The Rev. Cynthia KR Banks; The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 21—Year C; Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; I Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31
We are in that stretch of Luke where we are going to hear a lot about money, so buckle in and hang on for the ride. These are hard passages to hear.
Last week, we heard Jesus say, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” And remember, Jesus was telling that story about the rich man and his less-than-stellar manager to his disciples. But others were listening in, and the text tells us, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.” Then we come to today, when Jesus picks this theme back up again.
Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, and Lazarus was covered with sores, and he longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.” (Boy, that is the picture of despair!) “So, the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. And the rich man also died and was buried. When next we meet up with the rich man, he is in Hades, where he was being tormented.” (Hades—the commentary says this about Hades: In Biblical Greek it is associated with Orcus who was a god of the underworld, just as Hades was the ancient Greek God of the underworld; Hades, the infernal regions (infernal meaning “of or relating to hell”), a dark and dismal place in the very depths of the earth, the common receptacle of disembodied spirits. Usually Hades is just the abode of the wicked; a very uncomfortable place. That’s what the commentary says.) A very uncomfortable place, and so it was for the rich man. He looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He 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.’ But 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. Besides 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.’ The rich man accepted this. He understood that his condition was fixed, but if he could just get to his family who was still alive, if he could just communicate with them, maybe he could save them. His fate was sealed, but they still had a chance. The rich man said, ‘Then, father Abraham, I beg you to send Lazarus to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ The rich man said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent, they will turn around, they will change course.’ Abraham 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.’”
A great chasm has been fixed. But that chasm that opened up between where the rich man was dwelling in Hades and the poor man was residing among the angels was only a reflection of the chasm that had opened up in the life before death. A chasm existed when the rich man didn’t see the poor man at his gate. A chasm existed when the rich man could feast sumptuously while the poor man went hungry. A chasm existed when the rich man could rest comfortably in purple and fine linen and the poor man couldn’t get his sores attended to, except by the dogs who licked them. A chasm existed between those two men. While Jesus is using the language of next-life stuff, and it is all too easy to extrapolate this story out to its eternal implications, remember, he is talking to this-life people, disciples and Pharisees, and the chasm that he describes in the next life only mirrors the chasm that exists in this life. It existed in Jesus’ day, and it exists in our day.
There is this sense that the rich man can’t see what’s going on until it’s too late. He can’t see how that chasm in this life hurts him just as much as it hurts the poor man. Any time we cut ourselves off from another, we are both hurt, we are both diminished, we both suffer. St. Paul gets that when he says in I Corinthians 12, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.” We are members one of another.
In the story, the rich man can’t see it until he dies. And maybe that is the most revolutionary thing that Jesus does in this story. To see your intimate connection with every human being on this planet, you have to die to any sense that what you do is solely an individual matter, you have to die to the sense that you are solely an individual member not connected to all the other individual members of the body, you have to die to the sense that it’s okay for chasms to exist because that’s just the way the world is. To see how deeply we are connected, we have to die to the illusion that we are not.
Having seen the vastness of the chasm, and though he cannot bridge it, the rich man doesn’t want his brothers to live in this place of torment, and not just the fact that it’s really fiery and hot where the rich man is, but the torment of living with the knowledge of the chasm. He wants it to be different for his brothers. Maybe Lazarus could go talk with them, maybe a relationship with Lazarus would help them see that Lazarus is a brother, and not some unidentified, unnamed, unemployed beggar just waiting around for handout. In the story, father Abraham, the great patriarch of the faith, says, “No, they have Moses and the prophets.” The rich man says, “Yeah, I know father Abraham, but they’re not up on Moses and the prophets, and they don’t think those texts written hundreds of years ago are really meant to be applied to today, I mean those were addressed to ancient Israel, and our situation is completely different, but if you send a guy who has risen from the dead, boy, they will pay attention then, they could see it then, and they would change.”
But in the story, father Abraham, holds firm, “No, if they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they’re not going to be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” And remember, it is Jesus telling the story; he places it on the lips of the great patriarch, Abraham, but it’s Jesus telling the story. So, if we have had any notion that, as Christians, the prophets don’t matter; Jesus has just told us, in no uncertain terms, oh, they really do.
Jesus is saying to the disciples, and to those money loving Pharisees, “It’s all there in the prophets.” Jesus is saying, “Are you listening? Are you awake? Over and over, they talk about this gap that is growing between the rich and the poor, income inequality—it’s there, it’s in the prophets. Over and over, they talk about the complacency of the comfortable while the poor are getting trampled. Over and over, they talk about this chasm. Are you listening? Are you hearing? Do you have the capacity to have your heart of stone taken out and receive a heart of flesh in its place, as Ezekiel says?” Jesus is saying, “Are you ready to die so that you may see how distant you have grown from one another? Are you ready to have your eyes opened and your hearts broken? Because the chasm is everywhere, all you have to do is look and listen.”
Dear brothers and sisters, Jesus is telling a story, but it’s not a story about eternal torment—it’s a story to shake our hearts awake to get us to recognize the poor who lay at our gate. It’s a story to get us to see that we have all the tools we need, right here and right now, we have all the tools we need to see the chasm and touch the chasm and understand the chasm, and close the chasm, a chasm that we all have been complicit in creating.
Jesus doesn’t tell this story to leave a rich man in Hades, or to scare us; Jesus tells this story to help us see our kinship with whomever is on the other side of the chasms that exist in all the circles we inhabit.
And lest we plummet into despair as we face head-on the implications of this story, we have to circle back to the prophets. In today’s passage, Jeremiah is under arrest. The army of the king of Babylon is besieging Jerusalem. They are about to be carried off into exile. It is bleak. It is all about to implode all around him. And what does God do? God tells him to go buy the field at Anathoth, a little community just north of Jerusalem. That’s insane. They are getting ready to be carried off into exile. Now is not the time to be plowing money into buying property. That is really not a sound investment to be making! But Jeremiah buys the field, “For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”
Jeremiah had every reason to despair, and he was an Eeyore kind of guy, but he stakes his life, and his treasure, on hope. The despair that surrounds us, the chasms that divide us and threaten to swallow us whole, this is not what God intends, and this is not what, ultimately, shall be. Faith is a powerful force when hearts of stone wake up and become hearts of flesh. Chasms close when hearts connect and commit to one another. So, though the chasms that exist in our world seem vast and insurmountable, I do not despair. We are being asked to make a crazy investment and buy a field in a place that is about to be desolate and to trust that if we take a crazy leap of faith, something good will grow there. And that field could be anything. Maybe that field is the kind that the poet Rumi describes when he says, “Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” Or, maybe that field is much more tangible and hands-on, a field to be plowed and tended and watered and loved, a field which will meet the needs of weary, bereft, grief-stricken exiles.
I don’t have any idea what shape, or even exactly where, this field is that we are supposed to buy; I just know that the Spirit is blowing and God is doing some new thing in our midst. And with the prophets to guide us, and Jesus to coax us, and God to sustain us, we can die in the ways we need to die, and we can be born in the ways that God is yearning for us to be born.
What field is God asking you to buy? In the insanity that surrounds us, where will you stake a claim in hope? Where can you take the first step toward a future that right now, today, in unimaginable? The chasm is wider than it has ever been; and into this tragic moment, God says, “Go buy that field.” Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
September 29, 2013