Finding a way home...
Luke 16:13, 19-31
13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’
19 ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He 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.” 25But 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. 26Besides 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.” 27He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” 29Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” 30He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” 31He 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.” ’
32Then there was a discussion at Abraham's table. Some folk thought the man who had been rich was not thrown down close enough to the fires. They wanted him moved, more punishment was deserved. They listed off the evils he had done to gain his fortune. In that strange dimension in which he existed, even though he was far off across the chasm, the rich man could hear every word.
He was appalled. Not because of the hatred. Not because of the threat of more fire, but because he saw, at last, who he had been, and what he had done. It was all true. He should be closer to the fire; it was obvious, now.
Then Lazarus, who was next to Abraham, spoke. "We should leave him alone. Revenge will only damage us. Anyway, for all his faults, he had mercy on me. When his manager suggested they drag me off and toss me in the creek, he let me stay lying at his gate."
The man who had been rich felt a moment where it seemed all the fire was replaced with clean, cool air, but in that same moment... was moved with the deepest shame. He'd let Lazarus stay there, because dumping him in the creek to die wouldn't have been a good look. He'd said as much in front of Lazarus as he stood there with the manager looking down on him.
And yet here was Lazarus, forgiving him, and speaking up for him. For the first time in many years he said, "Thank you," and meant it.
Curiously, at just that moment, he noticed a faint path leading off through the fumes in the direction of Abraham's table. Somehow— impossibly— it seemed to bridge the chasm! What could it hurt to follow? He limped off along the little track, barely able to see his way. And found, lying across his path, a man who had once taken him down in a business deal, someone he had hated. The man lay groaning in pain.
The rich man almost turned back, but then remembered Lazarus, and his love. "Let me help you," he said, and the path grew plainer and wider. In the days which followed, he realised the chasm had all been of his own making. He was on the way home to Father Abraham.
The Sermon Draft
In today's reading Jesus and Luke are talking about issues which we can only imagine and guess at— such as what happens when we die. They are also talking about issues which we know very well— such as building chasms between each other. That mixture doesn't make for an easy sermon.
And it's made harder for us to hear what Jesus is saying, because he uses a folk tale to make his point, but we often take it literally.
The rich man being tormented in the fires of Hades is a popular illustration rather similar to the ones we use today about The Pearly Gates. But people often take it literally. People really think God is the sort of inferior, not-really-god kind of god, who will burn people for all eternity. Numbers of folk have shared their fears and distress with me, over the years, that their child or their husband is suffering in hell.
If that is what we hear in his story, then we are likely to shape our lives around avoiding punishment. But what the gospel is about... is discovering that we are loved, and discovering the even deeper joy that we can love, too. The gospel is not about punishment or avoiding punishment.
God does not punish us. That's the way people experienced and interpreted their life in the past, and the Old Testament bears witness to that feeling; it's full of punishment. What the Holy Spirit is slowly teaching us through the life and stories of Jesus, is that we punish us. We bring ill fortune upon ourselves. It's the humans who do the punishing, not God. God wishes only to bring us to completion and fullness. God loves us.
Do you notice in the story of the loving, forgiving father— the one we mislabel as the Prodigal Son— that the father never punishes either son? Both sons suffer, and it's all their own work. They manufacture their own little hells.
The nature of God was well summed up by Eugene Petersen whose Bible translation, The Message, some of us use. His son said at his funeral,
For 50 years you steal into my room at night and whispered softly to my sleeping head. It's the same message over and over:
'God loves you. He's on your side. He's coming after you. He's relentless.'
God never gives up on us. God will find a way to bring us to heaven.
The trouble is that the rich man thought he was bound for heaven. He assumed his riches meant he was blessed by God. He trusted his riches instead of trusting God and being faithful to the way God calls us to live. So he looked down on Lazarus. He thought Lazarus was worthless, and bound for Hades.
When they both died, the rich man found himself in the middle of one of the great reversals in Luke's gospel. The pursuit of riches— what 1 Timothy calls "the love of money [which] is a root of all kinds of evil" separates us from God. Money does not guarantee God's blessing, and it is not a sign of God's blessing. That is an absolute reversal of how many of the religious people of Jesus' time were thinking. And if you think about it, it's how we base our society today. We even have preachers who claim that if we are faithful, God will bless us with more money and possessions, which is a heresy.
But the rich man discovered that God loves all people just the same: even Lazarus. Even Lazarus gets to be with Father Abraham. But if God loves all people just the same, why was the rich man in Hades instead of with Abraham, too?
It's not that God rejects us when we get focussed on being rich and saving ourselves. It's that we walk away. Look at the younger son: His request for half the farm meant, culturally, that he wished his dad was dead; it was a disgraceful and shameless request. And this request meant, practically, that his father and the family might starve, because they now only had half a farm to live off. Did the father reject him or punish him? No, the younger son walked away from the father. And the father, far from rejecting him, waited for him, and ran to welcome him, when he finally came to his senses, and came home.
This is how the rich man walked away from his father, Abraham. This is how he manufactured a hell for himself: he treated Lazarus as an object. Lazarus was someone to be used. Use Lazarus to bring me water. I suspect he kept him at the gate as a contrast: See how rich I am compared to this miserable sinner!
The rich man found his purpose for being... in money, not in relating to people as people who were loved by God just as much as he was loved. He thought his fortune lay in getting more money rather than in giving and loving.
This is the sort of world which has formed... us. We are all infected. Rich means better in our world. Let's try a thought experiment. We've been out for a walk and we've fallen down on a lonely footpath in the Linear Park just near Riverway. No one in the houses across the street has been able to hear us, but finally a car pulls up. Someone has seen us, and gets out and comes towards us in the dim light of the street lamps.
What would you rather have? A BMW and a man in a suit, or a worn out old Holden with a skinny bloke in torn clothes? Would one of these feel like salvation at hand and the other one be an occasion for fear? There's no right or wrong answer here, but what does your heart say to you?
I have to confess... even now... that I'd be more relaxed with the BMW... ... but when we lived in Whyalla, there were advertisements in the paper showing a handsome bloke in a suit leaning against his BMW. The title said, "Successful business man, wife abuser." My police officer friend used to get very fierce about these ads. She said, "Everyone talks about the domestic violence and crime in Whyalla. But in Unley the DV is just the same; it's just behind closed doors."
We measure people by their wealth. We apply stereotypes. Someone was complaining about the Muslims in my suburb. I said, "If I fall down and break my ankle walking the dog one night, I hope it's some of those Muslim folk who find me and not some the Anglos around here." I was being just as much a stereotyper of people as the person I was talking to.
When we do this... when we stereotype and use people, instead of treating them as people, we do something else. And we especially do it when we link peoples' worth to money and wealth. We turn away from God. We walk away. We dig a chasm. We begin to cut ourselves off from the love of God.
God keeps loving us. God keeps waiting for us. God keeps pursuing us. But goodness... don't we make it hard for ourselves?
Every time I get rid of a little bit of prejudice, and every time I am generous, instead of hoarding my money... it slowly lets me fill in the chasm and let God love me. As Jesus said, a bit before this reading, "We cannot serve God and Mammon." He didn't say it to threaten us or punish us. He said it because he loves us and wants us to experience more of that love.
God loves you. God wants good for you. God will not abandon you. Love others and the path to God will become clear. Amen.
Andrew Prior (2019)