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 26th sunday in ordinary time

Luke 16:19-31

Calculating The Risks

The Race to the Grave

The October issue of Blender Magazine has an article calculating who will win the race to the grave between Brittany Spears and Lindsay Lohan. Using a Death Calculator, the article predicted that the race would not even be close nor would it be very long. If both women keep pace with their current lifestyle, Lindsey Lohan will die a full ten years before her counterpart.

The Death Calculator was developed by Dr David Demko who has been doing research in aging for over thirty years. He designed the device to serve as a wake up call on lifestyles that are detrimental to our health. The death calculator itself is actually a simple quiz that includes questions like the following:

“Do you have an annual physical exam?” If so, add three years to your score. If not, subtract three years from your score.

“Do you volunteer on a weekly basis?” If so, add two years to your score. If not, one year deducted. Volunteering means non-paid service to unrelated individuals.

“Do you smoke a pack of cigarettes daily? Yes = minus 5 for men, minus 10 for women. No = 0.

Clean-living Clay Aiken will live to be 82, while Courtney Love is outta here at 62, losing eight years for enjoying a smoking habit that is, among other personal habits, out of control. At least one well-known musician has beaten the odds — Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones should have died back in 1995. Dr. Demko’s calculator gives Ozzy Osbourne only another nine years (based on an Associated Press report, February 11, 2004).

For the curious, Blender magazine asked Dr. Demko to predict the deaths of some celebrities based on their current and past lifestyles. Whitney Houston is predicted to die in 2022. She scores six years for being married but loses four for being married to Bobby Brown. (Her drug addiction didn’t help her score either.)

Most of the lifestyle patterns that Demko has identified are obvious, both those to be avoided and those to be adopted. On his Web site he writes, “Long life isn’t just a result of smart genes and dumb luck. Most of the time, it’s due to moderate eating, sleeping, diet, exercise, work and leisure. In fact, 80 percent of the factors that control how long you live are related to your lifestyle, not your genes.”

It is rather comical how much people will pay attention to such a device. The health food industry, the health clubs, diet fads and exercise equipment all owe their financial success to those of us who are concerned about living longer. Earlier in his ministry Jesus asked such people “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?” (Lk. 9:25) Jesus recognized that our behavior in this life had eternal consequences. This is a difficult concept for Protestants to grasp. The Roman Catholic view of purgatory prevents the faithful from skipping the interlude between earth and heaven. Catholic believers are always reminded that they must experience a purging for the sins of this life. Protestants, however, find this idea repugnant. We are saved by grace and grace is grace—unmerited favor. There is absoluty nothing that we can do to earn God's favor or deserve his forgiveness, so we have always been told. But then why does Jesus tell this parable?

The parable is very explicit in conveying the notion that both men are rewarded for their moral character. The most obvious is the rich man. Every day the rich man left his house, he would see Lazarus. The poor man could not be ignored. The few scraps that Lazarus wrestled from the dogs did not provide a well balanced meal. Lazarus would have sat at the rich man's gate emaciated and lying in torn rags. But each day, Lazarus would ignore the man. Dylan would have asked-

How many eyes must one man have
before he sees the sky?

How many ears must one man have
before he hears people cry?

We are not told if the rich man caused or contributed to the state of Lazarus' condition. Lazarus is not suffering because of the rich man's oppression only his neglect. The rich man neither saw Lazarus' forlorn state of existence nor heard his anguished cries. He walked by the suffering man with a blind eye and a deaf ear. After his death, that rich man would pay for this selective blindness with an eternity of suffering.

Lazarus also is rewarded for the quality of his moral character. One commentary writes:

The silence of Lazarus throughout the parable is very impressive. He never murmurs against God’s distribution of wealth, nor against the rich man’s abuse of it, in this world. And in Hades he neither exults over the change of relations between himself and Dives [the rich man], nor protests against being asked to wait upon him in the place of torment, or to go [on] errands for him to the visible world.1

Lazarus truly displays a spirit of acceptance in all his circumstances and his reward for that and having to endure a life a poverty and suffering is to sit in the lap of Father Abraham.

First reading this parable should make every Protestant wince. It appears to strike at the core of our doctrine of justification by grace. It should cause us to feel very uncomfortable. The difficulty is not with the theology but with the application of the theology. Protestantism is based on the premise that humanity cannot do anything to improve their lot before God. Luke builds his theology on this. Remember 3 weeks ago, we discussed the parable of the lost coins and the lost sheep. Neither the coins nor the sheep recognized their desperate plight but God as the woman conducts a frantic search for the coin and God as the shepherd risks his own life to search the deserted countryside looking for the lost lamb. This is grace. The parable of the waiting father also known as the prodigal son follows this theme. The son has squandered his father's wealth. He has done nothing to deserve a welcome but the father embraces him with open arms and tells the servants to throw a feast.

Luke then follows these three parables with the parable of the gracious land owner more often times known as the parable of the shrewed servant. The landowner has discovered that his servant has ripped him off. The servant has misused expense accounts. He has taken advantage of his master. The rich man calls the servant before him and demands an account but before the servant is publicly humiliated he gathers a group of his master's debtors and reduces their debt in hopes of earning their friendship. The rich master admires the servant and compliments him. Why because that is exactly how God acts towards us. We have misused everything he has given us and without his willingness to forgive us we would suffer judgment. But does the parable tell us that God forgives everyone? NO! It tells us that God forgives the person who understands the severity of their plight and acts shrewdly by using their money to win not earthly friends but friendship in heaven. For those of us who are intellectually challenged, Jesus pushes home the point with the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. God expects us to help the poor who are sitting before us. For those who choose not to, there are dire consequences.

I have not become Roman Catholic in my theology but I do place a greater emphasis on the means of grace. In Catholic theology charitable activity is seen as a work. In Protestant theology it is seen as a means of grace. Caring for the poor is the means by which we express and share God's love. John Calvin, the author of Protestant theology writes:

wicked despisers of God, who are wholly engrossed in the pleasures of the flesh, and who by a sort of mental intoxication, drown every feeling of piety, will experience, immediately after death, such torments as will efface their empty enjoyments.2

Calvin assumes that if we are children of the light we will share with others from a spirit of generosity. If we do not, he would consider us a “wicked despiser” of God. Therefore, acts of charity were not viewed by Calvin as works of righteousness but signs that indicated the persons standing before God. Children of the light give out of a spirit of generosity. Children of darkness are evident by their tight fisted behavior.

In a recent article I read that a pastor was criticizing the church over the issue of legalism. However, he was not accusing the church of being too legalistic. He was accusing the church of being too legalistic in the wrong areas. Rather than worry about whether a person drinks too much or smokes, according to this parable we should be more concerned about how much members of the congregation give. Why? Because your willingness to give is an indication of the grace of God you have experienced in your life. People who have experienced much grace, usually give much, because they know what God has done for them and it is just one small way of returning their love to him.

We do not have anyone named Lazarus sitting at the edge of our driveway. We isolate the poor into ghettos with zoning codes and vagrancy laws. We do not let them roam the streets of affluent neighborhoods or sleep in our backyards. But the Lazarus's of the world are still outside our gates in countries like Rwanda, Darfur, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and others. They are suffering malnutrition, illiteracy, poverty, dysentery, malaria, AIDS/HIV, polio, and hunger.

Do we have the eyes to see them?

Do we have the ears to hear them?

Do we have the will to help them?

1 Plummer, A. 1896. A critical and exegetical commentary on the Gospel According to S. Luke (392). T&T Clark International: London

2 Calvin, J. 1998. Calvin's Commentaries: The Harmony of the Gospels : Calvin's Commentary on Matthew, Mark, and Luke (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; Calvin's Commentaries. Ages Software: Albany, OR

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