September 25: The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews is the vicar of St. Hilda St. Patrick. The sermon for Sunday, September 25, 2022, was preached as a response to Luke 16.19-31 and was based on the manuscript below.

This week the lectionary
skips a few verses from where we ended last week
and where we start this week.
Jesus doesn’t randomly start telling
his only parable
that names someone.
Last Sunday we heard Jesus say
“You cannot serve God and wealth.”
The Pharisees heard this
and ridiculed Jesus for it.
His response
is to tell the story we hear today.

There’s a man so rich
that he’s gotten the government to commend him.
Wearing purple was legally restricted!
He doesn’t save feasts
for special holidays.
He has massive feasts
every day.
He lives walled off from his neighbors
inside a gated community of his own making.
He undoubtedly has guests of high importance
dining with him every evening,
religious and civil leaders.

Just outside his gate is the opposite:
a poor man named Lazarus
which means “God will help.”
Lazarus is unclean,
has open sores
which unclean dogs lick.
Lazarus tries to eat the scraps
from the daily banquets
but the dogs beat him to them.
The rich man and his guests
undoubtedly walk by Lazarus
as they come and go from the estate.

They both die.
Lazarus is taken to be with Abraham,
to a safe place within whatever afterlife
Luke is writing about.
The rich man is not,
and he faces torment.
Quick aside –
this passage is absolutely not
under any circumstances
about afterlife options and opportunities!
Jesus is talking about wealth
and managing possessions
not what happens when we die.
He’s telling a story for dramatic teaching effect.

This rich man
has been so used to getting what he wants
that even in death and torment
he expects that to continue.
He cries 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.”
Even after he’s dead
he thinks that Lazarus
should be his servant!
Request denied.
So the man asks Abraham
“Let me go warn my brothers.
They’ll believe me
and they’re making the same mistakes I did.”
Request denied.
They have the same teachings that you and Lazarus had
they have Moses and the prophets
advising on how to treat the poor
and what to do with wealth.
Even if someone comes back from the dead,
they won’t believe him.

Even if someone comes back from the dead,
they won’t believe him.
Jesus and Luke here are foreshadowing
Jesus’ own resurrection.
As much as this passage
is not about how hot hell is
or how it’s impossible to get from a place of torment
to a place of safety,
it’s also not just about
the paternalistic duty of the rich
for taking care of the poor.

Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees
is a rebuke of religion across the board
including his future followers
who hoard wealth.
Without the Pharisees
there would be no contemporary Judaism
and they were people following God as best they could.
It’s important to remember that
and be careful how we talk about them
or use that word to describe others today.
If anything the Pharisees Jesus is criticizing
are doing better than the contemporaries we know.
They’d studied the scriptures
and scoff at Jesus’ admonition that
one cannot serve God and mammon
because their texts gave them the impression
that if god favored you
you’d do well.

That’s been a part of the American fabric
since Reformed Puritans came to these shores.
Unlike many mega church preachers
and prosperity gospel proclaimers today
they weren’t just out to get rich
the beliefs of others or the hurts of others
be ignored.
But as Fred Craddock summarizes the core of this parable,
“wherever some eat and others do not eat,
there the kingdom does not exist,
quote whatever Scripture you will.”[1]
That’s a hard message for me to hear
not just knowing about the systems in place
that lead to hunger and homelessness in King and Snohomish Counties,
but also the way the United States is the wealthiest country in the world
and yet there are people starving
domestically globally.
I’m a part of this society
I’m a steward of the wealth
that this nation holds and hoards,
if only a fraction compared to others.
It makes the suffrage from evening prayer hit a little harder
“That we may depart this life in your faith and fear,
and not be condemned
before the great judgment seat of Christ,
We entreat you O Lord.”

Thus we have the end of the parable,
the end of the passage today.
“If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets,
neither will they be convinced
even if someone rises from the dead.”
Do we listen to the one
who has risen from the dead,
the one who has defeated death
who brings mercy to us
even when we fail to bring mercy to others?
Justo Gonzales writes,
“Many treatises have been written
trying to prove Jesus’ resurrection.
The premise behind such books
is that if we can prove that Jesus did rise again
people would have no option but to believe.
But that is not the case.
The man’s brothers would not believe.
The main obstacle to faith is not lack of proof;
it is an excess of other interests and investments—
of time, money, dreams, and so on.”[2]

There’s a lot in this text to unpack
and to wonder what we’re supposed to do with it.
As we being thinking about finances for next year
I hope we’ll all think about God’s call
to care for the poor.
As we move into election season
I hope we’ll all wonder how we can be a part
on our own and organizing others
of building a more just, verdant, and equitable society.
I don’t have easy answers
for this passage itself
or how it’s calling you, me, or us together to act.
But I know in telling this story
Jesus is inviting us to cut through and cut back
on whatever is plugging our ears
from hearing God’s calls for repentance
and God’s demands for justice.
May our time, money, dreams, and so on
unstop our ears and move us
to build God’s reign. Amen.

[1]Craddock, Fred B.. Luke: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (p. 197). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
[2]Gonzalez, Justo L.. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible) . Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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