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Parables of Surprise

The Sunday Lectionary after feast of Cross in September offers various combinations of Epistle and Gospel readings that break the normal pairings – at least in the Greek tradition. Today’s readings, Ephesians 2:4-10 and Luke 16:19-31, offer an interesting juxtaposition: faith or works? Paul says: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast.” But our Gospel passage today seems to focus only on whether the rich man showed kindness on Lazarus.

Chapters 15 & 16 in the Gospel of Luke are rich with parables – and all deal with what it means to be lost. After two short parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, Jesus turns to three big parables with human characters. As if to underline that these are human, all-too-human stories, each parable begins with the phrase ἄνθρωπός τις – there was a man, anthropos. The parable of the prodigal son we read every year before Lent. The parable of the shrewd manager we don’t read on a Sunday, but it also is a gem of a story. The third parable is the one we read today, the rich man and Lazarus.

Each story features central characters who are lost in different ways. Then in each story grace enters and reverses the plotline. Paul told us today: God “raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” Did you catch that? It’s not just a promise of a future life; we’re already sitting with Christ in the heavenly places! The immeasurable riches of grace are a future promise, but the present is already a life lived in rich fellowship with Christ. This is precisely what happened to all the main characters in our parables.

The younger brother was lost in sin; but he repented, changed his mind, and entered life. The older brother was lost in pride and ego, but the door was opened to him also to join the celebration of life. And let’s not forger that Jesus’ favorite image for eternal life was a banquet! The father in the parable was not lost, but he also found redemption of sorts by showing kindness to both his sons. You don’t have to be lost to receive grace and redemption. The father found a deeper life through the redemption of his two sons. Profound!

The shrewd manager in the parable we don’t read on a Sunday was lost because of his dishonesty, but found redemption by using his dishonesty in a way that somehow met with Christ’s approval. Who ever said the Gospels are boring or irrelevant? Maybe Jesus was a capitalist after all! (Okay, I’m joking.)

In today’s parable, Lazarus is lost in poverty, hunger and invisibility. But he is raised from the dehumanized squalor of dogs licking his wounds to life in “the bosom of Abraham.” The rich man is lost in his self-absorbed luxury. Redemption of some sort comes to him too! He now sees Lazarus as if for the first time. Is it too late for him? The parable clearly indicates that it is; but he does try to prevent his five brothers from coming to the same end as he. Plus, he is in Hades. That’s not Hell. As a matter of fact, Hades was a Greek mythological concept: the place of the dead. Luke, the writer of this Gospel, was a Greek, not a Jew, so it is very possible that he inserted the language of Hades and made it a place of torment; whereas for the ancient Greeks it was not necessarily a place of punishment or torment. It’s highly unlikely that Jesus himself would have used the word Hades. He might have said, Sheol, and Luke turned it to Hades. Sheol in the Hebrew mind was not much different from the Greek Hades – not a place of torment, but a place of darkness and separation from God.

So all three of these parables with the ἄνθρωπός τις headline, have surprising elements. In each parable something takes place in and around grace that reverses “the way things are.” There’s a message there for us too. Never settle for the way things are. Our Lord is the master of surprises. So the entire question of faith vs. works is meaningless. Grace is the only thing that matters. And grace is unpredictable in its coming and in its effects. Prepare to be surprised – here in this life and in the life to come.