Dear Working Preacher,
Nothing quite like a sermon about a rich guy going to hell just before the fall Stewardship campaign kicks off, is there? Seriously, though, the clarity of today’s Gospel reading offers a stark contrast to the ambiguous, even confusing lection of last week. But what, precisely, is this passage clear about?
Is it, as some have suggested, Luke’s answer to justification by faith — that is, that we’re really justified by how we treat people? I’m not so sure. Given the extreme searching and seeking for the lost in chapter 15, it seems unlikely that suddenly only the wealthy cannot be found, particularly if you remember that tax collectors — who are included in those coming to hear Jesus — were often quite well off (think Zacheus). Perhaps in chapter 16 Luke is inviting his readers to imagine the number of ways we can lose our way. (It’s interesting that the dishonest manager, after he has been discharged, “comes to his senses” in a manner similar to the prodigal and so goes out and cuts the debts owed his master.)
In this light, perhaps the issue isn’t simply that the man is rich or that he demonstrates no compassion toward Lazarus (though both of these things are true and important), but rather that his wealth prevents him from seeing or relating to Lazarus as a fellow child of God. As Greg Carey points out in his very helpful commentary, notice how the rich man assumes Lazarus will do his bidding even in the hereafter. Compassion has surfaced as an important value at several points in Luke’s gospel, variously ascribed to Jesus (7:13), to the good Samaritan (10:33), and most recently to the prodigal’s waiting Father (15:20). Could it be that not having compassion is one sure sign of being lost? Even more, might Jesus be warning that riches can stunt our compassion by insulating us from the need of others?
Maybe this is the tie back to Jesus’ pronouncement that one cannot love both God and wealth a few verses earlier. For to love God is to love neighbor, the one in need (see, again, 10:25-37). Perhaps the chasm that separates the rich man and Lazarus in death only echoes the one that separated them in life. And while Lazarus’ comfort in the bosom of Abraham is the reversal of fortune promised at the outset of Luke’s Gospel (1:46-55), maybe the rich man’s torment is the isolation from human compassion he has lived with all of his life made now painfully manifest.
If we read matters this way, we discover another thread in the complex but helpful tapestry Luke weaves about the believer’s relationship to money. There is much one can accomplish with wealth (last week), but take care lest wealth unduly insulate you from the needs of those around you (this week). If so, it occurs to me that we have a helpful and regular reminder of Jesus’ injunction readily at hand, as every dollar bill and coin minted in the U.S. has inscribed upon it these four simple words: “In God We Trust.” If we do actually trust God, then we will take to heart God’s injunction to have compassion on those around us, to be vulnerable to each other, to actually see God in the face of our neighbor’s need.
So I wonder, as many of our congregations approach stewardship season, what it would be like once again to talk about money without asking for any. In fact, I’d like to go even further and give some money away. That is, I’d like to give everyone gathered for worship this Sunday a single dollar bill and invite them to ask themselves whether how they spend that dollar — and all their dollars — this week reflects their trust in God…or not. Perhaps just this kind of tangible sign would help us take the message we hear on Sunday morning into the rest of our lives, lives where our manifold choices really can make a difference in the wellbeing of so many others of God’s children. Perhaps we can then invite persons to email or Twitter what they spent their dollars on and how that opened them up to the needs of others and how they were encountered by God as they entered into that need. Perhaps we could thereby collect all these responses and make them available to the whole community to see, feel, and be inspired by.
It seems to me that part of what is at stake in Jesus’ parable is the link between our wellbeing and that of others. If we cannot feel compassion for others we have lost something that is deeply and genuinely human. In time, the wealth that has numbed us to the need of our neighbor deludes us into imagining that we ourselves have no need, are sufficient unto ourselves, and can easily substitute hard work and a little luck for grace and mercy. At that point, we are, indeed, lost.
But I think the reverse is also true — that as we become more responsive to the hurts, hopes, and needs of others we become more acutely aware of our own humanity, of our own longings and insufficiency and thereby can appreciate God’s offer of manifest grace in Christ, the one who took on our need, our humanity, our lot and our life, all in order to show us God’s profound love for each and all of us.
We, too, have the law and the prophets to direct us to care for the needs of our neighbor. Yet deep down I suspect that when confronted by the One who was put to death for our sins and raised for our justification we might just be cajoled from our numbness and drawn back into relationship with both God and each other. At least I hope so. Or, maybe I should say, I trust God to make it so.
Thank you, Working Preacher, for reminding me that we are called to trust God with all of our lives, and by trusting God to discover ourselves in our neighbors’ need.
Yours in Christ,