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The Life That Really Is Life

  • September 25, 2016
  • 08:00 AM

Sermon for September 25, 2016 (Proper 19, Year C)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             1 Timothy 6:6-19; Psalm 146; Luke 16:19-31

Title:               The Life That Really Is Life

“For we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these” (1 Timothy 6:7-8).

My friends: are these words that YOU can say and honestly claim as your own?

Can you say, “If I have food and clothing, I will be content with these”?

If not, then why not? What else is there that you feel certain you cannot live without?

This part of Year C in the Lectionary Cycle offers us numerous opportunities to reflect on our relationship with money and what it means for all of the other relationships in our lives.

The Gospel of Luke is replete with messages about wealth and money. And today’s Gospel reading is no exception.

This is the famous parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Many scholars believe that this parable is a take on a well-known Jewish folk tale common at the time. But it seems that Jesus changed the content and the ending in very specific ways.

In the more common version, the final request for someone to come back from the dead is granted, and those who are visited are shocked into change.

In the Lord’s version, the request for a warning from the dead is denied.

Now, we must remember the context. Think about the sense of rejection that the Church has received from most of the Jewish community by the time that the Gospel of Luke is written.

The rebuke from the Lord to his fellow Hebrews is sharp and direct.

They have Moses and the prophets to explain very clearly that their behavior is not in line with the expectations of God.

Not even resurrection will be sufficient to convince the people otherwise.

Of course, this is exactly what Luke’s community had experienced! Jesus was raised from the dead, but the “brothers” – the tribes of Israel – remain unconvinced.

In one sense, we need to remember that every parable of Jesus is about the kingdom of God, and this one is as well.

It is possible to read the parable in this way: the rich man are the tribes of Israel who “feast” on the presence of God in the scriptures proclaimed in their midst – in Moses and the prophets – and also in the Temple in Jerusalem, understood by Jews as the center of the world.

The Gentiles are the poor ones, the Lazarus ignored at the gates, left without spiritual nourishment.

But in the coming of this Messiah, the tables are completely turned. In fact, Jerusalem will be tormented by fire as the Romans burn it to the ground.

But the good news of the grace of God, the very bosom of Abraham, will come to the Gentiles, and they will rejoice.

Just a bit earlier, Jesus had explained that “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves (the Hebrew people) thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:28-29).

The feasting of Israel will end, and the poor ones will begin to feast – to eat in the kingdom of God. This is what the community of Luke’s Gospel has seen happen before their very eyes!

Now to be clear: nearly everyone within the Church would say this a bit differently today – namely, that the Jewish people have NOT been thrown out, that they remain the faithful children of Abraham even if their perspective of the Messiah differs from that of the Church.

But this was the experience of those early church communities, and we need to understand that.

One other way in which Jesus appears to have changed the nature of this folk story is in the qualifications of the primary characters.

It seems almost ingrained into us to WANT there to be a moral background to the end of these two characters. But there is none given in the text.

Look again: there are no qualifiers placed on these characters.

Lazarus is NOT described as pious, as humble, as devout. No, he is only described as poor and longing for help.

Now, you should know that Lazarus is not, of course, his original name.

In Hebrew, the man’s original name is Eleazar, which in fact means, “God helps”. The poor man is longing for help. No human being will help him, but God does.

And the rich man is NOT described as wicked or evil or cruel or proud. We might assume all of this based on his lack of compassion, but the text says nothing.

In fact, these two characters are presented and judged only on the basis of their use of resources in this world.

And this is the message which the Gospel of Luke hammers home – over and over again.

It starts with the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, which we in this parish family know so well (hopefully all of us know it by heart!):

“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).

And later in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus is teaching and he says:

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled…But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:21,24).

None of this seems fair, does it? It strikes most people as unreasonable and unjust simply to reject someone because of their wealth, without regard for their behavior.

The Gospel of Luke is quite challenging in this way. In all of these examples, there are no moral qualifications given.

The only distinguishing mark is the amount of wealth one has relative to others. And, according to the Gospel of Luke, wealth categorically disqualifies a person from experiencing real and eternal life in the kingdom of God.

Don’t start throwing tomatoes at me! I didn’t write the text. I’m just reading what it says, plain and simple.

For some balance, we can look at today’s passage from the First Letter to Timothy.

It’s a bit more qualified. “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” – not ALL evil, mind you, but all kinds of evil.

And it’s not money itself which is the culprit, but the LOVE of money.

In this letter, it is not wealth itself that defiles a person, but the desire and craving to be wealthy.

And in this sense, this kind of spiritual defilement can afflict anyone, even those who currently ARE poor.

Now what do you think about that perspective?

I’ll bet that most of us like that one better. It comports more directly with our sense of justice and fairness.

And it reminds us of what the Lord most commonly teaches us about human nature: that it is what is found in the human heart that matters, and not necessarily any exterior qualifications.

After all, one can be dirt poor, and be bitter, angry, nasty, hateful, and spiteful.

Should that person expect to be rewarded in the kingdom of heaven?

And one who is rich can be generous, compassionate, kind, forgiving, and loving.

Do we expect such a person to be rejected by God because of the size of their stock portfolio?

No, of course not.

But let’s be clear: “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” (1 Timothy 6:9).

That is an incredibly accurate description which has stood the test of time. Pursuing wealth means that we are not pursuing God. And it is ONLY in God that true peace, joy, happiness and contentment are found. Money can NEVER supply such things. And it never has.

“For we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these” (1 Timothy 6:7-8).

Can you say these words as your own? Do you know the peace and contentment which come from God alone?

I hope and pray that you do, and that you yourself will pursue God and so “take hold of the life that really is life” (1 Timothy 6:19).  Amen.


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