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A gospel that surprises – Part Four of Lent

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Fourth Sunday of Lent – March 26, 2017

Luke 16:19-31 and Psalm 41:1-3

“From scarcity to abundance”

If any of us have seen Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, we might remember Jacob Marley in the story. He came back from the dead to warn his colleague, Ebenezer Scrooge, to repent from his selfish, miserly ways, before it is too late. Scrooge was then given an opportunity to see life through the eyes of the “other side” of the economic divide and it changed him for good.

Our story for this week features a man who wished he could be Jacob Marley. Instead, he has no name. He is simply “a rich man” who turned a blind eye to the poor, suffering man, named Lazarus, who sat outside his home every day. When the tables were turned, and the rich man found himself suffering and Lazarus in comfort, he wished that he could find relief, but it was too late.

He wants to warn his brothers to not make the same mistake he made; to not waste their lives on chasing wealth, power, and luxurious comforts at the expense of other people.

Jesus told this story to be our Jacob Marley. The Gospel of Luke continually warns us that “you cannot serve two masters…you cannot serve both God and wealth (Luke 16:13).”

Needless to say, this doesn’t condemn having wealth, but rather sheds light on anyone’s relationship with their earthly goods. We see quite early on in the gospel according to Luke that the message of Luke revolves quite strongly on the words of chapter four (verses 18 and 19) where Jesus was reading from the scroll of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” There is much consensus and it is quite obvious from the way the two books interact, that both Luke and Acts were written by the same author, Luke, who has been portrayed as the “glorious physician.” Throughout both Luke and Acts, it becomes clear how God has a soft spot for the poor, the downtrodden, and those who are marginalised.

In our current world we live in, especially North America, there seems to be a consumer-driven attitude to what we own, and we tend to be defined by what we have. Quite often, when we have less, we see ourselves as worth less. We tend to operate from a mindset of scarcity and are quite often not able to see the abundance that God has in stall for us.

Should we then be surprised that this parable about the rich man and Lazarus conveys that God is really, really concerned for the poor? God’s unrelenting care and compassion for the poor and vulnerable is a major topic of both testaments, the Old as well as the New. So if this parable seems to push that concern to the extreme, perhaps it’s to grab and refocus our attention on a theme that is continuously present in Scripture but only at times present in the way we operate.

And now, I want to invite you to stretch this parable a tiny bit by imagining a different one, or at least a different ending. I’ve long thought that the chasm set between the rich man and Lazarus in heaven is only the manifestation of the one that existed in their earthly lives as well. Although the rich man apparently made no attempt to relieve the suffering of Lazarus, it’s not that he didn’t know him, or even that Lazarus was invisible to him. After all, in the afterlife he not only recognises Lazarus but refers to him by name. In addition, he continues to treat Lazarus as if he were a servant, asking that Abraham send him to bring a drop of water and, failing that, to warn his brothers. The rich man, that is, continues to fail to treat Lazarus as a person, as an equal, as one deserving of compassion and regard.

Must we continue to act that way? Might we imagine a different ending to this parable? Indeed, given Abraham’s reference to a man rising from the dead, aren’t we invited to? We have, after all, seen a man put to death for caring for the poor, for announcing God’s mercy for all, for daring to forgive the sins of any, and we have heard the testimony that this man was raised from the dead to be proof that God’s kingdom became real in Him.

Many good messages on this passage have invited us to identify with Lazarus or, more frequently, with the rich man who paid Lazarus no heed. But could we this time instead imagine that we are one of the rich man’s brothers and sisters and that though we have the law and prophets yet God saw fit also to send a man from the dead to awaken us? In this context, I’m struck by how small are the requests the rich man makes: a drop of water, a messenger to tell others. Might we not do these very things, bringing a measure of relief to others and telling all we meet that God desires we care for each other?

Doesn’t our perception that we have way too little, and that we might be immersed in debt, often drive us to an unwillingness to give away? It seems to prevent us from operating from a perception or even a worldview that there is more than enough? Abundance evades our imagination.

The current ranking of countries according to a happiness index suggests that places where the chasm between rich and poor is narrow and the vulnerable are cared for tend to rank higher in happiness. Doesn’t that in itself say that as followers of Christ we have a wonderful worldview to operate from? We are allowed, in fact invited to operate from the insight that there is abundance in God’s realm, right here on earth.

Jacob Marley in “A Christmas Carol” came back from the dead to warn his colleague, Ebenezer Scrooge, to repent from his selfish, miserly ways, before it is too late. Scrooge was then given an opportunity to see life through the eyes of the “other side” of the economic divide and it changed him for good. Isn’t this perhaps the repentance in a sense that we here at Dayspring are being called to?

I have a phrase for us to ponder on: “Those who would follow Jesus don’t build bigger, thicker walls to keep others out. They build bigger, longer tables, to bring more people in.”

 

Copyright 2017 – Heinrich Grosskopf, Minister of Dayspring Presbyterian Church

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