Devotional Message: The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 21C (9/29/2019)

Revised Common Lectionary Texts

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

Semicontinuous First Reading and Psalm

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16

Prayer of the Day

O God, rich in mercy, you look with compassion on this troubled world. Feed us with your grace, and grant us the treasure that comes only from you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

6:19 [Jesus said,] “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 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.’ 25 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. 26 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.’ 27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 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.’ ” 

St. Luke 16:19-31, New Revised Standard Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

Message: “When Does Heaven Begin?”

The most dangerous way to read the Bible is one verse at a time. For instance: in this weekend’s Gospel lesson we could pull out verse 25 and argue that when all is said and done, God balances the accounts and everybody gets the same amount of good and evil — the difference is that some get it in this life, and others get it in the next life.

This passage, of course, is not at all about how much good and evil a person can expect to experience. St. Luke makes us aware of this when he sets it up a couple of verses earlier:

The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed [Jesus]. So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.” (St. Luke 16:14-15, NRSV)

Jesus is illustrating the contrast between those whose hearts have been captured by a love for wealth and comfort, and those whose hearts have been captured by a love for others. At the center of the parable is an unnamed rich man who is living the life of luxury. Expensive purple clothing. Fine linens. Sumptuous feasts. Now the Bible is no despiser of wealth. Some of the greatest, most faithful Biblical characters (including Father Abraham himself…) were wealthy beyond imagination. The problem here is that the rich man is so captivated by comfortable living that he doesn’t even notice the poor man, Lazarus, suffering at his very front gate. Even in the next life, when the rich man finally sees Lazarus, he views him not a fellow human being whose suffering has ended, and who is now resting in the peace of God. Instead, he imagines that Lazarus might now serve him, by bringing some water to soothe the rich man’s suffering. (A service the rich man clearly failed to provide for Lazarus in this life…)

Through Father Abraham’s voice, Jesus points out that even “Moses and the prophets” warned their listeners about the seduction of wealth and comfort, and the way it can cause a person to turn in towards self. The life of faith may begin with us, and the way a living and growing relationship with God can provide a sense of hope and peace at the very core of who we are. But it soon calls us out of ourselves, and into to the lives of those who surround us.

Some have referred to this parable as an indication of what heaven and hell might be like, where the faithful rest in the bosom of Abraham and the unfaithful suffer as payment for how they have lived. But the truth is, for this rich man, the opportunity to begin enjoying heavenly joy presented itself the day Lazarus set up camp at his gate. Had he been moved to compassion, and inspired to care for Lazarus, he would have begun to experience the presence of God right then and there. The kingdom of heaven would have broken into his life in a way that touched him much more deeply than his wealth and comfort ever could.

If we learn anything from this parable, perhaps it might be that when we open ourselves up to do the work of God with our own hands, we begin to experience a joy that is eternal. Now there’s a promise. A heavenly promise!

David J. Risendal, Pastor

Exploring This Week’s Gospel

  1. What characterizes the difference between the way the rich man and Lazarus lived in this life?

  2. How is what Jesus describes here consistent with the message Moses and the prophets delivered to Israel?

  3. What does Jesus mean by having Father Abraham say, “neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead?”

Connecting with This Week’s Gospel

  1. When has an awareness of suffering in this world caught hold of my heart?

  2. When have I experienced the presence of God (“the joy of heaven”) through reaching out to someone in need?

  3. How might my church’s celebration of “God’s work. Our hands.” Sunday stir me to action in weeks to come?