Old Testament: Jeremiah (32:1-3a, 6-15)
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him. Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.” Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.” Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord. And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.
The Response: Psalm (91:1-6, 14-16)
1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, *
abides under the shadow of the Almighty.
2 He shall say to the Lord,
“You are my refuge and my stronghold, *
my God in whom I put my trust.”
3 He shall deliver you from the snare of the hunter *
and from the deadly pestilence.
4 He shall cover you with his pinions,
and you shall find refuge under his wings; *
his faithfulness shall be a shield and buckler.
5 You shall not be afraid of any terror by night, *
nor of the arrow that flies by day;
6 Of the plague that stalks in the darkness, *
nor of the sickness that lays waste at mid-day.
14 Because he is bound to me in love,
therefore will I deliver him; *
I will protect him, because he knows my Name.
15 He shall call upon me, and I will answer him; *
I am with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and bring him to honor.
16 With long life will I satisfy him, *
and show him my salvation.
The Epistle: 1 Timothy (6:6-19)
Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; 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. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.
The Gospel: Luke (16:19-31)
Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
During the 19th century, a religious revival in America led the members of certain Christian organizations to begin to go out to street corners and other public places, where they sang hymns and preached sermons to anyone who would listen. Their central message often appears to have been “Your lives might be a struggle; you might be hungry or poor or have no place to live; but don’t try to change the way things are. Just put up with it all patiently. Then someday you’ll go to heaven, where everything will be better.”
Many of the popular religious hymns written during that era echoed that approach to religion: that it was not really about this world, other than avoiding personal sin, but about another world, one that we hope to enter after death. One of the most popular hymns, one that reflected that detached-from-this-world spirituality, was one called “In the Sweet By and By.”
“In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore.”
The song was satirized by writers like Mark Twain. And it spawned several parodies. One of the earliest was sung by soldiers during the Civil War. Instead of singing “we shall meet on that beautiful shore,” it praised a staple of their daily diet: “the old-fashioned white army bean.”
Early 20th century labor activist and folk-song writer, Joe Hill, challenged that hymn’s detachment-from-the-world emphasis and gave us a memorable expression when he wrote his own parody. It pictures the members of what he, not too subtly, calls “the starvation army,” singing to a group of hungry people:
“You will eat bye and bye, in that glorious land above the sky.
Work and pray, live on hay. You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.”
The parable in today’s gospel reading does picture scenes in the afterlife; but its primary focus is on life in this world and on the solemn responsibility that we have to care for those who are in need. It is betrayal of true religion simply to promise them “pie in the sky when you die.” How we care for poor Lazarus, or fail to care for him, has lasting consequences, in fact, Jesus insists, eternal consequences.
That is really nothing new or even exceptional in the bible. In fact the entire story of God’s work of salvation takes place in the ordinary, practical, physical, everyday world where all of us spend our lives. It is concerned with how we care for other people, especially those who are in-need. In our first reading, when Jeremiah imagines God’s coming work of salvation, he doesn’t do so with a vague image of some future, so-called “spiritual” existence; he envisions a time when “Houses and fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land”; it is all very concrete and down-to-earth. The author of Psalm 91 portrays God as being a refuge and shield against actual daily threats: human enemies and physical illness as well. And the judgment given in Jesus’ parable is based not on the rich man’s position on theological issues, but on his failure to care for the poor man, Lazarus, who lay right outside his door and who longed for something to eat.
The focus of the precepts of the Torah, or Law, as well as that of the prophets, including the prophet Jesus, is on caring for other people, and especially on caring for those in our world who are in-need. The Talmud, reflecting the biblical tradition, equates neglect of the poor with idolatry, when it teaches (bT Bab. Bat. 10a): “Whoever turns away his eyes from one who appeals for charity is considered as if he were serving idols.”
Yet somehow, Christians throughout the ages have taken the practical, down-to-earth message of the scriptures and have twisted it to support a religion that is, as the saying goes, “the opiate of the people.” They have supposedly set out on the road to follow Jesus, who was constantly focused on serving the needs of others; but then they quickly made a U-turn and fashioned a religion that is focused on themselves, on making themselves feel comfortable, on allowing themselves to remain detached from the suffering of others, on assuring themselves that they will have an even happier and more carefree life in “the great by and by.” Essentially, they have put themselves in the same place as the rich man in Jesus’ parable and have left poor Lazarus lying outside the church door.
Especially during an election season, I avoid quoting anyone who is running for public office, lest it seem that we are endorsing any candidate. But I will offer the perspective of someone who is not currently running, Gov. John Kasich. Raised as a Roman Catholic, he now attends a church in our own Anglican tradition.
A couple of years ago, when our state legislature was debating the expansion of Medicaid, he advised one of its leaders: “The most important thing for this legislature to think about [is this]: Put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. Put yourself in the shoes of a mother and a father of an adult child that is struggling… Understand that poverty is real.” Then he added, “I respect the fact that you believe in small government. I do, too. I also know that you’re a person of faith. Now when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer.”
The rich man in today’s parable obviously did not have a good answer. He was still focused on himself and, at least secondarily, on his brothers. He still considered Lazarus to be someone who was beneath him, not someone for whom he should have cared: “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue… Send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers — that he may warn them.” Lazarus was still, for the now formerly rich man, nothing but a menial servant and a messenger boy. Even in Hades, he is still clueless. He still did not recognize the fact that this is a fellow child of God for whom he had a responsibility to care during his lifetime. That is the purpose for which he owned whatever he had.
In Luke’s gospel, this parable is part of a conflict about the use of money and the responsibility that we all have to help the poor. The conflict there was between Jesus and the Pharisees. But, as Fred Craddock points out (Luke, page 198): “The debate continues, but now it is between Jesus and some of his followers.” Which side of that debate are you on?
Poor Lazarus is still lying at our gate, looking to us for help. Are we content to promise him “pie in the sky” when he dies, or do we acknowledge him as a fellow child of God and accept our responsibility to help him?