Monday, October 1, 2007

Two Men Died and Went to Heaven

Two Men Died and Went to Heaven...

© copyright 2007 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Luke 16:19-31
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time — September 30, 2007

Like thousands of bad office jokes which start with people arriving at the pearly gates only to be interrogated by Saint Peter over some silly entrance test, the story Jesus tells his disciples sounds like a joke waiting for a punch line. Remember the one about the Texan who arrived at the gates of his eternal home and remarked, “I didn’t know heaven would look so much like Texas.” A voice responded, “This isn’t heaven.” Or what about the one in which two elderly ladies sit on a park bench and one turns to the other and says, “I’m getting so old, my friends up in heaven must think I didn’t make it.”

Yes, Jesus’ story starts out like those funny stories with the whiz-bang finish, but the punch line is anything but humorous.

As we think together about Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus, I’d like to reflect with you for a moment about charity. Charity is something which most of us hope never to need to receive. We like to control our own destinies, for the most part, and the image of sitting by the curb, banging a tin cup in hopes that sympathy will cause others to toss a few coins our way just does not meet with our ideas about our own independence. I don’t ever want to be in a place in which I will need to receive charity in order to survive. Probably, neither do you.

While the old saying may be “Charity begins at home,” it is a saying that was created precisely because the good we do for each other at home doesn’t feel like charity. Taking care of “our own” is just our first priority, anyone should understand that. When family members help each other out, that’s not charity, that’s just taking care of family.

Isn’t it true that we generally carry around two different kinds of thinking about acts of good will that we do for others?

Good will type #1 would refer to those things we are more than willing to do for family or perhaps even for close friends, the sort of thing that we may do without even thinking about it. It just comes naturally; “After all,” we may say to ourselves, “we are family.” Or “What are friends for?”

Good will type #2 is the standard, tax-deductible contribution we might be willing to make on behalf of “the less fortunate.” We really do live with these two types of giving in our minds, don’t we? Is the second type the “real” meaning behind a word like charity?

I decided to let Webster guide my thinking on this term. I discovered that in my dictionary1 the first definition for charity is:

“The love of God for humanity, or of one person for another.” — Hm...

I hadn’t expected that to occur first. So I read on...

Definition number 2 is “An act of good will or affection.” — Hmm.....
Definition number 3 is “The feeling of good will, benevolence.” — Hmmm.......
Definition number 4 is “The quality of being kind or lenient in judging others.” — HMMM!

Finally, definition number 5 gave me what I would have thought would have placed first or second judging by contemporary usage:

“A giving of money or other help to those in need.”

It turns out that my dictionary took the theological high road in choosing God’s love as the first definition of charity. Reverend Webster! Of course my deskside dictionary was published in 1962...

My own confusion about the types of recipients of our kindnesses is, I think, the very reason behind Jesus’ story about the rich man and Lazarus. This is not a story about the furnishings of heaven, nor is it a post-terrestrial sketch of the importance of Abraham in God’s scheme of salvation and eternity, heaven and hell. It is about the family of faith and who is “in” and who is “out.”

Here is a clue to the meaning behind this story. If Jesus were to have stopped at verse 26, we would have had a story about reversal of fortunes after death, a story not unlike many other stories unearthed in other Eastern Mediterranean cultures from the centuries near the time of Jesus. It is a classic sort of reversal story in every detail:
  • the rich man whose name was probably known to anybody who was anybody when he was alive remains nameless in this story, while poor, forgotten, suffering Lazarus’ name is mentioned no fewer than four times.
  • Lazarus, who must certainly have suffered anonymity in life, is given the red carpet treatment in death, carried to heaven by angels to be with father Abraham; meanwhile the rich man, Jesus declared simply, was buried.
People have always cherished a belief that after death, if not before, there will come some divinely ordained time of reckoning at which those who have behaved unjustly will get their just desserts, while those innocents who have suffered will come to know final vindication. This visceral thirst for evening of the score exists in the stories of many peoples, and is certainly not unique to the teaching of Jesus. So there isn’t much in the way of gospel here through verse 26.

But, as it turns out, Jesus did not stop at verse 26 with Lazarus lounging in the lap of Abraham, father of all Jews, and the rich man burning in the fires of hell. Jesus added a few further details that throw light on our new calling to be disciples, to be the family of faith together.

Do we wonder why the rich man was described as suffering the tortures of the damned? Most of us would answer that it is because of his treatment of Lazarus, and we could be right. But in the story, the rich man doesn’t actually treat Lazarus so badly. He doesn’t go out to his gate every day and beat Lazarus, or tear his cup of gruel from his lips in order to give it to his dogs. He doesn’t set his dogs on him, in fact the dogs seemed to be the only ones who noticed Lazarus. He doesn’t even attempt to run him off from his gated community for loitering around the premises, lowering the value of his property. As far as candidates for hell go, this rich man gives us a pretty poor example of cruelty. Maybe at the maximum, instead of hell he should go to Purgatory for a short while — though Presbyterians don’t actually believe in Purgatory, so maybe he should just go to heck...

His punishment seems much too severe when we think about it, doesn’t it? We could number off a dozen modern despots much more deserving of hell than this fellow, the murderous 20th century tyrants, the Stalins, the Hitlers, the Idi Amins, the Khmer Rouge, the Saddam Husseins, the Osama ben Ladens. The rich man did no murdering, no torturing. No, it seems the worst accusation we could make against this fellow is that he more or less ignored Lazarus. He just took no notice of him, it was as though it didn’t occur to him that Lazarus existed, even though he practically had to trip over him at his front step every day.

Here is a clue to the problem the fictional rich man of Jesus’ story brought on himself. It comes in those verses that Jesus added to what was otherwise a common, traditional story of the time, verses 27 through 31. In these verses the rich man suggests a field trip for Lazarus. He asks father Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers about the torment in store for them — as though Lazarus was still some lower-class servant to be ordered around by people who were his social superiors. It is precisely there that the clue to understanding Jesus’ story lies.

Both Lazarus and the rich man can rightfully call Abraham “father,” since both are Jews, both are numbered among his descendants. And if two people share a common father, it can mean only one thing, can’t it? It means they are brothers or brother and sister or sisters. What the rich man forgot, or never bothered to know, is that he left behind not five brothers, but six. Five were very likely living it up the way the rich man of our story was, but the sixth was languishing in deep pain, right at the doorway to the house, right under his very nose. The rich man made the mistake of thinking that anything he might do for Lazarus would amoun to charity and would simply encourage more rag-tag people to come around looking for a handout. He didn’t realize that Lazarus was family, a fellow child of Abraham, dying, right there in front of him and he never saw him.

The greatest of the world’s cruelties, to this very day, are not those that capture all the headlines, actions of vicious monsters who torture and kill people. The greatest cruelty by far is to find yourself forgotten, cast off, expendable. There are far more millions suffering this fate than will ever die by the sword of Al Qaeda, cruel as it may be.

The nineteenth century Victorian standard of the “deserving poor” was most graphically depicted through Charles Dickens’ many poor but noble characters like Bob Cratchit and his son, Tiny Tim. The undeserving poor, however, were those thieving varmints, like Fagin or Bill Sykes, who preyed on civilized people. The problem with making this distinction is that it is simply unchristian. Think how it would sound if stated by a pastor who claimed he had been called only to minister to the “truly sinful.” Who does that leave out?

We find in this story that Jesus gets our attention by challenging us to decide what kind of people we will be: those who tell stories about rich people and poor people, or those who live stories about people who are brothers and sisters. One of the reasons that our church budgets always contain items for mission beyond our own buildings is that even in addressing our own church programs, we want always to take pains to remember Lazarus at the gate. If Lazarus is my brother, he will not be starving at our church doorstep, but will be in our house, joining us at the Lord’s table. If the people of God are a family of faith, Lazarus will not find himself hustled out the door if he forgot to wear the right clothes or speaks a different language, but will be seated in the sanctuary along with all the other sinners to be fed by the Living Word of God. We have no less authority on this than Moses and the prophets; if we ignore them, not even a savior risen from the dead will be able to thaw our frozen hearts.

Copyright © 2007 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
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