Reversal of Fortunes
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 16:19-31
I can tell you that, when I was a young adult in seminary, Luke was my favorite gospel. But perhaps I should also mention that, in that season of my life – aside from my twin bed, a dresser, and an old family rocking chair – I could fit all of my worldly belongings in the hatch of my Pontiac T-1000, including my 1960’s Smith Corona typewriter that had served my father well in his seminary days two decades prior. Now, just to be clear about my age, there were computers when I went to seminary. They were just beyond my budget. Today, however, I wouldn’t stand much chance of success if I tried to pack up my life into the hatch of my Honda Fit.
Luke has long been referred to as the gospel of the least, the last, and the lost. It is a gospel for the down-trodden and it directs some pretty harsh words toward the wealthy. Now, while few of us in the sanctuary this morning would consider ourselves wealthy, in 2011 Pew Research revealed that 88% of Americans qualified as either upper-middle income or high income when viewed on a global scale and that very fact ought to give us reason to approach this parable with humility, or even some nervous apprehension. We’re blessed to live in a prosperous nation and it’s very easy for us to forget that even things as basic as three meals a day, a refrigerator, clean water, or a bed to crawl into at day’s end is beyond the reach of many people… refugees from the Middle East; victims of tribal warfare on the African continent, victims of political oppression in Central and Southern American.
Now, before I break open this parable and we dig down into the meat of it, it’s helpful for me to review a little of last week’s sermon which was also a story from Luke’s gospel. Last Sunday, I preached the scripture about Jesus healing ten lepers. I shared the story of the puppy Britt and I had found in the street and I pointed out that that story elevates another theme, a related theme, in Luke’s gospel: mercy. I noted the fact that acts of mercy (such as Jesus healing those lepers) are the outward expression of compassion (a feeling deep in our guts; a kind of visceral reaction to the suffering of another). And last week I spoke of generosity as the outward expression of inward feelings of gratitude for the mercy God has shown us.
So let me repeat that, succinctly, one more time: Our God is a merciful God who responds to our needs because God feels compassion for us. And the compassionate mercy of God in our lives should evoke feelings of gratitude expressed through generosity toward others.
But that is not what occurs in this morning’s parable. It is the story of a rich man and a poor man. Now, the rich man is clothed in purple robes. Purple was a very expensive dye worn only by royalty and the wealthy. Furthermore, this man gorges himself at a sumptuous feast on a daily basis. He appears to live a life of indulgence, gluttony and ease. The parable’s second character is a poor man whose name is Lazarus. It might interest you to know that, among Jesus’ many parables, this is the only instance in which a character is given a proper name. And, his name is significant. It gives a foreshadowing of what's to come. His name means "God Helps."
Now Lazarus is a street person. Our English translation is inadequate when we are told he “lay” at the rich man’s gates. In fact, Lazarus was dumped at the gate. The Greek verb means, “to throw or let go of something without caring where it falls.”[i] Thus Lazarus is, most likely, lame and someone has deposited him in this location with about as much regard as I give when I toss a bag of trash into a dumpster. Now, it’s important for us to realize that the label “poor” was utilized somewhat differently in the ancient Mediterranean world. In Jesus’ culture, the vast majority of people would have been designated poor by strict economic standards; they were peasants. But, according to Bruce Malina, a bible scholar and cultural anthropologist, the “poor” were, more specifically, those unable to maintain their “place” in society.[ii] Remember that the Mediterranean world is a communal culture and things like disease isolated people and removed them from their place in society thus removing them from their support structure. Now, that is not to say that pure economic suffering was insignificant; it was most certainly a concern and a focus of Jesus’ ministry, his teaching and healing. But it is also to say that the suffering of Lazarus – as the parable notes – goes far beyond economics. His skin has open sores and the fact that he is dropped at the gate indicates he was likely lame. Lazarus is – in every regard – a person desperate for mercy. Someone ought to have felt compassion for him and acted out that compassion through tangible acts of mercy. And yet, there he lies: desperate, hungry and alone.
As the parable continues, both men soon die. That would come as no surprise. After all, living on the street takes years off your life. And, over-indulgence, regularly gorging oneself on rich, fatty foods, is a heart attack waiting to happen. This rich man’s lifestyle brings to mind our modern cliché about “partying like a rock star.”
But what awaits each man in death is the “zinger” of the parable, one might say. The rich man finds himself in Hades being tormented by fire. The poor man, however, is whisked away to the bosom of Abraham. His physical posture is described so as to reflect the position of greatest honor at a banquet, just to the right of the host. This is quite the turn of events. And, the rich man is, understandably, distressed. Before death, he lived a life of ease, where others catered to his every want and need. Apparently in death, he still expects to be catered to. He wants Abraham to send Lazarus to be his water boy and cool his parched tongue. And, if that can’t happen, then send Lazarus as his errand boy to warn his siblings of the wrath to come.
Our parable presents a disturbing role reversal. Because the rich man had it easy in his earthly life, he faces an eternity of painful suffering. And, because Lazarus spent his earthly life in want and suffering, death brings him eternal comfort and consolation. So what are we – my fellow Americans deemed wealthy on the global stage – what are we to make of this very unsettling story?
Well, perhaps you’ve noticed that I have yet to address the presence of our parable’s third character, Abraham. Father Abraham was Judaism’s great patriarch. In fact, for Jews, Christians, and Muslims through the centuries, the status as Abraham’s heirs is a treasured role. And yet, as the apostle Paul so frequently reminds, it is not an identity to be taken for granted or assumed. It is not simple genetics that cement our place in the family. And, like Paul, Luke’s gospel also drives that message home. Early in Luke, John the Baptist lays the foundation for Jesus’ ministry as he calls his followers to a baptism of repentance; a kind of repentance clearly disregarded by the rich man and his siblings. John proclaims: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” John’s audience then wants to know what should they do. And John spells it out for them with very clear and direct examples: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”[iii] John wraps up his sermon by making this comment on the impending ministry of Jesus: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”[iv]
And so we arrive at this morning’s parable with a merciless rich man who now finds himself exactly where John warned: in agony in the fiery flames of Hades. During their life together on this earth, the rich man had every opportunity to show mercy to Lazarus; to share from his own bounty as John the Baptist taught. The rich man clearly knew Lazarus was there for now he recognizes him by sight far off in the bosom of Abraham. He even knew his name. And yet, even now, he expresses no regret for his failure to feel compassion and demonstrate mercy. He implores Father Abraham for mercy for himself; but he sure wasn’t very interested in the virtue of mercy when Lazarus laid lame, hungry and covered with sores just outside his gate.
Friends; our God is a merciful God who responds to our needs because God feels compassion for us.
Susannah Heschel, daughter of the Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel, summarized the instruction she learned from her father Abraham, “Religion evokes obligation and the certainty that something is asked of us, that there are ends which are in need of us. God is not only a power we depend on; He is a God who demands. God poses a challenge to go beyond ourselves.”[v]
This is the Word of our Lord who is merciful and gracious; who sent us Moses and the prophets and even a Savior who rose from the dead to remind and to convince us of the need for compassion and mercy, for gratitude and generous sharing.
[i] The Greek verb is ballo and this definition is provided by BibleWorks software.
[ii] See The New Testament World; Insights from Cultural Anthropology by Bruce Malina. Westminster John Knox Press; 2001. Malina notes that “poor” was not generally used as a class or economic designation. Judging by the way it is used in many scriptures, being “poor” is “the result of some unfortunate turn of events or some untoward circumstances. Poor persons seem to be those who cannot maintain their inherited status due to circumstances that befall them…” (p. 100). “In this context, rich and poor really refer to the greedy and the socially ill-fated.”
[iii] Luke 3:7-17
[iv] See also Luke 13:28. For more on this understanding of Abrahamic status, see Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture by David deSilva; Intervarsity Press; 2000; pp. 202ff, Redefining Descent from Abraham.
[v] Taken from Pleading, Cursing, Praising: Conversing with God through the Psalms by Irene Nowell. Liturgical Press; 2013; p. 7.
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