Do Not Turn Away
Beloved God, I pray that you would bless these words and make them into a word of yours. May this teaching be a blessing for this community where it aligns with your vision for us. Where I go astray, I pray that no harm would be done. Amen.
I learned a new word this week. Do we have any students of literature or retired English teachers? No? Good. Then no one will question my pronunciation of this literary term…
Chiastic. Chiastic is a literary structure often found in Greek writings. It is a structure of writing where words are repeated but in reverse order, indicating their relationship with one another. In the parable that we just heard we see chiastic structure at the beginning of the story. There was a rich man… and a poor man followed by the news that the poor man died and then rich man died. This chiastic turn of phrase tells us that these two men’s stories are intertwined both in life and in death.
This term and idea got me thinking about the Body of Christ and how connected we are to one another. As 1st Corinthians 12:26 says “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” If you stub your big toe, how often do you think to yourself, “Well, my arm is fine so that didn’t hurt at all”? No, in fact, if you hit your toe hard enough, it’s like your whole body aches with it, right?
Well, in this parable we are taught, once again, that when one person in our community hurts it is like a body and the whole community aches with them. We are intertwined with one another - those that we know and dearly love as well as people who we have barely or never met. Will we notice? Will we pay attention? Will we reach out to connect, to help, to invite, to welcome?
The rich man, in Jesus’ parable, doesn’t get it during his lifetime. Infact, as we read on, he doesn’t seem to get it in the afterlife, either. Having the power and privilege of wealth, the rich man could turn away from the problems around him. He could easily dispose of things as well as people. What did he care that Lazarus was dying from starvation at his gate? What use was Lazarus to him?
Indeed, the only indication that he even notices Lazarus is when he asks Abraham to make Lazarus help him! As if, even in death, even as he clearly sees the judgment he must endure, he still thinks he can use the poor man! “send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue” “send him to my father's house.” Who does this rich guy think he is ordering Lazarus about? I mean seriously?
Now I’m not a fire and brimstone kind of preacher. My understanding of a loving God precludes me from ever believing that we would be condemned to eternal punishment or that the way to get to heaven is to affirm any particular idea or thought process. There’s no password, in a prayer or otherwise, that God requires for entrance into God’s goodness. Jesus taught us a way to live and showed us a kingdom to aspire to, both in this world and the next. But I do imagine the afterlife as something that includes both justice and mercy and I appreciate authors who have helped sketch out a picture of what it might be like. I love C.S. Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce, or Tolkien’s allusions to the afterlife in the Lord of the Rings. But I think my personal favorite metaphor comes out of the dystopian novel series: The Hunger Games.
I won’t spell out the entire plot of the series, and I don’t think that the author, Suzanne Collins, intended to write about heaven and hell as afterlife at all --- but I want to relate this one piece as the framework for my personal theology of the here-after. So here’s the scene: in the Hunger Games world, there is the Capital which is rich beyond imagining. People there are so bathed in luxury and so oblivious to the pain in the world beyond, that their ignorance allows for the awful Games and oppression that the book is centered around. We read about the epicurean indulgences where guests at a meal fill their bellies to overflowing and then drink a cocktail that makes them vomit so that they can eat some more. Juxtaposed to this is District 12 where starvation, disease, and coal mining accidents are the daily experience and capital soldiers use whippings and example executions to “keep the peace”. There is never enough. If a family is facing starvation they can get a ration of food if they put their child’s name into the lottery for the Hunger Games - where if they are picked, they will almost certainly die.
In the second book we discover that there is a place, called District 13, that has been resisting the oppression of the Capital. We see it through the eyes of new arrivals from refugees from district 12 as well as a handful of people from the Capital. In district 13 the food is rationed so that everyone can eat. Everyone has to pitch in with farming, hunting, nursing, cleaning, etc etc etc. Everyone does the work and everyone get enough, but not too much, to eat. For the refugees from district 12, this is heaven! They’ve never had enough to eat and work is no hardship. The safety and stability of receiving their daily bread is almost beyond imagining for these poor, beaten down, half-starved people.
But for the people from the Capital? This is a hell of unspeakable proportions.
Have you ever heard the joke that a heaven for mosquitoes and a hell for humans could be easily arranged? A hell for the rich and a heaven for the poor is also easy to arrange. And there is plenty of mercy and justice for both without even changing the scenery.
There’s another story, that perhaps you have heard, of a man who is shown a glimpse of heaven and hell. Again, same scene in both. A table laden with a banquet. People surrounding the food. And utensils that are three feet long. In Heaven, the people feed one another across the table until everyone is satisfied; in Hell they try to feed only themselves and everyone gets cut, banged up, battered, and no one gets a bite.
Or maybe you’ve read the Chronicles of Narnia and remember the scene in The Last Battle where the dwarves are in Aslan’s country but they can’t see the beauty around them because they are too stubborn to believe it exists.
These are all images of heaven and hell that fit into the model of Jesus’ teachings - mercy, joy, and beauty abound, but our hearts must still be prepared to appreciate them.
Turning away from our neighbors in need defies God’s work on our hearts. If all we can think of is ourselves, how we look to others, how we feel at any given moment, or paying into the latest and greatest new fad on the market, you can bet that we’re not giving God the room to teach us to love. What a miserable way to live.
On the other hand, if we will turn around and pay attention to others in need God is at work in us, on us, and through us.
The rich man in our parable today asks Abraham to send Lazarus to give a warning to the rich man’s brothers. Abraham responds that the brothers already have Moses and the prophets. There have been plenty of teachings and teachers already. But wait, says the rich man, if they see a ghost, or someone who has returned from the dead, then they will repent! Will they? Not likely, says Abraham. If they won’t listen to the teachers who have gone before, not even someone rising from the dead will convince them now.
You know, we’re always trying to place ourselves in these stories. It is our natural inclination. Perhaps you hear this story and think that you are like Lazarus. Or maybe you fear that you are the rich man. But actually, the way the story is told… we are the brothers. We are the ones still alive who need to heed the warning and repent.
Repent. Huh. Anyone else think of the street preacher signs that say “Repent! The End Is Near!” when they hear the word repent? What is this word “repent” all about anyway? Well, let’s look at the etymology of the word. Repent is a word first used in the 14th century and it comes to us by way of Middle English and Anglo-French repentir, and Medieval Latin poenitēre - which means “to feel regret” and from which we get penitent. Repent is the english word most often used to translate the Koine Greek word metanoia which is exactly the greek word used here in Luke chapter 16 verse 30… well, almost exactly - technically it is metanoēsousin which is third person plural future indicative of metanoia. (I think) ...Look, I took two semesters of Biblical Greek and two more of Hebrew. I need to justify all that work from time to time… Anyway, where were we? Oh yes: metanoia. Metanoia means a “change of heart” or to “change your mind” quite literally it means “to make a decision to turn around, to face a new direction.”
So in a very real way, Jesus is telling us to decide to turn around and notice our neighbor who is in need. We repent with a change of heart, by opening our heart to love those around us.
And when it comes to repentance, Jesus is teaching us through this parable that the place we begin is at our own gate. Look to those in your family, your immediate neighbors, those our town… from there we can expand our hearts to care for those in the larger world, but only if we have first learned to love those in the pew next to us, on the street where we live, in the city where we serve. Don’t turn away, repent and turn towards those in need. If there is no one in need right where you are, go to where the need is. We are the Body of Christ, God’s hands and feet in this world. When one hurts, we all hurt. Let us open our hearts and let God work in us, on us, and through us. Repent. The beginning is near.