Good fences make good neighbors? (Luke 16.19-31) [sermon 3-26-2017]

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March 24, 2017 by jmar198013

Manuscript of my sermon for March 26, 2017.

Text is Luke 16.19-31.

Resources I used for this sermon include:

Brendan Byrne. The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel. rev. ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015), 148-53.

Justo L. Gonzalez. Luke. Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 190-98.

Joel B. Green. The Gospel of Luke. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 586-610.

Bernard Brandon Scott. Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 141-59.

An audio link is embedded below for those who’d like to listen.

The power of a parable

In our readings today, we heard one of Jesus’ famous parables, about a beggar named Lazarus and a rich man without a name.

Before we consider this parable, I want to set the stage for us. Too often, we read Jesus’ parables in isolation from their contexts. If we’re not careful, we might start imagining that Jesus was in the habit of busting in places, telling some parables, and taking off again. Leaving everyone either delighted, because it was such a cool story he told. Or angry, because the story insulted them. Or scratching their heads, because they had no idea what he was talking about.

That’s not how Jesus operated. His parables were always part of a larger discussion or controversy. And he usually told these stories to challenge people’s thinking. To try and broaden their horizons, see things from a different angle, or maybe notice something they hadn’t before.

That’s what we saw last week. The scribes and Pharisees complained—for the second time in Luke’s Gospel—that Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners. So Jesus told the Pharisees and scribes three parables to justify his table ministry. All three stories were about something that was lost being found.

A shepherd loses a sheep, and searches until he finds it.

A poor woman loses a coin, and frantically sweeps every nook and cranny of the house until she finds it.

A man’s youngest son leaves home and gets stranded in a strange land. When his father sees him coming up the way, he rushes out to meet him—embracing and kissing him in front of the entire village.

In all three stories, those who find what had been lost invite their friends and neighbors to celebrate with them.

Jesus wants the Pharisees and scribes to see him and his disciples eating with tax collectors and sinners differently. Jesus has been out seeking the lost sheep of Israel. The tax collectors and sinners are lost sons and daughters who have come back home. When he opens his table fellowship to them, he’s celebrating their return—just as the shepherd, the poor woman, and the father celebrated when they found what had been lost.

Jesus also added a new angle when he told the story of the father whose lost son came home. The man had another, older son who refused to join with his father and their neighbors as they celebrated his brother’s homecoming. He stayed outside, and wouldn’t even acknowledge that he had a brother. Jesus ended the story with the father begging him to come in and celebrate with the rest of the village: we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found (Luke 15.32).

Jesus wants the Pharisees and scribes to see that those tax collectors and sinners are their brothers and sisters. And to celebrate with him that their lost brothers and sisters have come home.

To know that there’s room at our heavenly Father’s table for all of us.

Like any other story, the parables do their best work when we find ourselves in them. When something in them resonates with our experience. Whenever, for good or bad, we see something about our own lives reflected in them. But the parables can only do this profound and powerful work in us when we understand who Jesus told them to, and why he told them.


So let’s talk about the context of this week’s reading. Who was Jesus telling this story to, and why was he telling it?

The parable about the rich man and Lazarus we heard today is part of the same conversation we heard last week. Jesus and the Pharisees have been going ‘round and ‘round for a few chapters now. There’s a three-way conversation that’s going on between Jesus, the Pharisees, and his disciples. Jesus is saying things to the Pharisees that he also wants his disciples to hear. And he’s saying things to his disciples that he wants the Pharisees to hear.

Jesus had just told the Pharisees a story about a man whose son squandered family property, and found himself in a life-or-death situation. He chooses life, and returns home.

Right after that, in Luke 16.1-13, Jesus tells the disciples a story about a man whose household manager is found squandering his property, and the manager must also make a life-or-death decision. When the man puts his household manager on notice, the manager realizes he is too weak to do manual labor and too proud to beg. So he goes out and renegotiates the contracts with those who owe his master money. He basically cuts his own commission out of the debts, which makes him poor now. But, he reasons: when I am removed from my management position, people will welcome me into their houses (Luke 16.4). In other words, he’s making himself poor now, to secure a better future.

Jesus says something really strange at the end of this parable: I tell you, use worldly wealth to make friends for yourselves so that when it’s gone, you will be welcomed into the eternal homes (Luke 16.9). In other words, the wealth we have now isn’t ours—we’re simply managing it for a limited time. We should use it for the benefit of others. Whether that means giving it to the needy or canceling debts. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel—Luke 12.15ff—Jesus told a story about a rich man who had a fantastic harvest, and decided to build bigger barns to store it in. But that very night, he died—all his stuff did him no good. Instead of building bigger barns, Jesus wants his followers to build bigger tables. Just as he’d made room at his table for the tax collectors and sinners—and even for Pharisees.

Well, Luke says the Pharisees, who were money-lovers, heard all this and sneered at Jesus (Luke 16.14). Money-lovers doesn’t just mean that they were stingy or greedy. It means that they were deeply concerned with their social status, popularity, and keeping up appearances. They didn’t just sneer at Jesus because he told a story about sharing their wealth with the poor—Pharisees routinely did impressive charity work. It was the whole conversation that set them off. They weren’t about to open their tables and friendship to tax collectors and sinners like Jesus did! That would cost them too much.

But Jesus tells them: Until John, there was only the Law and the Prophets. Since then, the good news of God’s kingdom is preached, and everyone is urged to enter it. Jesus is saying that now everyone is on notice—like the household manager in the story he just told. A big shake-up is coming. The Pharisees’ wealth and status and even their religious authority are part of an old order that’s quickly passing away. Will they respond wisely like the household manager? If not, they will be judged by the very Law and Prophets they claim to care so much about.

And that is why Jesus told the Pharisees a story about a rich man and a beggar where the disciples could hear it.

Rich man, poor man

Jesus begins his story: There was a certain rich man. This rich man is anonymous. Like the rich man in the parable in Luke 12, who had a bumper crop and wanted to build bigger barns. Jesus said this rich man clothed himself in purple and fine linen. These were very expensive clothes—the kind royalty might wear.

Not only did the rich man dress like a king, he lived like one, too. Jesus said he feasted luxuriously every day. The man whose lost son came home in the story we heard last week celebrated with a feast, complete with a fattened calf. But that was a very special occasion. Jesus says this rich man ate like that every day.

By contrast, Jesus tells us, at the rich man’s gate lay a certain poor man named Lazarus. A few details here. First, it’s not enough to say poor Lazarus laid at the gate. The verb suggests he was tossed there by someone. Like garbage. And that he was disabled and couldn’t move. Second, while Jesus refuses to name the rich man—indeed, he never names anyone in his other parables—he tells us the poor man’s name: Lazarus. The name Lazarus means: God is my helper. It might not look right now like God is on this poor, crippled man’s side. But we must stay and listen for the rest of the story. Third, the rich man’s home has a gate. So he doesn’t just have a house; he owns a gated compound. Keep that detail pinned to your mental cork board. It will come up again.

While the rich man covered himself with the finest, whitest linen and a purple robe, Lazarus was covered with sores. Someone covered with open sores would have been considered ritually unclean by other Jews. Those who saw him may have believed he was being punished by God. After all, Deut. 28.35 threatens the wicked with this judgment: The Lord will strike you … with grievous boils of which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head. So people who passed by this poor, suffering man probably thought he deserved his suffering. Maybe the rich man even thought so. And we wouldn’t want to interfere with God’s justice, would we?

But then Jesus piles on even more pathetic details. While the rich man feasted every day; just outside his gate, Lazarus longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. The crumbs were the heels of the bread, which the wealthy used as napkins, then tossed out to be eaten by dogs and other scavengers. Just like the lost son in last week’s reading, who longed to eat … from what the pigs ate (Luke 15.16); Lazarus longed to eat the bread the rich man had already used to wipe his hands and mouth. Instead, Jesus says, dogs would come and lick his sores. This is not a sentimental scene of dogs trying to comfort this sick and suffering man. Dogs were not pets in those days. They were wild scavengers, like a jackal or hyena. And they were ritually unclean. You’re supposed to imagine poor Lazarus trying to fight with dogs over table scraps. Meanwhile, they’re scavenging off his flesh.

Lazarus means, God is my helper. God better help him, because no one else is. Jesus dignified him with a name, because he represents all the poor outcasts—the homeless, the chronically ill, the refugees; and, in the eyes of the Pharisees, the tax collectors and sinners—tossed like garbage outside the gate of polite society. All the wretched people we’d rather pretend don’t exist.

Maybe the rich man thought to himself sometimes: I’m sure glad I’ve got this big wall to keep that Lazarus out! Perhaps even when he prayed, he thanked God for all the blessings God had given him, so he didn’t have to wallow with the dogs like poor Lazarus.

If he did, maybe God answered, You just wait! But the rich man was so deaf to anything outside his own thoughts, he never heard it.

The great reversal

Jesus continues his story: The poor man died and was carried by angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. The rich man got a proper burial. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say the same for Lazarus. Even in death, that basic dignity was denied him. Just as someone had dumped him like garbage in front of the rich man’s gate; his body was probably also tossed without ceremony in a hole somewhere.

But that’s where the story begins to turn. The rich man was buried, I’m sure with honors and mourning. But Lazarus was carried by angels to Abraham’s side. Not only that, the rich man awakens to find himself tormented in Hades; meanwhile, in the distance, he can see Lazarus, being welcomed and comforted by father Abraham himself.

In life, the rich man had feasted in luxury every day, while Lazarus’ hungry belly was never filled. Now the rich man suffers awful thirst, and there’s not a drop of water to quench it. In life, the dogs had licked the sores on Lazarus’ body. Now, scorching tongues of flame lick at the rich man in the land of the dead. He begs: Father Abraham, have mercy on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I’m suffering in this flame. Obviously, he was used to being served during life; and still expects this in death. And this entitled old coot suddenly has a use for poor Lazarus.

But Abraham speaks up, telling the rich man: Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things, whereas Lazarus received terrible things. Now Lazarus is being comforted and you are in great pain. Back in Luke 6.20ff, Jesus had warned:

Happy are you who are poor,

    because God’s kingdom is yours.

But how terrible for you who are rich,

    because you have already received your comfort.

And near the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ mother Mary sang that God:

has pulled the powerful down from their thrones

        and lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things

    and sent the rich away empty-handed. (Luke 1.52-53)

That’s just what’s happened: the great reversal. Notice that Abraham doesn’t say: Lazarus was good and pious in life, so he’s in heaven; but you were wicked, so you’re in hell. No—it’s that Lazarus never got justice in life, and so he gets justice, finally, in death. God helped him. Meanwhile, we aren’t told the rich man was particularly wicked. He was just so self-absorbed that he let Lazarus suffer and starve to death just outside his walls.

And he’s still self-absorbed. He doesn’t confess how blind his privilege made him to Lazarus’ suffering. He doesn’t ask Lazarus to forgive him. He’s consumed by his own discomfort, and trying to boss Lazarus around. C. S. Lewis liked to say, “the doors of hell are locked on the inside.” And the rich man in Jesus’ parable shows that to be a fact.

As if to remind the rich man what led him to be tormented and thirsty in the flames of Hades, Abraham says: Moreover, a great crevasse has been fixed between us and you. Those who wish to cross over from here to you cannot. Neither can anyone cross from there to us.

Remember, the rich man had lived in a gated compound. And Lazarus suffered just outside his gate. The rich man could see him, and he could see the rich man. But the rich man never crossed through that gate to comfort poor Lazarus. In death, they can still see each other, the rich man and Lazarus. It’s like Father Abraham is telling the rich man: Sorry, but Lazarus lives in a gated compound, now. You never invited him into your home before. And he certainly isn’t coming to your home now.

A table, not a wall

Only in the end does the rich man begin to think about anyone beside himself. He begs Father Abraham to send Lazarus to his five living brothers: He needs to warn them so that they don’t come to this place of agony. Even in the land of the dead, the rich man thinks he’s in a position to call the shots. He wants to order Lazarus away from the joy of Abraham’s side, to serve his five living brothers.

He’s still not moved by what Lazarus, and those like him, have suffered in life. The rich man is only concerned that his family, his friends, the people in his little circle, not suffer.

Father Abraham puts him in his place. He will not send Lazarus to the rich man’s brothers: They have Moses and the Prophets, Abraham reminds him. They must listen to them. Just before Jesus told this parable, he’d told the Pharisees: What is highly valued by people—wealth, status, influence—is deeply offensive to God. And then he reminded them: It’s easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for the smallest stroke of a pen in the Law to drop out (Luke 16.15, 17). Nearly every page of the Torah and Prophets commanded them to care for people like Lazarus—the poor, the sick, the vulnerable, the widows, orphans, and immigrants. If they listened to Moses and the Prophets, they would surely not let the Lazaruses of the world starve to death in front of their gate.

But the rich man—who I’m sure was used to getting his way—wouldn’t let up. No, Father Abraham!, he argued. But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will change their hearts and lives. Abraham said, “If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, then neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.”

And that gives the story a new twist. Because we know Jesus, the one telling the story, would himself rise from the dead later. But even that wouldn’t convince a lot of people. When you invest yourself in getting more stuff, gaining more status, and winning at any cost—like the Pharisees—you become blind to many things.

Like actual human suffering just outside your gate.

And even a miracle may not change that.

Robert Frost’s famous poem, “Mending Wall,” challenges the popular proverb, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Instead, Frost asks:

Why do they make good neighbors? …

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offense.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That wants it down.”

Jesus wanted the Pharisees to see that their focus on being right, being pure, being safe, combined with their love of money, popularity, and comfort, had built a great wall around them. Just like the rich man’s gated compound in the parable. And the Lazaruses suffering and dying outside that wall weren’t just the poor and the sick and the widow and orphan and immigrant. But the social and religious outcasts like the tax collectors and sinners Jesus ministered to. They were sick and dying emotionally and spiritually. Lonely. Needy. Neglected. Hungry and thirsty for connection. Eaten up with toxic shame. Vulnerable to attacks from predators and scavengers.

And they hadn’t just walled out the undesirables—the tax collectors and sinners. They’d also walled themselves in. They had put up thick barriers to love, grace, and mercy. Their wall also kept God out, making them blind and deaf to the Good News of God’s salvation.

Like C. S. Lewis said: “the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”

Those who would follow Jesus don’t build bigger, thicker walls to keep others out. They build bigger, longer tables, to bring more people in.


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