all conditions that suggest the presence of food, meager as it might have been, that would have been available to Lazarus. By first century standards, the rich man was doing more for Lazarus than any of the hearers of the story would’ve done.
For the Pharisees who were listening to and then publically ridiculing Jesus’ teaching, this was an unexpected assault upon their Torah-minded righteousness. “Dives,” this “rich man,” wasn’t behaving badly. He was doing “good,” according to the letter of the Law. And accordingly to the divine bookkeeping that these critics of Jesus kept, the very fact that the rich man was blessed with wealth and social acceptance, as well as with comfort and power, were all tangible signs of God’s approval and acceptance, both of his life and life-style. The fact that Lazarus was poor, wasn’t understood as a judgment. However, his physical disabilities were calculated as an indictment. Illness and infirmity were seen as signs of God’s judgment.
In the first century, any type of skin disease was grouped into the general category of “leprosy” — and as a “leper,” anyone suffering from a skin ailment was deemed ritually, socially, and personally “unclean.” Yet “Dives” let Lazarus reside at the gateway to his home. At that location, Lazarus wasn’t only an unpleasant “first impression,” he was also a potential source of serious ritual pollution for any of the rich man’s daily guests. Yet despite all that the rich man did for Lazarus, the end result remains the same. He finds himself in hell.
According to the parable, both men die and their fates demonstrate the great reversal of expectations and values that Jesus had been teaching. Lazarus dies and is transported by angelic beings to the “bosom of Abraham” — that is, to a position of heavenly security, nurture, and love. The rich man dies and is “buried”, but he finds himself in Hades. Flame-broiled and thirsty, the rich man still doesn’t “get it.” Seeing Abraham, he calls to “send Lazarus” to serve him, to bring him water, as though his elevated status in this world still brought him some privileges in his new fiery residence.
To this request, Abraham gives the rich man a harsh reality check. The “rich man” in Jesus’ parable didn’t end up outside of heaven because of disrespect, but because of neglect. The “rich man” provided charity — a safe place to be, some protection, maybe an occasional scrap of food or coin. But the rich man didn’t offer any of himself to Lazarus. The wealth and status he enjoyed in this world is gone. There is no back-and-forth access between the fires of Hades and the comforts of heaven. The earthly roles of the rich man and Lazarus have been totally reversed. As this realization sinks in, the rich man makes one more request — again still thinking his opinion holds some power and still thinking that Lazarus is some low-level lackey who can be ordered about, he asks that Lazarus be sent to his family. Although his request concerns the welfare of others, his five brothers, his plea for a special heavenly messenger is rejected.
Abraham refuses to put the siblings of the rich man into any special category. Like all of Israel, they have “Moses and the prophets” to show them what they should do and how they should relate to the world. In words that foreshadow His own resurrection, Jesus’ parable ends with the assertion that “even if someone rises from the dead” those who do not hear and obey God’s word, will not be convinced to change their ways.
Jesus’ parable in this week’s gospel text is almost too familiar for our ears to hear the real challenge that it offers. It’s easy to read about a rich, self-absorbed, politically important man who’s so involved in his own life, so busy orchestrating his own pleasures and perks, that he completely ignores the plight of Lazarus, a man who falls inside his gate, but far outside his pay-grade.
But that’s not the shock-treatment that Jesus’ parable is administering. The Pharisees to whom Jesus was speaking wouldn’t be surprised that a wealthy man who totally rejected laws of alms-giving and care for the poor ended up in the hot-house of Hades. The righteous minded, Torah toeing, jot-and-tittle crossing Pharisees would have seen that as completely acceptable. So Jesus doesn’t portray some ultimate “bad guy” tossing poor Lazarus to the curb. Instead Jesus offered a picture of first-century, socially acceptable compassion, extended by this extremely wealthy man, to an incredibly unacceptable person.
Jesus’ parable is far more challenging and surprising than the story of a rich man who shirks his duty to give alms. Jesus’ parable is an arrow to the heart of all of us who would prefer to offer a handful of change or a convenient check, instead of inviting those who are “unclean,” uncared for, unclaimed, unwanted, under-used — to truly join us at our table, as members of our own family. It’s a real challenge to our modern perception of how we look at and deal with those less fortunate. And there’s one more thing.
We shouldn’t expect any special message or messenger to come down and point out to us when we should offer a saving hand. “Dives’” fives brothers didn’t get that. No one else does either. However, we have something better. We have the truth of the Scriptures, and the Story-made-flesh. We have Someone who has come back from the grave. And that Someone, is telling us that we need to do more than simply toss a few coins in the beggar’s cup or write a check. Both are important, but we also need to be personally involved in the needs of others. We need to be in a relationship. After all, those in need living right outside our gates, are our brothers and sisters, children of our heavenly Father and He cares as much for them as he cares for us. So, who’s laying outside our gates and what are we doing about it?

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