Readings (click here for full text of the readings):
Amos 6:1-7, Psalm 146, 1 Timothy 6:11-19, Luke 16:19-31
I was chatting with a friend of mine recently, and she asked me how my day had gone. I told her what I’d done that day, and, almost as an afterthought, I told her about a wondrous experience I’d had. That afternoon I’d been driving down the road and, having left in plenty of time, I was in no rush to get to where I was going. I looked up at the sky, and the setting sun and clouds were exploding in colors that I couldn’t put into words if tried. I sat at a red light and savored the moment – a gift that had been offered to me.
When I had finished describing that experience, my friend said to me, “Well, today you had the eyes to see it.” That struck me as a curious thing to say, for either we can see or we can’t – that isn’t something that changes day-to-day. But her comment reminded me of what Jesus often said: “[Let anyone with eyes to see, look.] Let anyone with ears to hear, listen.”
Jesus was confronting the human tendency to hear what we want to hear, to see what we want to see. This tendency has many names: in science, it’s called paradigms – if we’re wedded to a certain theory, we’ll make the results of an experiment fit with that theory, even though the results might suggest a totally different way of looking at things. In politics, it’s called allegiance, which is clear in this election season as the Democrats latch onto accusations about Bush’s service in Vietnam while ignoring the accusations about Kerry’s; and Republicans do exactly the opposite. And in biblical criticism, it’s called “eisegesis”, which literally means reading a meaning into Scripture. That’s the opposite of “exegesis”, which is taking a meaning from Scripture, which is what good seminarians are taught to do.
Scripture is God’s revelation to humankind. Just as Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh, so the Bible is the written Word. And the whole notion of the Christian life is one of change – Jesus came to preach repentance, and the Greek word for repentance means to turn around, to change. To be a Christian is to be transformed, to allow God to change us. So when we read Scripture in a prayerful fashion, it’s a risky business. The Bible challenges us to turn away from our sinful habits, from those parts of our lives that separate us from God. If we’re open, if we present ourselves to the Word willing to be changed, if we don’t read our own meaning into Scripture, if we avoid making Scripture say what we want it to say – then the Word will often convict us, condemn us, redeem us, sanctify us. Change us.
If we listen to this morning’s readings, if we have the ears to hear, then we’re in blessed danger of being changed. For while Jesus often condemns people who are so bad that we can say to ourselves, “I’d never do that,” here Jesus condemns someone merely for living a comfortable life. All we know about the man is that he was rich, dressed well, and ate sumptuously every day. As far as we’re told, he committed no crimes. He might very well have prayed and attended church faithfully. He might have been involved in charitable organizations and done “all the right things.”
Our suspicion that he wasn’t a bad guy is reinforced by the description of him in Hades. He doesn’t rebuke God in anger for having condemned him. Rather, he simply asks Abraham to send Lazarus there with a little water to cool his tongue. When that’s denied, he immediately shows concern for his family, so that they won’t make the same mistake that he did. And he won’t take “no” for an answer – when Abraham says that his family should listen to Moses and the prophets, the rich man disagrees with him, and again asks him to reach out to his family. Abraham then tells him that if he and his family didn’t listen to Moses and the prophets, then they won’t listen to anything, not even someone who rose from the dead.
There are a lot of things here that seem ancient and out-dated and that we don’t talk about much anymore: hell as eternal punishment amidst the flames; judgment with no second chance; angels carrying us up to heaven to be with God and the saints. In the 20th century, these might seem like simplistic and superstitious ideas, and perhaps we can’t bring ourselves to believe them. So we might be tempted to disregard this story – fire and brimstone it certainly is, but it speaks a different language than we do today.
It does speak a different language, but that’s its purpose. It’s a vivid and shocking and truly worrying story that doesn’t pull any punches. There certainly are nicer and more polite ways of conveying the same message. Earlier in Luke we read similar sentiments in the more refined “Sermon on the Plain” –
Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh …
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Powerful though that speech is, it doesn’t feel very threatening. To say that you should do this and you shouldn’t do that isn’t as compelling as telling a story that shows you in vivid detail what happens when you do this or don’t do that. And so Jesus follows His earlier speech, which He gave near the beginning of His ministry, with a story that the people couldn’t overlook or misinterpret. He was travelling to Jerusalem, and He knew what lay ahead of Him, and that time was short. The time for eloquence and diplomacy had passed; this was His last chance to reach the people. There could be no misunderstandings.
There’s a sense of urgency in this story – the meaning is unmistakable, threatening. And sometimes that’s what we need. There’s a time for consideration, for thoughtful reflection, for critical examination of the text. But there’s also a time for confrontation and for honest self-recrimination. For in a world where some people feast and others starve, where the wealthiest 10% earn more money than the other 90%, where the 400 richest guys have more money than the poorest 2.5 billion people, where if Christ were to return today He would surely be mocked and derided and probably crucified again – in a world such as ours, guilt is universal.
We’ve all contributed to this, by what we’ve done and by what we’ve left undone. I know that I cringed when I saw the readings for today, because I first preached on them six years ago, when I was a struggling pediatric resident, working 100 hours a week for what worked out to be less than minimum wage, renting out a small room in a house, and helping some very poor people in inner city Baltimore. Even two years ago would have been okay, when Pam and I were in Uganda. Today, though, I find myself living in a lovely, recently renovated home, working a fraction of the number of hours I used to (although still probably too many), and living a very comfortable life. Amos might just as well have been talking about me.
And it is Amos that I, we, must hear. For if we don’t have the ears to hear him and the other prophets; if we don’t have the eyes to see the people who starve and shiver in the land of riches; then we won’t see or hear anything of God, even the ultimate sign of hope and redemption – Jesus Christ, risen from the dead.
We must not only hear God’s call to repentance, we must turn from our sinful ways, and change. We must change the way we pray, because in addition to remembering the people we know and love, we also have to pray for the people we’ll never know personally, but who suffer day invisibly, every day. The people who have no food or water. The people who live in war zones. The people who have no one else to pray for them.
We must change the way we live – by considering how much we really need, and how much others need. What might seem like a necessity in this country is an indulgent luxury in another. Do we really need a new version of something we already have? Do we need two of something when one will do just fine? And how much of what God has given us do we return to Him, for His work, for His children?
Ultimately, we must change the way we look at every decision we make. Because God is telling us that it’s not enough to be a nice person. It’s not enough to claim, “I didn’t know those people were in such need,” because the only way you couldn’t have known is if you didn’t have the eyes to see it. Every decision we make – how to live our lives, what to spend money on, who to vote for (especially who to vote for) – has to be based on what’s best for the poorest of God’s children. For no matter the struggles we face today – and they may be huge ones – the fact remains that most of us have food to eat and water to drink and a roof over our heads and people who’ll help us if we lost any of those. Half the people on earth don’t have any of those things – compared to them, we are like the rich man in Jesus’ story, and his fate may well be ours, as well.
We must open our ears to hear the Word, no matter how threatening it is. For, in the end, today’s readings are about us. They were written a long time ago, but their truth is for us today. As if a modern-day Amos, a 20th century “dresser of sycamore trees,” were to walk into this church today and offer a dire warning.
Alas for those who lie on sheets of silk, and lounge on their couches,
and eat the finest cuts of meat, and the most expensive fish,
Who drink wines long aged,
and anoint themselves with high-priced perfumes,
but are not grieved by the famine and violence of their land!
Therefore they shall now be the first to be cast out,
and the revelry of the wealthy shall pass away.
If we, if I, read those words, we are convicted. And if we truly listen, if we have ears to hear, we are changed.
 E.g., Luke 8:8, 14:35.
 Luke 6:20-21, 24-25.