Open the Gates

Luke 16:19-31, 1 Timothy 6:6-19

“He (Abraham) said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”  Luke 16:31

Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets and this short verse is from an upcoming book simply entitled Dog Songs.

We become religious,

then we turn from it,

then we are in need and maybe we turn back.

We turn to making money,

then we turn to the moral life,

then we think about money again.

We meet wonderful people, but lose them in our busyness.

We’re, as the saying goes, all over the place.

Steadfastness, it seems,

is more about dogs than about us.

One of the reasons we love them so much.   (“How It Is with Us, and How It Is with Them”) 

It has all the content of our two scripture readings, wealth, the challenges of living faithfully to God’s call and people, or being distracted by wealth and self-centeredness, and ultimately the desire to be steadfast in something.

Mary Oliver is precise in her word choice and I suggest she selected “religious,” in “we become religious/ then we turn from it” since being religious is not sufficient.  In religion we follow practices, hear teachings, with the hopes of shaping our faith, but it is equally possible to go through the motions, listen to words and selectively compartmentalize our busy lives so we are “all over the place,” as she writes, and rarely in steadfast faith with God.

It is an age-old problem, embedded in our parable.

Scholars claim our reading from Luke is one of the least familiar parables, and I will contend, one of the least favorite parables.  It is not even much of a parable, missing metaphors or shrouded messages. The story is difficult to hear now, as it must have been for those Pharisees whom Jesus called “lovers of money” and to whom he directed this teaching.

It is simple and direct.

The story begins with the words, “there was a rich man,” dressed in the finest clothes. He ate the best food. Luke claims he “lived in luxury every day.” And every day he ignored the poor man at his gate.

The rich man and a beggar named Lazarus (not to be confused with the brother of Mary and Martha in the Gospel of John) live side-by-side, but neither by choice.   Our text claims Lazarus lay at the rich man’s gate, but the Greek verb was more forceful in that Lazarus was actually dumped or thrown at the gate, presumably by someone else.

Lazarus is the only person in any parable, in any gospel, with a name.  His Hebrew name means “God saves.” This Lazarus was chronically hungry.  He wore rags.  He was covered with lesions.  Much of the art painted and sculpted through the centuries about this parable emphasized, the dogs licked his sores, abusing him, punishing him.  He was truly a man, but one degraded by poverty and destroyed by human indifference to the point of existing in a sub-human state.

When death comes to both men, angels carry away Lazarus while the rich man’s final reward for wealth was a proper burial.

In the afterlife, Abraham, the long regarded father of faith, comforts Lazarus.  But, the rich man suffers torment, agony and regret, separated from what he thought was his rightful inheritance as a member of Abraham’s lineage.   At one point in life a mere gate separated them, a gate that could be opened and closed.  Now they are bound by a chasm, which as Abraham claims cannot be traversed.

Throughout the ages, some commentaries on Luke have argued this gospel directs Christians to reject all possessions and worldly wealth to share in salvation. Luke is a gospel of reversals….first will be last, women are more apt to heed God’s call, the poor are to be rich and outcasts are included.  But, to read the gospel as rejecting those who are rich may serve someone’s agenda and is a corrupt reading of this parable and the entire gospel.

I believe Jesus’ story of Lazarus and the rich man attacks the divisive and deadly ideas upheld by the religious authorities and culture – if you are poor it is because you must have done something to deserve it.  Jesus had called the Pharisees “lovers of money” since they behaved as if richness implied you must be blessed by God, entitled to comfort and were therefore worthy of devotion.  The Pharisees taught all you need to do is follow some religious customs, keep to yourself, and shun those who are obviously damned, by birth into the wrong ethnicity, gender or social stratus.  This false religion became the standard by which separation and purity were maintained along with poverty, racism, and discrimination.

A key figure in unpacking this parable is Abraham, the patriarch of faith, who was wealthy, possessed land, was blessed by God, and who also was the paragon for hospitality.  Abraham was able to see the divine image in faces of those who came to the entrance to his tent, opening his life and home to the outsider.  Giving was part of his way of life.  Abraham risked all he had to cross barriers into foreign lands. He exemplified steadfast devotion to God, even above the love of his sons and family.  He listened to what God commanded and not what might satisfy his personal feelings or comply with social customs.   In contrast, the rich man lived in walls of his own making, never really listened to the prophets through whom God spoke and never saw Lazarus in life and treated him as servant, even in death.

A recent Wall Street Journal report (August 31, 2013) caught my eye entitled “Hard Wired for Giving,” which refutes commonly held principles across sciences that people (as animals) are driven by an instinct of the “survival of the fittest” and to look out for “number one” in order to get ahead, often at the detriment of others.  I’ve experienced it in some business settings, not only does a manager need to perform well, but he or she advances also by ensuring a peer does not receive recognition.  “It’s dog eat dog.”

The article reviewed leading-edge medical research that confronts these commonly held principles.  Dr. Jordan Grafman, director of brain injury research at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, has clinically studied how the brain both governs generosity and empathy and responds in the midst of such actions.  Rather than offer the details of the study protocol, let me just highlight the conclusions.

His research revealed, “that when people made the decision to donate to what they felt was a worthy organization, they exhibited pleasurable responses (as if cravings for food or sex were satisfied).  Moreover, the findings suggest altruism is not just a sophisticated moral capacity we use to squelch our urges to dominate others, the evidence is that giving is inherently rewarding:  The brain churns out a pleasurable response when we engage in it.”

The article includes complementary behavioral research and draws a bottom-line hypothesis that “our genetics have evolved to include cooperative inclinations and create brain structures that predispose us to help, but the examples others set for us, the surroundings in which we live and the values we prize also play a significant role in tipping us toward selflessness or selfishness.”

God created us to live with one another and enjoy it.  God created us to be generous with all our blessings.  Unfortunately, society teaches us to feel vulnerable if we are open to others. For the Pharisees and the rich man in our parable, they listened to society, which taught safety through segregation and selfishness.  God confronts this selfishness by taking on human flesh and offering us the courage to live without such barriers.

Jesus’ grace becomes the key to unlock the gate for us in two life-saving dimensions; first of all, here on earth, between one another.

I’ll let Marilynne Robinson explain.  The Women’s Reading group just finished her novel, Gilead, the story of an elderly minister’s letters to his young son, who instructs him on how to live a faithful life. One particular passage has stuck with me since I initially read this many years ago and captivated me again this past week.

“When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you.  So you must think, what is the Lord asking of me in this moment, this situation? If you confront insult or antagonism, your first impulse will be to respond in kind.  But if you think, as it were, This is an emissary sent from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness, the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me, you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate….(this other person) would probably laugh at the thought that the Lord sent him to you for your benefit (and his), but that is the perfection of the disguise (Gilead. 124).

We just commissioned and thanked God for the commitment of Stewardship captains at Kenilworth Union.  These women and men responded to God’s call – with a little help from the Lingers – to be agents of our giving to those in need.  When we publish the new directory, it will list the 40+ agencies funded by Kenilworth Union through your pledges and commitments. Our Outreach Committee is meeting on a monthly basis to guide the development and encourage the giving of our time and talents to those in need…children and families, homeless, mental health, those that are hungry…a wide array of those whom God loves and we can lift up in tangible ways…now.

Jesus is also the gate that opens from this life into the next, whose grace frees us to a life not bound by death.  Eternal life is sometimes hard to believe when we live within the walls of our intellect and reason. To be loved so much by God, and to be given life and the promise of life beyond the grave is a grace we find difficult to comprehend, but this is where faith gives us the courage to believe and steadfast.

You have been given what you need to live a faithful life: this congregation to hold you in times of trouble and heartache, to teach you how to discern your particular faith in God, and the joy to celebrate life’s milestones as well.  You are assured of God’s love, Jesus’ grace and the power of the Holy Spirit to help you through the dark valleys.  Rely upon these and not any fragile wall to secure you.

I will leave you with a quote from the poet with whom we started, Mary Oliver.  She writes, “tell me, what else should I have done?  Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon?  Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your wild and precious life?” (“Summer Day.”  New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver, 1992)