Ancient Answers


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Bystanders are important too

 

Susan Holman is a researcher and writer at Harvard University. She has published several books about the early church.

61BSNSDEOEL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Her most recent book is titled Beholden: Religion, Global Health, and Human Rights, published by Oxford University Press. In the beginning of her book she talks about the death of her father in 2009 and her efforts to clear the house. In doing so she discovered an old book, over 200 years old. The full title of the book was: Medical Inquiries and Observations. To which is added an Appendix, Containing Observations on the Duties of a Physician, and the Methods of Improving Medicine. By Benjamin Rush, MD Professor of Chemistry in the University of Pennsylvania. The Second Edition. 1789.

She did some research and found this Dr. Rush was quite an impressive man, a leading physician in early American medicine. He was one of the first American advocates for universal health care, prison reform, the abolition of slavery and capital punishment, equal education for girls and boys, and he especially pushed for respect and dignity in treating those who suffered form mental illness. He founded the first free dispensary in America, and he was one of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence. He was a Christian and was a member of several churches simultaneously, “so that he might visit the nearest one should he desire communion with his Maker during rounds.” He described his faith as “a compound of the orthodoxy and heterodoxy of most of our Christian churches.” That could very well describe most or all of us!

Benjamin Rush had a special religious concern for providing medical care for the poor. Thus he advised his students:

The poor of every description should be the objects of your peculiar care. Dr. Boerhaave used to say, “they were his best patients, because God was their paymaster.”…

Whenever you are called, therefore, to visit a poor patient, imagine you hear the voice of the good Samaritan sounding in your ears, “Take care of him, and I will repay thee.”

On this Labor Day weekend it is good to remember a man like Benjamin Rush, who labored in the best traditional meaning of the word. He labored with honesty, integrity and concern for his fellow man and woman. What really struck me is that last sentence I quoted: Whenever you are called, therefore, to visit a poor patient, imagine you hear the voice of the good Samaritan sounding in your ears, “Take care of him, and I will repay thee.”

When we read the Parable of the Good Samaritan – and we will read it again on Nov. 13th – we hardly pay any attention to the innkeeper. And yet, it’s the innkeeper that Rush advised his students to imitate. Perhaps because they will get paid for their labor in healing the sick.

But I draw a different lesson from Dr. Rush’s advice. Many times we read the Gospels and find it hard to relate to most of the people in the incidents and parables. Most of us find it impossible to imitate the Good Samaritan and are scared to even think of doing it. But perhaps we could be like the innkeeper – do what we are paid to do, but do it honestly and with full care for the humanity of others.

In today’s parable, who can you relate to? Perhaps none of us will ever have such a huge debt or sin that needs forgiving. I hope none of us will ever have such an unforgiving heart as the unforgiving servant. And I doubt that any of us will ever be in a position of power like that of the Master. Perhaps some of us have been victims to an unforgiving person. How perhaps we should relate to the witnesses, who were shocked and “distressed” at the hypocrisy and inhumanity of the unforgiving servant. How many of us are shocked at other people’s inhumanity, at other people’s racism, at other people’s obscenities or reckless behavior, or other people’s hypocrisy? That could be all that many of us can take from today’s parable, and it would be enough: To be shocked, to speak up, to do something about a wrong that we witness. Perhaps if more of us did that there would be less violence and hatred in the world.

Don’t look for the impossible. In every parable of Jesus, in every miracle story or incident in the life of Jesus. Look for what you can take home, what you can imitate. Sometimes it could be what the bystanders do or what the least prominent character does. To each of us according to our abilities does God place expectations.


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Come out from hiding!

 

Saint John tells us at the beginning of his Gospel: No one has ever seen God, but the only Son who is at the Father’s side has made him known.

The invisible becomes visible, the unknown becomes known. These paradoxes are at the heart of the Christian revelation. Revelation indeed means unveiling, uncovering – from the Greek verb, apokalypto.

Jesus’ mission on earth was to make the Father known, to reveal the Father’s love for the world. It was a love that drove Jesus even to a cross, so much did God love the world (cf. John 3:16).

But we cannot know God unless we know the neighbor. John wrote: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him…. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us…. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them… Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 John 4:7-21).

No one has ever seen God, but the only Son who is at the Father’s side has made him knownThe Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the only Son who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14-18 is thus telling us that it’s not only on the mountain of transfiguration that Jesus revealed the glory of God.

Every encounter is an opportunity for him to open our eyes to God’s love and Jesus’ glory. That’s why John also tells us, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12).

But to see God’s glory and God’s love you have to come out from hiding. Have you ever noticed how many of the encounters Jesus had with people were intended to bring people out from hiding? To make the “invisibles” visible!

The Woman with the Flow of Blood - Wall painting from the Catacomb of Saints Marcellinus and Peter in Rome, probably from the 3rd century or early 4th century. (click to enlarge)

The Woman with the Flow of Blood – Wall painting from the Catacomb of Saints Marcellinus and Peter in Rome, probably from the 3rd century or early 4th century. (click to enlarge)

You see it in today’s Gospel reading of the woman who touched his garment.

Then there was the Samaritan woman at the well.

He brought the rich ruler out into the open, forced him to stop hiding behind inherited laws and tradition.

He made Lazarus visible in last week’s parable.

And the tax collector in another parable.

He told Zacchaeus to come down from the tree.

In the parable of sheep and goats. it is all about seeing the other person, the neighbor, the brother or sister. “When did we see you…”

Jesus rebuked the man who hid his talent in the ground.

He exposed the demons by getting them to reveal their name, Legion.

Sometimes he provoked people in order to help them see the fuller reality – for example, the woman and the crumbs.

He did not hesitate to point out what was good in others: the centurion whose faith was greater than anyone else in Israel; the widow who gave out of her poverty…

How many times he exposed the thoughts of the pharisees and the others who opposed him. He wanted their thoughts out in the open! When they asked him about paying tax, he told them to look at the money they carried! Open your eyes and see what’s in front of you!

And finally, there is the walk to Emmaus after the resurrection. Their eyes were opened at the breaking of bread. This is where we come in. Here in the Liturgy we also break bread with Jesus. We come out of our own hiding places and leave this Liturgy with eyes open to see as Jesus saw, and to make the invisibles visible.


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Artists of Faith

 

Today is the feast day of St. Luke, the Evangelist, “the beloved physician,” as St. Paul calls him in our reading today from the Letter to the Colossians.

Luke, the writer of a Gospel (click to enlarge)

Luke, the writer of the first icon (click to enlarge)

Luke wrote one of the three ‘Synoptic Gospels” and one can easily see it is the most artfully and best written of the three! It is a work of literature in addition to being a gospel. He even wrote a sequel. Tradition also says that he ‘wrote’ the first icon, an icon of Mary. There’s no doubt that he had close contact with the mother of Jesus, as evidenced by the various episodes of Mary and Jesus’ childhood that only he wrote about. So Luke was a painter of words and images. And indeed, his gospel has more memorable images than any of the other gospels.

Luke was very creative in his arrangement of the actions and sayings of Jesus. One good example is the incident of the sinful woman who anointed his feet (Luke 7:36-50). All four Gospels have this incident in one form or another (Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; John 12:1-8); but in Matthew, Mark and John the incident is part of the passion week narrative and Jesus takes the anointing as a preparation for his burial. Luke transfers the incident to a much earlier time where it has no connection with Passion Week. And instead of a preparation for his burial, Jesus calls it an act of love, because “she loved much” (verse 47).

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In Luke’s version, the story is less about Jesus and more about the woman! Luke showed greater sensitivity to women than the other Gospel writers, and he showed women playing a significant role in the life and ministry of Jesus.

Luke’s greatest literary innovation comes in chapters 9-19, the journey to Jerusalem; a true literary unit into which he also integrated various scattered sayings which Matthew had collected together in the Sermon on the Mount. This was the freedom of the gospel writers, to mix and match and reorganize the material that had been handed down about Jesus. Fundamentalists worry about finding an explanation for every little discrepancy among the four Gospels; but the gospel writers were not fundamentalists! They were artists of faith, and we are called to be likewise.

Luke’s narrative of the journey to Jerusalem begins with an amazing phrase: καὶ αὐτὸς τὸ πρόσωπον ἐστήρισεν τοῦ πορεύεσθαι εἰς Ἰερουσαλήμ (9:51). This is a Semitic expression, meaning Jesus “fixed his face to go to Jerusalem” – a determined move, with a sense of finality. And into this determined final journey to Jerusalem, Luke inserted several parables that the other three Gospels do not have and all of which are brilliant short stories with characters that stay in the mind for a lifetime: the Good Samaritan (10:25-37); the Rich Fool (12:13-21); the Prodigal Son (15:11-32); the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19-31); the Pharisee and Tax Collector (18:9-14).

Luke did not hesitate to use parables that featured questionable characters and motives, for example the parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge (18:1-8). But the most remarkable example of this type of parable is the one of the Dishonest Manager (16:1-13). Talk about mixed messages in a parable told by Jesus! No wonder the other Gospel writers did not include it. But Luke did, and it shows his deeper experience with business and the ways of the world. He was a professional man, after all. It’s a fearless move on his part, to include a parable with such an unconventional message – unconventional for Jesus, that is. But note the other remarkable thing that Luke did: he closed the parable with the famous words of Jesus, “You cannot serve God and mammon” (verse 13). Matthew included these words as part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:24). Instead of Matthew’s moralizing use, Luke places this statement in a much more nuanced, even ambivalent context – another example of Luke’s literary qualities and more complex ambitions.

Near the end of the journey to Jerusalem Luke tells us about Zacchaeus in the tree (19:1-10), a living parable, so to speak, that brought to a focus all the teaching that came before. And like an iconographer, Luke gave us vivid images of why Christ is on earth, who God is, and who and how we human beings are. The meal with Zacchaeus was one last opportunity for Jesus to show his openness to be with everyone; one last opportunity to shock people who are offended by God’s open love – something Pope Francis has experienced in the last two weeks from the harsh criticism he has received from cardinals who have no use for Jesus and his love for Zacchaeus.

After the meal with Zacchaeus, Luke tells the familiar story of what we call Holy Week. But then comes the Emmaus incident after the resurrection (Luke 24:13-35), and the Ascension which closes the Gospel (Luke 24:50-53) but leads directly to the beginning of the Book of Acts.

Luke tells us about three meals that sum up the impact of Jesus in our lives: (1) the meal in Zacchaeus’ home, which I see as Jesus’ last meal with the humanity that he came to seek and to love; (2) the last supper with his own disciples, which completed his fellowship with those who would bring his message to the world; (3) and the Emmaus meal, that opens up to all eternity and embraces us every time we gather for the eucharist in the Liturgy and we see the risen Christ. I had never before seen the importance of these three meals in the Gospel of Luke. My respect and admiration for this Gospel today is deeper than ever.

Luke is a man for today and for all seasons, a man who used every artistic and literary means at his disposal to give us the fullest and most engaging picture of Jesus. This is what the church is called to be. This is how we are called to be: artists of the Christ-like life, artists of faith!

 


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Two Kings, two separate ways

Our Gospel reading today (Matthew 22:2-14)  is a very troubling parable – violent, condemning, exclusionary at the same time that it is inclusive. I usually focus on the inclusive aspects, but not today. In light of what’s going on in the world – the violence, the exclusion, the hatred and terrorism – it’s incumbent that I take this parable head on, in its full force, not only the part that suit my preferences.

Note first of all the language in the original Greek: ὡμοιώθη ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν ἀνθρώπῳ βασιλεῖ = The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king… but the English translation is missing a word: the word human, highlighted in red in the Greek! None of the most used translations bother with that word – only two less commonly used translations, Lexham English Bible and Young’s Literal Translation bother taking account of it. It’s not a minor, insignificant omission. A contrast is implied between heavenly king and earthly king. It’s easy to miss this contrast if you don’t translate that word, and that’s not a minor problem.

Continuing with the Greek text: ὅστις ἐποίησεν γάμους τῷ υἱῷ αὐτοῦ. καὶ ἀπέστειλεν τοὺς δούλους αὐτοῦ καλέσαι τοὺς κεκλημένους εἰς τοὺς γάμους. The word for wedding is not in the singular, γάμος, but in the plural, γάμους! There’s good reason for this, and easy to miss if the translation does not take into account the plural. (Young’s Literal Translation does.) The Jewish custom of marriage involved seven days of celebration! So what we translate as “wedding banquet” was not just a dinner but a wedding celebration that included the marriage ceremonies and several days of celebration! I believe that’s the reason why the plural γάμους is used. Perhaps now the refusal of the guests to attend might be a little more understandable?

But some of the guests did not just refuse to attend, but killed the messengers of the king! And the king sent troops to destroy them and their city. Overreaction all around, wouldn’t you say? Not something that happens when guests refuse to show up. This is an extreme parable, meant to make us uncomfortable.

We don’t like to be made uncomfortable. The media shielded most of us from the more “disturbing” photos of 3-year-old Aylan’s dead body this past week. We are very sensitive creatures, after all. But Jesus had no problem making people uncomfortable. Right before today’s parable, at the end of last week’s parable reading, Matthew tells us that the priests and pharisees understood that Jesus was speaking about them. Jesus was speaking to them with every intention of disturbing them.

Jesus is mixing metaphors here. The violence is in the realm of the human king. The open invitation is the act of the heavenly king. The violence is extreme and unjustified – but violence in general is unjustified, in ancient or modern times! Is there really any acceptable excuse for what we see happening in Middle East or in any neighborhood in America? Can violence ever be justified? Especially violence committed in the name of religion?

This entire section of Matthew (ch. 21-23) is controversial to the nth degree. Jesus entered Jerusalem and went straight to the Temple, where he violently drove out the sellers and money changers. A huge blow at the heart of the marriage between money and religion – a marriage that persists to this day. He then gets into a series of confrontational exchanges and parables. Jesus was at war with the habits of the powerful – he still is – so he uses images of power to get their attention. But just as he did not enter Jerusalem as one of the powerful, so in today’s parable he throws a switch that the powerful can’t relate to.

But regardless of what Jesus says, the religious and the powerful still believe they are the in crowd – even after they have refused the invitation to enjoy the kingdom of God instead of the kingdom of their own making. But they can’t bring their ways into the kingdom of God – the two kingdoms are incompatible. That’s why a man is thrown out at the end. He has sneaked into the banquet! He is not wearing a wedding garment. He is not wearing the garment Jesus has prepared for him!

This parable has been interpreted as aimed at Israel and Jewish religion. Certainly it was aimed at the leaders of the Jewish nation, but we are misusing it if we limit its meaning to ancient Israel and the Jews. It is for all times and all places. Every religion, every nation, every individual stands under the same judgment.

I personally do not like this parable the way it’s written. Whether Jesus himself spoke it exactly as Matthew reports it or whether Matthew did a major edit and rewrite we cannot know. Matthew clearly wants it to be taken as an attack on the Judaism of that time. We can see its broader significance.

I take two messages from this reading:

  1. God’s salvation is always for the poor – not only the economically poor, but the “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3) – everyone who recognizes that without God we have nothing.
  2. Jesus became one of us so we could be clothed with him – we put on Christ (Romans 13:14, Galatians 3:27); it is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:20). That’s the meaning of the wedding garment; it is Christ’s garment of righteousness. 


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You know what is boring?

Audio file of today’s sermon

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort…” These are the opening words of one of the best and most popular novels of the 20th century, The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. The third and final installment of Peter Jackson’s overdone and overlong film adaptation opens this week.

“…by some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green, and the hobbits were still numerous and prosperous, and Bilbo Baggins was standing at his door after breakfast smoking an enormous long wooden pipe that reached down to his woolly toes (neatly brushed) – Gandalf came by.” And Gandalf came to invite Bilbo to an adventure, something hobbits have little inclination to do! So Bilbo invites Gandalf to come back tomorrow for tea instead.

“Just before tea-time there came a tremendous ring on the front-door bell, and then he remembered! He rushed and put on the kettle, and put out another cup and saucer, and an extra cake or two, and ran to the door.

“I am so sorry to keep you waiting!” he was going to say, when he saw that it was not Gandalf at all. It was a dwarf with a blue beard tucked into a golden belt, and very bright eyes under his dark-green hood. As soon as the door was opened, he pushed inside, just as if he had been expected.

He hung his hooded cloak on the nearest peg, and “Dwalin at your service!” he said with a low bow.

“Bilbo Baggins at yours!” said the hobbit, too surprised to ask any questions for the moment. They had not been at table long, in fact they had hardly reached the third cake, when there came another even louder ring at the bell.

“Excuse me!” said the hobbit, and off he went to the door.

“So you have got here at last!” That was what he was going to say to Gandalf this time. But it was not Gandalf…” And so it continued, a dozen dwarves came to tea and thus began the adventure that Bilbo Baggins did not want to join.

The first chapter of The Hobbit is titled, An Unexpected Party. Today’s Gospel reading is also about an unexpected party. It was not unexpected in the sense that it was a surprise or unannounced. It had been announced, and invitations had been sent. But it was  unexpected in the sense that it was beyond anyone’s expectations. God is always unexpected, always beyond our expectations, always ready to bestow grace beyond measure. I simply cannot understand how anyone could be bored by the Christian message. It’s boring only when you turn it exclusively into a message about heaven.

But is today’s parable (Luke 14:16-24) about heaven? In one sense it is. But notice the image chosen by Jesus: a banquet, a party! The parable is even more about life here on earth. God invites us to enjoy life in the best way possible, in his company and in the company of God’s people.

The parable is really about community. It asks us: Who are your companions? Who is part of your community? Do you like to keep company with people outside of your circle? And Paul makes it even clearer in the reading today from Colossians, where he writes: “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free, but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).

You see, the parable is not so much about us getting somewhere out of this earth, but God coming down to earth in search of us. The “master” is clearly meant to represent God, and the servant who is sent to bring people into the banquet is clearly meant to represent Christ, who came into the earth to seek the lost and the rejected. That is why we read this parable two Sundays before Christmas. It prepares us for the message of Christmas! God came down to invalidate all excuses. As Paul wrote in one of his letters, before Christ came people had excuses, just like the people in this parable have excuses – all valid excuses, by the way. But once God revealed himself to us in the coming of Christ, the excuses are finished.

God is building a community that is beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. They say Christianity is losing ground. Superficially perhaps. And if you watch too much Fox News you’ll hear what they call the “War on Christmas.” Forget the propaganda, forget the pessimists; don’t look at things through a narrow focus. The fact is that many who call themselves Christians might be the ones with the excuses. God is casting his nets wide, very wide, and he is bringing into God’s kingdom all sorts of unexpected people – unexpected by the excuse makers, that is. Unfortunately, the church chose to complicate the meaning of this parable by attaching an additional sentence at the end that is not part of Luke’s parable: “For many are called, but few are chosen” – taken from a completely unrelated Gospel passage (Matthew 22:14). The message of the parable is actually the exact opposite of this unrelated appendage!

Parable of the Great Banquet - Excuses, Excuses, Excuses!

Parable of the Great Banquet – Excuses, Excuses, Excuses! (click to enlarge)

Many people say Christianity is boring. You know what is boring? A life of excuses. THAT is boring! Don’t you get bored listening to people making the same excuses, why they don’t call you, why they forget your birthday, why they can’t stop drinking or smoking? Why they can’t help eating too much? Why they can’t come to Liturgy or help at the Festival? Why your child can’t do better in Math? Don’t you get tired of listening to the same excuses? Well, do you think God enjoys excuses more than you do? St. Paul tells us today to put off the old ways and become new, “renewed in knowledge after the image of [our] creator” (Colossians 3:10) Now that is exciting, and it’s not about heaven. It’s about earth and our life here. It’s about community – community without boundaries; community that knows no boredom, because it is always welcoming others, always embracing change, always welcoming the Spirit of Christ to be in our midst, in our worship, to open our eyes to the divine reality that is here.

People call the Liturgy boring. Why come, when it’s the same week after week? I beg to differ. Maybe it’s the people who call it boring who are boring or just bored. Every time I’m tempted not to believe in the Christian message, it’s the Liturgy that pulls me back. I can’t explain it in easy words, so I won’t try.

In his first letter, John wrote: This is what we proclaim to you: what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked upon and our hands have touched – we speak of the word of life. “What… our hands have touched” – beautiful. And I may add, what we have tasted with our mouths.

“Our Father who art in heaven…” we pray. But God is not just in heaven. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” God is on earth. God is with us – Emmanuel is his name (Matthew 1:23; Isaiah 7:14). The one whose birth we will celebrate in ten days. Now that’s something to get excited about. That is not boring. But God meets us here every time. We ask for the Holy Spirit to come upon us and upon the gifts here offered – upon US and upon the gifts.

Plenty of room in God's banquet

Plenty of room in God’s banquet (click to enlarge)

I’m glad you’re here today. I’m glad you’re here to share this eucharist with me. I’m glad you’re here to sit at the banquet. I’m glad you’ve come from all directions of the compass, from so many backgrounds, from different cultures and languages. I’m glad you’re here. But there are many missing, many who have excuses. Will you go looking for some of them? There is still room in God’s kingdom, lots of room. Don’t listen to the pessimists. God will bring many to the party. Bilbo was surprised by the dwarves who crowded into his hobbit-hole. We will be surprised immeasurably by who we will see sitting at the banquet of life – here and in heaven.

No human banquet can compare with God's banquet!

No human banquet can compare with God’s banquet!


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Marks of Community

Today’s Gospel reading, Luke 13:10-17, should be read in the context of the entire chapter 13 of Luke. Jesus heals the woman who was bent over for eighteen years in the midst of various parables and confrontational dialogues.

Christ healing the crippled woman who was bent over. From the so-called "Two Brothers Sarcophagus" - mid-4th century, in the Vatican Museum.

Christ healing the crippled woman who was bent over. From the so-called “Two Brothers Sarcophagus” (mid-4th century, in the Vatican Museum)

What unifies all these segments of chapter 13 is the idea of community. A careful reading of this chapter reveals several marks of what a Christian community should be and should not be. That’s what today’s sermon attempted to do. The audio file of this sermon is presented here:


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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.