Luke 16:19-31; Jeremiah 32:6-15
For the past couple of weeks we have explored some of the classic stories from the book of Jeremiah. We began with the potter’s wheel where the prophet suggests we are like clay, desperately trying to form our own shape, while always resisting the designs of the one who created us. Last week the prophet, while admitting the complicity of humanity in its own failures, suggests the avenue to wholeness begins when we cry out our laments to the Lord. This week, even in the midst of Jerusalem’s immanent destruction, the prophet offers a lesson in hope. While this text can stand alone, I find linking it to the twist Jesus places on an ancient parable is most enlightening.
Most parables Jesus told were not unfamiliar to his listeners. They were ancient stories made unique by the conclusions Jesus draws. The story of Lazarus and the Rich Man is a wonderful example. In the original, which comes from the Egyptian tradition, there are two men who see each other daily but never exchange as much as a word. Lazarus is a beggar, whose greatest dream is one day being invited into the house of the rich man and allowed to feast on the scrapes that fall from the table. But that dream never comes true because the rich man does not even know Lazarus exists. They live in different worlds. For all we know the rich man might have been a really great guy. He might have been a benefactor of the Arts. He might have been active in his religious community. He might have even contributed to local charities. But our only information we have concerning the man was his relationship or to be exact his lack of a relationship with the beggar who sat just outside his gate. Both men die where there is a great reversal of fortune. Lazarus, who had nothing in life, now has everything in death. His rival was not so lucky.
The rich man, now in a place of torment, looks up and sees the beggar, “in the bosom of Abraham.” He calls out, “How can this be? What could I have possibly have done to deserve this agony.” Abraham responds, “Child, in life you received your good things and Lazarus had only evil befall him. But now he is receiving his reward and you shall live out eternity in pain.” So ends the original story.
What a great story to hear if you are poor, or female, or both as most of the original listeners of the Gospel of Luke happened to be. Don’t worry about this life. In the great reversal, God is not going only to level the playing field, God is going to turn eternity upside down. I have a suspicion not many sermons are preached on this text.
Then the rich man, realizing all is lost, begins to think about his brothers. He begs Abraham to resurrect Lazarus and send him back to earth to warn his siblings to be more aware of the plight of others. Abraham responds, “They have Moses and the prophets. If they won’t listen to them, they certainly are not going to be convinced if someone is raised from the dead.”
Here is where some of my esteemed colleagues get excited and use the text as an example of Jesus predicting his own resurrection. To do so conveniently ignores the whole message of Luke 16. This chapter divulges story after story revealing the dangers of falling in love with wealth. This chapter revolves around verse 13, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Jesus is not predicting his resurrection. He is warning lovers of money that we are living in opposition to the Word of the Lord.
A week ago some of us had the challenging experience of hearing Walter Bruggermann speak on this parable. It was no accident. Walter purposely picked this week’s lectionary text and pretty much dared us to preach on it. He began by making an interesting distinction between the role of Abraham and Moses. Abraham, the father of three religions, is the first to be chosen by God. Abraham gives up everything in search of a promise. In the end he is rewarded. Therefore Abraham stands as proof that God will care for those who like Lazarus, have nothing.
But Moses was the knight in shining armor. He liberated people from that which enslaved them. Then he gave them a law which concluded with the command, “Don’t be captivated by wealth. Instead, dream of what you and those around you can become by following the Word of the Lord.”
We struggle with conclusion of this story because Jesus said the poor are often not responsible for their plight. They are born into a system that does little to free them from their economic slavery. God knows their dilemma and does not hold them accountable. It begs one to ask where Jesus received his training in economics.
But then it gets worse. Jesus says we who have been liberated, we who were born with educational and economic advantages, are held by God to a higher standard. Instead of depending on the grace of Abraham, we are expected to live by the laws of Moses. These laws entail a relationship with all the folks with which we live. These laws remind us to not only recognize Lazarus, but to advocate on his behalf. Jesus says this is not a suggestion but a Godly obligation.
No one took this obligation more seriously than the prophet Jeremiah. The problem was no one took Jeremiah seriously. He was born a son of privilege. His words of warning against members of his own family led to his arrest. Jail time did little to rehabilitate the prophet. Each time he was released his voice grew louder. The advisors to the king declared Jeremiah to be mad, yet Jehoiakim kept inviting him back to the palace. The King would ask how God was going to protect Jerusalem from the Babylonian terrorist. Jeremiah would ask who was going to protect the poor in Jerusalem from the oppressive policies of the King. Exchanges ended with Jeremiah being escorted back to prison. Jeremiah’s final word to the king was this, God was sending Babylon to dismantle the economic and political system responsible for the plight of the poor.
Those are dangerous words which are usually taken as the rant of a madman. Perhaps Jeremiah truly was insane. As the armies of Babylon were threatening to tear down the walls of Jerusalem, Jeremiah decided to go into real estate. Imagine someone on September 11, after witnessing the attack on the first tower of the Trade Center, deciding to buy office space in the second tower. That would have been insane. Yet Jeremiah, knowing he probably would not live to see the end of the week, bought property, and placed the bill of sell in an earthen jar and buried it in the ground.
Is this madness or faith? Sometimes faith and madness are often seen as synonymous, particularly through the eyes of a pragmatist. What could Jeremiah have possibly accomplished by this reckless economic venture? The answer is as reckless as the question. True prophets of the Lord were first and foremost called to be faithful.
All his life Jeremiah, the son of prestige, had followed the Word of the Lord as understood through the commandments of Moses. But as the armies of Nebuchadnezzar crashed through the walls of Jerusalem, prestige meant nothing. To the Babylonians, Jeremiah might as well have been Lazarus. He was just another poor Israelite destined for death or slavery. The hope for Jeremiah lay in the arms of Abraham and in the promise of his God whose grace always shines beyond the darkness of the day. Jeremiah bought a piece of worthless land to declare that the God of hope is never done with us. One day those wandering, wayward, sons and daughters of Jerusalem would find their way back from Babylon to claim the birthright God had bestowed upon them. It was not a birthright of land but rather the birthright of a holy covenant. Despite the chaos, despite enslavement, despite death, God would bring them home. This is what God did and this is what God continues to do. God’s vision has never changed.
Sometimes when life or even death kicks us in the teeth and it seems nothing we do will change the shape of our world we need to remember Lazarus sitting eternally with Abraham. God remembers those who have lost hope.
But most days we still have choices. Most days we still have the opportunity to make a difference. Most days we still have a holy obligation to follow the laws of Moses. And even if that means folks think us mad, even if that means we are publically scorned, even if that means despite all our efforts the world is still spinning out of control we know, without a doubt, when the names that today dominate the world stage are no more than footnotes in history, God will still be God.
May that truth boost your faith for today and your hope for tomorrow. To God be the glory. Amen.