Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31
Ordinary 26C; Proper 21
Is there any hope for the rich person? In 1 Timothy? In Luke’s story of Lazarus and the rich man?
What about for Jeremiah, locked up, guarded, foolishly buying land he himself will never likely occupy? What hope for release does he have? Desperation appears to be the name of the game this week. Jeremiah’s lot and that of the rich man are fixed. Jeremiah cannot escape the confines of prison or the painful consequences of being chosen to be a prophet and coming under criticism from his people and the king. That rich man who shunned a hungry, suffering Lazarus at his doorstep is doomed to languish in eternal torment. Lazarus only gets relief from the desperation of poverty and pain on the other side of this earthly life. Even the epistle lesson proclaims the inevitability that love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.
What do we do, as people of faith, with desperate, apparently hopeless, interminable, inevitable circumstances? Surely, the whole of the good news is not the hope of glory only on the other side of the grave. The church and church people for far too long proffered this theology as an excuse to step over Lazarus on the way to worship and feel righteous as they did so. The prophets and the Gospels offer too many counternarratives for us to defend that position with integrity. Given that, where is the good news for Lazarus while he still longs for table scraps at the gate of his rich neighbor? Where is the hope for the rich and their siblings in 1 Timothy or in Luke? What about for those likely to die imprisoned and hated?
A temptation might be to take the texts of 1 Timothy and Luke and turn them into a simple morality tale: Don’t be greedy. Share what you have. Get your priorities straight. Or, in the words of the baseball hat I see in my town, “Make America Kind Again.” Don’t get me wrong, a resurgence of kindness would be most welcomed and not unimportant. However, the gospel is more radical than kindness, more disruptive than mere niceness and more upending that handing out table scraps we likely don’t want anyway.
God calls and empowers prophets to speak hard words to their own people despite the isolation and persecution that come as a result. The gospel renders every loyalty and relationship secondary to our love and obedience to Jesus Christ and this loyalty ought to have material manifestations in the here and now, not just in heaven. The Word of the Lord triumphs over any chasm we create through insulating and isolating wealth, through prison bars literal or metaphorical, through systems that oppress and policies that keep the rich rich and Lazarus suffering. The kingdom of God is present and earthly, not only future and heavenly.
Subsequently, we cannot read these verses as only a morality tale or merely a picture of what is to come. We need to mine them for the explosive inbreaking of God’s power that transforms our life together now and forever. The two are inextricably bound together. Jeremiah may be locked up in this text for a time as a result of his faithful proclamation, but it is the rich man who will never escape the confines of his self-imposed isolation on earth or his other worldly captivity, which is also of his own making. Lazarus will ultimately be released from the bondage of oppression, poverty and pain, but the rich man who assumed he was due perpetual comfort discovers otherwise. And yet, despite the rich man’s desperation, he continues to dehumanize and seeks to use Lazarus.
Did you notice that? Even in hell, the rich man expects others to tend to his needs. Send Lazarus to bring me water. Send Lazarus to warn my brothers. Somehow, he still does not understand rightly his relationship to Lazarus and its connection to his relationship to God. Perhaps this fact helps unpack these desperate texts. What if we viewed them all through the lens of God’s call to right relationship with the holy and with one another? What if we considered how Jeremiah and Timothy and Luke tell us about what God desires for us and for all creation?
Jeremiah buys that piece of land in a place that will be desolate for a long time, and yet the word he proclaims is that God’s ultimate vision for that place is that it will be joyfully inhabited once again. Timothy warns that money is the root of all kinds of evil because God longs for us to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness, surely a prescription for abundant life for all and characteristics that reflect our right relationship to the One we worship. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus calls on us to mind the gaps, to recognize the great chasms we create between people and peoples and not only recognize them, but work to close them, work to make sure that all get invited to the banquet, have a seat at the table and eat well. Desperation comes for all of us, eventually, when we follow our own way and stop at nothing to look out for ours and ourselves alone, when we ignore Moses and the prophets, when we see Lazarus as our servant and fail to heed Jesus’ call to serve, when we refuse to be content with God’s divine order and attempt to impose our own.
The hope of this Sunday’s readings come when we recognize just how radical God’s call is upon our lives. We are to be the people in this world so assured of God’s goodness, grace and power that we invest in people and places the world has washed their hands of, turned their back on and written off. We are to be the people in this world who recognize the humanity and belovedness of Lazarus and treat him accordingly, seeking equity and proximity for those the world steps over, exploits, excludes and relegates to the margins, the borders, to tent cities and overcrowded detention centers. We are to be the people in this world who know that money is a means to pursue righteousness, not to be stored in barns or used to build walls to segregate us from them. We are to be the people in this world so overwhelmed by the grace and mercy of God who sent Jesus to close the gap between us and bring redemption, to heal the divide between Jew and Greek, male and female, rich and poor, that we cannot help but seek to make visible, tangible and real the unity won for us in Christ, here and now.
Desperation comes, eventually, to all of us when we fail to see God in our midst and in one another. But we know the assurance of hope found in our unity in Christ, so we act with audacious confidence investing in desolate places and long-ignored people, working for abundant life for all on this earth until we are judged by the Lord of all.
- Is this story from Luke a morality tale? If so, what is the moral? How is it more than a morality tale?
- Who is Lazarus in our context? The person or people we ignore or dismiss?
- Who is the rich man in our context? What are we to say to the “rich man”?
- Have you ever been in what felt like a desperate situation? Did you maintain hope? If so, how? How did the circumstance change?
- Is love of money the root of evil? What is a right relationship for Christians to have to money, wealth and poverty?
- What does it really mean to seek righteousness and the other characteristics listed in 1 Timothy?
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