Unbinding the Gospel

[audio http://www.opcbrookhaven.org/worship/audio/sermons/09-26-10.MP3] What’s your image of heaven? Does it sound like what is described in our lesson? Do you see clouds? Angels with harps? Pearly gates, with St. Peter as the bouncer holding a clipboard, checking the guest list? Streets paved with gold?

Our images of heaven probably have more to do with jokes about the Pearly Gates than they do with the stories of Scripture. It’s like the story of Mother Theresa, who, after she died, ended up in heaven. And instead of St. Peter, it was God who met her and welcomed her. “Are you hungry?” God asks. “Yes, Lord, I am.” So God opens up a can of tuna and reaches for a chunk of rye bread, and they share it.

Mother Theresa, while eating this rather humble meal, looks down into hell, and can’t help but notice that they are feasting on steak, lobster, wines, rich desserts…She is curious, of course, but deeply trusting.

The next day God invites her to eat again. And once again, they have tuna and rye bread. Down in hell, they’re eating caviar, roast lamb, drinking champagne, extravagance galore. Still, she says nothing.

On the third day, it’s mealtime again, and God opens another can of tuna.

Mother Theresa can’t contain herself: “God, I really am grateful to be in heaven as a reward for an obedient, pious life. But all I get to eat is tuna and rye bread, while down there, they get to eat like emperors and kings! I just don’t understand…”

God sighs: “Look, let’s be realistic. For just two people, does it pay to cook?”

The Pearly Gates’ joke is a staple of our society. And even though we know they’re just jokes, there’s always a little bit of commentary lurking just below the surface. In this case, we know of the amazing life that Mother Theresa led, giving of herself tirelessly to the children of Calcutta whom others considered “untouchable”.

So the idea of her and God alone in heaven says more about humanity as a whole than anything else: none of us live up to her standard, and we know that her selflessness is a model of Christian charity. It may be in the guise of a joke, and we know it doesn’t describe the way heaven really is. Instead, if we scratch the surface, we see it as a critique on our society’s lack of moral standards.

That’s exactly what this parable of the rich man and Lazarus is. Rather than seeing it as a definitive view of heaven and hell, we are better off understanding it as Jesus’ offering a critique on his society.

Much of what I want to share with you today about this parable comes from Kenneth Bailey, a noted Presbyterian New Testament scholar. I have mentioned his name before. Bailey grew up the son of missionaries in Egypt and spent most of his professional career living and teaching in Lebanon. As such, he became convinced that we would have much to gain as Christians by reading the gospel parables through Middle Eastern cultural eyes rather than American or European ones. After all, the communities that gave rise to Scripture in the first place weren’t in Munich or Philadelphia, but Jerusalem and Antioch.

Back to the parable. In Luke’s gospel, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus comes as the third in a series. The first is that of the prodigal son, where the main character wastes his Father’s money before returning home. The second parable, the one we read last week, is of the dishonest manager, who wastes his Master’s money before settling up the debts. And in this third parable, we have the rich man, who is wasting his own money before facing his own judgment.

The whole parable is a pointed rebuke of some of Jesus’ harshest critics, namely the Sadducees. This priestly group was marked both by their extravagant lifestyle and their rejection of resurrection, both of which are tackled in the story. It is also a critique of a common teaching at the time, that wealth is a sign of being blessed of God and poverty is evidence of God’s cursing. Boy, I sure am glad we don’t have that idea any more.

Lazarus, our central character, is unique. In all the parables that Jesus tells, there is only one person who gets a name: Lazarus. It means, “the one whom God helps.” The rich man, his foil, is painted as a caricature of wealth and callousness. He dresses in the finest purple, a sign of his overinflated sense of ego. So much so, in fact, that he not only clothes himself outwardly in riches, but even his underwear is extravagant (the text calls it “fine linen”, but that’s just a polite first century way of saying “undies”). He is feasting every day, not even taking a break on the Sabbath. He is in utter disregard of human sympathies and of God’s most basic teachings.

Meanwhile, Lazarus lies at the rich man’s gate, just outside the house. He doesn’t get there by himself, though. Instead, the people of the town bring him there, a common practice in small villages of Jesus’ time. The others may not have had the means to help Lazarus with his plight, but they at least show him compassion and carry him to the gate of the one man in town who does have the wherewithal. Even the dogs, the ones who should be guarding the rich man’s house from unwanted guests, even they are willing to show compassion to Lazarus by licking his wounds. In the parable, the dogs are more humane than the rich man.

But the rich man isn’t the only one at fault. He feasts every day, which means he is entertaining guests who join him in his daily gluttony. Just like the master of the house, they pass right by the gate. And we’re left to wonder whether it is out of sheer callousness or perhaps out of some sense of compassion fatigue, so used are they to the sight of suffering Lazarus that they have become immune to it.

Can we see ourselves in this story? The rich man and his friends are so beyond the pale that we might find it hard to let Jesus’ critique connect with us. But have you ever experienced compassion fatigue? Is there that friend or family member who seems always to be in crisis, so much so that it is to the point that you don’t even notice anymore? It’s kind of like the moral version of receptor desensitization, where you are surrounded by a particular smell so much that you don’t even notice it. I remember being in seminary and working in a coffee shop. I would come home reeking of the grounds, but I had ceased to notice about four hours prior.

And it’s these senses which can be so key to our survival. I remember a friend who had the smell of gas in his house. He was so used to it, he didn’t notice it anymore. It took his friends to point it out and get it fixed. We can get to the point where we are desensitized to our own peril.

And that’s the case with the rich man in this parable. Even after death, he still doesn’t seem to get it. He can’t wake up and smell the compassion, because it has been ground out of him. In the end of the parable, each one seems to get what they deserve. Lazarus, who suffered in life, is comforted by Abraham. And the rich man, who had nothing but material excess in life, now suffers immeasurably.

You would think that this suffering would be a wake up call; but he still doesn’t seem to have a clue. He knows Lazarus’ name – think about that – he knows the name of the man who sat as his gate, but never bothered to help him. Even so, even in death, even in torment, he still won’t speak to Lazarus, but appeals to Abraham to send Lazarus down to him. So it’s not enough for the rich man to suffer after a lifetime of extravagance and to see that Lazarus is now getting the comfort he never got in life. He still thinks that the old social rules still apply, so lower-status Lazarus must still be meant to serve him.

And here’s the kicker: the rich man never repents. He never apologizes to Lazarus for ignoring him. He never admits any sense of wrong. He just tries to weasel his way out of torment or, save that, the torment that certainly faces those with whom he dined day in and day out. There is no desire to make things right or to atone for past misdeeds; just the self-serving urge to save himself and others from suffering.

According to Ken Bailey, and I believe him, there is much more to this story than initially meets the eye. Jesus isn’t offering a definitive lesson about the way the afterlife sorts out. If he is, then the only reason for us to care about those who suffer is ultimately self-serving, in that we want to avoid our own eternal punishment. For those like Lazarus, their suffering becomes a means to an end, because it’ll all work out for them in the end, won’t it?

If that’s the message, then it’s contrary to the whole of Jesus’ teaching and ministry. Jesus demonstrated compassion again and again and again to those who rarely got any at that time – to children, to women, to lepers, to the poor, to Gentiles, even to those who wished him harm and carried out his crucifixion. If Jesus is the fullest example of God in human form, then we learn from his life – not to mention his death – what it is that God desires of us in the here and now. This parable isn’t an encouragement of “pie in the sky” thinking, that people who hunger now – whether that’s us or them – should just bear with the belly-rumbling, because they’ll get their pie soon enough.

Instead, the message here is a bit like our Pearly Gates jokes – though perhaps without the punch line. It’s a commentary on Jesus’ society and, indeed, ours. It is mean to stir us from our complacency and get about the business of creating a world that looks more like the world that God envisions. It is clear that Jesus has a dim view of “the way things are” as painted in the parable. But because the rich man becomes such a caricature of excess, we might compare ourselves favorably to him and lose sight of the fact that we, too, often become desensitized at our own peril.

Here’s a statistic that ought to shock us: the average American household throws away 122 pounds of food a month – that’s in grocery stores, homes, restaurants. At its heart, this is a problem of stewardship – how it is that we take care of the things that God entrusts to us.

That’s the truth of the rich man: he thinks that the wealth he has is his and his alone, when instead it is something which God expects him to use for God’s purposes. Are we really that far away from that caricature?

We could leave it there, as a tough measure of what God demands of us. But the reality is that what God really desires of us is to be partners with Christ in unbinding the gospel, setting the good news of God’s desires free on this broken and unsuspecting world. And there are ways that we do that already here at OPC.

Today, we took note of one of those ministries. For forty years, we have operated a Food Pantry here that lends a hand to those in need in our own community. And in a few weeks, that Food Pantry will be moving just up the road to Chamblee into a new cooperative venture with the other Brookhaven area churches, so that this ministry can both continue and grow. This ministry is only made possible through the sweat equity of our Bargain Shop volunteers,  or the generosity of those in our community – members and friends alike. Lest we forget the lesson of this parable, we also receive largesse through the excess of our society. Local grocery stores donate desserts and breads from the excess that they have; a kindness, to be sure. At the same time, they – we – have so much stuff that we don’t know what to do with it all.

This ministry is just one way that we participate with Christ in unleashing the gospel. What does that look like in its fullness? What if we really opened ourselves to God to let God use us as instruments of holiness? What would it mean to strive for a world in which this parable of a rich man ignoring a beggar becomes such an absurdity that no one could ever imagine such a thing happening? Can we even fathom such a possibility?

It is, ultimately, what God desires of us. And it is what God hopes for us, not because it keeps us from eternal torment, but because it is the clearest sign possible that God hasn’t given up on us and hasn’t given up on this world yet.

We may not be able to change the world. But we can certainly do our part in this little corner of God’s world to build the kingdom. Are you ready? Are you ready to turn the gospel loose?