Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sunday 29 September 2013 Ordinary 26

NOTE TO NZ READERS: Daylight Saving Begins Today, 29 September 2013!

Theme(s): Dangerous riches // Warning against wealth // A cry for justice

Sentence: 'For we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.' 1 Timothy 6:7-8


Almighty God, you alone are our true judge,
for you know what we are,
you know what we should be,
and with you there is mercy.
Give us feeling for what is right;
set us on fire to see that right is done.

Readings, related:

Amos 6:1a, 4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31


Amos 6:1a, 4-7

Amos is the prophet par excellence on social and economic justice matters. Here he takes aim at the complacent wealthy who enjoy their luxuries without a care in the world let alone a care for the world. A perfect entree passage to the gospel reading about the rich man who complacently let poor Lazarus suffer at his door.

Psalm 146

The God who commands us to act justly, who favours the poor and suffering over the rich and indolent, and who calls us to use wealth generously is the God who is front, centre and star of this psalm. Praise the Lord! (indeed) ... Do not put your trust in princes (of course not) ... Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob (because he is the God 'who executes justice to the oppressed ... upholds the orphan and the widow).

1 Timothy 6:6-19

(I have no idea why the lectionary skips so much material in this important epistle between last week's reading from chapter 2 and this passage).

Although the epistle reading does not necessarily 'relate' to the gospel reading in the 'related' series, this epistle reading has quite a bit to say about being rich, the love of money, the danger of being rich re wandering from the faith. Although the passage moves away from these themes through verses 11-16 (which is more or less a restatement of the great theological and christological concerns of this letter and the importance of faithfully 'confessing' this), there is a return to these themes in verses 17-19.

All readers can take seriously the call to be content with what we have (6:6-8). The rich have some special additional matters to consider, 6:9-10, 17-19. The practical directions and guidance here scarcely needs explanation.

If only the rich man in Luke 16:19-31 had read this passage and heeded it.

Luke 16:19-31

(Somewhat annoyingly the lectionary skips the challenging yet pivotal-for-this-chapter verses 14-18).

This parable admits of several readings.

First and primary (because of the commentary Jesus himself gives to the parable, the parable challenges the Pharisees ('targets' of Jesus in preceding chapters, e.g. 15:1-2, also in Luke 16:14-15). If they cannot interpret their scriptures ('Moses and the prophets') to discern what God is doing in Jesus before their eyes, they will not discern in the resurrection the action of God in vindicating and validating Jesus as the Christ.

Secondly, the parable challenges comfortable assumptions (as the Pharisees seemed to have, 'lovers of money', 16:14) that (say) wealth is good and deserved fortune for those who possess it and poverty is bad luck for those who experience it. At the core of the judgment given to the rich man (torment) and to Lazarus (life with Abraham, without torment) is a judgment against the wealthy who ignore the poor. The parable incorporates a morality tale: the poor are loved by God and we should love them too; the rich are under close scrutiny by God and should take care to use their wealth wisely and generously. In other words, it is all but impossible to read/hear this parable and not be moved by the heartlessness of the rich man and by the suffering of Lazarus to act generously, if not to work for justice. Cue current concerns in our society for the increasing gap between the rich and the poor.

Thirdly, the parable can be read as a story about God's judgment, the character of Hades (Hell) and the possibility of being saved from Hades and transferred to heaven. Read in this way the story raises many questions (e.g. does it accord with what we read elsewhere in Luke's Gospel, let alone the remainder of Scripture about salvation?). Important to remember here is a basic lesson about parables: they are not stories in which each and every detail accords with an aspect of God's reality. Earlier in chapter 16, in the opening parable of the shrewd manager, 1-8a, we read a story in which it is difficult if not impossible to connect each detail with God's reality. Here we read a story in which it is tempting to connect each detail but the connections do not stack up: nowhere else in Scripture, for example, is anything to found which supports let alone endorses 'Father Abraham' being in the position of hearing a plea for mercy from someone in Hades (16:23-29), nor is it conceivable from Scripture that an ordinary deceased person could come down from heaven to speak to people (16:24, 27).

We could run through other details, I will draw attention to just one more. The blessing of the poor man Lazarus when he dies is suggestive that his own moral state or his own response to Jesus is of no consequence. But, again, nowhere else in Scripture do the poor receive encouragement simply to rely on their poverty for salvation. (Nevertheless there is a tie between this story and the first Lukan beatitude in 6:20 to consider).

Putting all this together, the parable actually strikes two notes in terms of responsiveness to God.

First, the importance of repentance now. Death can come at any time (and riches are no buffer against this end, see also Luke 12:16-21). Do not be caught on the wrong side of repentance when death strikes. Act now to reverse the course of one's life away from God and God's expectations in respect of just dealings with fellow humans.

Secondly, the importance of belief in Jesus. This is the importance of Jesus' own commentary at the conclusion of the parable. Belief in Jesus is pivotal for inclusion in God's kingdom.

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