Proper 21, Year C, 2019
Kevin Gore, St Andrew’s Mountain Home
This last week an interesting discussion ensued on a forum board for the Society of Catholic Priests, an Anglican order to which I belong whose members are of an Anglo-Catholic bend. Now that I say that sentence out loud I can see how you would be suspicious that it truly was that interesting. But let’s just say it was interesting to me. The conversation was started by a priest who was seeking advice on burial customs for another priest. What followed was an explanation of many rites and customs for burying priests, some more modern than others I’m sure. For example, it was explained that the tradition is before burial to clothe a priest in the vestments they were ordained in. Another is that a priest should be buried just slightly higher than members of the congregation if they are buried at the church they served. And all this got me thinking about burial customs.
Humans have, according to archeological evidence, been practicing burial rituals for at least one hundred thirty thousand years. Now we also know that social animals such as ravens and elephants also seem to have common practices around death. But humans have certainly been the most elaborate of social creatures. We can think of Norse Vikings being buried with ships full of armor and treasures, or perhaps the pharaohs buried with riches, food, and anything else they might need in the afterlife. There is the terra cotta army, buried with the first emperor of China to protect him in the afterlife. Even today there are all sorts of customs around what one is buried with or how one is buried. But today’s Gospel reading brings one of many truths to the foreground. One of the obvious points Jesus makes is that whether you are a Viking, or a pharaoh, a priest, or an emperor, you don’t get to take it with you when you die.
Jesus of course is teaching far more than just that, but is drawing a clear line between how the rich man and Lazarus live and how they spend their afterlife. From the beginning, the divide is broad and clear. One man wears purple and feasts every day. The other feeds off scraps and is clearly in poor health. When they die, the roles are reversed. The rich man languishes in Hades, tormented, and seeking consolation from Abraham, who is with the angels and the poor man Lazarus somewhere far better. The rich man apparently though hasn’t really learned a lesson because he is still concerned with the immediate need rather than the big picture. He begs Abraham for water, for reprieve, but it isn’t going to come. So then he begs Abraham to send someone back from the dead to warn his brothers that if they don’t amend their lives they will end up like this one did. Abraham’s response is interesting, and I’ll get to it in a minute. But first let’s look at this first part a little more.
If we put this into a modern context, perhaps we could say once there was a rich man, or a well off man, or even just someone who has a roof over their head, clothes on their back, and a full stomach. And that person would walk down the street from home to work every day with their earbuds in and do their best to ignore all the homeless people sitting along the sidewalk, begging for even just a moment of human compassion. Or perhaps the person who does their best to pretend they don’t see someone standing near the exit of a store parking lot, holding a sign, asking for any small blessing. It’s worth considering how we respond to these people. It’s worth contemplating how Jesus would ask us to respond to these people.
In general, the author of the Gospel of Luke is quite concerned about the social structure. Early on, in the recitation of the Magnificat, or the song of Mary, we hear Mary proclaim,
“He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the
proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”
The entire Gospel is bent towards an understanding of the justice of God’s Kingdom and our duty as followers of Christ to uphold that.
Jesus isn’t saying that wealth alone is bad. There is nothing here to insinuate that the rich man ends up in Hades because he likes to wear purple. It has everything to do with how he lived his life in relation to Lazarus. Jesus is also speaking to something we hear less about, and that is what is called by Professor Fred Craddock as a Deuteronomic approach that the Pharisees had. They relied on a few verses in Deuteronomy that they could help support an idea that if you were rich is was because God was blessing you and you were worthy. If you were poor, well, the opposite. It is not unlike the modern prosperity Gospel we hear from televangelists and those who seek only monetary gain in their golden tongued service as so called pastors. Jesus is making clear that this is not the case. What you do with your good luck, with your skill, with your wealth matters to how God wants us to live.
I want to be clear here too, because this is a difficult subject, that I am no paragon of perfection. I struggle with knowing when to help someone and when maybe they aren’t offering a picture of the truth. I struggle with just being able to spend time talking with folks who are panhandling or begging on the street. Just having a conversation with them can, sometimes, be the greatest riches you can offer them. Studies have shown that just acknowledging a person’s existence goes a long way in their mental well being. Imagine how different life would be for Lazarus if the rich man stopped to speak with him, to share some of his opulence with him. Think about ways you can challenge yourself to work better towards living the way Christ calls us.
Let’s get back to Abraham’s response. When Jesus wraps up this parable he’s telling to the Pharisees, I want to think that he’s being quite cheeky. The rich man begs for Abraham to send someone back from the dead to tell his brothers about how to live. Abraham says, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” If Jesus is God incarnate, he’s got to know what comes after death for him. He knows he has to go to the cross; he’s on his way there. So I really want to think that Jesus adds this to the end knowing that he will in fact do just that. He will rise from the dead, to herald the beginning of God’s reconciliation with creation and to proclaim the Kingdom at hand. The question remains for us if we will listen, if we will be convinced.
The question is will we live the way Christ calls us to, or will we live the way the rich man does, concerned only with earthly things? Will we ignore those who suffer because it’s not convenient for our lives, or our allegiances, or our politics? We will take the easy route and turn a blind eye to those that suffer even in our own community, or will we reach a hand out, will we bridge that chasm between our world and theirs to offer a momentary glimpse of the Kingdom that is ruled by the God whom we worship and adore?