To Whom Shall We Listen?

 

Luke 16:19-31

One of the tricks that preachers and other interpreters of scripture use to help us get into the text, to bring out the meaning of the text, is to invite people to identify with a character in the story.  So who would you like to identify with in this story?  If I asked you:  imagine yourself as the rich man, decked out in fine clothes, feasting sumptuously at every meal and enjoying the good life, grabbing the gusto while you can, could you identify with him? Knowing his fate, would you want to identify with him?

On the other hand, if I invited you to imagine yourself as Lazarus who is in agony most his life, who never has enough to eat, who is constantly ill and then you find yourself in the next life in paradise – then how does that sound?  Is it a fair trade off? Are you willing to take the role of Lazarus, knowing his suffering?

Those are two very different perspectives, and neither sound very appealing. I suggest to you, however, that the key to this story is to identify neither with Lazarus nor the rich man.  But you’re still in the story.  Just not one of those two.  And you’re not father Abraham, obviously.  So who’s that leave?  Who’s left in the story?  The brothers, the brothers – and for the sake of modern times, we’ll say the sisters as well.  The brothers and sisters – the family of the rich man.  That’s our place in the story.  I’m going to let that sit for awhile, and we’ll come back to it later.

The two principle characters in this story—the rich man and Lazarus—are really caricatures of wealth and poverty at opposite ends of a spectrum.  They’re the extremes.  And most of us are somewhere in-between, aren’t we?  So it’s difficult for us to identify with someone who is on either one end or the other.

Now I have to say, I have known people not too far off from Lazarus.  At the same time I cannot say that I have ever met anyone quite as callous as this rich man, at least not personally. There certainly are plenty of examples we see in the news. The clearest example I recall was from the early days of the Tea Party. The Register Guard quoted a local supporter who summarized his political philosophy saying, “The man lying in the ditch, not my problem.” Actually it is, especially if you follow the teaching of scripture. Jesus even tells a story about a man lying in the ditch, remember, and two religious leaders who held that same view and passed him by.

I found myself as that person in the ditch on Thursday, almost literally. I was getting the church trailer ready for the youth mission trip and was towing it across the Willamette River on the Delta bridge. Just as I was coming to the top of the on ramp, I felt a big bump and looked in my rear view mirror to see the trailer bounce and then slowly drift away from my car. I am not sure how to describe the feeling of watching the trailer as it drifted some 30 feet behind me, sparks shooting from the tongue skidding on the payment, but being a family service, I will not repeat the words that escaped my mouth.

The two of us, detached trailer and car, just slowly drifted from the left lane to the right as I followed my trailer’s lead, waving to motorists as they passed us by as if this were a perfectly normal way to tow a trailer. Fortunately, the trailer finally came to a stop alongside the road, the damage miraculously limited to busted safety chains and the tongue jack that is now about an inch shorter than it used to be. Another motorist pulled over and offered his assistance. The two of us were able to lift the tongue off the ground and place it back on the hitch, something I could not have never done alone and my assistant figured out a way to reattach the safety chains. We didn’t talk much because his English was very limited. His heavy accent suggested to me that he was from Mexico. I continued on my way, much more slowly, thankful for the Samaritan who crossed the border and happened my way.

My plight fortunately was little more than a temporary inconvenience which turned out to be a blessing and also resulted in an upgrade to the safety mechanisms of our trailer. The plight of Lazarus was a lifetime condition in stark contrast to his rich neighbor. The person who is NOT moved by the sight of someone as desperate as Lazarus truly is a soul that is in jeopardy.

But because these caricatures are so extreme it’s easy for us to be in quick condemnation of the rich man.  Who is going to identify with anyone that callous?  Note that even in Hades, in torment because of such callousness and indifference towards Lazarus, he still sees Lazarus as someone who should serve him.  Who should bring him a cool drink, who should run errands for him to warn his family.

Clarence Jordan, the author of the Cotton Patch Gospels, describes the response of father Abraham to the rich man like this:  “Lazarus ain’t gonna run no more your errands, rich man.”  The main point of this story, however, is not about this extreme contrast between the plight of the poor and judgment on the uncaring rich or the divine reversal of their fortunes, but the real point of the story becomes evident when the brothers are introduced into the story and it takes a unexpected turn.  We’re going to get there in just a second, but not yet.

A couple other quick notes to make.  The location of this story is the mythical Hades that is neither heaven nor hell but is a place in-between.  It is sort of a holding cell – a place where you sit and wait for the final judgment.  We would call it purgatory.  Jesus is not advocating belief in such a place, rather this is a literary prop.  It’s a means to tell the story. Instead of Alice in Wonderland, we have Lazarus in Hades. Same thing. Jesus is taking us down the proverbial rabbit hole to portray this fictional dialogue between the rich man and Abraham and the only place the dialogue can occur is there in Hades.  In other words, do not literalize this story, debating whether or not there really is such a place like Hades, flames of torment, and the like.  Focusing on the supposed eternal torment of the rich man misses the whole point.

Second, this contrast between the rich and the poor, and the divine reversal of fortune, is a major theme in Luke’s gospel.  From the very beginning in the first chapter, in the Magnificat, Mary sings:  “God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty”.   In Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, known as the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus says  “Blessed are you poor, yours is the Kingdom of God”.  And then Luke’s version adds the reverse of that – not found in the Sermon on the Mount – “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your consolation”.  Much the same as the rich man in this story.

And so we have here a classic Lukan perspective on the gospel where the rich and the poor trade places.  And therefore we expect some hard-hitting punch line to conclude the story like that story of the rich young ruler who can’t sell everything that he has and goes away very sad and then Jesus says:  “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God”, remember that?  “It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle”.  Now, that’s hard.  That’s hard.

This story, however, instead of having that kind of punch line, takes a turn.  We don’t expect it – it comes as a surprise.  The rich man, for the first time, shows concern for anyone other than himself and he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers.  Now take note of the two elements of the final exchange between Abraham and the rich man.  First, that the rich man wants his brothers to repent.  Repentance is another one of those major themes of the gospels – John the Baptist tells the crowds to “bear fruits worthy of repentance”.  Jesus says “I’ve come not to call the righteous but to call the sinner to repentance”.  Repentance means to turn around, to go the other direction.  And so we take it to mean to turn away from sin and to turn toward God, to turn toward the way of Jesus.

But in this story, nothing is said about faith, sin or believing in God.  In fact, the rich man all but confesses his faith by calling on Abraham as his father – it was a way of saying ‘I too am a descendent of Abraham’.  I too am a Jew, one of God’s people, those who worship God in the Temple.  Belief in God here is not the issue. The message for repentance of the brothers is not that they should pray harder, believe more, keep the Sabbath, but rather that they should pay attention to those poor folk outside the gate of their home.  That’s the message of repentance.  Not a change in beliefs about God, but a change in actions toward one’s neighbors.

The second matter is this question of being convinced by someone who rises from the dead.  And this is most obviously an intentional irony.  The one who’s resurrection is central to the Christian message is telling us that everything we need to know is already in the Hebrew scripture – in the writings of Moses and the prophets and if that’s not enough for us, neither will be the resurrection.  So what do Moses and the prophets say about the plight of Lazarus?

Deuteronomy, commonly known as the 5th book of Moses, says in ch. 15:  “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land your Lord your God has given you, do not be hard-hearted or tight fisted toward your needy neighbor.  You should rather open your hand willingly lending enough to meet the need whatever that may be”.

At the webinar last Saturday, the Rev. Dr. William Barber, leader of the Moral Mondays in North Carolina, cited Jeremiah 22: “Thus says the LORD: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien (immigrant), the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.” And Ezekiel 22: “The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery; they have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the alien without redress.” This just to cite two of hundreds of such passages from the prophets.

It’s a pretty clear message.  This is the repentance the rich man would have his brothers do.  But Abraham says, if they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, why should they listen to one who rises from the dead?  In other words, if ordinary means of revelation do not work, neither will the extraordinary.

And this is the crux of the problem that applies to all of us, rich or poor, liberal or conservative, young and old, male and female.  We are very good listeners when we want to be.  When it confirms our prejudices.  Don’t confuse me with the facts, I’ve already made up my mind.  And if it doesn’t confirm that pre-conceived notion we have, then it’s right wing or left wing propaganda, fake news. Ideology determines the truth and truth cannot be bothered by facts.  We hear what we want to hear.  And I think we’re all guilty of that to one degree or another, at least I know I am.

At the same time I also want to say that there are discernible, empirical facts and that we ignore those to our own peril. Case in point is climate change. When government leaders intentionally deny the plain evidence and the conclusions of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists, we are in a world of trouble, or I should say, the world is in trouble, very serious trouble. The message given by Abraham to the rich man is intended as a warning to us, ignore the wisdom of God as revealed in scripture and we might find our plight like that of this rich man.

One of the great stories of government leaders listening to scripture came out of Alabama more than a dozen years ago.  Now that the debate over health care is over, at least for the time being, we are told that the next topic is tax reform. God help us. So hear this story of how listening to the Bible caused the governor of Alabama, Bob Riley, a conservative Republican, to attempt a dramatic change in the Alabama tax code.

Governor Riley regularly hosted Bible studies in the Capitol and is a big believer in the public display of the Ten Commandments. He became convinced that Jesus would want a different tax structure in his state.   What would Jesus tax, right? But what’s interesting is how he went about it.  He said:  “I spent a lot of time reading the New Testament and it has three philosophies:  love God, love each other, and take care of the least among you.” Hence Governor Riley concluded, “It is immoral to charge somebody making $5,000 a year an income tax.”

In fact, his proposal actually went further, eliminated the income tax for anyone making under $20,000 a year.  And, it came as a result of the work of a seminary trained lawyer.  I think that’s interesting – all lawyers ought to be seminary trained.  Maybe all preachers ought to be trained in law school.  But this seminary trained lawyer published an article on scripture and taxes that caught the Governor’s attention. It caused him to do his own Biblical study and to re-think some of his policies.  And as a result, his proposal dramatically decreased taxes on the poorest of society, increased those for the top third, and greatly increased support for public education and human services.  It was a bold plan, Biblically sound, and politically foolish.  It lost by a 2-1 margin at the polls, like the Kansas Jayhawks yesterday, got creamed.  Yeah, baby! But give Governor Riley credit for taking an unpopular position on the basis of his faith.

You see, Governor Riley is a brother of the rich man, who did listen to Moses and the prophets.  And he listened to Jesus.  And what is more striking and remarkable in this day and age, he listened to the folks on the other side of the aisle.  Especially those who have been saying for years that economic justice, the plight of Lazarus, is a moral issue of fundamental importance to public policy.

Of course listening is not a one way activity, or at least shouldn’t be. To have any hope that we can some day return to bipartisan agreements means that all sides must listen to each other. That doesn’t seem to happen too often these days.

I believe a sign of a vibrant Christian community is when we can have lively dialogue on the critical issues of the day as a matter of our faith.  To be engaged in those kind of discussions on the critical issues, how our faith informs us and how our understanding of scripture leads us. I don’t share my understanding of scripture on these issues because I want to convince you that I’m right.  Well, maybe I do.  But that’s not the point,– the important thing is that we all can articulate why we believe what we do as a matter of faith and to say this is how our faith informs us on the issue.

And as a church, we don’t have to agree with one another on such, but we do need to love each other, to show our respect for each other, even when and especially when we have different opinions.  (That and support the Ducks, right? Did I hear someone say, “Final Four?!”)

One more thing – as brothers and sisters of the rich man, the question we must ask ourselves is this:  who are we going to listen to, or more fundamentally, are we willing to listen?  To really listen?  Back in the days when I worked in the youth ministry office of our denomination in Indianapolis, we used to sing a song written by a Disciple of Christ minister, Darryl Fairres, worked at the Christian Board of Publication, says:

The Lord gave us ears that we might hear

The sounds of hurt and pain and fear

But we stop our ears to shut off the sound of a world that’s crying and dying all around

There’s a world out there, the Lord calls you to listen.

There’s a world out there, don’t you hear it cry?

There’s a world out there, won’t you stop and listen?

Won’t you listen, listen, listen.

 

The Lord gave us life that we might live

And gave us himself that we might love

But love isn’t love when it doesn’t care and choose the suffering cross to bear.

There’s a world out there, the Lord calls you to listen.

There’s a world out there, don’t you hear it cry?

There’s a world out there, won’t you stop and listen?

Won’t you listen, listen, listen.

 

That is the message of Jesus, Moses and the prophets – are we listening?

 

Daniel E. H. Bryant

First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Eugene OR

March 26, 2017