Fr. Michael’s Sermon for Sunday, September 29, 2019 (Year C, Proper 21)
There are a few verses between where our Gospel reading picks up this morning and where it left off last week. They are particularly important for context, so I want to start there. You’ll remember that way back at the beginning of chapter 15, Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners and receiving or welcoming them. The Pharisees and the scribes grumbled and said, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” In response, Jesus began to tell parables. The first was the parable of the lost sheep, then the parable of the lost coin, and then the parable of the lost son. Those three parables go together quite obviously. There is a thematic link between them. Something is lost, and then something is found.
I argued last week that the next parable Jesus tells carries on the same textual connection. Jesus is still addressing the Pharisee’s objection about the company he keeps and therefore, their self-righteousness, which is no righteousness at all, was still in view. However, Jesus does shift his focus from their self-righteousness to their love of money. He tells a parable about a dishonest manager who is praised by his master for his worldly shrewdness, and Jesus follows the parable with several wisdom-literature like sayings about money, most noticeably, “You cannot serve God and money” (Luke 16:13). That’s how our reading last week ended, and it’s the verses immediately following that the lectionary skips.
Here are those verses. Let me read them for you. “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things [presumably, all four parables and the teaching about money that followed], and they ridiculed him. And he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God. The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it” (Luke 16:14–16). That last phrase is tricky. The word is βιάζω, and it can be used positively or negatively. The positive meaning is “to gain an object by force,” which is what the ESV prefers. The negative meaning is “to inflict violence on, dominate, constrain.” I prefer the latter. I think it makes more sense in this context for Jesus to say that since John, he has been preaching the Good News of the Kingdom of God, but everyone, including the Pharisees who grumble about those whom he welcomes and ridicule him for his teaching, have been trying to constrain and control the kingdom that he is bringing into this world.
Either way, it is clear that Jesus is still addressing the Pharisees and that he is still concerned about their self-righteousness and their love of money. What we need to understand is that in the first century, those two ideas, righteousness and wealth, were directly related and for a good reason. Read through the Old Testament, and what you’ll find is promise after promise that God will bless the righteous with wealth. That’s one of the ways that you can tell that a person is righteous. If God has blessed that person with material wealth, that person must be righteous. That’s how the system works. Or so it would appear.
So, if you’re the Pharisees, and you believe yourself to be righteous, then you would expect yourself to be wealthy. You might directly equate how righteous you are to how wealthy you are. You might even try to gain more wealth, righteously or not, as a sign that you are even more righteous that others thought. And it’s into that literary and cultural context that Jesus speaks our parable this morning.
Now, I want to remind us again that parables are meant to be dwelt in and pondered, but I should also point out that parables are not historical stories. They are fiction. There is no real lost sheep, no lost coin, no lost son, no dishonest manager, and no rich man and Lazarus. These stories are fiction, and too often, people try to draw their understanding of the afterlife from this parable. That’s not something we’re going to do this morning because that’s not how parables work. They aren’t intended to provide that type of information. It may be accurate depiction of the afterlife, but you’d have to decide that by other means because that’s not the point of the parable.
So, what is the point? Jesus is turning the world as the Pharisees and most people in the first century understood it entirely on its head. The rich man who has everything goes off to judgment, and the poor man who had nothing is carried by angels to Abraham’s side. From the opening lines of this parable, Jesus is putting forth a radical shift in what people expected in the age to come. In the most extreme interpretation, he is inverting their expectations. In a milder interpretation, he’s suggesting that wealth has no bearing on what happens to us in the age to come. That might seem obvious to us today, but it was not so obvious in the first century.
And yet despite this sudden shift in expectations, we still haven’t arrived at the truly shocking part of this parable. You see, the form is familiar to anyone who knows these kinds of stories. You get a peek at the afterlife, and that look is usually more to make a point than to be literal. Then a messenger is sent back from the afterlife to warn someone’s friends, family, or others about what lies just on the other side of death. However, in this story, when the rich man puts that request to Abraham, Abraham says, “No.” “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” The rich man objects, “No, father Abraham, if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” Abraham replies, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:29-31).
There are two things to note here. First, any time you hear Jesus talking about someone rising from the dead, you should pay attention. Second, this line ties this parable back to the chief of the three earlier parables, the parable of the lost son. You’ll remember that at the end of that parable, the father says to the elder son, who like the Pharisees is standing outside the party and grumbling, “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:24). ‘
The last parable of the first half of this section and the last parable of the second half of this section both end with reference to resurrection. The father says that return of his son is like receiving him back from the dead, and the Abraham says that the rich man’s family wouldn’t believe even someone who rose from the dead since they don’t believe Moses and the Prophets.
Jesus is claiming that the Kingdom of God that he is bringing through his preaching, and ultimately will bring through his cross and resurrection, does not belong to the rich, the powerful, or the self-righteous. The Kingdom of God belongs instead to the poor, the weak, the outcast, and those that know themselves to be sinners. In some sense, that should be no surprise for the reader of Luke’s Gospel. When Mary heard what God was going to do through her, she sang that God “has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:51–53).
Jesus himself, when he began his ministry at Nazareth, said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19).
Jesus is not saying that the rich, powerful, and self-righteous have no place in the kingdom of God, but he is saying that it doesn’t belong to them. It belongs to tax collectors and sinners. It belongs to the poor who annoy us as they beg for money while we try to walk down a city street and enjoy our day. It belongs to the people in the trailer parks. It belongs to the people in low-income housing. It belongs to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger in our land, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. That is if Matthew 25 has anything to say about this. And it does. That’s who we should be taking the Gospel to because it belongs to them.
Now, if you know the cycle of church life and you know that when this type of reading pops up in the lectionary, the church starts to ask you about your pledge, you might hear me saying that if you have excess money, you should be giving it to the church. That is not what I’m saying.
What I am saying is that, as a church, we need to be spending as much of our time, energy, and income as we can to bring the Good News of the Kingdom of God to those to whom it belongs because the cross of Jesus Christ has turned the world upside down, and when the Son of God rose from the dead everything changed. And if you ask me how well we’re doing that as a church, I would tell you that we’re doing it, but we can do it better. I can do it better.
Not in every moment, but in my best moments, in the moments where the Gospel is most fully on my mind, I don’t care about how big we grow as a church. I don’t care about our average Sunday attendance. I don’t care about our pledging, and I don’t care about income. Those things are in God’s hands anyway. The one thing I do care about as your priest is this: are we bringing the Good News of the Kingdom of God to the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned in this area? That should be our priority as a church because if we are not doing that, none of the rest of it matters. So, I am commissioning you to go out and find those people, just like Fr. Luis does. Go out, find them, and tell us how we can help because that it was it means to be the church of a crucified and risen Lord who has turned the world upsidedown.