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Reflections on the Gospel, Week before September 29, 2013

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Luke 16:19-31

19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He called 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.’ 25But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

What I am Learning:

Every discipline has its challenges. Reading the Bible in a church year within a three-year lectionary cycle is no exception. Sometimes the lessons are just unrelenting in dealing with a topic for weeks at time.

We might like to see the issue "move along now" because we are tired of it, can't deal with it for the moment or because it seems not to speak to our situation at this moment. This, too, can teach us something. As Brian, a member of TCC said recently, "The point of spiritual practices is not a result, it is the struggle that is valuable."

So let yourself struggle with the lectionary and our current theme: economics.

This story is fairly well known. There are parts of the story that sharpen when we look at it from a first-century perspective.

The rich man has thanksgiving dinner every day. The Greek word here is one that speaks to great feast - the same one that Luke uses for the feast when the prodigal son comes home. Only this guy has one like that every day.

Lazarus is really not "laying" by the gate - in Greek he was "dumped" there - he was abandoned by a rich man's gate. Who dumped him there is not clear - maybe his family or friends hoped that near a rich man's house he would get enough food to survive.

The name "Lazarus" means "God helps." He is the only one named in this story, giving him an honor in the story that someone like him would not have in everyday life.

Lazarus' wounds are licked by the dogs. In first century Palestine, dogs were thought of the way we think of rats. So to get the full impact of Jesus' words, substitute "rats" for dogs and you pretty much get it.

Lazarus is the poorest of the poor and he is not long for the world.

Indeed, both the rich man and Lazarus dies. Lazarus is carried by the angels to the nurture and care of Abraham. The rich man to Hades.

Now before we continue I want to tell a story:

A lawyer who defended murder's, a tax accountant for a Fortune 500 company and a pastor all died and stood before St. Peter at the pearly gates. The lawyer apologized for his role in setting murder's free and St. Peter let him into heaven. The tax accountant apologized for letting companies get away without paying taxes and St. Peter let him into heaven. The pastor apologized for not always speaking courageously about the Gospel and St. Peter sent him to hell. Before he left, the pastor complained, "But you let them in!" St. Peter said, "The reason the lawyer and the tax accountant did what they did was because you didn't preach with courage."

  Now we really don't believe that St. Peter stands before the pearly gates. We use the scene to illustrate what is of God and what is not. It is a literary device and a compact way of telling a story that says a lot in a few words.

This story does not mean that Jesus believes in Hades - a Greek term for the underworld. He is not being literal. He is being literary. Like the pearly gates stories we tell, Jesus is making a claim about what the Jewish tradition says about how the rich are to treat the poor.

Last week we read a text that took on the whole economic system - Jesus speaking about how wrong it is to allow an economic system that "tilts the table in favor of the few."

This week see Jesus taking on another issue: What is the responsibility of those who find themselves privileged and rich toward the poor?

In Jesus' day, the rich man would have been assumed to be rich because God blessed him due to his faithfulness and intelligence. In this story Jesus turns this assumption upside down. It is Lazarus that "God helps."

The rich man, if he had really understood Moses and the prophets, would have comforted Lazarus as Abraham did. And so we come to the point of the story: The rich who want to be faithful to Abraham, Moses and the prophets take the poor and hold them in their bosom - that is, to care for the poor as a mother cares for her children until they are well and strong and able to contribute to the general welfare.

Jesus is making the case that this is at very the heart of the Jewish tradition, and thus the very heart of the Christian tradition. It is certainly a part of discipleship of Jesus to work for an economic system that benefits all and cares for the creation. We are also called to help provide for the basic needs of the vulnerable—not just the poor—as Abraham the father of our faith did in the story.