Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Good Life

On Monday, I wrote about the danger of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 16:19-31). It's easy to hear this compelling story and think that Jesus is calling us to treat the poor with dignity and redistribute our wealth so that everyone has what she or he needs in this life. All of that is true, of course. Jesus is calling us to do those things. But he isn't telling us that the path to heaven is as simple as giving our riches away. The parable's conclusion reveals that belief in the one who has risen from the dead is the necessary antecedent. Jesus' resurrection is confirmation that his description of kingdom life is a true depiction of God's kingdom and that the only way we will get there is by following him.

In my sermon preparation, I don't want to lose sight of that important premise--that this gospel lesson is about following Jesus into the kingdom--but I do want to dwell a little more seriously in the implications of that kingdom life for rich people like me and like every single person who calls St. John's home. (Yes, we're all rich, and I'm willing to bet that every single one of the few dozen people who read this post are rich, too. Even the "poorest" person among us is still rich by Jesus' standards and by the world's standards, so let's all start by agreeing that Jesus isn't telling us this parable because we're a bunch of Lazaruses. Fair enough?) In short, I think this parable reminds us that, while we won't get to heaven simply by giving all of our riches away, we also can't get there unless we do.

Focus on the rich man's exchange with Abraham. "Have mercy on me!" he cries out. "Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony in these flames!" Even from the place of torment, the rich man still sees Lazarus as an instrument for his own comfort. Abraham responds, "Sorry, pal, but it's too late. You had good things in your lifetime, and Lazarus had evil things, and now the roles have been reversed." That's classic Lucan role-reversal messianic theology. Then Abraham makes an eschatological assertion: "Plus, a great chasm has been fixed between us, and no one can cross it." There is something decidedly final about death, and our opportunity to participate in God's kingdom comes not in the next life but in this one. Then, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them to change their lives before they, too, wind up in hell, but Abraham responds, "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." In other words, Jesus' ministry is a continuation of the Torah, and those who cannot see that following Jesus is God's vision for his people wouldn't even be convinced by the resurrection.

So what does that mean for us? It means we'd better take the resurrection of Jesus for what it is: proof that Jesus' description of the kingdom is God's vision for our lives and for the world. It means that rich people like me don't get to heaven because we haven't understood what following Jesus into the kingdom really means. It means that every sumptuous meal I enjoy and every fine linen garment I put on while hungry, naked, homeless people struggle to survive is a sign of my exclusion from the kingdom. That's not because rich people don't belong in God's kingdom. It's because those who belong in God's kingdom can't stand the thought of being rich while other people suffer.

Let the scales fall from our eyes. Do we believe in Jesus? Do we believe that he was raised from the dead? Do we believe that he has ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father? If we really believed all of that--if we believed that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus makes any difference at all--then we wouldn't live in a world where the rich are getting richer while the poor barely survive. We wouldn't vote for a candidate who promises to champion the middle class. We would support only those who work tirelessly for the poorest among us. If we believed in the power of Jesus--if the hope of the resurrection had taken hold in our hearts--we wouldn't wait until this life is over to notice whether this life resembles the kingdom Jesus ushered in.

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