Text Luke 16:19-31
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
September 26, 2016
My father-in-law in my first marriage was a striking figure in the state of Kentucky. He was a Clay, descendent of Henry, that state’s most famous senator. He had run unsuccessfully for governor long before I married his daughter and was Senior Partner one of the most successful law practices in the state. He used to love to tell me that he paid his secretary, more than I was making as a Seminary Professor.
Bill was also a committed Christian. For years over thirty years he taught a Sunday School Class of teenage boys. He did not like the Sunday School Curriculum the church was providing, so he decided to write his own. Over several years he led his class verse by verse, chapter by chapter, through the entire Bible, from the book of Genesis through to the Revelation of St. John. In the process, he wrote a commentary on each book. He had just completed the Book of Revelation at the time I met him. He self-published the entire commentary, sixty-six hardback books and proudly presented me with an entire set on my next birthday.
I began to read through the commentary with fascination. He had illustrated many of the passages of scripture with interesting contemporary stories. I’m sure his teaching had been lively and that the guys he taught loved it. Like Martin Luther, Bill found in almost every passage of scripture a salvation message. The message he found, however was not Luther’s – that we are all sinners saved by grace. Rather, like the good lawyer that he was, his image was that of the blind scales of justice. At the end of your life, God put all your good deeds on one side of the scales and all your bad deeds on the other side. If the good outweighed the bad St. Peter would let you in. If the bad outweighed the good, he sent you to the other place.
The next time I saw Bill, he asked me what I thought of his commentary. From what I have just told you about him, I’m sure you image that Bill was quite a formidable man. The last thing I wanted to do was to offend him. I praised him for taking on such a massive project. I recited some of the stories that I liked to let him know that I had indeed been reading through his work. But then I said, “Bill, you have been a member of the Disciples of Christ for a long time. Have you ever heard one of your ministers preach on the fact that we are saved by God’s grace, and not by the good works that we do?”
For a moment I thought Bill was going to have a heart attack. His face turned purple. Finally, he calmed down enough so that he could talk. The problem, he said was my seminary training. I had been taught to interpret the words of Jesus through the lens of St. Paul. But St. Paul got it wrong he said, Jesus never taught that we were saved by grace, but rather by good works. “You see that in almost all his parables,” he said. “It is most clear,” he continued, “the one time Jesus talked directly about the afterlife, in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.” Suddenly, I understood why Bill had trouble accepting the Disciples of Christ Sunday School curriculum. I wondered what his pastors would have thought if they knew the theology he was teaching to two generations of their teenage boys.
A first reading of today’s Gospel may lead us to conclude that my father-in-law might be right. In telling this story, Jesus did something I do all the time. He took a story he had heard and reshaped it to convey the message he wanted to give. I did the same thing last week, when I took Jesus parable about the Unjust Steward and told the story of Warren Buffett and the young graduate from the Harvard Business School. In today’s Gospel, Jesus undoubtedly was aware of a story told by Rabbis of his day that were later recorded in the Jewish Talmud. In this story a rich man died. He had a state funeral. There was much ceremony and mourning. The same day a beggar died. No one took notice as he was thrown out in the garbage dump outside the city walls. But in the afterlife, their fortunes were reversed. The explanation that was given was that in this life the poor man’s good deeds outnumbered his bad ones, and the rich man’s bad deeds outnumber his good ones. I’m sure my father-in-law didn’t know about that story, but he certainly would have felt that it confirmed his interpretation of Jesus’ parable.
But is that the point that Jesus is making? It is true that the Rich Man had everything in this life. It is impossible not to notice him. He lived in a gated community. He is always dressed in the latest fashion, wearing designer clothes. No expense is spared as he makes his appearance. His clothes tell it all. He is a person to be reckoned with.
But he is also generous. He has many friends. Every night he throws a lavish party. Everyone invited leaves having eaten their fill. When they return home late in the night, they cannot help but think, “Wow! What a wonderful guy. How fortunate I am to have a friend like him.”
Nowhere in the story does Jesus suggest that he is not observing the law. Certainly, Jesus did not think it a sin to be rich. Father Abraham, who talks to the Rich man when he is in Hades, was probably the wealthiest person in the world at the time he was alive.
Jesus does not tell us all that much about Lazarus either other than that he was destitute and that body was filled with open sores. He says nothing about any good deeds that he has done during his lifetime. Indeed, the politically correct view that prevailed at the time is that Lazarus is in this state because of past sins he has committed or sins that his parents have committed.
My father-in-law was unware that it is often helpful when interpreting the parables of Jesus to look for clues that suggest he might want us to look at several of his stories together to find additional insight of what he is trying to convey. If he had been, he would have noticed three things.
First, he would have become aware, as suggest last week, that last week’s parable of the Unjust Steward who squandered his master’s money and this week’s parable should be interpreted in light of the parable the Prodigal Son.
Second, he would have become aware that Jesus told the story of the Unjust Steward to the Disciples, and he told the today’s story to the Pharisees.
Third, he would have noticed that in between last week’s parable of the Unjust Steward and today parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus was that saying that I preached on last week. “The children of this world are wiser than the children of light. So make friends with the children of this world, so that when they lose all their dishonest wealth they will invite you to their eternal home.”
Now what would he conclude after making those three observations? I think he would have come to the same conclusions as those of the Bible commentators I have read. First that in the stories the Prodigal Son and the Unjust Steward represent the “children of this world.” (They are the bad guys). Second, that the older brother who stayed home with his father, the rich man in today’s Gospel represent the children of light. (They are the good guys).
Third, we, the disciples of Jesus, are to be like the “children of this world” (the bad guys) and like the children of light (the good guys)! Now why would Jesus tell us to do that? I think there are two reasons. First of all, when the prodigal son came back to his father, and when the steward stood before his master to give an account, they both recognized they were unworthy. They realized they were the bad guys. It is Jesus reminding his disciples and us, that we are “sinners” saved by grace.” Secondly, he is suggesting, as I emphasized last Sunday: when these two young men came to their senses, they were able to use their resources in ways that were acceptable to God and which God could bless. It is the what happened to these two young guys after the story is over.
The elder brother and the rich man in today’s Gospel, on the other hand, represent the “Children of Light.” Like the Pharisees they think they are doing everything right. They observe the law at every point. They think they are better than everyone else, and deserve everything that they have. Jesus is saying to them: “You have totally missed the point of what God has called you to do when he called you to be his chosen people. You think it is because you are extra special.” It is like the charge that was made against George H. W. Bush when he first ran for president. “George was born on third base, and thinks he hit a triple.”
What Jesus was telling the disciples and the Pharisees was: “Yes, they were God’s chosen people. But God had chosen them for a purpose. He called you to be his people so that through you all the peoples of the earth would be blessed. St. Paul’s reminds us in his letter to the Romans, that we, the Church, have been grafted in to this people of God. We share this same calling!
In telling the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus is saying to us his disciples: Don’t be like the Pharisees. Though God blessed him with much, he kept his blessings to himself. Be like the Unjust Steward and the Prodigal Son. They came to recognized they were unworthy of the blessings they received. But that was when God could use them, because they used the recourses they had to be a blessing to others. Amen.
In my telling of the story, my father-in-law was one of the good guys that Jesus mentioned. He was not someone we are called to emulate. Despite this, I’m convinced that when I get to heaven, I will find him there! I am equally confident that he will have a completely different understanding of the Gospel.