I approach our texts for this week from the standpoint of a minister already a bit worn out from prep for my well-off congregation’s annual fall stewardship campaign. As a part-time associate I have worked everyday for two weeks to get the Stewardship Board up to speed. (And yes, that was me whining just a little!) And now I am looking at preparing a sermon on Lazarus and the rich man! I am a bit overwhelmed. Part of me just wants to read the story and say….”This is obvious! Let us not be rich fools! Let us remember the poor for they are in the very Heart of God. Go and put this into action. And up your pledge so we can do more of what we already do for the hungry and homeless!” 😉
Probably not the best sermon strategy, I admit. Looking at the last line of our passage from Luke …. “’If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead'” (Luke 16:31), I realize how many of my congregants are not familiar with the teachings of God’s promises from Moses and the prophets. And I remember our other texts for this week. The prophets, Jeremiah and Amos, have been giving us tough words from God for weeks about forgetting the poor and needy in pursuit of our own well-being and wealth. This week’s text from Amos is still very tough, “Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure… who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!”(Amos 6:1a,7). At least, Jeremiah holds up a glimmer of hope for the grace of God to intervene even when we continue in disobedience. He follows the command of God to purchase what is currently worthless land as a sign of trust in God’s promise of renewal and new life even for disobedient people.
If you are preaching on Jeremiah this week I commend to you the commentary by the Rev. Kate Huey at the Sermon Seeds page on the national website of the United Church of Christ (http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_september_25_2016) .
Kate invites us to remember that Jeremiah’s words and actions tell us that
- we can have enough trust to question God and we must listen for the response which may stretch our faith.
- that we live in God’s world, in God’s land; everything is given to us by God.
- we can look at the bigger picture of God’s promises even in the midst of crisis.
In his exegesis of Luke 16: (14-18) 19-31, the late New Testament scholar and preacher extraordinaire, Fred Craddock, reminds us that as much as the story is a teaching on stewardship, it is also Jesus’ teaching to the Pharisees on interpretation of the law and the prophets. You find in the verses preceding our lectionary passage that Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees and their love of money which fell within a theological framework that was scripturally based for them. They were not necessarily greedy hypocrites, but they had seized upon one aspect of what scholar’s have named Deuteronomic law. Deuteronomy 28 make sit clear that if you “obey God’s laws you will be blessed in war, in the marketplace, in the field and at home. Godliness is in league with riches; prosperity is a sign of God’s favor.”[i] They were forgetting that while they may have experienced prosperity it should not be at the expense of the poor. This is made clear time and again in the prophets as we have seen over the past weeks. And Jesus makes this clear in his story of the rich man and Lazarus. “’If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”
The writer of Luke wants us to be very careful that we do not pick and choose in our interpretation of the prophets and the law. We have to hear all of God’s commands and obey them. Not just the ones we like. Jesus is calling all to the banquet of God’s kingdom of justice and love. Woe to those who obstruct the children, the poor, the widow, the lame, the blind, the disenfranchised from coming to the table! Our passage from 1 Timothy follows on these instructions. Knowing that God does provide, we are to be content in the sustenance that God provides. “… for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; … those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains”(1 Timothy 6:7,9-10). Notice that the often quoted line is “money is A root of all evil, not “THE root” as is often misquoted. The writer of this letter knows that some are born rich or with the ability to obtain wealth and others are born poor… a mystery. Therefore the young evangelist is to give instructions for the rich which follow on the law and prophets. “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life” (1Timothy 6:17-19).
This week I found three stories about rich men and poor men, one from the Sufi tradition, one from the Jewish tradition and one from Ethiopia. The Sufi tale has an historical basis. The other two are folk tales. The folktales could be adapted to be about rich and poor women just to create a little gender equality.
In his poem, “Abou Ben Adhem”, English poet, Leigh Hunt, captures the essence of the life, Ibrahim ibn Adham, an early ascetic Sufi saint. Adham’s life reads like the life of the Buddha who began as the prince, Siddartha, and renounced his riches to seek enlightenment. The story of his conversion is a celebrated Sufi legend. You can discover more about him at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ibrahim_ibn_Adham. You can find Hunt’s brief poem at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/44433. I have told it successfully to the delight of all ages as a children’s sermon.
The second story is found in Folktales of the Jews, Vol.2; Tales from Eastern Europe, edited by Dan Ben-Amos and Dov Noy. It is titled “With the Rebbe’s Power.” The first part of the story as told in this collection extols the virtues of a rabbi’s wisdom. And then gives an example. There is a poor man who is desperately poor and cannot marry his daughters to good men even though he works hard as a tailor he has no dowry for them. He goes to rabbi for advice. The rabbi gives him 100 coins and tells him to go to the market early and buy the first thing that is offered to him. He does and is mocked by a rich man for being in the market before it has opened. The rich man scoffs as the poor mans stupidity and offers to sell him his share in the world to come. The poor man agrees and the rich man then ridicules the poor man for buying something so ephemeral and parting with his money. However, when the rich man is laughed at by townspeople for selling his share in the world to come the poor man suddenly has some bargaining power. In the end justice is achieved for both men. All because of the wise rabbi. You can find the tale at https://books.google.com/books?id=lE2mDIMk5mAC&pg=PA252&lpg=PA252&dq=folktales+rich+man+shares+with+the+poor&source=bl&ots=xBXWC-ME-Z&sig=sBdLoXDZhTzbH5_2fOI-uquErVA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiO64DR1JfPAhWk44MKHQroCRQQ6AEIKjAC#v=onepage&q=folktales%20rich%20man%20shares%20with%20the%20poor&f=false .
Finally there is a tale from Ethiopia, “The Poor Man and the Rich Man,” in which a poor man is continuously cheated by a neighbor who had once been his partner in business and was poor as he is. When the neighbor becomes rich he treats his former partner with great injustice and engages the help of an ignorant and unjust judge to deem his actions lawful. In the end the rich man’s use of the unjust judge backfires on him and finally there is justice for the poor man. You can find this tale at http://www.ethiopianfolktales.com/amhara/36-the-poor-man-and-the-rich-man.
Blessings on your story journey this week,
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2016 and beyond. Commentary and photos may be reproduced with permission only. Please tell the stories!
[i] Fred B. Craddock, Interpretation: Luke. (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990, 192.)