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There are no crumbs in God’s kingdom

Lazarus-and-the-Rich-ManToday’s Gospel reading, Luke 16:19-31, is the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The parable is one of many that Jesus spoke about money and how God sees rich and poor people. Indeed, the context here is worth looking at. Chapter 16 of Luke’s Gospel begins with another parable about money and Jesus concludes that parable with the familiar words we all know or have heard: “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Luke 16:13). Jesus is very clear, either you serve God or you serve money – you cannot serve both. The Pharisees who hear him say this start mocking Jesus and Luke calls them “lovers of money” (verse 14). And this confrontation with the Pharisees is what prompts the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

But this parable is not only about money. Consider first of all that the poor man in the parable is given a name, Lazarus. This is very unique in the parables that Jesus spoke, where the characters are otherwise always anonymous. And, indeed, the rich man here is anonymous. This is the exact opposite of what happens in society, where the rich and famous have the names that everyone knows while the poor are for the most part anonymous. Reversal of fortunes is one of the characteristics of God’s Kingdom. The first will be last and the last will be first, in Jesus’ own words (Matthew 20:16, Luke 13:30, and elsewhere).

Lazarus would have been satisfied with the scraps from the rich man’s table (Luke 16:21); the Canaanite woman answered Jesus’ provocation by accepting the crumbs that fall from the masters’ tables (Matthew 15:27); the prodigal son fell into hard times and would have been satisfied to eat the scraps on which the swine fed (Luke 15:16). In contrast to all these images of crumbs and scraps, Jesus paints visions of God’s kingdom as a banquet, a rich feast (Matthew 22:1-10 and elsewhere). There are no crumbs in God’s kingdom!

The Rich Man and Lazarus in a medieval manuscript

The Rich Man and Lazarus in a medieval manuscript

We pray, “give us this day our daily bread.” In the ancient world, daily bread was offered to the gods. In the Jerusalem Temple, weekly bread was brought into the presence of God YHWH. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are reminded that bread is not for the gods or even for the One God; bread is for humans. We all need our daily bread. But “man shall not live by bread alone,” Jesus said (Matthew 4:4). God promises a feast.

Life in this world is separated by gates. The rich man lived inside a gated compound. Lazarus was outside the gate. A chasm separated them. A chasm also separated them after death! The rich man never apologized for how he treated – or didn’t treat – Lazarus, and even after death he only looked to Lazarus to serve him! He cared for his brothers and wanted to warn them – but even here, his compassion is gated compassion; it’s limited to his own.

Abraham answers the rich man’s concern for his brothers: His brothers will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead and warn them. But we answer: Someone has risen from the dead – the one telling the parable. Abraham’s punch line is a warning not to harden one’s heart. We need to take advantage of every situation that helps us to soften our hearts. The rich man’s heart was hardened, which is why he was indifferent to Lazarus even after death.

Icon of the "Hospitality of Abraham" at the entrance of Holy Trinity Church, Portland, Maine

Icon of the “Hospitality of Abraham” at the entrance of Holy Trinity Church, Portland, Maine (click to enlarge)

Abraham’s presence in the parable also reminds us that Abraham was known for offering hospitality. Hebrews 13:2 refers to Abraham and the encounter with the three persons who appeared to him and Sara at the oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18). This is precisely the scene in the icon that greets people entering our church, an icon appropriately called “The Hospitality of Abraham.” Paul tells us in Romans 15:7, “Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you.”

As I conclude these thoughts, it becomes clear that above and beyond the concern with money, the parable is about those qualities that make community real. Hospitality is the key requirement for community life. We have an icon at our entrance that reminds us of that every time we enter! Community means an open gate to the world; it’s never a gated community. And community means fullness; never crumbs. In church community we find the fullness of God’s presence and we receive the fullness of Christ in the communion of Bread and Wine.

Hospitality – Openness – Fullness: Qualities that require active involvement from all of us in building community that is real and lasting. God invites us to the banquet of life.


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Guard Your Identity

img08-04There are many instances in the Gospels of Jesus driving out demons, and the most remarkable of these is the one in Luke 8:26-39 that we read in the Liturgy this morning (Oct. 26th). It is hard for many modern people – myself included – to relate to stories of demon possession and exorcism or to even believe in such things. Furthermore, I don’t find much about demons in the Old Testament or the Jewish tradition of Jesus’ time. Perhaps belief in demons and demon possession was more common among pagans. And the story that we read this morning did indeed take place in pagan country. It was the land of the Gadarenes (or Gerasenes, depending on the translation).

But is this story of the Gadarene demoniac only about demon possession and exorcism? Or is it about something more, something deeper, something that we can all relate to? I believe this miracle story is about identity. The big moment comes when Jesus asks this man for his name, and he answers, “Legion, for we are many.” It is devastating that this man has become so completely identified with what possesses him, that he has no identity. His name is not Elijah or Isaac or John or Frank – his name is Legion. He has identified himself with what has invaded him and robbed him of his joy and his health and prevented him from being a social being. He has identified with what keeps him bound and isolated.

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We also, today, identify with our possessions, which very often end up possessing us. But even more tragically, we identify ourselves with our inadequacies and our failures. And there are enough people and circumstances in our lives to constantly remind us of our failures and inadequacies; they remind us that we’re not good enough, or healthy enough, or attractive enough, or successful enough. And we are bombarded every day by advertisements that play to our feelings of inadequacy and try to sell us the things that are missing in our lives: the things that will make us more attractive, more social, more popular, more successful, more fulfilled, healthier, sexier. If you take away the demons, the story we read today is about us.

Jesus came to this pagan country, this unfamiliar territory well outside of his normal travels in Judea, and it seems he had no other purpose to be there than to liberate this man from what possessed him. He transformed him from “Legion” to human being; Jesus granted him his humanity again. He gave him the freedom and the ability to start over again, free from bondage. And that’s what Jesus is still doing. His mission is still the same: to set people free. He comes to every one of us to free us from feelings of failure and inadequacy. He says to us, over and over again, that we are more, more than the sum of our failures and fears.

The story is about identity. And it’s our story too. The story of our own identity starts at baptism, regardless of whether we are baptized as infants or adults. We are washed with water and are sealed with the anointing of the Holy Spirit. We are given a new start – or, a start, in the case of infants. Yes, we should always improve ourselves and there are many things out there that can help us – and advertising can sometimes inform us of things that can help us. But let’s not identify with our shortcomings. Let’s instead see our failures and shortcomings as opportunities to grow forward and upward – which is where our baptism wants us to be.

We need to guard our identity that we receive in baptism. We need to remember that our identity is IN CHRIST. Our identity is NOT in the things we have or don’t have, NOT in the things we possess or the things that possess us, NOT in messages of failure and inadequacy that bombard us daily.

But this story is not only a story of a man who had lost his identity; it’s also the story of a community. There was a community around this man, and the community had failed him tragically. And even after he was healed, the community failed him! Baptism and the liberating power of Jesus can happen in a vacuum; but there is a better way. Some people think they can be saved alone. Fine, it’s possible; everything is possible with God. But how much better it is when baptism and the new identity occur in the midst of a caring and nurturing community. And how much better it is when the community itself is freed of failed practices and indifferent attitudes and finds its identity IN CHRIST.

Real community – not community in name only – is built by people who experience the liberating power of Christ. And because of that, it is a work in progress. The community of the Gadarenes asked Jesus to leave – and he left. He saw that it was a failed community, and he could do nothing to heal it. But perhaps, after Jesus left, the man who stayed behind, the man formerly called Legion, started the healing process in the community. Perhaps the community of the Gadarenes eventually found a new wholeness and a new identity. Perhaps.

And that’s the message to us as a community. It starts with those who are here. Never mind those who are not here. They clearly have something better to do this morning. Perhaps they’ll be here next week, or next year, or when their children grow up and don’t have sports on Sunday mornings, or when they are old and need someplace to crash on a Sunday morning for an hour or two. It doesn’t matter. God works with who and what is present at any given time. At any given time those who are present make up the community, a core group that Jesus is working with. Community is always a work in progress. We invite Jesus to be with us. We do not ask him to leave, like the Gadarenes did, we ask him to stay and be with us. Jesus is calling us to be a different kind of legion: a legion of faith and trust and humble service. And that’s how community is built: from the ground up, not from above, by edict. Everything that is worthwhile is built from the ground up. And that was also God’s way, when Jesus came down to the ground, to be with us, and to build with us from the ground up.

Guard your identity! It’s precious, because it was given to you by Christ. And he now invites you to be part of this amazing construction project called COMMUNITY.