Sunday, May 29, 2016
Sermon for First Sunday after Trinity - Lk 16:19-31
In a 1789 letter, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” There is certainly much debate today about the status of the Constitution in the functioning of American government. But while there may be disagreement related first part of Franklin’s statement, I think everyone will agree that the second part is just as true now as it was then.
In our experience, death and taxes are certain – there is no avoiding them. Apart from the return of Christ, everyone here is going to do die. The Fall brought sin into the world and people have been dying ever since. And apart from the return of Christ, next April 15 the government is going to demand that you pay taxes. The government wants to spend money. It has the power to demand money from you. It is going to require that you pay taxes.
I have always found it interesting how this pair “death and taxes” – this inevitable duo – also aligns with some of the most important and pressing ways that the Christian faith has meaning for life. Surely there is no time that faith in Jesus Christ is more important that when we consider the topic of our own death. It is this way when we think about it in the abstract – and it means everything when a person actually faces the reality that he or she is about to die.
Much the same thing can be said about taxes. Taxes are about our money – what we are forced to do with it. They matter because money is so important to us in so many ways. And again, the real meaning the Christian faith has for our life becomes apparent when we consider what we do with our money. We see it in the offering we choose to give; in the things we choose to buy and how much we spend; in the ways we use it to help others.
Today’s Gospel lesson is in fact about this pair – death and money. It teaches us about what Jesus Christ means for both of these in our life. More broadly, it reminds us that those who believe in Jesus Christ act in certain ways because of the Gospel.
Our text this morning is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. This is, of course, a familiar parable of our Lord. While we know it well, it is also a great illustration of what we have been talking about in Bible study recently. As we look at texts in the Gospels we want to pay attention not only to what that specific text says. We also need to pay attention to what comes before and what comes after it. The individual readings do not stand on their own, but instead the Gospel writers have arranged them in a way so that they build on one another and convey meaning in doing so.
Just before our text in this chapter Jesus had told one of his more unusual parables – the parable of the unjust steward. About to be fired for mismanagement of the master’s affairs, the steward had quickly acted to cut a deal for the people who owed his master, so that they would treat him well when he was out of job. Surprisingly, the master then praised the steward for acting shrewdly. It’s an odd parable and presents challenges. The basic point seems to be that like the steward, we need to recognize the critical moment we live in because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. And we need to use our resources in ways that show this. After the parable Jesus says, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
It becomes clear that Jesus is talking about how we view money and wealth – what we do with it living as Christians in the world. Luke tells us, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him.”
So it is not by chance that shortly after this Jesus begins by saying in our text, “There was a certain rich man….” The rich man is described in the most extravagantly absurd terms: he was clothed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every single day. The parties at the capital in the Hunger Games come to mind.
In stark contrast, we learn that poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate in hopes of getting some of the scraps from the rich man’s table. He was not lazy, but instead sick and destitute – he was covered with sores that the dogs came and licked.
Now it is important to recognize that the Torah has much to say about how the people of Israel were to treat the poor, the widow, the orphan and the sojourner in their midst. God had rescued them from slavery and taken them to be his own purely on the basis of his grace. He had fed and provided for Israel. And now living in the covenant with Yahweh they were to act in this way toward those in need. This Old Testament background established the giving of alms – money to help the poor – as an important part of first century Jewish piety.
We learn that Lazarus died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side – he experienced salvation. On the other hand, the rich man died and found himself in the torments of hell from where he was able to gaze upon Lazarus and Abraham.
The rich man asked Abraham to send Lazarus to relieve his burning tongue – as if Lazarus were still below the rich man. But Abraham said, “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.”
Now there is more going on here than just the idea each one was finally getting the opposite experience to even things out. When Abraham tells the rich man that it is impossible for anyone to pass from one place to the other because of a chasm, the rich man responds, “Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.” But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” And then the rich man answered, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”
In the word “repent” we find that the rich man was not in the suffering of hell just because now it was time for him to experience something bad. Instead he was in hell because of his sin. And the sin in view is how he treated Lazarus – the fact that he didn’t help this man. Read in light of what Jesus has just said about money and wealth, it is clear that money was the master he served, not God. If God had been his master, then he would have helped Lazarus.
By the same token, it is not that Lazarus was finally getting what he deserved. Instead, this is an example of an important theme in Luke’s Gospel – that of “the great reversal.” It is first heard in the Annunciation – the words Mary spoke when she visited Elizabeth and said, “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”
The good news of the Gospel is that Jesus humbled himself so that we can be lifted up. He descended from heaven as he was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He allowed himself to be nailed to a cross so that he could bear the sins of all. He offered himself to be plunged into the depths of God’s judgment, so that we can be raised up from the water of baptism as forgiven children of God.
That is what God has done for you in Christ. But Jesus teaches us in the Gospel lesson that things don’t stop there – they can’t stop there. What Jesus has done changes how we are to view things. Saved by God’s undeserved love, no longer are we to grant more attention and status to money than it deserves. Certainly we are not to turn it into a god by loving and trusting in it more than the God who acted in Jesus Christ to save us.
In our text, the example of Lazarus shows us what this means. It means that we use our wealth to help those in need. We use it to help Christians in the Middle East who have been displaced by Islamic persecution. We use it to help those in Marion whose ability to feed their children this month will be challenged.
What we are talking about is faith and love. These are distinct, yet they are intimately related in Christ. Martin Luther wrote in his work The Freedom of the Christian: “We conclude, therefore, that a Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbor. Otherwise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love.”
You live in Christ through faith, believing in him as your Lord who died on the cross for your sins and rose from the dead. You live in your neighbor through love as you seek to serve the needs of you neighbor. Because you have faith in Christ’s loving service for you, you now share that love with others in service toward them.
This involves your money – your wealth. But it is not limited to that. It involves your time, your effort, your attention, your compassion. And you don’t only find the neighbor to whom you provide loving help on the other side of the world or on the other side of town. You also find your neighbor on the other side of the church, and other side of the dining table and the other side of the bed.
Today we hear a familiar parable. It reminds us – and because of the old man who still clings to us we need reminding – that faith in Jesus Christ changes all of our life. It leads us to Christ as our Lord and instead of our money or wealth. It leads us to use that wealth in Gospel ways – ways that share God’s love in Christ with others in word and deed. It leads us to live in Christ and in our neighbor - in Christ through faith and in our neighbor through love