From Gate to Chasm

Here’s my sermon from September 26 at First Pres, Boonville.

It’s the third in a series of three on grace.

The text is Luke 16:19-31.

Click here to listen to the podcast.

We’ve spent the last few weeks talking about a series of parables that appear in Luke’s gospel.  Two weeks ago, we talked about the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin, where the sheep and coin do not find their way home but are instead found by the one who was looking for them.  In the same way, we lost souls cannot find or earn our way back into God’s favor through moral living or right theology.  Instead, we are found by a loving God who comes looking for us and brings us home rejoicing.

Last week, we talked about the parable of the dishonest manager, where our desperate main character works “outside the law” to forgive debts and establish lasting relationships with others.  In the same way, our God works “outside the law” to forgive our debt of sin and establish relationship with us.

Each of these parables is told by Jesus during a particular “scene” we find in Luke’s gospel.  This scene is set at the beginning of chapter 15: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”  The religious leaders are shocked and offended by the way that Jesus extends such a radical welcome to the most wretched and despised members of society.  Their strict moral and theological rules simply cannot cope with the idea of a rabbi who associates with such lowlifes.

The key concept that continues through all of these stories is grace.  Again and again, we get the message that the God who Jesus reveals does not hesitate to give out love and mercy to those who deserve it least.

Then we come to the parable in today’s gospel reading and we get this dark picture of hellfire and damnation.  What is that about?  We just spent all this time talking about grace and unconditional love.  Were we wrong?  Was all of it just a bunch of nice words?  I don’t think so.

This parable about the rich man and Lazarus takes place in the same section of Luke’s gospel as the other parables we looked at.  We can imagine Jesus telling this story to the religious elites as they grumble about him associating with outcasts and so-called “sinners”.  Just as the theme of grace was present in the stories we heard last week and the week before, we can expect to find the message of grace in this week’s story as well.

The religious leaders in this story, as we have already mentioned, were famous for drawing up long lists of moral rules and spiritual requirements.  They tried their best to know the Bible well and follow its commandments ‘to a T’.  Rather than the ten commandments that we are most familiar with from the Old Testament, the members of this group identified 613 commandments that should be obeyed.  Those who failed to live up to this standard were branded as “sinners” and excluded from the social and religious life of the community.  They had very clear ideas about us & them, in & out, black & white.  In telling this story of the rich man and Lazarus, I think Jesus was trying to challenge the hard and fast categories into which his opponents tried so hard to put people.

The parable opens with two characters: a panhandler named Lazarus and rich man, whose name we don’t know.  The rich man lives in a nice estate home with its own wall and front-gate.  Lazarus regularly perched himself by that gate, hoping to pick something edible out of the trash.

In the culture of first century Palestine, the difference in circumstances between these two people was understood to have spiritual significance.  Material success was taken to be a sign of God’s blessing while suffering was interpreted as a sign that God was punishing someone.  If a person was poor or sick, people generally thought, “Everything happens for a reason.  If this person is suffering, then he or she probably did something to deserve it.  Who are we to question God’s ways?”  This belief made it very easy for people to excuse themselves from helping those in need.  After all, why should I help someone who brought this trouble on himself or herself?

American society holds similar beliefs.  Conventional thought divides poor people into two categories: “worthy” and “unworthy”.  Children, senior citizens, veterans, and laid-off workers are generally regarded as “worthy” of help.  But people whose bad decisions or destructive habits have landed them in desperate situations are branded as “unworthy”.  People say things like, “Why should I give my hard-earned money to someone who’s just going to blow it on drugs?”

In the same way, the rich man in Jesus’ story probably felt morally justified in walking by Lazarus each day without lifting a finger to help.  This rich man, like the religious Pharisees, had his world neatly organized into categories of “us” and “them”.  Lazarus definitely counted as one of “them”.  The gate that stood between the rich man and Lazarus might as well have been an impenetrable wall.

Fast forward to the end of their respective lives.  The gate between these two has become an impassable chasm.  What’s odd is that their positions have been reversed.  Lazarus rests comfortably while the rich man is the one suffering.  The hard and fast social categories remain intact, except that the rich man finds himself on the wrong end of eternity.

When we set ourselves up as judge and jury over our fellow human beings, it will inevitably come back to haunt us, because none of us is ultimately perfect.  Jesus spoke about this phenomenon on another occasion when he said:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.  (Matthew 7:1-5)

I think Jesus tells this story as a warning to the religious insiders about the dangers of holding on too tightly to hard and fast categories of “us” and “them”.  This dark and disturbing tale of hellfire and damnation reminds us of the consequences of living in a world without grace.

The good news for us all is that we do not live in a world without grace.  In contrast to the story of the rich man and Lazarus, we Christians believe that the impassable chasm between God and ourselves has become a gate.  Furthermore, we believe that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, has passed through that gate to meet us where we are in the messiness of our own poverty and suffering.  This is an act of pure grace and unconditional love.  We cannot earn it and we cannot pay it back.

What Christ asks of you and I is that we pay it forward.  Again and again in the gospels, Jesus instructs his followers to forgive as they have been forgiven.  According to Jesus, the only thing that can stop the unconditional flow of grace into our lives is if we refuse to pass it on to others.

Jesus says in the Beatitudes, 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”  Later in the Sermon on the Mount he says, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”  In Mark 11:25, he says, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”  Finally, in Luke 6:37, he says, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven”.

God’s will is that you and I should become agents of grace in this world that knows so little of it.  Jesus invites us to step outside our own gates, to go beyond the walls we have erected in our own lives, so that we might meet the “Lazarus” who lives in our own community.  What does this look like for you?  Who are those “despised outsiders” that you see?  It could be an individual in your family or community.  It could be an entire group of people in your society.  Wherever you find those “sinners”, that is where God is calling you to venture outside your gate as an agent of grace, to transform the world around you, and to be transformed in the process.  Amen.

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