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26th sunday in ordinary time

Luke 16:19-31

Hearing the Cry of the Poor

DIFFERENT CULTURES

Critics of the faith often contend that the gospel accounts are irrelevant and impractical because they are stories from an agriculture based society that lose their meaning a technology driven culture. They were also told to people with a very different view of the supernatural. Without the benefits of the Enlightenment, the critic argues, the ancients had an almost superstitious religious view. While I disagree with the conclusions, I agree that the challenge of preaching is to apply the message from one culture to another. This is often times not easy. Today's Scripture passage is a good example. It contains many symbols that seem meaningless to the enlightened mind.

The most glaring is the topic-heaven. In a Gallup Survey 71% of the respondents stated that they believe in heaven but in the typical conversation, it is only a casual reference. We may refer to it in the abstract or tell funny stories about it.

Just recently, I read an intriguing description of heaven and hell. It described

Heaven is where the cooks are French,
the police are English,
the mechanics are German,
the lovers are Italian,
and everything is organized by the Swiss.


Hell is where the English are the cooks,
the Germans are the police,
the French are the mechanics,
the Swiss are the lovers,
and everything is organized by the Italians.


We can laugh about it and refer to its celestial location but our daily conversations seldom dwell on the topic.

In an article in Christianity Today, Phillip Yancy notes that in the  past four annual volumes of the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature do not record any articles on the subject. Topics such as old age, death, and on out of-the-body experiences had several listings, but none are about heaven.1 We may watch TV stories that mention our eternal home in their title but the story is about life in the here and now. Yancy has also observes that even on dying patients do not include the topic as they work through the psychological issues to arrive at the serene stage of acceptance. Yancy cannot understand why "holding up the prospect of annihilation as brave and that of blissful eternity as cowardly?"2

Another element to the story that is out-of-sync with our culture is the severe judgment upon the rich man. The post-modern mind has removed the word from its vocabulary, especially in reference to eternity. The pearly gates are wide enough to allow easy access and are never closed. In my preparation for this sermon, I search two data bases that were specifically geared for sermon illustrations. I only found two. Apparently, we even the church is not interested in the topic. Once again, this is in contrast to the first century mind. Stories of judgment were common. Even this story may have had its origin it a more ancient version.

In a document, dating to 47 A.D. tells the story of a famous philosopher who is reincarnated and born to a king. The son, or wise man, takes his father on a tour of the dead to see what happened to both a rich man who had been honorably lamented, shrouded in fine linen and sumptuously buried and a poor man who had been carried out of the city unmourned on a straw mat. The rich man was in torment with the axle of a door hinge fixed in his right eye and the poor man robed in the man's fine linen.3

While the parable of the rich man and Lazarus has many things that are dissimilar to our culture, it also has many elements that still allow for a direct application of its message today.

POVERTY IS SITTING AT OUR DOOR

After Jesus opens the story with a brief description of the luxury of the rich man, he tells us that Lazarus sits each day just outside his gate. The point is not subtle. The rich man could not have missed Lazarus. The prospects of social contact are affirmed when the rich man calls Lazarus by name. Even in his torment and separated by a great gulf the rich man knew the name of the man in Abraham's bosom.4 He cannot use the excuse that he never knew anyone who was poor.

In the 1960s Bob Dylan asked nine stunning questions in his poem, Blowing in the Word. He asks all of us

How many times must a man look up,
         before he can see the sky?

Yes'n, how many ears must one man have,
         before he can hear people cry?

Jesus is asking the same questions in his parable. Some may try to escape through a loophole. They may claim that the only time they see people in poverty is when they drive into Detroit. They do not have the times to discover how best to help and they are reluctant to give for fear of the money being used unwisely.

Such a rationally is silly. Jesus uses the style of hyperbole to convey his message. The rich do not allow beggars to camp outside their door day after day. The rich can afford security guards. The local police would have responded to any request to remove such a beggar. The town council of Suffolk, VA is doing just that. They are busily drafting a set of laws to outlawing panhandling. The local bank manager has complained that beggars are intimidating his customers after they leave the bank. You gotta give those homeless credit, they may be poor but they are not stupid. They know how to follow the money. However, this is not to completely condemn the Suffolk, VA town council. The issue is just as problematic in Colorado Springs CO and they already have a law on their books prohibiting panhandling. The difference is that Colorado Springs has an extensive network of social service agencies. The homeless and the poor have a wealth of resources to draw upon. However, in CO the social service agencies, not the local merchants, are the groups pleading with the police to enforce the law. The social workers want the law enforced because that will help them provide effective aid to the disadvantaged. It will enable them to teach people how to become self-sufficient rather than welfare dependant.

We may feign one excuse or another about how we are not responsible for either the suffering of the poor in this country or throughout the world but Jesus' hyperbole reminds us that one day he will hold us accountable. We are without excuse. How many ears must we have to see? And how many ears must we have to hear their pain?

ARROGANT SELF-INTEREST

The second element in the parable that strikes at the core of the problem is the arrogant self-interest of the rich man. Notice what he asks father Abraham, "Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water." Even after his eternal punishment has been pronounced and Lazarus exalted, the rich man assumes his superiority over Lazarus. The poor man is there to serve, to meet his needs, and to respond to his beck and call.


The arrogance of the wealthy nations, including and especially, the US is a severe hindrance in ministering to the poor. We assume that we have answers. We are reluctant to surrender are authority to control the disbursement of funds and food supplies. We also bulk at taking decisive steps that are not to our financial advantage. This attitude hindered the international campaign to relieve the debt of Third World known as Jubilee 2000. Borrowing from an ancient law in the OT, its supports asked debtor nations to write off the debts of the Third World. Wall Street bankers and corporate directors would not seriously consider it. The prospect of a substantial loss in revenue was just too great. They were able to draft a litany of sound financial reasons to justify their inaction. To the post-modern ear that places a higher value on personal security over helping another person, their reasons appear justified. Forgiving financial debt just did not make sense, even if God told Israel to do it every fifty years.

Even the rich man's final request is saturated with self-interest. He is only concerned about his family; everyone else could go to hell for all he cares. Maybe his suffering would be just a little less if he knew that he saved someone he loved.

Some might argue that in a capitalistic system, business executives are accountable to their stockholders and the president and senators to the voting public. The former must show a profitable return on their investment and the latter must maintain economic prosperity. However, if we read the writings of the OT and the ancients we would discover that the maximum profit margin mentality of the Twentieth Century was once abhorrent to people of faith. The OT is filled with commandments that if followed would prohibit the accumulation of property and excessive profit. In 1635, the elders of the church charged a Puritan merchant with defaming God's name. The General Court of the Commonwealth convicted him of greed because he sold his wares at 6 percent profit. The law only allowed for a 2% profit margin.5

Before he can help the poor, we must learn to become their servant. What will it take for us individually and as a nation to cast aside are arrogant, self-interest.

NO SPECIFICS ENABLE CREATIVITY

The third important element in this story is the lack of a specific response. Jesus does not tell us exactly what to do; yet, the parable stresses the importance of a response. We cannot hide behind a shield of ignorance. Procrastination is never understandable. However, the lack of specifics should be seen as the freedom for creativity. We should not feel guilty for following or not following the lead of another person. Someone may choose to support an orphan through Compassion International, another may decided to serve through FISH while another may collect two cents at every meal and deposit their weekly offering into the glass bowl on the bank table. We must be careful to avoid legalism. However, the call to respond is required.

On Tuesday, I seriously considered walking down the aisle at this juncture passing out the CROP WALK donation envelopes and insisting that each person make a pledge to support someone who is walking or to join our team of walkers. I decided that that tactic was too manipulative. It took away not only your creativity to respond to the poor but deprived you of the opportunity to respond freely to God's offer of grace.

Jesus never manipulated anyone. That is why he told stories. Their were not very entertaining, uplifting, or easy to understand but they always required a response. His stories always demanded something from his listeners. What is going to be your response? We have done a lot this year but we could do so much more. When will you look beyond your depleted bank account, the maxed out charge cards and the second mortgage to see and hear the cry of the poor.


1 Phillip Yancy, "Heaven Can't Wait," 6 June 2003 Christianity Today; [online] available from http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/122/55.0.html, 24 September 2004.

2 Ibid.

3 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV, The Anchor Bible, (New York: Doubleday, 1985, 1125.

4 Kenneth Bailey, "The Clothes Horse and the Beggar," Studies in the NT, [on-line] available from http://www.shenango.org/bailey_article.htm, accessed 24 September 2004.

5 Rodney Clapp, "Why the Devil takes VISA," Christianity Today, 7 October 1996, vol. 40, no. 11, 21.

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Walled Lake MI 48390


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