A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, September 25, 2016
Luke 16:19-31 CEB
As I was looking to be inspired with a sermon topic for today’s service, I noticed that the passage selected as today’s reading happens to be the gospel Lectionary text for today. For those not familiar with the Christian Lectionary, it is a system of four Scripture readings—a gospel, Old Testament, Psalm, and other New Testament reading—for every Sunday and every holy day of the year, based on a three-year cycle—years A, B, and C. Many mainline, liturgical denominations follow the Christian Lectionary religiously.
But then, as I also thought about today being our Nicaragua fundraising lunch day, I decided that this parable, most commonly known as the Parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus, was also most appropriate for the theme of the day. But for today’s purposes, I chose to rename the parable, “Parable of the Gates of Separation.” Because so much of this parable has to do with separations.
Obviously, the first gate of separation in the parable has to do with the physical gate that separated the poor, disease-ridden man Lazarus from the opulence and extravagance of the rich man who lived just on the other side. Some translations say Lazarus lay at the rich man’s gate, and others say he was carried to the rich man’s gate every day, or even thrown at the rich man’s gate. On one side of the gate the rich man fared sumptuously, eating the best food and wearing the best clothes money could buy. On the other side of the gate the poor man craved for even the bread crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. A picture is drawn of two totally different worlds separated by one, thin gate.
Now what was Jesus trying to say when he first told this parable? And then what was Luke trying to say by placing this story precisely where he did in his gospel narrative? And why did the New Testament Church feel it was worth preserving? The truth is, Jesus had his reasons for telling the story, and Luke had his reasons for including the story where he did, and the New Testament Church had its reasons for circulating and preserving this story.
Well, as Luke tells it, Jesus was conversing with those who put love of wealth over love for God. The rich man represents those who serve mammon (riches, worldly gain, inordinate love of or attachment to material goods) rather than serving God. The rich man lived in a gated community, consciously separating himself from the poor of his neighborhood. But the story is placed within the larger context about money, and inordinate love for money, and being faithful with the money and other material goods that are entrusted to us.
Well, as the story goes, both men die. We are wont to ask, “Did Lazarus die of starvation while lying at the rich man’s gate? Did he die of malnourishment while the rich man threw table scraps out his back door? Did he die from the sores for which he could get no medical relief? Did Lazarus freeze to death one night lying at the gate?”
And what might have killed the rich man? Over eating? Illness—diabetes, heart disease, etc.—brought on by eating too many rich foods? We don’t know, and it really doesn’t matter, since this story is a parable and not a factual account, every detail of which we should not take literally.
But then we ask why this story was important to Luke and why he placed it precisely where he did in his gospel. Well, it is common knowledge that Luke was an advocate for the poor and critic of those who loved and misused wealth. In Luke’s framework, to the poor belong the Kingdom of God. In Luke’s eyes, Jesus (and hence God) was partial to the poor, oppressed, and downtrodden. So the first gate of separation in this parable is the gate separating the poor of the world from the callous rich of the world who love their money more than they love God and fellow humankind.
The second gate of separation in the story is the gate between the blessed dead and the doomed dead. Now, as already noted, this parable is just that: a parable that seeks to make a spiritual point (or points), but was not intended to be taken literally in every detail. But as Jesus and Luke tell this colorful story, there was a “gate” or chasm that separated the world of the dead—those who had died, having lived faithful lives of love and service to God and humanity, and those who had died, having lived “unfaithful,” calloused lives of apathy toward God and humanity. The faithful are said to have been ushered into the presence of faithful Father Abraham, and the unfaithful are said to have been transported to a lake of fire of punishment. Although both Jesus and Luke may have believed that all will be judged by God in the afterlife according to their faithfulness or lack thereof, the idea of the unfaithful being transported to a lake of fire for eternal punishment while being able to see the faithful in paradise across a vast divide is not to be taken literally. The idea of the doomed suffering in a lake of fire and being able to see the saved in Paradise and talk with Abraham is really sort of bizarre when you think about it. Such was an image Jesus used, I believe, for dramatic effect in order to make his points. Yet, many over the centuries have, and many still do today, take the images literally, believing the “unsaved” will be cast into a lake of fire for all eternity.
But the precise details of the afterlife is not the primary point of the parable. The parable is not really about going to hell. The primary points have to do with the gates that divide humanity between the rich and the poor, and the warning against loving money and earthly holdings more than loving God and humanity, especially needy humanity.
Whereas most parables have one main point, this parable is a two-pointed parable. If we read the parable closely—especially the last two verses (30-31)—we see that the other primary point has to do with Jesus rising from the dead.
But regarding the gates theme, we know that the gates that separate today are many and varied. We could spend a long time discussing the gates in America that separate and divide us. In the course of each week most of us probably maneuver around a number of “invisible gates” that are mentally erected between the rich and poor, Black and White, liberal and conservative, Christian and Muslim, straight and gay, and you fill in the blanks.
But for today’s purposes, we want to focus on the gates that separate us as comfortable Americans from the poor and underprivileged of Nicaragua. And in making that statement, I don’t intend to be disparaging in any way to our Nicaraguan friends. I accompanied our Mission Team to Nicaragua in 2009, as a number of our United Church members have done over the years. And during that week I met so many wonderful people and made some wonderful Nicaraguan friends.
But the truth is, many of the folks in Nicaragua have not had, and do not have, the privileges that most of us here in Oak Ridge take for granted. Many live in very primitive housing, with no medical care, in great need of eye glasses and dental care, and in need of medications and vitamins. It might be said that a “gate of opportunity” is the dividing wall between us. But we have another chance this October to penetrate that dividing gate a bit, as we lend mission team support to those who will bless many in some of the villages in Nicaragua, taking along medicines, eye glasses, a caring presence, and especially love and compassion.
But in addition to donating to this wonderful mission opportunity, may we also be more intentional about opening up and removing those invisible—but real nonetheless—gates of separation that exist in our country, our community, and our day-in and day-out lives. The gates that divide are real and many. It is up to us to open them up. Amen.