When Jesus Tells Stories
When Jesus tells Stories
We like stories about Jesus, but when Jesus tells stories it’s a whole different situation. Jesus most often told stories in the form of parables. Sometimes we find them difficult to understand and sometimes we find them challenging to live out. Today’s passage from Luke can be a challenge for us as many in the congregation are closer to identifying as the rich man than Lazarus.
Scripture: Luke 16: 19-31
I’m sure you are familiar with the hymn Tell me the stories of Jesus. It’s a lovely hymn, some of the lines are as follows:
Tell me the stories of Jesus
I love to hear;
Things I would ask him to tell me
If He were here:
Scenes by the wayside,
Tales of the sea,
Stories of Jesus,
Tell them to me.
Often, when we reflect on Jesus this is where our minds go. To a very gentle and pastoral Jesus. We think of the Beatitudes and the great promises that are found there. How the meek will inherit the earth and those who mourn will be comforted. We think of passages which promise freedom to those who are oppressed and imprisoned. When we think of these stories, often we do so in isolation. These stories make us feel good, what we sometimes fail to do is think about what they mean within the larger context of the gospel.
Tell me the stories of Jesus. Here is a truth about my own faith journey and perhaps it resonates with you as well. I like the stories about Jesus, but I struggle with the stories that Jesus tells. Do you see the difference there? I like it when Jesus is merciful and compassionate, but when Jesus tells a parable sometimes, I struggle with the message.
On it’s surface the story of the rich man and Lazarus, not the brother of Mary and Martha, is a simple one. The parable is fairly straightforward and there aren’t any traps in that will snag us. However, there are some important contextual notes for us to observe which help us make sense of the parable. The opening sentence is “There was a rich man…” Go back to the beginning of Luke 16, our passage from last week, and you will see the same words: “There was a rich man…” This tells us that our passages are linked, and that Luke is trying to make a point by putting them together.
Remember to situate the passage in the context of Luke, what have we been looking at the past few weeks. Lost coins, lost sheep, Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors, followed by parables or warnings about rich men. The first parables about the lost sheep are aimed at the Pharisees and scribes as the primary listening audience. Our message last week and today has Jesus addressing the disciples.
So what should we take away from this passage? That rich people go to hell and poor people go to heaven? No, that’s not what the passage is saying. I don’t think we should make any associations with this is how admission into heaven or hell works. I do believe there is a parallel being made between wealth and virtue. A strong reminder that our actions have consequences and similar to last week we are asked to use our resources, in this instance our wealth, for the common good.
About wealth and virtue Kendra Mohn writes, “It is common to equate wealth with virtue, whether today or in the ancient world. Good people who work hard and live righteously can expect to be rewarded with means; likewise, people with means are seen as good (smart, hardworking, righteous) because they were able to acquire wealth. In the ancient world, concepts like wealth, virtue, and masculinity worked together and reinforced one another to solidify elite status.” (Kendra Mohn)
Those are stereotypes and images that exist today. We think of self-made millionaires, people who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. These are viewed as positive characteristics, and there is nothing wrong with them except when we assume that people who haven’t had that level of success are undesirable. When reading this parable pay attention to who is named. Often it is a nameless individual who is healed, but when the gospel writers are looking to emphasize a point, they provide a name. In our passage today, it is the poor man who is named, Lazarus. It is the rich man whose identity is withheld or who is anonymous. Often in life it’s the opposite, we know the names of the rich people, it’s the countless poor who are anonymous. In this way the passage plays with power dynamics. In life the rich man new wealth, good health, and power. In death it is Lazarus who enjoys those things.
This passage follows up on the message from last week. It’s about what we do with what we have. The rich man isn’t punished for being rich, he’s punished for ignoring the poverty at his doorstep. Kendra Mohn writes, “the text focuses elsewhere, on the authority and power that are given to each of us, if not in equal measure. The parable serves to refocus the hearer on what we do with what we have, how our vocations serve our neighbors. Virtue is not determined by wealth, type of employment, gender, immigration status, or body type. Virtue is borne out in deeds.” (Kendra Mohn)
We shouldn’t read this message and think wealthy people who hoard their wealth are going to hell, though they might be. We also shouldn’t assume that this passage means that the poor have an automatic pass into heaven, though Jesus and scripture as a whole shows a level of care and compassion for the poor. The emphasis here is when the rich man asks Jesus to send Lazarus to warn his family. There are two things that arise out of this, the first is that the rich man assumes his wealth can influence people to act in his best interest. Jesus denies this request which leads us to the second point. We have already received the warning we need. Jesus points to Moses and Prophets having provided the necessary warning. For ourselves, we would add that we now have the gospels themselves.
This passage tells us about the heart of God, which is rooted in compassion, justice, and equity.
Where do we fit in? Some of us might identify as wealthy, others not. None of us here today is homeless, most have a good income and enjoy retirement benefits. What do we do with this passage.
This can get messy. We know there is poverty in our town. We are also wise enough to know that our own individual wealth won’t fix the problem. The problem is more systemic than that. However, our wealth affords us things that others don’t have. Access to the systems that cause the oppression, the ability to vote, and a platform to advocate. This past Thursday I had the opportunity to moderate a discussion, hosted by the Northumberland Affordable Housing Committee, on housing with the individuals who are running for mayor in the various municipalities. We can find ways to insert ourselves into the discussion. What does it say that a minister moderates a discussion on housing? Perhaps that the church has an interest in this and the situation as it stands isn’t equitable, that we can and must do better.
There will always be things in life that we can more directly control than others. What this passage reinforces is that we have a responsibility towards one another in this life. Our wealth doesn’t follow us, it does us no good in the next. If we read the passage literally, which I don’t encourage, but if we did then the message might be that wealth is a ticket to the bad place.
No one likes paying taxes and no one likes seeing individuals homeless within their community. I don’t think anyone in this room can individually solve the housing problem in Cobourg. But maybe we can collectively, maybe I can leverage a bit more of my wealth towards a solution and make a difference for people who live in this community right now.
This isn’t a passage about one rich man and one poor man and their relationship. This is a passage about how communities look after one another. Jesus was criticizing his community for failing to look after one another. Jesus was encouraging the disciples to share their resources with one another. That’s the message of this passage, to ensure that we care for one another. Amen.
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.
St. Andrew’s supports the gathering of community agencies, providing space for the Affordable Housing Committee. Rev. Ellis’ voice is key in advocating for improvements in awareness, empathy and action on key determinants such as housing, income and food security.
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