September 25, 2016, Poverty Is a Hell of a Thing – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Episcopalians are not known for preaching about hell a lot. One reason for that is that contrary to popular opinion, the Bible doesn’t really have a whole lot to say about hell. And the other reason is that it’s a scary topic, and Episcopalians are fonder than the average person of looking on the bright side of things and emphasizing the positive and generally being encouraging instead of trying to make people be good by scaring the pants off them, as some preachers have been known to do.
But not all Scripture is equally simple and straightforward. We need to know, when we are reading a Bible passage, if what we are reading is poetry or symbolic images, or plain instruction, or history or whatever. Today’s gospel reading, the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus, is a parable. Jesus used parables a lot. The main thing about parables is that they are teaching stories with one major lesson – like the story of the Tortoise and the Hare. The point of that story is “Slow and Steady Wins the Race.” Aesop never intended to teach us anything about turtles and rabbits – he used them to make his point because everybody knows that rabbits are fast and turtles are slow. So, with the Rich Man and Lazarus our job is to understand what big point Jesus was making when he told the story.
The reason I’m explaining that is that I think very often when we read this parable we get caught up in the setting – the whole scariness of the ideas of hell and judgment. We get so caught up that we either stop reading because we don’t want to think about hell and judgment, or we think that hell and judgment are the whole point. If we read this story literally, Jesus is teaching that the rich man in the story was condemned for all eternity, with no hope of mercy, not because he broke any of the Ten Commandments, but because he was rich and selfish. And that would be terrifying indeed.
I believe that Jesus used the setting of hell for this parable for the same reason Aesop used rabbits and turtles in his parable – because all people, or at least all the people Jesus was talking to, were familiar with the idea of hell. The Bible doesn’t have much to say about hell, but the teaching of the Rabbis of that day – and, for that matter, the teaching of a lot of modern preachers, seems to have a lot to say about it. Everybody is familiar with the idea of hell. Setting the story in hell was a way of saying that Jesus was talking about a matter of judgment.
And judgment isn’t just something that happens after we die. Judgment comes whenever we make a choice, because like the barrier in the story that won’t allow the poor man to reach out and comfort the rich man, our choices are irreversible. Human beings, created into the time of the universe, only live in one direction. Whether we live or die, we can never go back.When we say something cruel, or cheat on our spouse, or tell a lie – whatever we choose to do or say today – the judgment is that that act or that word stands forever. We can repent, and we can apologize, and we can make amends, but we can never undo those things we have done. That is judgment. That’s why we say that every human being who has ever lived is subject to the judgment of God, because we have all failed, and none of us can undo what we have done. Only God himself, the Lord and Creator of time, coming into our world and living as one of us, could ever break the cycle of judgment, and that is what happened on the cross. Apart from the mercy and grace of God and his Son Jesus Christ, we would every one of us be crushed by the weight of our own failures. We should never forget that our hope is not in our good intentions or our general nice-ness, but only in the perfect love and goodness of our Father. And we should never even think about judgment and sin without remembering that the power of sin and death has been crushed forever.
That said, the point of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is not that the grace of God or the power of the Cross is insufficient in any way. The point of the parable is that each day of our life on this earth is an opportunity for kindness and compassion, and if we miss it, we miss it forever. The rich man in the story did nothing more than enjoy the good things God had given him. Jesus doesn’t say he kicked dust in the poor man’s face as he went by. He doesn’t say he was even aware of the poor man’s existence. We might look at him, in his silks and satins, with his lovely home and abundant provisions, and admire him. We might be inclined to think he must be somebody specially blessed by God to have all those riches. But the eternal perspective is this – riches are not our reward for being good people. Riches are our opportunity to do good to those in need.
Bottom line – this parable teaches us that we have today – that, in fact, maybe we only have today and no more, who can say? – we have today to see the needs of the people around us, to have compassion on the poor and the helpless, and to use what has been entrusted to us with kindness, and compassion – with the abundant generosity Jesus modeled for us in his life as a human being. Because when our earthly life ends, it ends, and we can’t go back and do it right. When our brother or sister in this world has already perished for lack of food or warmth or kindness or hope, we can’t go back and make it right. Our human reality is that there comes a time when it is too late to do what we ought to have done. That is the warning of the parable.
And it’s pretty easy to dismiss this as ridiculously impractical. Obviously, any riches we have are not even a fraction of a fraction of a drop in the bucket compared to the needs in the world. And also obviously, it is not Jesus’ intention to lay a wet blanket of hopeless guilt and condemnation over us all everytime we contemplate our failures of compassion and generosity: past, present and future. The word of God is abundantly clear about forgiveness and hope and grace, and we can hold onto that without fear. But there’s where we go back to the story. The poor man in the story lived his miserable life right at the gate to the rich man’s house – so close that the rich man’s dogs licked the sores on his body – so close that he could see the crumbs fall to the floor under the table, where they were gobbled up by the dogs. The rich man in the story wasn’t guilty because he failed to help every poor person in the world or even in the city. He was guilty because he failed to help the poor man God set at his very door.
The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, is not, I think, about who is going to hell at the end of their lives. It is about us living our lives today – as long as it is today – with an awareness of those people God brings to our door for help and compassion. It is about holding the things we have been given in trust, for the care and feeding of those of God’s children he brings into our lives. And it is about remembering that there will come a time when it is too late for us to do the good we ought to have done.
If you are in the habit of reading Morning Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer you know that what is called the “Invitatory Psalm”, the opening words from Psalm 95, ends with these words: “O that today you would hearken to his voice!” The words and teaching of Jesus are always words for today. He never, never calls us to wallow in guilt and shame and regret for the failings of yesterday. We know, we can depend on this: that he forgives all our sins, that he removes our shame far from us, and that his mercies are new and fresh every single morning. And he also never, ever threatens us with the fear of tomorrow. His promises for our future are his unfailing love and mercy. His promise is that he is able to make his servants stand, and that he will bring to completion the good work he has begun in us. That’s truth.
The teaching of Jesus is always for today, because it is today, and only today, that we have the freedom to choose, to do good to the needy or to be blind to their need, to love or not to love. In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus calls us to open our eyes to the riches that he has given us to share, and to the poor and needy he has brought into our life today. We all of us have abundant riches to share – maybe riches of money or food or clothing, maybe riches of time and compassion, riches of a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on, riches of knowledge and skill from auto mechanics to accounting to fine art, and everything in between. The one in need might be a neighbor, or a member of our family, or a complete stranger – or a litter of orphan kittens. We have only to open our eyes – today – to the ones God has brought into our lives, and most especially those who are poor and helpless and held in contempt by this world.
The teaching from the first days of the Church held closely to the message of all of Scripture that James expressed like this: “What God the Father considers to be pure and genuine religion is this: to take care of orphans and widows in their suffering and to keep oneself from being corrupted by the world.” Our God has always revealed himself as a defender of the poor and helpless, and we, as his children, are called to carry on that family business. John Chrysostom, a preacher from the fourth century, wrote:
“If you cannot remember everything, instead of everything, I beg you, remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs.”
That is the message of Jesus’ parable. O that today we would hearken to his voice.