Charles Dickens Meets the Rich Man and Lazarus
2007-09-28 by Jim Somerville

At the end of the reading from Luke 16:19-31 the rich man--the same one who used to dress in purple and fine linen and feast sumptuously every day--is being tormented in the flames of hell, begging Father Abraham to send poor old Lazarus to warn his five brothers so that they won't end up in the same misery as he.  But Abraham will have none of it.  "They have Moses and the prophets," he says with a shrug.  "Let them listen to them."  "No, Father Abraham," the rich man begs; "but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent."  To which Abraham replies, "No, they won't."

Jesus' story ends where Charles Dickens' best-known story begins.  There someone does come back from the dead--the ghost of Jacob Marley--to beg his tight-fisted former partner, Ebenezer Scrooge, to repent of his miserliness.  But just like those five brothers, he won't!  As Marley's ghost leaves the room, dragging his long chains behind him, Scrooge tries to convince himself that he has imagined the whole thing, and goes to bed without repenting.  But that's not the end of the story.  As you know he is visited by three other spirits, one of whom--the ghost of Christmas Present--shows him the Christmas dinner of his own, poor clerk, Bob Cratchit.  There they are, the fifteen Cratchits, gathered around one skinny Christmas goose, a few mashed potatoes, some applesauce, and a tiny Christmas pudding, and yet they praise the meal to the skies and all push back from the table as if they couldn't eat another bite.  They gather around the fire to sing songs and eat the handful of chestnuts that are roasting there.  Bob Cratchit raises his cracked cup of cider and says, "A Merry Christmas to us all, my dears!  God bless us."  And Tiny Tim answers, "God bless us every one!"

Move from that scene to the one here in Luke 16, where a rich man is seated at his table, dressed in purple and fine linen--the most elegant clothing of his day--and feasting "sumptuously" Jesus says.  The table groans under the weight of the food--roast turkey, lamb, thick slices of tender beef, steaming potatoes, sautéed mushrooms, asparagus, fresh bread, baked apples, Brie, and gallons of good, red wine to wash everything down.  But just outside the gate is Lazarus, a poor beggar who is covered from head to toe with sores, and who would have gladly eaten the scraps of bread that fell from the rich man's table.  Not only that, but the dogs come and lick his sores as he lies there.  It is as pitiful a picture as Jesus can paint, a deliberate contrast between someone who has everything and someone who has nothing.  But then the tables are turned.  Both Lazarus and the rich man die, their lives fall into the hands of God, and God pulls off the Great Reversal, welcoming Lazarus into Heaven while the rich man is sent to roast in the flames of Hell.  He looks up and sees Lazarus in Paradise, and he can hardly believe his eyes.He calls to Abraham: "Father Abraham!  Send Lazarus to dip his fingertip in water and cool my tongue, because I am in torment in these flames."  But Abraham says, "Nothing doing.  You've had your good times.  Now it's his turn.  And besides, he couldn't get to you if he wanted to.  There's this big chasm between us so that nobody from there can come here, and nobody from here can go there."  Can you imagine that this is the first time in his life the rich man has been told no?  It takes him a while to recover, but when he does he comes up with a surprisingly generous response.  "Well, then," he says.  "If he can't come to me, then send him to my five brothers.  Let him warn them about this place so they won't end up here, too."  "Why should he do that?"  Abraham asks.  "They have Moses and the prophets to warn them.  Let them listen to them."  "They won't do it," the rich man replies.  "But if someone comes back from the dead I think they would."  "No they wouldn't," Abraham says.  "If they won't listen to Moses and the prophets, they wouldn't listen even if someone came back from the dead." And that's the end of the story.  The rich man is left right there, roasting in the flames of hell, turning like a Christmas turkey on a spit. 

The difference between the story Jesus tells and the story Dickens tells is that in Dickens' story the rich man is given a second chance to repent.  After this long night of visits from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, poor old Ebenezer Scrooge wakes up in his own bed, in his own room.  "Best and happiest of all," Dickens writes, "the Time before him was his own, to make amends in! Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious! Glorious! 'What's to-day?' cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes.'To-day?' replied the boy. 'Why, Christmas Day.' 'It's Christmas Day!' said Scrooge to himself. 'Good!  I haven't missed it.  Do you know the Poulterer's, next street over, at the corner?' Scrooge inquired. 'I should hope I did,' replied the lad. 'An intelligent boy!' said Scrooge. 'A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they've sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there? -- Not the little prize Turkey: the big one?' 'What, the one as big as me?' returned the boy. 'What a delightful boy!' said Scrooge. 'It's a pleasure to talk to him. Yes, yes, that one!' 'It's hanging there now,' replied the boy. 'Is it?' said Scrooge. 'Go and buy it.' 'You're joking!' exclaimed the boy. 'No, no,' said Scrooge, 'I am in earnest. Go and buy it, and tell them to bring it here, that I may give them the direction where to take it.'"  And that is just what he did.  He wrote down Bob Cratchit's address and sent him the biggest Christmas turkey in the city of London. And then he made a very, very generous contribution to charity.  And then he went off to have Christmas dinner with his estranged nephew, chuckling all the way.  He had never dreamed it could feel so good to be generous.  The more he gave, the better he felt.  And the next day, when Bob Cratchit came in to work, Scrooge offered him a promotion and a big, fat raise. Dickens ends the novel by saying, "Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim . . . he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world."

If Charles Dickens had told the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus it might have had a different ending.  The rich man might have woken up from his bad dream, thrown open the window of his bedroom and seen Lazarus, still lying out there at the gate.  He might have rushed down the stairs, run out to the gate, scooped Lazarus up in his arms and brought him inside.  He might have ordered a hot bath drawn for him, and bandages for his sores, and new clothing, just his size--some of those fine linen undergarments and soft purple robes.  He might have put him at the place of honor at his table, and filled his plate with every good thing imaginable, so that at the end of the story there would be Lazarus--freshly scrubbed and smelling of lilac, dressed from head to toe in fine linen and purple, raising his jeweled goblet to say, "God bless us every one!"But that's not how it ends.  There is Lazarus, living it up in Paradise, and there is the rich man, roasting in the flames of hell.  It wasn't a dream after all, and so the rich man doesn't have a second chance to make things right.  He had one chance, and he missed it.  All his begging, all his pleading, is in vain.  Abraham remains unmoved.  And as for his five brothers, those who still have a chance to get it right?  "They have Moses and the prophets," Abraham says.  "If they won't listen to Moses and the prophets they wouldn't listen if someone came back from the dead."

It doesn’t seem entirely fair, does it?  But then again it didn’t really happen.  This is a story Jesus is telling, and he is not telling it for the benefit of the rich man, or even for his five brothers, but for those of us who are listening to it even now and who, as long as we have breath in us, as long as we can wake up and look out our own windows tomorrow morning, have an opportunity to repent. 

 —Jim Somerville 


Psalm 91, and Taylor and Luke 16
2007-09-27 by David von Schlichten

Psalm 91

Rick Brand reflects pastorally on Psalm 91 in the blog entry below this one. I agree that Psalm 91's promise that God will protect the righteous does not guarantee that bad things will never happen to good people. Indeed, the book of Psalms as a whole presents a more complex picture of the relationship between righteous living and suffering. Sometimes the psalmist suffers precisely because evil people are persecuting her or him. It's a good thing we have 150 psalms and not just Psalm 91.

For that matter, thanks be to the Spirit that the Bible is far more than Psalms. Whenever I meet Psalm 91, I remember Satan trying to tempt Jesus in the wilderness by quoting that magnificent psalm. Jesus responds by quoting Deuteronomy, another part of Scripture. Satan is proof-texting, while Jesus recognizes that Psalm 91, along with every passage in Scripture, must be understood vis-a-vis the larger scriptural context.

Perhaps we can help our hearers to understand this crucial hermeneutical principle. We are to take the Bible as a whole, even when focusing on one verse in one chapter of one book.

Barbara Brown Taylor and Luke 16:19-31

In Bread of Angels, Taylor has a wise sermon on this text from Luke. She begins “A Fixed Chasm” by critiquing the simplistic notion - this point fits well with Rick Brand's comment in response to Psalm 91 – that we are wealthy or poor because of our own hard work, God's blessing, or a combination of the two, but not because of factors beyond our control or outside of God's will. Taylor preaches, “The great American myth is that anyone willing to work hard can win first prize” (p.109). She says that might be true if everyone had the same auspicious circumstances at the beginning of the race. In reality, “Some start so far back that they can run until their lungs burst and never even see the dust of their front-runners” (110).

Also pervasive is the belief that a person is poor because of God's wrath. Such a mentality often begets a fatalistic attitude toward the poor among us rich people. A person is poor because that is God's will, so I should just not bother to try to help her. A person's poverty is fate or part of God's plan, so I am to leave the poverty alone.

Taylor goes on to declare that Jesus hated this kind of “health and wealth theology” (111), reminding people of the scriptural call to care for the poor and doing so himself through word and action. Jesus also made this point by telling stories, and now we come to the parable of this Sunday's Gospel reading.

Taylor proclaims that the point of the parable is not to induce guilt but to induce change. She notes the absence of guilt in the parable and adds, “God could [sic] care less about our guilt. The only thing guilt is good for is to move us to change” (111). If we simply feel guilty but don't do anything to improve our behavior, what good is the guilt?

Taylor continues by pointing out that the story teaches us that we create our own misery. Just as the rich man has doomed himself with his self-indulgent lifestyle, so also do we generate our own misery when we cut ourselves off from each other and God because we are too busy chasing after bling, thinking that we deserve it and that the poor deserve their poverty. She preaches, “Who do you think fixed that chasm in the story? Was it God or the rich man?” (113)

She concludes the sermon by reminding us that we are the five brothers. It is too late for the rich man, but it is not too late for us rich women and men to care for the Lazarus lying in our driveway in front of our two cars.

Returning to Rick's thoughts about theodicy and Psalm 91, an additional point is that one way God lifts us and protects us is through the compassion people show us and we them. When we pray for God to help the poor, God responds, “Good idea. Let's get to work, you and I, together.”

Yours in Christ,

David von Schlichten, poedifier

Thirty years
2007-09-27 by Rick Brand

Jimmy Buffet has a line in a song about it's been thirty years since my last confession, so if you have all day, Father, let's get started.

I have been plowing the lectionary lessons for more than thirty years and so I have finally focused on plowing in the Psalms.  According to my lectionary that is Psalm 91.

A. This is a magnificent psalm of celebration of the goodness of God's steadfast care and protection for somebody who has had an experience that convinces them that God has been there for them. I have heard this kind of testimony of people who survive tornadoes and other horrors.

B. But it is a dangerous Psalm to try to preach if we go so far as to say that all who love the Lord will feel this kind of protection.  At least, I would never say to the congregation that if you love God you will be protected from all harm.   One has only to read Mother Teresa's letters to know that one as devout as she was felt deserted and apart from God. 

I certainly do not have any interest in trying to say who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, i.e. if you get hit by a car, you must not have been under the shadow of God's wings.

C. But all that does make you wonder, well, who do you trust yourself to.  You going to believe you can look out for yourself?  Do you believe your security will be in the Patriots' Act?  Do you really believe George Bush can keep you save from terrorits?  Is your security in "the piece of the Rock" insurance company? 

D. Which drives us back to the Psalm that in our faith in God do we find the only comfort and security that there is for us finite creatures. If we do not trust the Creator to keep creation, then nothing else will be able to keep it. If we do not believe that God will gather God's children into God's care, then we are without much grounds for hope.

I wonder if someone else has found a better word in this Psalm.

Myanmar and Highlights from this Week's "Lectionary Homiletics" Articles
2007-09-25 by David von Schlichten

The monks in Myanmar protesting against that nation's oppressive government remind us of the importance of stepping away from our fast-food filled tables to work for changes large and small that help the hungry and excluded. As we do this, we are to be full of, not self-abusive (and sometimes self-indulgent) guilt and shame, but repentant acknowledgment of culpability and joyful relief that salvation is for all.

 At our samples section for this coming Sunday, you will find something new: free snippets from Lectionary Homiletics of all the articles for this Sunday. 

Here is what I found especially nourishing from this week's articles: 


Brian K. Peterson is one of several authors this week to remind us that this parable is not meant to be an accurate picture of the nature of heaven and hell. As Peterson writes, "[ . . . ] [T]his story is not intended to give details about the furniture of Heaven or the temperature of Hell” (p.73).

Peterson also explains that the parable has two endings and two “separate but related” points. The first ending is the fate of the rich man, and the first point is that worldly wealth is “no indication of God's approval” (p.73). The second ending looks ahead to Jesus' resurrection, and the second point is Luke's explanation as to why many people did not accept Jesus: hard-heartedness.

Peterson also notes that the Pharisees should see themselves most clearly in, not the rich man or Lazarus, but “[ . . . ] the brothers who must listen to the Law and the Prophets” (p.73).

Theological Themes”

Alan Meyers concludes his article with a valuable, indicting question, “Why is the association of wealth, not poverty, with being specially favored by God so persistent and strong in America, in spite of Moses and the prophets and Jesus?” (p.74)

Pastoral Implications”

Pamela Cooper-White rightly proclaims that this parable is aimed at the have's, and we North Americans are among them. We may not think of ourselves as wealthy, but compared to most of the world, we are the rich man, with much of the planet lying as Lazarus right outside our door. Cooper-White goes on to stress the corporate nature of the sin that continues to oppress the poor.

She advises that preaching striving to make hearers feel guilt or shame generally is not productive. More productive is helping people to confess and grieve our involvement in the corporate neglect and abuse of the poor, to ask for God's grace, and then to strive to live out our gratitude through efforts to bring about justice (p.75).

She adds that Luke 18 provides hope in the declaration that, through God, all things are possible.

Sermon Reviews”

Alex Gondola summarizes a sermon by Don M. Aycock in which Aycock preaches that the rich man makes four “serious mistakes”: he “mistook today for eternity”; “mistook opportunity for privilege”; “mistook his neighbor for a nobody”; and “traded his possessions for his soul” (p.77).

Gondola writes that a sermon by W. Robert McClelland urges hearers to get moving with helping those in need, because we only live once and the days fly rapidly. McClelland recalls Bonhoeffer saying that the only ethical question for the Christian is, “How shall the next generation live?” (p.77), and McClelland quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. as having said, “Unless we are willing to die for something, we're not fit to live for anything” (Ibid.).

Preaching the Lesson”

In an exceptionally well-written and cogent article, David J. Schlafer contends that the rich man has “forgotten or ignored” passages from Scripture that call upon him to extend hospitality, especially to those in need. Schlafer makes an analogy by drawing a picture of someone clinging to the handful of verses against homosexuality and then dying and finding a homosexual in Abraham's embrace.

We are called to inclusivity, although Schlafer adds that such an understanding does not mean an “anything goes” mentality, because, although barriers are coming down, “lines are being drawn” (p.79). Schlafer concludes that homosexuality is not the only issue analogous to the parable, but such an issue can help people to hear the parable anew.

As I reflect on all this, I recall a common belief that people are poor because they have made themselves that way, such as by being lazy. I could see some of us wealthy hearers justifying our neglect of the poor with this kind of thinking. We are to remember that Jesus calls for us to care for the poor and not only for the poor whom we have decided deserve our help. 

Striving to march like the monks, I am

Yours in Christ,

David von Schlichten, poedifier  

Sermon on Luke 16 (and 1 Timothy 2) for Sept. 23
2007-09-22 by David von Schlichten

If you scroll down, you will find a rich blog entry by Tom Long, as well as an intelligent entry by Dee Dee Haines.


Shrewd Like the Cross

(Word count: 831)

Texts: Luke 16:1-13 (and 1 Timothy 2:1-7)

Main point: Just as God loved us with the supremely shrewd act of giving us life through the cross, so are we to respond by using shrewdly our resources, including prayer, to love God and others.

Sometimes even a person we disapprove of can teach us a positive lesson. For example, last winter I read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, a famous and zealous atheist. He argues that the idea of God is bogus and even destructive. I disagree with Dawkins on many points, because, of course, I believe deeply in God while he does not. However, he makes some good points, like in his critique of Christian hypocrisy and irrationality. He describes insightfully how hypocritical and irrational we Christians can be. Good points. Sometimes even a person we basically disagree with or disapprove of can teach us a positive, useful lesson.

In our Gospel reading, Luke 16:1-13, the dishonest manager is just such a person: his behavior is negative but he still provides a positive, useful example for us. Let me explain. In this parable from Luke 16, a manager is about to be fired. To help himself have friends who will care for him when he is out of a job, the manager reduces some of the debts that people owe his boss. The manager does not have permission to do this. He is cheating, being dishonest.

Now here's something weird. When his boss finds out that the manager has been dishonest with the financial records to benefit himself, the boss does not yell at him, as we would expect. Instead, the boss slaps him on the back and says, "That was very shrewd of you. Good job."

Why would Jesus tell such a story? Is he saying we should be dishonest? Given his teachings as a whole, it is unlikely that he is promoting dishonesty. So what is Jesus promoting? Why does he tell a story about a dishonest manager who gets praised for being dishonest?

Actually, the boss does not exactly praise the manager for being dishonest. He praises the manager for being shrewd. Likewise, Jesus does not want us to be dishonest, but he does want us to be shrewd, shrewd with the wealth that God has entrusted to us so that we serve God and people in need. Jesus does not want us to imitate the dishonest manager's dishonesty. Jesus wants us to imitate the dishonest manager's shrewdness.

What does the word shrewd even mean? The word “shrewd” means to be clever, cunning, and calculating. It is not necessarily bad. Jesus always wants us to be loving, including by being honest, but we are not to be foolish, naïve, or lazy. We are to be shrewd. As we said last week, Jesus wants us to be innocent as doves, yes, but also wise as serpents.

Are we? Are we shrewd with our wealth, or are we wasteful? Today is Harvest Home Sunday, when we collect non-perishable food to donate to the local food pantry. This is a wonderful use of our wealth, thanks be to the Holy Spirit.

What else could we do? How can we be even more clever, cunning and calculating with our wealth so as to help as many people as possible and honor God?

Remember, the end might crash upon us before this hour ends. God could return at any moment. Death can invade on any day. Are we being shrewd with what God has entrusted to us, or are we being wasteful?

Are we being shrewd with our money and skills? Are we putting them to smart, creative use in the name of loving God and others? Think about your money, talents, and other resources. Are you using them shrewdly for God and others? Am I?

God has given us prayer. Are we being shrewd in our use of that gift, in our use of prayer?

1 Timothy 2:1-7 calls for us to pray for our leaders, our politicians. Do you do that? We love to gripe about politicians, but are we praying for them?

1 Timothy 2 also tells us that God wants everyone to be saved. Everyone. If God wants everyone to be saved, then we should as well. We are even to want passionate atheists like Richard Dawkins to be saved.

Striving to help all come back to God calls for shrewdness, cleverness, as well as urgency, in prayer and action. Time is short. Evil is strong. God urges us to be shrewd with money, prayer, talent, and God urges us to get moving. Evil flexes, time shrinks.

Atheists, including Richard Dawkins, are smart but mistaken. Even so, God wants them to be saved, just as God wants salvation for you and indeed has given it to you through baptism into Christ's shrewd death.

Yes, God, in his shrewdness, sent Christ to trick Satan and outsmart death. Christ's death looked like defeat, but surprise! As Christ hung dying on the cross, Satan cackled, his bad breath fogging up his mirrors. “Ha! Now I have him!” Satan thought he had won, but he was wrong. God, in his cleverness, his shrewdness, had double-crossed Satan. Death was actually life. The supreme act of shrewdness turned death into life.

Yours in Christ,

David von Schlichten, poedifier

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