Br. James Michael Dowd, OHC
RCL - Proper 21C - September 26, 2010
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Let's Listen to Moses and the Prophets
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This morning's Gospel passage from St. Luke is one of the more famous ones and throughout the Church's history has been used by many a preacher to illustrate God's wrath and the torments of hell that one will endure if they fail to live up to God's commandments. There are medieval sermons and paintings that are quite gruesome in their depictions of the suffering that the Rich Man received as punishment. But this is, after all, a story and I think it is important to not focus so much on these particular torments, but rather to get to the point of the story. And the first place to start is with the names of the characters.
Names are very important in Jewish culture and were often meant to indicate the type of character, temperament, and spiritual outlook of the individual. The Rich Man doesn't have a name. Yes, it is true that the Rich Man has often been called Dives, but that's simply the Latin for Rich Man. That which is important to him – his wealth – is how he is identified. Lazarus, on the other hand, is a derivative of the Hebrew Eleazar, which translates as “God is my help.” And so, that which is important to him – God – is how he is identified.
And right there, we have the first, and perhaps, most important distinction of these two men. The Rich Man is all about his money and enjoys his family, his friends, sumptuous feasting, great respect, the good life. His reward is in the present and will die with him. Lazarus, is all about God's help – and quite frankly, that help is not particularly evident in the present as he lies there at the gate of the Rich Man, begging for food, being ignored, while having dogs lick his wounds. His reward, it would seem, is yet to come. In a culture where names actually mean something this alone is quite a statement.
If we pay close attention to the story we see that Jesus is not condemning the Rich Man because he is wealthy. He is condemning him because, as we were taught in the First Letter to Timothy, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” for “those who are rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires.” The Rich Man fell into the temptation of narcissism, to be totally self-involved, of being more concerned with his own desire to gorge himself, than to throw even a few crumbs to a starving man outside his front door.
Money is not evil. In fact, a great deal of good for the Kingdom of God can be done with it. Being wealthy is not sinful. In fact, many wealthy people contribute to the building of the Kingdom. But wealth and all the comforts that go with it are a particularly dangerous temptation. If we hoard our wealth, if we do not share our wealth, if we ignore those who are not wealthy, then we face serious danger of losing our souls. Our souls belong to what we love. Where you place your love, is that which determines whether you are living a Christian life or not. God has already redeemed the world in Christ Jesus. So our choice, like the choice given to both the Rich Man and Lazarus is either to live a life that leads to heaven or to hell.
Now knowing how to live a life that leads to heaven as opposed to hell isn't so easy. But if we take the advice of Jesus to “listen to Moses and the Prophets” I think we get some good direction. This morning's reading from the Prophet Jeremiah seems, read out of context, a bit like an ad for Century 21. Jeremiah is told by the Lord to buy some land, he then enlists his cousin Hanamel to broker the deal, closes on the property by paying a considerable amount of money, signs the paperwork, and buries the deeds in an earthenware jar on the property for safekeeping.
What does this have to do with choosing heaven instead of hell? Well, in context, I think the message is clearer. All these real estate transactions are happening while Jeremiah is being confined by the Jewish King Zedekiah, in order to attempt to muzzle him; while the Babylonian army is besieging Jerusalem, and on the brink of overrunning it. Jeremiah has been calling the people to repentance and to amend their ways, all the while, standing with those same sinful people and passionately telling them of God's love and mercy. A symbol of that love and mercy is Jeremiah spending his own money – note that he was wealthy enough to purchase land – while a foreign army was about to overrun that land, so that he could communicate to his people that while some hell on earth was about to happen to them during the battle and with the ensuing exile, God would be with them and would one day restore them to their land where houses would be built, and fields would produce food, and vineyards would yield fruit.
Jeremiah stands with the oppressed of his land and points them to God with both his words and his actions. He does not abandon them when the going gets tough for him, or when the economy has soured, or while enemies are at the gates. He communicates to them with both his actions and his words that he believes in the God of mercy and love so much, that he is willing to invest in the future of their land by giving his treasure to it, even while an invading army is about to overrun it. Jeremiah's name, I might add, means “the Lord exalts.”
I've been thinking a good deal about these readings and how they apply to our own time. I think we are living through a difficult time. We are still fighting a war in Afghanistan. We continue to occupy Iraq. Neither country seems any closer to true peace than it was at the beginning of those wars. Terrorism continues to frighten us out of our sensible minds, poverty is on the rise, some are threatening to take newly acquired health care away from the most vulnerable, unemployment is at unacceptable levels, many good people have lost their homes. Lazarus seems to continue to starve right at our front gates.
And so there is great anger in the land. What fascinates me is not that there is anger, what fascinates me is who is angry. It is not the poor, the homeless, those who are going to lose their health insurance who are out making spectacles of themselves. No, the angry are a mob of people who continue to feast like the Rich Man, all the while heaping scorn, or worse, ignoring, the many Lazarus among us. People of means who are outraged that this country would attempt to actually assist those most in need. The irony of all this, is that many of these same people have named themselves Christian.
I could only wonder as this angry mob marched on Washington, presuming to compare themselves to a legitimate Prophet, Martin Luther King, as to whether they would halt their marching long enough in order to actually see those who suffer from poverty. I could only wonder if they would cease their chanting long enough to actually hear the cries of the homeless and unemployed, whom they trample with their marches. I could only wonder what a great heaven these folks could attain if they only put half of that angry energy to work for God's Kingdom. And then I remembered the words of Jesus and recalled that he ended the story by saying “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” And I wondered.
But wonder must always lead to prayer. Because a Christian must never lose hope, and prayer is the key to hope. When we choose to hoard our personal or communal wealth we lose our names, we lose our souls. When we choose to share it – especially when times are tough – we earn our names, we gain our souls.
My sisters and brothers, now is the time for us to place all of our hope in God, just as Jeremiah – he who is exalted – did in very difficult times. My brothers and sisters, today is the day in which we must totally place our faith in God, just as Lazarus – God is my help – did in awful personal circumstances. All of you good women and men, the Lord speaks to us today, this morning, here in Hartford, and he calls us to care for the poor, the oppressed, the hopeless, and even the angry among us, just as Jesus - God is our Salvation – did.
When we do this, when we choose hope instead of anger; when we choose to heap the plates of the poor with food, rather than scorn; when we choose heaven instead of hell; we will then have the right to call ourselves Christians, for we would have listened to Moses and the Prophets and Jesus the Christ. AMEN.