Sermon - Ordinary 26 Year C - | RCL Resources Index | DBHome |
Warning and promise
[Note: This sermon based on the Gospel reading for today also draws on the Old Testament lesson from Jeremiah. Although these are not necessarily linked, there is a common theme of hope beyond the warning of danger.]
The idea that good people will find themselves in Paradise after they die, and those who have not been as good as they should have been will suffer in the flames of Hell, is a strong tradition in our culture, a legacy of many generations of Christian teaching and discipline. Of course, we don't all believe it literally, though some do; but it remains a vivid picture of judgement with a strong influence on our thinking, and not far from consciousness even amongst people who are now far removed from the church. In fact, it is often something you will see raised by non-believers in the media. It may be for some a reason for having nothing to do with the Christian faith. It is often of an object of satire and ridicule. Yet people do think about it.
It can also be a cause of division amongst Christians: those with a liberal outlook wishing to do away with the threat of judgment, believing that love will triumph in the salvation of all, while others more concerned with the fundamentals of biblical faith will assert that punishment of the wicked is necessary and unavoidable. Then there are those who say we should be more concerned about this life and rather than with what may follow after death. The story we read today of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) would be significant for people who think only of its social justice message in pointing to the importance of people not being selfish with their earthly belongings and having regard for the poor - in much the same way as the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46) with its themes of giving a cup a water to the thirsty, or visiting those in prison, might be understood in a social justice way without paying too much attention to the words about eternal punishment or entering into the joy of the Lord, except as points of emphasis in telling a story. It might be understood that way, as an exhortation to live generously rather than as a warning of judgment at the end, but many will want to ask whether there is not more to it.
We don't have to choose between these different ways of understanding the parable. They all convey some of the meaning, and an exclusive emphasis on one kind of interpretation will probably occur only when someone has another agenda like a political point to make or a particular attitude to the authority of scripture. But lest you think that, in a postmodern way, you can make of it whatever you will, I must, to be true to what I believe was the intention of Jesus in telling it, emphasise that it was one of a number of warnings Jesus gave of the disastrous consequences of not being prepared for the sudden, unexpected coming of the Kingdom of God or of our own death. You might not have to take it literally, but you do have to take it seriously in those respects.
What do you think Jesus was trying to do when he told the story of the rich man and the poor man Lazarus who was a beggar at his gate? It might help to take notice of the report by scholars that there was a story which originated in Egypt, that was going around amongst the Jews at that time, about a rich man and poor man who both died, and rich man found himself in torment and poor man in paradise. The main point only seems to have been that fortunes could be reversed in the realm of the dead. It was a time when there was a great deal of speculation about life after death. It was in their time a "modern" idea: an idea for which there was little evidence in the Hebrew scriptures although it was there, as Jesus showed, for those who had the eyes to see it.
You may remember that Jesus is reported in the gospels as having been in dispute with the Sadducees about the possibility of resurrection. People argued about the nature of life beyond the grave and whether there could be any at all. There had been a commonly held vague idea of a sleep-like state which a dead person entered in caverns under the earth, that is in Hades (not the same as Hell), the realm of the dead. That understanding was quite a long way from the idea of being raised up to a new life which Jesus taught.
Besides being opposed to the teaching about resurrection, the Sadducees were known for their love of riches, so when Jesus began saying,
the kind of person he had in mind should have been fairly well known to his listeners.
Furthermore they would not have expected Jesus merely to repeat a well known story. They would be listening for something special he would do with it, and they would not be disappointed. His message comes, as usual at the end, when the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers in case they should fall into the same trap:
Here was the point: the new highlight to the old story. Here was the special use to which Jesus put it. He was not retelling the story to reinforce popular ideas about what the afterlife is like, or to give new information about the next world, but to make the point that there is a future life, and that the heartless selfishness of the Sadducees arises from the fact that they denied this truth as they justified the philosophy of 'eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die'. Their greatest achievement was to gain the respect of their fellows and to be given a grand funeral. But there was more that they needed to know. And note the reply that Jesus had the rich man give to Abraham when the rich man asked for a warning to be sent to his brothers:
That was clearly addressed to the Sadducees who accepted only those parts of the Hebrew scriptures. It was to this source that Jesus had referred them when on another occasion in debate with them he said,
But, of course, the rich man knew that his brothers would not have learned this from Moses, for their minds were closed to it, so Jesus has him raise the extraordinary prospect of someone actually returning from the dead.
How much that character said more he said than he knew-- neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead! The early Christians hearing the story retold by the apostles and evangelists will have seen quickly how true it was. It was indeed the resurrection that non-believers needed to know about. That was what the Sadducees were missing and the key point of belief that those who later rejected the Gospel would also miss. There it is, the great tragedy: neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.
What then is Jesus telling us about God? We may have various theories about the afterlife, but in whatever way we image it there are real consequences of what we do in this life for what happens to us later, as we saw last week in regard to the use of money, and God has so ordered things that we can be raised to a new life. The conclusion also points us beyond the teaching ministry of Jesus to his death and resurrection: that is, to the consequences for him of the kind of choices people made that led to his death and to the way his resurrection opened the way for us to enter upon a new life which was more rewarding than we deserved or could imagine. The judgment that could not be avoided in the justice of God pointed beyond itself to the promise of new life in his infinite mercy - if only we could believe it! - promised as it was so long ago.
Beware, though, that in accepting the message about resurrection, the main point against the Sadducees, we do not miss the demand for justice. The rich man was in danger because of what he cared for in this life. He was in danger of missing out on his true potential to live a new life as a child of God, a life prepared in readiness for the beggar whose sores the dogs licked, while like the priest and the lawyer in the story of the Good Samaritan, he walked past at his gate. Do not choose between concern for justice, judgment and resurrection. Jesus intended them to be linked together, as they will be in the Kingdom of God.
The Old Testament reading for today tells us something similar about God. Jesus, as we have seen, had spoken of Moses, and he also referred to the prophets as bearers of the message that the rich man and his brothers needed to hear. We may learn something similar from the prophet Jeremiah in today's lesson (Jeremiah 32). In it we hear how the people of ancient Judah learned about the combination of God's concern with justice, judgment and resurrection -- of how the terrible judgment which befell their nation led to the good news of resurrection.
The setting for a great symbolic action by Jeremiah, when he expressed faith in the future of the nation by buying a plot of land which the enemy was already taking over, is one of the two greatest events in a thousand years in the life of his nation. The earlier defining event in the life of the people of ancient Israel was the exodus when they escaped from Egypt. The second was the exile when their surviving kingdom of Judah was destroyed, never to be restored as an independent country, and many of its people were taken away to a foreign land. Jeremiah had walked the streets of Jerusalem as a prophet of doom. He had spoken with the rulers for years warning them that disaster was coming, though he was severely punished many times. We are dealing with real historical events here, not just stories told to make a point. The kings of Judah had tried to play off one great power against another and to take sides in conflicts which were beyond their capacity to influence, while the king and people flirted with the gods of these of these foreign powers.
They were said even to have sacrificed children to these terrible gods [on this see also the second half of the sermon Faithfulness to the Word of God], and to have enslaved their own people who should have been set free and to have done many other evils.
Because they had turned their backs on the Lord they were doomed:
That had been Jeremiah's message. Yet when the army of the king of Babylon was besieging the city, he, the very prophet of doom, went and bought land from his cousin, paying full price for it and sealing the deed in a jar to preserve it for a long time.
So the message now continued:
Jeremiah, though he warned of judgment, gave the sign of new life in the midst of death, and so the nature of God was revealed. His judgment is not separated from his lovingkindness. He does not abandon, but corrects his children and calls them out of death to live again.
Accept the warning, the dangers are real; and accept the promise, for he sent his son eventually to take us by faith beyond the consequences of our sin to eternal life, and expect the transformation of the world that justice shall prevail in the New Jerusalem. All praise to him through whom God fulfilled his promise, our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
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