Proper 21C-1 Luke 16: 16-31
Good morning. Those of you who pay close attention to the lectionary will notice that I’ve expanded today’s appointed reading from Luke--chapter 16, verses 19-31--to include verses 16, 17, and 18 at the beginning, which form the transition or bridge connecting the reading we had last Sunday to this morning’s reading, the Parable of Lazarus and Dives. (Dives, from the Latin word for “Rich Man,” which in custom over time has been attributed to this particular rich man as his proper name.) There may be a couple of reasons why the lectionary omitted these verses, but the more I read them the more I think they are really helpful and maybe even necessary to get the full impact of what Jesus is saying.
To set the stage, how we got here: Jesus and his disciples have come near to Jerusalem, on the way to Holy Week. Jesus is teaching and preaching and performing amazing acts of healing. The crowds are excited and growing larger. With pilgrims from all over the world beginning to arrive for the Passover, the religious authorities—the Scribes and Pharisees--are getting nervous that this Jesus-thing may bring unwelcome attention from the Romans. So one of the Chief Rabbis invites Jesus home for a Sabbath dinner with some ecclesiastical colleagues. His motive seems to be intimidation--to show that this untrained preacher from the Galilee can’t hold his own with a room full of seminary-trained theologians. But before they even sit down Jesus is called outside to greet a crowd that had spontaneously gathered to see him. He performs an act of power, healing a man with a serious illness. The crowd cheers in exuberant wonder and joy, and the religious authorities are left fumbling. Somewhat awkwardly they accuse Jesus of a technical violation of Jewish law related to work on the Sabbath. But Jesus isn’t intimidated. He notes that blessing and healing are not in fact forbidden on the Sabbath in scripture, and then he criticizes them for being so small and mean-spirited. If it’s their role to be leaders and teachers of faith, they’re the ones who seem off track. He tells three stories about the Kingdom of God, about what I called the “heavenly economy,” —the Parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son—to show a Biblical view of God’s character: his extravagant love, his abundant generosity, his unfailing mercy and forgiveness. Then we heard in the Parable of the Unjust Steward, how we can learn to be really successful in the economy of this world, or really successful in the economy of heaven, but that we can’t serve two Masters. We need to choose--one or the other. Luke points out in an aside that the Scribes and Pharisees were well-known by all to be great lovers of money. So a confrontational moment. Jesus saying that they seem to have made their choice about which master they are going to serve, no matter what their religious titles or offices may suggest. Hard not to think in our own context about some popular preachers and their multi-million dollar homes and private jets. When you see that happening, it’s hard not to ask questions, and Jesus is pretty straightforwardly inviting the crowds to look at their leaders and to ask exactly those questions. And as we set out into this morning’s reading I want to underscore that point, which is that while there is a great deal for all Christians to reflect on and apply in this series of parables and sermons, Jesus is very much addressing issues about leadership, about the stewardship of authority. The application we take from these readings about expectations and responsibilities-- and as we move into the second part of Luke 16 is related especially first to the Scribes and Pharisees in that setting moving toward Holy Week and then by extension to the leadership of the church, to pastors and preachers and teachers, bishops. As Luke quoted Jesus back in Chapter 12, “from those to whom much has been given, much will be expected.”
So on to these three prefatory verses, 16, 17, and 18. (In this morning’s leaflet, page 9.) “The Law and the Prophets were, until John,” Jesus begins. He doesn’t mention his cousin John the Baptist often, but it’s a huge deal when he does. Actually for anybody in prominent position to say the name in public like that is going to be a political bombshell. And then thenext sentence that is actually about as awkward for the translators in Greek as it is for us in an English translation: “Since then the good news of the Kingdom of God is preached, and every one enters it violently.” That’s a pretty literal version. The sense of what Jesus is saying here may have sounded something like this: “you Scribes and Pharisees have had the Bible for a long time. Moses and the Prophets. You’re the experts! You’ve studied it all your lives, certainly for a long time before John the Baptist came on the scene. It’s not like God’s word is new information! And it has been your job, long before John out there in the wilderness started to preach, to present God’s Word to God’s people and to lead them in living accordingly. That’s always been your job! But in fact that didn’t happen, did it? We didn’t hear that call, until the Baptist came along. In a society that has wandered far from its spiritual roots, you have been exceptionally silent. “You have to go along to get along”--that seems to be your motto. Fussing along with obscure tidbits of ceremonial regulation. Estimating the number of angels on the head of a pin. John on the other hand wasn’t a seminary graduate, not a Scribe or Pharisee, no fancy ecclesiastical title or position--but he knew what God says in scripture, and I guess you could say he did the job you were supposed to be doing. And here we get to verse 18, the next sentence. Jesus doesn’t have to spell it out. They know what’s coming. When Herod Antipas scandalously divorced his wife and sent her packing and then at the same time even more scandalously took the wife of his own brother to his bed--his own brother’s wife!-- and then ostentatiously married her in a mockery of a religious ceremony, you were silent. You just didn’t dare rock that boat of yours. Fear. Love of status, security. The opportunity to mingle with the elites of the nobility. John knew what the Bible said, and so did you. He knew sin when he saw it, and so did you. But he wasn’t afraid to call it what it was. To stand up and be counted. No matter what the consequences. And we just didn’t hear from you. He, of course ended up with his head on a platter, while you all apparently did pretty well in your silence--with promotions and raises and corner offices.
But here’s the thing: you may just conveniently today skip over the parts of God’s word that make you uncomfortable, or that might make the people who sign your paycheck uncomfortable, or that might get you carted away to Herod’s dungeon. But no matter how tightly you close your eyes or hold your hands over your ears, the fact of the matter is that God’s Word isn’t going anywhere. Here, Verse 17. “Easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one dot, one vowel of the law to become void.” It may seem to you that John played the game and lost, and that you played the game and won. But maybe, just maybe, the final score hasn’t yet been entered into the books . . . .
Then this word that pronounces judgment on Herod and that cost John his life. A bold reminder from Jesus now in his words of the moment when they had had a choice, and had chosen to keep their mouths shut. If somebody is recording this on his cellphone now Jesus is going to get into some real hot water. Verse 18. At every marriage I’ve officiated I begin in the Address at the beginning of the service to say, “the covenant of marriage was established by God in creation . . . and holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people.” From the Book of Common Prayer page 423. To say those words to the king meant death for John. And, again: not a peep from the established religious authorities.
Which leads Jesus directly to the Parable of Lazarus and Dives. If you want to know who played the game and won, you’ll need to wait to see what the score is when the game is really over. So, the poor man languishing at the gate. The rich man in his self-centered comfort and so completely out of synch with what the Bible has to say about the stewardship of wealth to reflect God’s own compassion and generosity and mercy. A parable about the consequences of choosing the wrong master. When they both die poor Lazarus is gathered into the bosom of Father Abraham, but Dives finds himself broiling for eternity in the fiery cauldron of hell--the chasm separating him from the heavenly Kingdom as absolute as the one that he had allowed to keep Lazarus separate from him in this world. He makes his plea, that a messenger be sent to warn his brothers, so that they might avoid his fate. Father Abraham’s reply circles back to echo the first sentence at verse 16. “They have Moses and the Prophets.” As of course do the Scribes and Pharisees. And as we do, for that matter. And we all have to make our own choices. Jesus is pushing their buttons hard now, and you can almost feel the temperature rising, the intensifying hostility. Standing there face to face, the crowds looking on: you’re the ones who are wearing the robes of religious office, after all, the appointed teachers of the Word, the stewards of the promise. And yet when the Word is tested in the world, it never seems to be your heads that end up on a serving platter. Never your arms stretched out on a cross.
The consequences. As we read last Sunday, no servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. A challenge to the Scribes and Pharisees out there on the street corner with him, for sure—and continuing actually as a challenge for the church, for those in leadership, those who teach and preach. For all of us. A challenge sometimes in elections years, though not just in election years. “Don’t rock the boat, baby.” Certainly not to do something that would threaten your IRS tax-exempt status. Not if you want a multi-million dollar house and a private jet, anyway. Instead, just figure out what the people who write the checks want you to say, and give them twice what they ask for. Remembering the old story about the minister who got a little too specific in one of his sermons. An unhappy parishioner says to him later, “Pastor, you’ve gone from preaching to meddling.” What Jesus is doing here with these parables—and maybe why we find them both attractive on one hand but also pretty scary when it occurs to us that he might just want us to take what he’s saying seriously. Begin to feel like when he’s “meddling” with these Scribes and Pharisees, he’s “meddling” with us too.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.