Reversal of Fortune
Lectionary Texts: 1 Timothy 6: 6-19, Luke 16: 19-31
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Sunday, September 25, 2016
- What Will You Do With Your Share?
So, you should have found an extra insert in your bulletin today. How about that? A dollar bill just appeared out of nowhere. It was totally unexpected. You didn’t plan on it being in there. You didn’t do anything for it. You didn’t earn it. Everyone got it, so you’re not singled out in any way. To be honest, most of us didn’t even deserve it. It was grace, a gift. Somebody gave you a gift.
So what are you going to do with it? You could just stick it in your pocket or your purse or your wallet. You could get a cup of coffee, although I’m pretty sure you’d have to add something to it. You could save it. In ten years, it will probably be worth a whole $1.63 or so. You could give it someone that needs it. You could give it back to the one who gave it to you. You could put it in the offering plate. The point is, it’s a gift. And how we use our gift is up to us. And it’s a reminder that every thing we get and everything we have is just like this dollar. It’s a gift. And how we use our gift is up to us.
So, take a look at your dollar. On the front, it’s got a big picture of George Washington. It’s got a unique serial number. No two dollars are exactly alike. It’s got the language reminding us that it is United States tender. That right there implies that it’s not ours. And it tells us how much it’s worth. And on the back, it’s got the seal of the U.S.A. And it’s got the eye of providence with some latin over it. It was borrowed from the Romans and, loosely, means something like “the eye of providence favors our undertakings”. And there, almost missed it…are the words “In God We Trust”. On the back of the dollar bill…almost an afterthought. In other words, we’re proud of what we’re doing, of what we’ve become, and, oh yeah, we really do trust God. But sometimes we have to be reminded who and whose we are and from whom all that we have really comes.
- The Rich Man and Lazarus
Yes, I know, we have yet ANOTHER difficult Gospel passage. Someone asked me the other day when we would finally get out of Luke. I promised it’s coming, but not until Advent.
Today’s passage begins at a gate. On one side of the gate we have the lavish life of the rich man. We don’t know his name; but we know he has a beautiful home, feasts on extravagant banquets, and wears fine purple linens–a sign of the upper classes. Directly on the other side of the gate, we have a desperately poor man. If the rich man notices the poor man at all, it is perhaps to be disgusted by his grubbing for scraps that would normally go to the dogs or repulsed by the sores on the poor man’s body that the dogs lick.
We can imagine the rich man passing by the poor man at the gate several times a day, never once addressing him. Mind you, it is not that the rich man wishes the poor man harm in particular; he probably doesn’t feel anything for him at all. To the rich man’s point of view, they live in two entirely different worlds with a huge divide between them–one has nothing to do with the other. There is a gate between them that is used to keep them apart.
Eventually, of course, both men die. And the parable describes how the poor man is taken to heaven and is at Abraham’s side while the rich man is tormented, separated from God. The rich man begs Abraham to send the poor man to give him water, even just a drop from the tip of his finger. But he is informed that the chasm that has existed between them is now fixed. The gate is closed.
The parable is meant to startle us and I think it has that affect. Now understand that there was widespread belief in this time that wealth was a sign of God’s favor, a sign that the person had lived a righteous life. The rich man would have been respected and given honor in his own circles. Poverty is looked upon as the sign of one who has sinned, who deserves what they’ve gotten (or haven’t gotten) in life. So, the rich man ignores the poor man and allows the continuation of what is visible and even avoidable suffering. From what I can tell, his worst (and perhaps only) sin is indifference.
III. Reversal of Fortune
Now we’ve had several parables right in a row that deal with wealth. They are all reminders of what we read last week—that you cannot serve two masters. You cannot serve God and wealth. But unlike other parables, this one does not just stay in the realm of the first-century village life. This parable spans this life and the next.
Now the background of the parable is probably a tale from Egyptian folklore about the reversal of fates after death. It’s also connected to some of the rabbinic stories that have Eliezer (Greek, Lazaros) walking on disguise on earth and reporting back to Abraham on how the children are obeying the Torah. And notice that Jesus names only the poor man. This is probably not the Lazarus that was raised in the Gospel According to John, because he was pretty well off. This poor, anonymous beggar is given a name, a name that means “God helps”. So the poor man is welcomed into the arms of God and the rich man is further separated from God. (Ironically, later tradition thinks it necessary to name the rich man, who is called Dives.)
The outcome has another similarity. Remember the first part of Luke’s Gospel. Remember Mary’s Song, the Magnificat. Remember, “he has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” That’s what happens here.
But we read this and I think we over-simplify it. We end up reading into it “Rich man, bad; Poor man, good.” But I don’t think this is a treatise on the evil of wealth. I think it’s a call to see each other. We have this image of the sales of justice with the poor man having nothing and the rich man positively weighted down with things. And it would be simple to let this story reverse those completely. But I don’t think that’s God’s justice. God’s justice is a way of bringing us together, of bridging the chasm that exists before we lose everything. So rather than tipping the scales, maybe it’s a way of justifying equality.
Maybe the reversal of fortunes comes in the form of finally seeing each other, finally understanding each other, finally realizing that the other exists, finally seeing God in each other’s lives. Because day after day, the rich man walked past Lazarus, never seeing his own humanity, never seeing his own calling from God.
There is a Jewish folk story that Margaret Silf tells in one of her books. It tells of a man who went to work every day in his expensive car and made important decisions that affected many people. He would often enjoy business lunches with his clients and would always try to distract them from the homeless that walked the streets every day around his office.
One evening, after a hard day making money, he packed his briefcase to go home, where supper would be waiting for him. As he was locking his desk for the night, he caught sight of a stale sandwich lying abandoned in the drawer. Without much thought, he crammed it into his coat pocket. No need for it to go moldy and mess up his desk. And on the way out to the car, he saw a homeless person, huddled under an old blanket. “Here, my friend,” he said to the man. “Here is something for your supper.” And he tossed him the sandwich.
That night, the man dreamed that he was away on a business trip. After the day’s meeting, he was taken with his fellow directors to the town’s most lavish restaurant. Everyone gave their orders and settled down with their appetizers.
The orders arrived. Pate’ de foie gras, Medallions of venison, lamb cutlets with rosemary and garlic. Each dish brought gasps of delight from the guests. Finally his own order appeared. A waiter set in front of him one small plate with nothing but a stale sandwich.
“What kind of service is this?” the man demanded, enraged. This isn’t what I ordered! I thought this was the best restaurant in town!” “Oh, sir,” the waitress told him, “you’ve been misinformed. This isn’t a restaurant at all. This is heaven. We are only able to serve you what you have sent on ahead while you were on earth. I’m very sorry, sir, but when we looked, the best we could find to serve you was this stale sandwich.”[i]
- The Wolf Shall Lie Down With the Lamb
So, if you remember back to the Creation story, God did not create these categories that we have put into place. God created all that we see—the earth and the heavens, the light and the darkness, plants, animals, and humans with the vision that they would live together as one. Later on in the Scriptures, we have the image of the wolf lying down with the lamb. In the Kingdom of God, there ARE no divisions, there IS no chasm.
And, yet, here we are—with a great chasm between the rich and the poor, a great chasm between the races of this world, a chasm between ways of worshipping God, chasms even between brothers and sisters of Christ. I don’t think this parable is call to get rid of wealth; this parable is a call to see the other, to experience the other, to accept the other. It is a call to bridge that great chasm that exists in this world so that we can become God’s Kingdom. It is a call to finally see across the divide.
On the Today Show this week, one of their anchors, Savannah Guthrie, did a segment where she had partnered with a T-Shirt company called Spiritual Gangster to create a T-Shirt for which 100% of the proceeds would go toward Feeding America. She designed a T-Shirt that says “Like You”. I could mean “I like you” or it could mean “I am like you.” Seeing that is the point. Elie Wiesel once said that “the opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. The opposite of art if not ugliness; it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death; it’s indifference.”
But there’s another chasm that this parable is showing us. It is the one that, sadly, exists between us and God. It is the divide that exists between who we are and how we live and who we are called to be. Our Western minds tend to put God “up there” and us “down here”. And we read this parable like God has some sort of reward system in place, a loyalty card, of sorts. But I don’t think that’s the way it is. God invites us into life and life is everything around us and God walks with us through that life. And if we are aware of that, if we see all the wonder that God puts in front of us, we will enter whatever your notion of heaven is in oneness with God. Barbara Brown Taylor says this: “Human beings may separate things into as many piles as we wish—separating spirit from flesh, sacred from secular, church from world. But we should not be surprised when God does not recognize the distinctions we make between the two. Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”
- Bridging the Chasm
So, how do we get there? How do we bridge that great divide? Celtic Christianity has this wonderful depth of their spirituality. They truly see God in all things and all things as being from God. They live with a thankfulness for life and love and faith. And, for them, thresholds are important—doors, bridges, rainbows, and gates. Remember that this parable happened at a gate. Thresholds are those places where we choose to either connect and bridge the divide or close ourselves off and stay where we are.
The truth is, God never insinuated that earth and heaven, humanity and the Divine were meant to be separated. In fact, Jesus came, both human and Divine to usher in the coming of God’s Kingdom. It is here. It is now. The great chasm is being crossed little by little even as we speak. My seminary professor, Dr. Virgil Howard (of blessed memory), used to speak of it as the “already and the not yet”. We live in a threshold, a cross-section of what is and what will be. The Old English word for it is “liminality”, “betwixt and between”. But it is the place where God calls us into life.
- So, What Will You Do With Your Share?
So, what’s the lesson of the parable? I think it calls us to wake up. It shakes us out of our sin of indifference, our sin of not noticing one another. It pulls us back from the sin of ignorance. (Did you notice that that has the word “ignore” in it?) It calls us to breach that great chasm that we have allowed to exist. Oh, don’t get me wrong. It’s scary to cross. We have to leave some things behind. But, is it possible that God has given us EXACTLY what we need?
Maybe we’re not opening our eyes to what God is giving us. Maybe we’re so wrapped up in the loyalty card image that we’re more like the first century believers than we care to admit. Maybe we put a little bit too much stake in wealth and not enough in each other.
We are not finished talking about money. (After all, we’re in Luke.) True confessions…we’ll have a Stewardship Emphasis for four Sundays beginning October 9th. The purpose is not to get us to think about giving more money to the church. The purpose is to get us to think about what it means to take what God has given us and respond with all of it—our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.
So, what do you plan to do with your dollar? It’s a gift, it’s grace. What is God calling you to do with it? More than that, what is God calling you to do with the rest of it—ALL your prayers, ALL your presence, ALL your gifts, ALL your service, ALL your witness? And, you’ll have to answer for yourself whether or not what backs it up is really true: “In God we trust.”
[i] Margaret Silf, One Hundred Wisdom Stories from Around the World, (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2003), “A Sandwich for Supper”, 134.