Shuck and Jive

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Good Life--A Sermon

The Good Life
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

May 22, 2011

Luke 16:19-31

There was this rich man, who wore clothing fit for a king and who dined lavishly every day. This poor man, named Lazarus, languished at his gate, all covered with sores. He longed to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores. It so happened that the poor man died and was carried by the heavenly messengers to be with Abraham. The rich man died too, and was buried.

From Hades, where he was being tortured, he looked up and saw Abraham a long way off and Lazarus with him. He called out, “Father, Abraham, have pity on me! Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am torment in these flames.”

But Abraham said, “My child, remember that you had good fortune in your lifetime, while Lazarus had it bad. Now he is being comforted here, and you are in torment. And besides all this, a great chasm has been set between us and you, so that even those who want to cross over from here to you cannot, and no one can cross over from that side to ours.”

But he said, “Father, I beg you then, send him to my father’s house—after all, I have five brothers—so he can warn them not to wind up in this place of torture.”

But Abraham says, “They have Moses and the prophets; why don’t they listen to them?”

But they won’t do that, father Abraham,” he said. “However, if someone appears to them from the dead, they’ll have a change of heart.”

Abraham said to him, “If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be convinced even if someone were to rise from the dead.”

I have never liked this parable too much.

For one thing I know that I am more like the rich man than Lazarus. While I can certainly think of people with more wealth than I in this world, there are far more people with less. It could be that I will be in the position of Lazarus someday, but now I am more like the rich man. I eat well every day. There are people like Lazarus who would long for a fraction of the food I consume.

Rev. Martin Luther King preached on this parable. He said,
Dives’ sin was not that he was cruel to Lazarus, but that he refused to bridge the gap of misfortune that existed between them. Dives’ sin was not his wealth; his wealth was his opportunity. His sin was his refusal to use his wealth to bridge the gulf between the extremes of superfluous, inordinate wealth and abject, deadening poverty.
“Dives” is Latin for “rich man” and it was mistakenly regarded as a proper name for the rich man throughout the medieval period. But the tradition of calling the rich man "Dives" has endured, perhaps an unconscious desire to give this rich guy a name. Martin Luther King said the rich man’s sin was that he “refused to bridge the gap” that existed between them.

I may want to think that I am not the rich man; I may want to think that I don’t have what King called “superfluous, inordinate wealth” but I know which of these characters is more like me. I can’t say that I have done enough to bridge the gap either.

Another reason I dislike this parable is that I grew up in a religion in which the fear of hell was ever present. The idea of being tormented or tortured in hell for eternity wasn’t just a fantasy or story, but a reality, a real place in real time, with the fires hot and ready for bad little boys and girls.

Now I don’t believe in hell any more. I think it is a harmful doctrine that has been used to bully people with guilt and fear. It is a fantasy, a fiction, a metaphor.

I am happy that I followed my wife to the Presbyterian Church. I learned there about radical grace.

Nothing we can do can make God love us less.
Nothing we can do can make God love us more.

We don't have to worry about Hell or "being saved" because we are already embraced by God's love. We only need to live our lives and respond to grace with freedom.

I was happy that the Jesus Seminar ranked the second part of this parable, the part where the rich man is tormented in hell and tries to bargain with Abraham as black, or not from Jesus. The first part, the reversal of fortunes, the seminar ranked gray, as in probably not Jesus. The first part, they thought, was a re-write of an older reversal of fortunes story.

The Jesus Seminar is a group of scholars that in evaluating gospel traditions voted red, pink, gray and black on sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus. If a saying or deed of Jesus was voted
  • Red by the seminar, that was likely spoken or done by the historical Jesus in their judgment.
  • Pink, probably so.
  • Gray probably not.
  • Black definitely not.
If you are interested, check out The Five Gospels and The Acts of Jesus. Both are in the church library.

One of the fun, unintended consequences of the Jesus Seminar is that it gave many of us permission to go ahead and vote on the Bible. Don’t like parts of it? Vote it black. You got the power. Of course, the Jesus Seminar wasn’t voting on whether it liked passages or not, but voting on whether a saying or deed was more likely to go back to the historical Jesus.

Nevertheless, I like to vote on whether I like it or not, too.

The "True Bible believers" get their hackles up over that.
How can you pick and choose from God’s Word?!
Well, I just did.

Not all of the Bible in my view, is very good. Some of it is quite bad. Bad theology. Bad ethics. I see no virtue in putting a halo around a bad text. As a minister I have seen people bullied by the Bible. I think the response to that is to demystify it. It is a book written by human beings. It is filled with errors of all kinds. It is filled with ancient superstition and outdated cosmology. It contains fabrications and forgeries, Neither it nor those who beat you with it have power over you unless you give it to them.

Start with the source. Say,
“The Bible from which you get your ideas about me is simply wrong.”
All those passages about hell? Black.
All those weird social injunctions? Black.
Anything that doesn’t feed your Spirit? Black.

Once you do that,
once you give yourself permission to think for yourself
and to make your own opinions about a sacred text,
once you demystify it,
then you can hear it.

If there is any wisdom in the Bible it doesn’t come from it being forced down our throats. It comes, if it comes, from listening with a free mind. I really love this from biblical scholar and author, Walter Wink. He writes about his own experience with the Bible:
"I listen intently to the Book. But I do not acquiesce in it. I rail at it. I make accusations. I censure it for endorsing patriarchalism, violence, anti-Judaism, homophobia, and slavery. It rails back at me, accusing me of greed, presumption, narcissism, and cowardice. We wrestle. We roll on the ground, neither of us capitulating, until it wounds my thigh with “new-ancient” words. And the Holy Spirit is right there the whole time, strengthening us both."
I rail at this passage of Lazarus and the rich man. I rail at the superstition of hell and the fear and guilt it places in the minds of children and adults. I accuse the notion of cosmic punishment for quashing human spirits and for turning God into a punitive authoritarian. I rail at this passage for its simplistic notion that there are only two types of people in the world, the rich and the poor, and that there is an afterlife in which fortunes are reversed. Once I dismiss this passage as having any literal value, then I wrestle with it.

I wrestle with it because there is something here that wants to speak to my free mind about the good life. There is something here that wants to challenge me about what I think it means to be blessed and to be a blessing. There is something here that wants to speak to me about what I value. There is something here that wants me to hear something about wealth and about poverty and about the gates and chasms that are placed between people.

Then there is one of my favorite biblical scholars of late, William Herzog, who in his book, Parables As Subversive Speech, writes that this parable, the whole of it, does go back to Jesus. So there you go.

Herzog sees these characters, the rich man and Lazarus as codes for the urban elite and the expendable poor, respectively. The rich man is dressed like a king and eats lavishly. At his own gate is Lazarus, covered in sores, tormented by dogs, who can’t even get bread that is used as a napkin by the rich man and thrown out as waste.

Nothing is said about the morality of either character. Lazarus is not necessarily pious. He is just poor. The rich man isn’t necessarily bad, just wealthy. It is likely that the rich man is law abiding. He could very well keep the Torah scrupulously, making sure to observe the purity codes of clean and unclean. Lazarus would obviously be unclean.

Both die. Lazarus is taken by angels to be with Abraham, who by the way, was a rich man. The rich man, who may have even modeled his life after Abraham, blessed with abundance as Abraham was is taken not to be with Abraham but to Hades.
  • Whereas Lazarus was tormented by dogs, the rich man is tormented in the fires.
  • Whereas Lazarus could not get a piece of bread from the rich man’s table, the rich man cannot get a drop of water from Lazarus’ finger.
  • Whereas a gate kept Lazarus from the rich man’s earthly paradise, now a chasm keeps the rich man from the heavenly paradise. It is a reversal of fortunes.
When the rich man realizes that he is not going to get relief for himself, he pleads on behalf of his brothers, also apparently, the urban elite.
“Send Lazarus back to them to warn them,”
says the rich man. He is still giving orders. But Abraham says no. He says something very strange.
"They have Moses and the Prophets, they should listen to them."
The rich man realizes that is useless.

Weren’t they good Jews? The rich man and his brothers? There is no reason to think they didn’t listen to Moses and the Prophets. They had been reading Moses and the Prophets all their lives. I have to think they were like the rich man who came to Jesus and wanted to know what it took to get eternal life. Jesus told him to follow the commandments. He said he did, his whole life. Then Jesus told him to sell everything, give the money to the poor and to follow him. The man walked away, grieving because he had many possessions.

It is likely that the rich man in today’s parable as well as his brothers were just as scrupulous in observing the Torah. They ritually washed and observed all the purity codes. They obeyed the commandments. There is no reason to think they didn’t.

The point, of the story, I think, could be that the rich man and his brothers were confused about Moses and the Prophets. Perhaps they were confused when they colored some parts of the scriptures black and other parts red. Maybe they were wrong about which parts should get what colors.
Maybe the purity codes weren’t as important as the parts about compassion and justice.
I wonder if that isn’t the point Jesus was making. If you don’t know which parts of the scriptures are more important than others, than ghosts coming back from the dead won’t even help. If scriptures don’t lead to compassion and wisdom, then why bother reading them?

The rich man read them. He read them as legitimizing his own status. By way of parable, Jesus reversed that reading. He turned it on its head. In so doing he turned the notion of what a good life is on its head. A good life may not be living large. The blessed life may not be one of abundance but something else. What is that else? I think it has something to do with opening the gates that keep people apart.

Since we are honoring our graduates this morning, I am going to close with a portion of a graduation speech. I heard this speech live at Bev’s sister’s graduation from Syracuse University eleven years ago. The speech was delivered by Ted Koppel. I was moved when I heard it. He delivered this speech in the year 2000. Even though the world is somewhat different now than then, his point is still worth considering.

Koppel knew his audience. He was speaking to graduates of Syracuse, men and women who were not likely destined to be Lazarus at the gate. He said:
My concern for you as you leave this place has nothing to do with the quality of your education or the anticipated comfort level of your lives. By most of the standards that can be applied uniformly to most people around the world, you will do well. You have the freedom and the means to travel as no previous generation has done. You have access to more information. Your lifespan should be longer, your health should be better. You have more choices available to you in your leisure time, and because you are educated men and women you are better equipped to compete in the flourishing marketplace that awaits you.
I am not sure if the marketplace is as flourishing now as it was in 2000, nonetheless, it would be more flourishing for them than most others. Then Ted Koppel went on to talk about what makes a Good Life. He said:
But in our eagerness to achieve material success and personal gratification, we seem to have overlooked a disturbing reality. Are Americans really happier today than they were 20 or 50 years ago? And if not, why not? Could it be that we spend so much time focusing our energies on acquiring and achieving that we are losing a little of our humanity?

We are richer as a nation than we have ever been before, and yet there is no enthusiasm whatsoever for foreign aid. We are richer individually and corporately than at any time in recent memory, and yet our charitable contributions across the board are down. Our children have access to more information than ever, and yet most of them know less than our grandparents did when they were the same age.

Some of you surely remember George Santayana's famous observation that those who ignore the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them. Power ebbs and flows. Empires come and go. The Mongols, the Persians, the Egyptians, the Romans, the Greeks, the French, the Germans, the Soviets--they've all had their moments at the center of the world stage, and for some those moments lasted centuries. Eventually, though, power inevitably passes. The question is always, how did those in power use it while they had it?

That is true of nations, and it is true of individuals. You are privileged to live in a time when the United States is the most influential and certainly the most powerful country in the world. But with that influence and power comes responsibility. That too is true of individuals as well as nations. Because we have the means and the tools to help the least among us here at home, we should do it. Not because the government extracts money from us with more taxes, but because voluntarily tithing our wealth is as appropriate today as it was in biblical times.

There is enough food in the world to feed every man, woman, and child; no one should be starving to death. We have not yet found a cure for AIDS, but we surely know how to prevent its spread. Parts of Africa, South Asia, and Russia are in the grip of an AIDS pandemic; that is unacceptable.

If we worry only about ourselves, we will become irrelevant. Your challenge is to turn information into knowledge, and knowledge into wisdom. You can know what is happening in every corner of the world, and with your particular skills and talents, with the wealth and technology and influence available to you at this time and in this place, you can be a force for good. What a challenge, what a joy. Now go do it.
I think Koppel nailed the problem of the rich man in our story.
If we worry only about ourselves, we will become irrelevant.
He is so irrelevant that he doesn't even have a name.

He missed his chance at being a force for good because he settled for what he thought was a good life for himself.

Those who have ears, let them hear.

1 comment:

  1. Does Family Action TN speak for you?

    Why don't more Christians speak out against this kind of fearmongering?