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Rich Man, Poor Man

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Luke 16:19-31

Delivered by Rev. Ron Coughlin

O God, speak to us in this place,
in the calming of our minds,
and in the longings of our hearts,
by the words of my lips,
and in the thoughts that we form.
Speak, for your servants are listening.

An elderly husband and wife who had been married for sixty years died in a car crash. They had been in good health the last ten years mainly due to her interest in health food. When they reached the Pearly Gates, St. Peter took them to their mansion, which was decked out with a beautiful kitchen, a Jacuzzi and a magnificent view. The old man asked, “How much is this going to cost? St. Peter replied, “It’s free. This is heaven.”

Next, they went out the back and surveyed a championship-style golf course. They learned that they would have golfing privileges every day and that the golf course changed on a regular basis to provide new challenges. The old man asked, “How much is this going to cost? St. Peter replied, “It’s free. This is heaven.”

Then they went into the club house and saw and beautiful, lavish buffet laid out. The old man asked, “How much is this going to cost?” St. Peter replied, “It’s free. This is heaven.”

“Well, where are the low-fat and low-cholesterol tables?” the old man asked. St. Peter answered, “That is the best part, you can eat as much as you like and you will never gain weight and you’ll never get sick. This is heaven!”

Then the old man turned to his wife and spoke to her sternly, “If it were not for your darn bran muffins, I could have been here ten years ago!”

Jesus tells a story about life and death. Did you know that among the Jewish people in Jesus’ time there were lots of stories about life and death? Just like today. Think about how many jokes and stories are told about life and death.

A certain parable made a man with three doctoral degrees (one in medicine, one in theology, and one in philosophy) leave the comforts of civilization and depart for the jungles of darkest Africa. A certain parable induced a man, who was recognized as one of the best concert organists in Europe go to a place where there were no organs at all. A certain parable motivated a man to give up a teaching position in Vienna go and live with people who were still living in the superstitions of the dark ages. Of course, the man I am talking about is Dr. Albert Schweitzer and the parable which changed his life is the one assigned for today – the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. It turned his life upside-down.

Luke loves to turn things upside-down. He loves reversals. He likes to shock his hearers. Most of his comments or stories having to do with riches and poverty have this flavour to them.

I’m sure you can recall many of the examples of reversals in Luke’s Gospel, and most of them occur only in Luke; they have no parallel in the other Gospels.
Remember how Mary says in the opening lines of the Gospel in the Magnificat:
(God) 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.
Or listen to the first words Jesus speaks in public. Usually a person’s first words are important; they set the tone for the rest of the story.
Jesus is in the synagogue at Nazareth, and he declares that he has been anointed
“to bring good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the captives
recovery of sight to the blind
to let the oppressed go free”.

Luke wants us to know that Jesus has come to change the established order, to reverse the common understanding of how things should be, to offer a counter-cultural message.

Think of the teachings which surround the Beatitudes. Remember how Jesus says: “love your enemies”, “turn the other cheek”, “do good, expecting nothing in return”.

At this point, Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem. All through the fall, we have been traveling with Jesus. And the momentum toward the cross is gathering speed. During this time, Luke gives us a whole series of parables about the lost and found, the prodigal son, the dishonest manager: all challenging parables.

And so we get another one today. This is a story, which is both simple and complex, clear and puzzling, all at the same time. It is rich in detail. It is a radical parable, full of humour and surprises. It is full of exaggeration, which is typical of Luke’s style of writing.

The story on the surface is simple enough. Lazarus has it tough in this world and the rich man lives in ease and comfort. In the next life, their positions are reversed. Is that the message we are meant to take from this?

If so, all of us with three square meals a day and a roof over our heads have hell to look forward to while heaven is guaranteed to the homeless. Is this the meaning of the parable?

There is a web-site called Global Rich List where you can go and enter your annual income in Canadian dollars or Euros or Yen or Pounds, and then click a button to find out how many of the world’s people are richer than you, and how many are poorer. For example, when I enter my annual income it puts me in the top 4% of the world’s richest people. Now that put me on the edge of my seat; when I hear the gospel story for today, it gives me pause to think that I am one of the world’s richest people.

What this means is, if you have more than one pair of shoes, you are rich; if you have more than one pair of underwear, you are rich; if you have more than one meal a day; you are rich, according to the standards of most of the people in the world.

According to an article in the Montreal Gazette last Wednesday, the Red Cross is warning the United Nations that over one billion people today are living in dangerous situations in extreme poverty.

So, let’s take another look at this parable to discern its message. I believe that the more you poke at the Bible, the more the Bible pokes back at you. So let’s poke away at this story and see what we can find; and first, let’s consider the setting.

Jesus has just finished telling the story of the dishonest manager, our reading from last week. The final line was “You cannot serve God and wealth”. The very next line, which we did not read says, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed Jesus.” They made fun of Jesus’ teaching. They scoffed at his proverb on God and wealth.

You see, the common-sense wisdom of the day said that those who obey God will be blessed; that prosperity was a sign of God’s favour; that godliness is in league with richness. All the others were being punished by God for some sin they had committed, or that their parents had committed.

You have heard these words before: “If only she would stop drinking.” “If only they would learn proper English.” “If only he had not dropped out of high school.” It is human nature to find some reason why people are the way they are. We find a reason to blame. We have this myth that if you just work hard enough, you can win first prize. It might be true if everyone were standing at the same starting line when the gun went off, but that is never the case. Some start so far back that they cannot even see the front line. They can hardly hear the gun go off signaling the start, and they are not sure which way to run. Not that it matters. They don’t have the right shoes, they cannot pay the registration fee, they never got a copy of the rules, and they are in terrible shape anyways. People look at them and think “losers”. It is unfortunate, but maybe it is God’s punishment for their sins – this is what some people think.

This was the popular view in Jesus’ day. It was the theology of the Pharisees. The Pharisees would have expected that in this parable, they would be in Abraham’s bosom, not the poor man. The Pharisees believed that wealth was a sign of God’s favour or blessing, and those who were poor or sick were that way because of some sin they had committed.

Remember the story of the man born blind. It begins with the disciples asking the question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” That was the common thinking. Sickness, or blindness, or poverty was a punishment for sins. Therefore, health and wealth is a sign of God’s favour. Unfortunately, this “health and wealth theology” is still around today. So Jesus tells this parable to contradict that kind of thinking. Jesus wanted to challenge that popular view. So he told this parable! There was a rich man…. Well, you know the story!

We are talking here about a whole new order. We are talking about God’s realm in which the lost shall be found, the last shall be first, and death leads to life.

You see, this parable is about compassion for the last, the lost, the least and the little. It is not about what happens in the afterlife. It is not even about money, in the end. One error many people make is that they think they are quoting the Bible when they say, “money is the root of all evil.” But that is not the quote, it is “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” and it comes from the First Letter to Timothy.

The rich man loved his money more than people. The gate and his fence created a great chasm between himself and the world. He lacked compassion in dealing with others. He lacked humility. Would you not think that when he first saw Abraham and Lazarus, he might have said, “I’m sorry. Forgive me?” The first Jewish hearers of this story would have expected that. The rich man sees Lazarus in a position of power at the right hand of Abraham and he must make an apology to Lazarus, begging his forgiveness. This is not what happens. He continues to ignore Lazarus and addresses Abraham. He does not catch on. In fact, he thinks he can order Lazarus around, like a servant in his household.

I think a helpful title for this parable would be “The Six Brothers”. For you see, we are the five brothers who are left behind.

We have the opportunity to show compassion to others – whether it be the homeless and the poor, or the other marginalized people in our society – the Muslim community, the gay, lesbian, transgendered community, or some other group of outsiders. A constant theme of Jesus’ life and death was compassion for the outsider. We can do no less.

We also have the opportunity to challenge the false thinking which permeates our society. The whole concept that wealth means God has blessed you and suffering means you must have sinned, are both to be flatly rejected. The church has a counter-cultural message which says that God loves all of us, equally, and we need to proclaim that message.

We have the opportunity to use our resources wisely. Resources of time, abilities and money are gifts to be nurtured and shared. I was greatly impressed with the work of our Youth Group – Free the Children. You just heard some of their work in the children`s time this morning. Did you know that over the past 6 years, they have raised almost one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000) for worthy causes supported by Free the Children. We need to support these youth who are using their energies, their time, their creativity to help others.

And finally, we need to pay attention to who is on our doorstep. Who is at OUR gate? What are the needs of people in our community? Are there needs among the youth? Are there needs among seniors? Are there needs among the working poor? Are there needs among single mothers? What are the needs of our community?
You know, one of the powerful images of this parable is the image of the big chasm that separates the rich and the poor. Our calling is to reduce that chasm:
• Every time one of us serves in a homeless shelter or an inner city mission, that chasm becomes a little less significant.
• Every time one of us visits in prison, or delivers meals on wheels, or volunteers at a food bank, that chasm becomes a little easier to cross.
• Every time one of us helps out at a low income school, or volunteers to drive someone to hospital, that chasm becomes a little less important.
• Every time one of us gives of our time and talents, serves on a community organization board or puts our feet on the line, that chasm is erased.

I have been asked to represent this church on the Board of Directors of Dix Milles Village, and I am honoured to do so. I am glad to help them with my organization skills. At a recent Board Meeting I heard a disturbing story. Dix Milles Villages works at making communities and co-ops sustainable. Well, one co-op in Peru which makes pottery vases was approached by Pier One to make 25 crates of vases. Now this is a huge amount of vases. The co-op did not have enough people to fill the order, so the co-op hired more people from the community to make these vases. People gave up their jobs to come to work for the co-op. They were able to deliver on their contract. The next year, Pier One came and wanted only 4 crates of vases, and also paid less for them than they had the previous year. So the co-op had to let go all the extra people they had hired, who now had no job to go to. That`s the way of the world. But Dix Milles Villages, which works at sustainability, has entered into an agreement with the co-op to buy a reasonable ad consistent number of the vases each year to make the co-op sustainable over the long term.

So we have this strange story of the poor man, the rich man and his five brothers. It challenges us. It confronts us. It convicts us. It urges us to see how God works in the reversals, the upside-down events of life. This story is also a parable of grace, a word of hope, a sign of God’s realm at work. We have choices to make. Choose life!

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