Sermon 18 Pentecost Yr C

18 Pentecost Yr C, 26/09/2010

Lk 16:19-31

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“A parable of judgement and grace”

The story of the rich man and Lazarus in today’s gospel is a parable of both judgement and grace. For the rich man, there is, in the end, judgement, sober judgement that likely makes most of us cringe and perhaps fills us with fear and dread. In contrast to the rich man, there is, in the end, grace for poor Lazarus, whose life in this world was full of suffering and misery. I suspect that most of us cheer in our hearts when God rewards Lazarus in heaven. However, I think that because of where we live in the world, we struggle with the Good News of this parable. Here in Canada we are among the richest countries of the world. We have, and far too often take for granted, what two-thirds of the world’s population can only dream about. Two-thirds of the world’s people shall never likely enjoy the lifestyle that we do—at least not in this life. Therefore the parable is most uncomfortable for us, since we are like the rich man. What sort of future do we have to look forward to? How have we been a part of the problem or solution in terms of a more equal distribution of wealth? Have we been good stewards of our riches and do we share them with people in need? Or do we, like the rich man, live selfish lives, and care less about the poor in our midst and the poor in our larger world? Tough questions I know. Questions that may or may not bring judgement upon us. Yet the parable is a wake up call for us who live in this rich country of Canada. The parable raises these questions among us.

   Recently I read the newsletter from my seminary in Saskatoon. In it there was an interesting article written by a bright, young seminary student, Melissa Hoehn. She shares her reflections on a life-challenging trip that she and other seminary students made to Ethiopia. Her experiences in Ethiopia are similar to what is happening in today’s gospel parable. Listen to what she says:

   The morning we arrived was the first day of experiencing many new things that would become familiar over the next few weeks. The streets of Addis were the first place where I came face to face with some of the poverty and pain that exists in Ethiopia. On one of the first days in Addis, Jay Lutz and I were walking down the street and a little girl, about four years old, started walking beside me. She was dirty and her hair was unkempt. She looked up at me with big round brown eyes, stuck out her little hand, and said “money!” As I kept walking, a cloud of questions followed me. Who was this child? Would she be going to school? Where were her parents? What was her future? Almost everywhere we travelled in Ethiopia, we saw people living in what we would consider extreme poverty in North America. Being confronted with this reality without being able to immediately do anything about it was uncomfortable, to say the least.

   It has been six months since I returned from Ethiopia. I’m comfortable back in my routine. I still use way too much water. I still hear people tell me that there’s nothing we can really do about poverty and other social issues, especially in the developing world. But now I truly know that isn’t true. I have been changed by the people I met and what I have seen, in such a way that I could never have anticipated from reading a book or seeing pictures. I know now that the world is bigger than my miniscule frame of reference, and I have seen with my own eyes that simple acts of service, when done with love and respect for those in need, as well as a level-headed view of the future, can effect amazing change.1

   So too, the parable opens a door for us to not be like the selfish rich man and ignore the poor in our midst. We can have compassion on the poor and care for them, just as many Christians from wealthy countries have compassion on the poverty-stricken Ethiopians and serve their needs through organisations like Support for Sustainable Development, which do make a difference to improve the quality of life for the poor.

   In the parable the rich man seems totally unaware of Lazarus’ presence or his needs. On the other hand, it is quite ironic that dogs—which are considered an unclean animal by Jews—come to Lazarus and show compassion towards him by licking his sores. Life for poor Lazarus was hell-on-earth. One day after another was filled with suffering and hunger. The same, sad to say, is true even in our wealthy Canadian cities. There is many a Lazarus who is hungry, unemployed, sick and homeless in our wealthy Canadian cities. How do we treat Lazarus in our midst?

   As we learn from the parable, there are eternal consequences for how we manage or mismanage our wealth. I know it is not popular to say this, yet the parable itself does: there is a possibility of suffering terrible eternal consequences if we fail to care for the poor neighbours in our midst. The thought of this is disturbing—hopefully disturbing enough to motivate us into loving action by serving the poor.

   Another important message of this parable is the importance of listening to God’s Word and responding to it by faithful, loving acts of obedience. The rich man pleads with father Abraham for his five brothers. He asks that Lazarus be sent to warn them and prevent them from going to Hades. Abraham says ‘no’ to that plea because they have the Word of God through Moses and the prophets to listen to. According to Abraham, not even someone rising from the dead and visiting the five brothers would convince them if they fail to listen to and obey God’s Word from Moses and the prophets. The finality of the judgement in this parable is most sobering, is it not? Unlike other parables, like the prodigal son, for example; in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man there is no opportunity for second or third or more chances to be redeemed to change the judgement of the rich man or his five brothers if they fail to listen to God’s Word and obey it.

   Does this mean then that for the rich of the world they must earn their way into heaven by good works rather than grace? I don’t think so. God freely gave the rich man grace upon grace, filling his life with good things while he lived in this world. He had been given countless opportunities to be a wise and loving steward of his wealth. What did he do? Well, he spent it in hedonistic living—thinking only of himself and extravagant living. The implication of the parable is that he knew better because he had been taught God’s Word and yet he ignored and disobeyed God’s Word even though he was capable of responding to it by the opportunities given to him. So he is blind and cold-hearted towards his closest neighbour Lazarus, who would have been happy even with the leftovers from the rich man’s table. In behaving in this way, he cuts himself off from God’s grace.

   On the other hand, we have a contrast in the parable concerning Lazarus’ ultimate destiny. We are not told anything about the character of Lazarus or whether he has listened to and obeyed God’s Word. All we learn is that he is a poor, hungry person. How he ended up that way, we do not know. Yet, according to the parable it is by God’s grace alone that he is taken to Abraham’s bosom in the afterlife. He is given the honoured place of reward. Did he earn it by good works? Clearly, from what we are told in the parable the answer is NO! He is given his eternal reward thanks to God’s loving grace alone. For Luke the poor have a special place—they are favoured by God. To paraphrase liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez: The poor are poor because no one is on their side—that is precisely why God is on their side. So it is that Jesus says in Luke’s version of the beatitude: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (6:20) If Jesus was on the side of the poor, and we are followers of Jesus, then we too are called to be on the side of the poor and bless them—not just with words, but also with heart-warming deeds of loving kindness, like Jesus himself.

   May we be given the grace to listen to God’s Word and obediently respond to it by loving the poor neighbours in our midst and around the globe. 

1 Cited from: Melissa Hoehn, “Journey To Ethiopia,” in Sheaves: Newsletter of Lutheran Theological Seminary Saskatoon, July 2010 #44, pp. 10 & 13.

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About dimlamp
I am, among other things, a sojourner, a sinner-saint, a baptized, life-long learner and follower of Jesus, and Lutheran pastor. Dim Lamp: dimlamp.wordpress.com gwh photos: gwhphotos.wordpress.com

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