26th Sunday OT
Getting to The Point of a parable can be tricky if we give too much attention to secondary issues. For example, we can easily mistake the parable of the RM and Lazarus to be a parable about the evils of wealth and the eternal glories of poverty. It is true that it's harder for a rich man to get into heaven. Why? Because a rich man can grow to depend on his wealth rather than God. While the poor must depend on God entirely. But our parable this morning doesn't say that the RM depended on his wealth rather than God. It doesn't say that Lazarus was particularly holy just b/c he was poor. The RM doesn't refuse Lazarus charity nor does he go out of his way to be cruel. So, why is he is hell and Lazarus in heaven? The plain text of the parable says that the RM enjoyed luxury on earth therefore he is tormented after death. Lazarus was tormented on earth therefore he enjoys luxury after death. Is this is the point of the parable? No. It's the setup. The backstory. Along with the RM's plea to Abraham to send someone from the dead to urge his brothers to repent. The point of the parable is Abraham's last sentence: “If [your brothers] will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”
Just two verses before we read the parable, we read Jesus saying, “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for the smallest part of a letter of the law to become invalid.” Jesus is making it clear that he is not abolishing the Law but completing it, perfecting it. The parable reinforces this teaching by making it clear that everything anyone needs to achieve eternal life is already fully contained within the Law and the Prophets. IOW, the Law and the Prophets of the OT foretold the coming of the Christ. The witness of the NT is simply the fulfillment, the perfection of the Old. If the RM's brothers won't listen to the Prophets and follow the Law in love, then even a visit from someone beyond the grave won't change their minds. The parable dares us to consider carefully what persuaded us to repent and follow the Christ. What might persuade others to repent and follow Christ? Embedded in this dare is another question: what prevents us from repenting and following Christ even after we've started along the Way? When we become lost, what encourages us to stay lost?
Going back to the parable, we can see at least one condition that might persuade us away from Christ – wealth. I know I just said that the RM isn't in hell because he is rich. That's true. The text doesn't say that. But we know that worldly prosperity can be a terrible distraction from the pursuit of holiness. Many of us might hope to one day win the lottery or inherit Aunt Mildred's multi-million dollar estate. If you nurture such a hope, you are tempting God and gambling with your soul. Every kind of worldly wealth comes with attachments. The most demanding of which is the desire for more. Bigger, better, richer, more, more, more. And each increase adds more weight to another attachment, another anchor to a passing world. We also know that wealth isn't limited to material luxuries. We can just as easily become attached to the wealth found in acquiring political power, for example. Academic-types know the temptations of the wealth bound up in prestige. Preachers are easily tempted by the wealth given in popularity and applause. None of these is a sin as such. But all of them can persuade us off the Way and get us lost. Like the complacent in Zion, condemned by the Prophet Amos, we can wallow in our luxury and fail to notice how and why we've gone astray.
The Good News is that the Way is always open, always straight and smooth. Yes, the Gate is narrow. But those who have put on Christ and keep him on are supernaturally skinny! Jesus wants us to know and understand that he is the fulfillment of Law and the Prophets. He is the advent of our salvation prophesied and proclaimed in the OT. Our obligations under the Covenant have been satisfied, and we are free and clear of any debt owed to God. As we move through our days toward a final judgment, we are tasked with remaining faithfully within the Law of Love, embodied in the Church and fed by the sacraments. Our only attachment is to Christ. Anything, anyone else is to be attached through him and with him. If you are wealthy, your wealth belongs to Christ. If you are powerful, your power belongs to Christ. If you are intelligent or athletically-gifted or beautiful or eloquent, it all belongs to Christ. To stay on the Way, turn your gifts to the service of others. Attach your gifts to others through Christ so that they too can see and hear the Word of mercy spoken by the Father. Christ is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. And he returned from death to show us his saving love.