Last revised: November 1, 2013
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PROPER 21 (Sept 25-Oct 1) -- YEAR C / Ordinary Time 26
RCL: Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31
RoCa: Amos 6:1, 4-7; 1 Timothy 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

Resources

1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from September 30, 2001 (Woodside Village Church).



Amos 6:1a, 4-7

Resources

1. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred, chapter 5, "Kings and Prophets: Sacred Lot and Divine Calling," pp. 129-162, with pp. 130, 143, 148-149 more specifically on Amos. The chapter as a whole gives a great introduction to a Girardian reading of the role of prophet. In suggesting that the basis for Hebrew kingship and prophecy are essentially the same, Williams notices the similarity of Amos 7:15 to 2 Sam 7:8:

In Nathan's oracle to David concerning building a "house" for the LORD (temple) and a "house" for David (dynasty), the LORD says, "I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel" (2 Sam 7:8). The wording is strikingly similar to that in Amos's account of his calling: "and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel"' (Amos 7:15). From this standpoint, clearly the role of the king is a calling that closely resembles a prophet's call. (p. 130)
Williams' further reflections on the career of Amos are:
Amos (prophesied c. 760-750 B.C.E.) was the first of the great prophets whose names are attached to books in the Hebrew Bible. He deals with the very core of the meaning of Israel as a people. It is this core that exemplifies the model of the emerging exception and that enables us to understand prophecy and kingship. It is the basis of Israel's existence as the people of the covenant witnessing to the revelation of the God of Israel. Amos's understanding of the beginnings of Israel is the very foundation of what he has to proclaim.

YHWH has elected Israel and led it out of Egypt: that is the basis of Israel's destiny but also of the danger in which it stands. "Hear this word that the LORI) has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family which I brought up out of the land of Egypt: 'You only have I known of all families of the earth; therefore will I punish you for all your iniquities"' (Amos 3:1-2). The people that is known, chosen, loved, has a heritage originally the same as the structures of sacred violence among all the peoples. The one crucial difference in Israel's case is that in its witness to the God of the oppressed it could never be at ease with sacred structures of violence. In Israel's tradition of the exodus a community does not converge upon a victim, but God guides the victim away from the collective structures that marginalize, exclude, or slay the victim. But of course the one who is "led out" is, or is expected to be, very sensitive to the way victimization works. The chosen one has a special sensitivity to violence and sacrifice. The precarious status of the chosen one is such that the temptation is great to use the instruments of former oppression for both survival and power in the world. But standing outside the circle of all the others whose existence is permeated with sacred violence means that Israel has a special responsibility to the God of Israel. If Israel forgets this in imitating other peoples, then it falls. into the danger of losing its own special identity.

So if Amos proclaims God's judgment on Israel, this judgment of military defeat and exile is something Israel brings upon itself, for Israel misunderstands its very beginnings. "Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?" (Amos 5:25). This rhetorical question concludes a well-known oracle in which YHWH says, "I hate, I despise your festivals," spurning the outpourings from the sacrificial cult (5:21-24). It was not, implies Amos, God's command to offer sacrifices in the wilderness. This is a remarkable insight. Amos is the first prophet or spokesperson of any sort in the scriptural texts who so unambiguously asserts this, although other prophets will reject sacrifice, and one, Ezekiel, sees the sacrificial cult in the wilderness as a kind of punishment of Israel (see below).

What was Israel supposed to do from the beginning? How was it to be constituted? Well, Amos is not very specific about that, although clearly from his standpoint it would have to do with letting "justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream" (5:24). That is, the constitution of Israel has to do with concern for the victim. Not selling "the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes" (2:6), avoiding indiscriminate licentious sex at the cultic shrine, and not drinking in a cultic sanctuary the wine of those who have been taxed or fined -- here we see moral and cultic concerns brought together in a vision of justice. Yes, Israel is exceptional among the peoples (3:1-2) but not so exceptional that it can pretend to be the only people that God has cared for and guided to a land of its own (9:7).

It is no wonder then that the high priest expels Amos from the royal sanctuary of Bethel! Even If Amaziah had agreed with Amos's moral concerns and advocated reform, he quite rightly senses that Amos's message subverts the foundations of prevailing Israelite social order. Charity and purification of the cult were not enough for Amos; he held Israel's very foundations had been misunderstood. (pp. 148-149)


Luke 16:19-31

Exegetical Notes

1. Most scholars deny that Jesus told this parable. If they do attribute it to Jesus, they think that he took up a folktale; and most of these scholars would drop vs. 27-31 as a Lukan addition.

2. An element that squares with this being an adopted folktale is the mention of Hades, which is from Greek mythology, not from their own Jewish culture. More common from Jesus in Matthew and Mark is the word Gehenna (translated in the NRSV as "hell"), the name of a valley outside Jerusalem associated with sacrifice. Luke has one instance of Gehenna in 12:5 (par. 10:28): "But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!" See Gil Bailie's comments on this word for "hell" in Violence Unveiled.

3. David Buttrick suggests the following introduction to a sermon on this text:

Have you ever heard a joke about the "pearly gates"? There used to be stories about the Irishmen, Pat and Mike, meeting St. Peter at heaven's gate. Well, guess what? There were stories about heavenly hereafter at the time of Christ. Perhaps Jesus borrowed one of them, for he told a story about a rich man and a beggar meeting Abraham in the afterlife. Listen once again to the strange parable of Jesus.
Why would we want such an introduction? Because we must get rid of any tendency to read literal references to an afterlife in a parable. The parable proves absolutely nothing about a hereafter; it does not document either heaven or hell. There are Christians in every congregation eager to establish hell, particularly for other "sinners." No, if Jesus told the story he merely was playing around with a folktale tradition. (Speaking Parables, p. 218)
4. Buttrick then highlights the theme of a barrier. In this life, there is a wall between the rich man and Lazarus, but it isn't yet a permanent divide. There's a gate at which sits Lazarus. In the afterlife it becomes a barrier, a "chasm," that no longer seems to have any gate, any means by which to pass from one side to the other.

5. Many commentators note that Lazarus being at Abraham's bosom might indicate reclining next to him at a feast. This would fit the mention of the rich man feasting every day in this life; in the afterlife, Lazarus is the one who feasts.

6. I'm interested in whether the verses skipped over in the lectionary, Luke 16:14-18, might shed light on this passage. They are fascinating verses in their own right. Luke 16:14-15 -- "The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, 'You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.'" -- are also unique to Luke, as are all the surrounding parables. But Luke 16:16-18 are apparently from Q, though Luke seems to assemble them from completely different contexts than Matthew. Here is a chart of the strange parallels:
 

Luke 16:16: "The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force." Matthew 11:12: "From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force."
Luke 16:17: "But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped." Matthew 5:18: "For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished."
Luke 16:18: "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery." Matthew 5:32: "But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery."

I suppose it is possible that Luke's combination is the original one, but Matthew's placement of these verses seem much more in place. In this section of Luke that is almost all material unique to Luke, it would seem that his combination of these verses from Q are also unique. What is he trying to have Jesus say by placing these mysterious verses in between these mysterious parables?

7. I'm especially interested in the parallel of Luke 16:16 and Matthew 11:12 because I believe the latter to be a pivotal verse for Matthew. See Advent 3A. As in Matthew, biazetai, "to force," is in the middle voice and so can be translated as "to suffer force," the passive reading. With the Matthew text, I argue for the middle being Walter Wink's third way of choosing to suffer violence. Could that work here? It would be: "everyone entering it is choosing to suffer violence."

Resources

1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from September 30, 2007 (Society of St. John at St. Mark's Chapel, Palo Alto).

2. Russell Rathbun, The Hardest Question, "Something There Is . . ." (Ordinary 26).

3. Tom Truby, a member of Theology & Peace, used Girardian insights to offer a sermon in 2013, titled "Abraham's Bosom."

Reflections and Questions

1. If this is borrowed from a folktale, and taking into account that Jesus mentions only Abraham and not God, can we make the Good News that Jesus is the only one who can bridge such a chasm through the forgiveness of the cross? Sin does create a chasm between us and God which no person can cross. Only God can bridge it by sending the Son into the world.

2. If we were to use a modern tale that fits, I would suggest Dicken's A Christmas Carol. It helps to bring out the fictional aspect of the parable. Because Dicken's told this moving tale, we don't now believe in ghosts, not that they forge chains in life by neglect of the poor. Because Jesus tells this parable, though, many people somehow come to believe that he is giving us a true picture of the afterlife. No, just as for Dicken's, Jesus tells us a story of the future afterlife not to give us a true picture of that life but rather to move us to different choices in the present life. For any wealthy folks that heard Jesus tell the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, they might ask as Scrooge does of the third specter,

"Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only? Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead," said Scrooge. "But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me."

Scrooge is moved to change, as a model for the wealthy among Dicken's audience. I believe that Jesus' Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is meant to have a similar effect. It's not a tale told to reveal secrets about the afterlife. It shows us that, "Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change."

Christians also have a habit of misunderstanding Jewish prophecy as being able to foretell certain fates. In her marvelous book, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, Barbara Rossing uses A Christmas Carol as an example of Jewish prophecy's goal of repentance, not locking people into certain fates. God sends prophets to compell us to choose differing paths from the ones we're on. Jesus' parable in Luke 16 is good Jewish prophecy. The picture of an unbreachable chasm between the rich and the poor in the afterlife is meant to call us to breaking down those walls in this life.

3. Jesus' grace goes beyond prophecy, of course, to the Messiah's deliverance of humanity from the powers of sin and death. His death and resurrection are God's healing power of reconciliation. Paul writes in Ephesians 2 of the breach between Jew and Gentile that is healed in Christ:

For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. (Ephesians 2:14-16)

Doesn't that apply just as surely for all the ways in which humanity divides itself, such as rich and poor?

4. To borrow Walter Clark's translation (from his "signature" on a COV&R listserve post): "You cannot serve Compassion and the bottom-line." I assume this is a paraphrase of last week's concluding words from Jesus (Luke 16:13). In 1998 the title of my sermon was "The Reign of Compassion." I interpreted being faithful to God as being faithful to the reign of compassion, or mercy.

I see the parables in this section of Luke as illustrating faithfulness or unfaithfulness to the reign of compassion, with the reign of wealth, the "bottom-line," being a stumbling block to compassion.

And I interpret 16:10 ("Whoever is faithful a very little...") in this way: when the Prodigal Son was down-and-out, one of life's losers in the bottom-line, he sought to rely on mercy from his father. He thought he could persuade his father to at least treat him like a hired hand. This very little faithfulness to the reign of mercy was greeted by a whole shower of mercy from his father, who preempted his plans by graciously welcoming him back as son. The Dishonest Manager also was trusting a very little to the reign of compassion. He thought he could 'buy' it by using his master's resources to show mercy to clients, in the hopes that they would show mercy to him. This little bit of mercy also warranted him far greater mercy than he had bargained for: when his master found out about his show of mercy on others -- a mercy that would have rubbed off on him, restoring the honor that the steward had previously degraded -- the steward was commended and perhaps not fired after all.

Is the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus an example of this principal on the scale of "eternal homes" (16:9)? The Rich Man wasn't even a very little merciful to Lazarus in his lifetime; he is dishonest, serving the bottom-line. Lazarus, by contrast, is forced to live a life relying on mercy and compassion in his life. One is tempted to say that what happens in death is a role reversal. But another way to see it is that their ways of life come to eternal consequences. In death, Lazarus, who was forced to live by mercy, is showered with a mercy beyond his imagining; he experiences "true riches" (16:11). And the Rich Man's life without mercy has in death fixed a chasm between himself and the ultimate divine mercy. He has not even been faithful to the reign of mercy a very little, so he will never know the ultimate reign of mercy. His life lived without mercy will continue eternally without mercy.

5. All three lessons speak of the dangers of wealth. Is wealth dangerous in itself? One walks a fine line, I think, in saying anything positive about it. Let's see if we can walk it.

A life lived in grace, which is what I think the Christian life seeks to be, is one that relies on all the blessings of creation as from God. Sin intervenes, however, and distorts the gifts of creation into our sacrificial economies in which some people are deemed by (false) gods to warrant the rewards of more blessings than others. When one is wealthy the temptation to fall into this distortion is even greater. The wealthy person needs to have a god who has rewarded him or her with extra blessings relative to others. They need to see their wealth as somehow deserved from God; they do not want to see that their wealth has only been deserved according to the rules of the human sacrificial games.

The only way that I can see wealth viewed positively is when it is viewed as something to share with others. And the only way in which to ward off the distortion of sin is to begin always as a forgiven sinner, as one who has participated in the sacrificial economies of human societies and received the ill-gotten gains of wealth as a by-product of sacrifice. Such a revelation, both of the sin and of God's grace, brings with it the insight that the blessings of creation should be shared equally among all of God's creatures. No creature is to be sacrificed. So while the reign of wealth still has its way with many people, faithful sharing of wealth can only be a little faithful to the reign of compassion (last week's theme). For wealth itself would not exist as a status relative to poverty except for the continuing distortion of sin. When the reign of compassion in Jesus Christ is one day all-in-all, wealth as a relative status will disappear. It owes its existence to a sacrificial logic.

6. Luke 16:31: "Abraham said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'" Why not even if someone rises from the dead? Jesus would rise from the dead, of course. But first he also did something else, that distinguishes his resurrection. He let himself be crucified as the sacricial Lamb of God to reveal the futility of our sacrifical logic which divides the world into righteous and unrighteous, wealthy and poor, unblemished and blemished, healthy and sick, etc. As St. Paul puts it, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). Or: "For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich" (2 Cor. 8:9).

Resurrection is what creates faith for disciples of Jesus Christ, but it is only as the resurrected Crucified One. In willingly letting himself be made unrighteous and poor, Jesus exposes our age-old games of dividing the world into friends and enemies of the gods. The true God, the Father of Jesus Christ, plays no such games. In Christ Jesus all people of this earth are potentially adopted children of God. And it's only "potentially" because God does not force the divine love on us. We may still choose to live according to the chasms of our idols, as does the rich man in this parable. It is only in Christ's breaking down of these chasms on the cross that we may rise with him to a new way of living, without such barriers between us. Ever since Abraham and Sarah were chosen to be a blessing to all the families of the earth, this has been the direction to which God's message has been calling us, through "Moses and the prophets," and finding fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

For many Jewish brothers and sisters of the apostles, the dominant view of resurrection had been shaped by the martyrdom of the Maccabees, and thus tainted with the same idolatrous thinking of dividing the world between righteous and unrighteous. For many Jews of Jesus' time, even his rising from the dead did not therefore convince them that such chasms could or should be taken down. The same is true of many "Christians" today, is it not? How easy it is for us to continue to divide the world into the deserving and the undeserving! Doesn't our economics still depend on it? Doesn't the chief god of global capitalism continue to divide the world between productive and unproductive, wealty and poor? Will we one day find that the chasm we have fixed between wealthy and poor, deserving and undeserving, continues in the life to come? Or is the glimpse of the future life in this parable a gracious prophetic vision meant to bring our repentance -- as, for example, the specter of the Ghost of Christmas Future is for Ebenezor Scrooge?

7. Some might argue that capitalism has many advantages over other human economies of the sacrificial logic. It is true that the boundary between wealthy and poor, deserving and undeserving, appears more fluid than for most previous economies. We might see the influence of the Gospel, in close proximity with Western culture for many centuries, as having had an effect on those boundaries. There are many more stories of people crossing those boundaries -- the poor becoming wealthy, and vice versa -- within capitalism. Proponents of capitalism like to promote the idea that, potentially, all people have a fair opportunity to become wealthy.

But is this truly the case if our assumptions continue to be based on the idolatry of gods who choose between deserving and undeserving? What effect does the opposite assumption -- namely, that the true God in Jesus Christ makes no such distinctions but blesses all children with life purely on grace -- have on capitalist thinking? Are followers of Jesus Christ called to live eschatologically according to such an economy based on grace in the midst of economies still based on sacrificial logic? What would that look like within global capitalism?

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