Homiletics is the the art of preaching and writing sermons. Since I was on the pastor track in seminary, I was required to take two semesters worth of homiletics classes. That first semester of classes was absolutely horrific. You know speaking in public—and especially speaking before a homiletics professor who knew something of the art. How horrific was it? My hair used to be straight!
One of our first exercises was to present a how-to before our fellow class members on something we were familiar with—five minutes—no notes. My “how to” was “Sewing balloon drapes.” It was gripping, A friend of mine gave detailed instructions to the class on How to Stuff a Turkey.
Later on that semester we had to write and preach our very first sermons. We submitted our written sermons a week in advance of our preaching date. After we preached, the professor returned our written sermons to us, with written comments about both the written copy and the oral presentation. My friend preached before I did. She received this note from our homiletics professor at the bottom of her very first sermon: “You certainly know how to stuff a turkey!”
All to say, our professor did not have a gentle touch. He told it like he read it and heard it. As I said, horrific—that first semester in homiletics.
I was to preach MY very first sermon on a Friday. I submitted my sermon as required, the Friday before. As soon as I slipped it under the not-so-gentle professor’s office door, though, I said to myself, “Oh, no, that is not what the scripture is saying. I’ve made an awful mistake.” So I returned home, and working through the weekend, I wrote ANOTHER sermon and submitted that on Monday—driving to the school, and slipping THAT SERMON under the office door with a note—“I have changed my mind. This is the sermon I intend to preach on Friday.”
But then, as I made my way back to the parking lot, I started to worry. “Oh, my goodness! This is NOT what this scripture is about. How could I be so stupid?” And so I returned home and labored into the wee hours of Tuesday morning, preparing yet another sermon. I slipped IT under the not –so –gentle professor’s office door — with this note, “Dear Dr. So and so, please disregard the other two sermons. This is the sermon I intend to preach on Friday. However, if you like either of the first two sermons better than this one, I could be persuaded….do you give A’s for volume?” I went with the third, and as preachers say “it was well received.” Hallelujah!
I tell you this, because what I painfully discovered, is that although the words of scripture may stay the same, our interpretation of those words certainly doesn’t; interpretation is influenced by our context, our frame of mind, or even our stress level! The hope is that the text tells us what we need to hear at certain times in our lives; and that which you need to hear, may be different than what your neighbor needs to hear. That is God at work in our lives.
All to say that theologians are all over the place in their interpretation of the text before us, the story about Lazarus and the rich man. So, I thought that today, I would share with you some other theologians’ interpretations of the text, and then at the end, I’ll tell you what I think regarding this text, since I am, after all, the one doing the preaching. (pause)
There is really no particular order, here, but I decided to put first, a very literal understanding of this text. Some theologians believe that in this story Jesus has created for us a window into the afterlife. When we die, some of us will enjoy eternal bliss in heaven, at Abraham’s bosom, if you want to get really, REALLY literal. Others of us will have to endure the fires of hell and we will be very thirsty.
The problem with this interpretation is that Jesus himself was a Jew, a faithful Jew, and in the Jewish tradition there was no well-thought-out doctrine of an afterlife. We who have grown up in Christian households may find it hard to imagine a faith like that, I know. What, no heaven? No hell? The fact that Jews don’t have a doctrine, though, doesn’t mean that heaven and hell don’t exist. It just means that when this comes up in conversation, Jews shrug their shoulders. They don’t know and don’t really care whether we move into a different reality after we breathe our last. It’s life on earth that matters—and that mattered to Jesus. Is that right? Hold on to that.
Interpretation number two. According to some theologians, this parable has EVERYTHING to do with Judaism and the Jewish law—especially the ten commandments and the Jews’ identification as the chosen people.
You have Abraham in our story, right? Abraham is the father of who? The Jews. You have the rich man, dressed in fine purple robes. Purple dye in Jesus’ day was made from sea snails—very expensive indeed, which means that the rich man in Jesus’ parable was over-the-top wealthy. He may have actually been a wealthy priest. If he was, then this adds a bit of irony to the parable. And then you have Lazarus. Lazarus is a Greek name. A Greek name indicates that Lazarus was a Gentile. If that is the case, he didn’t know Jewish law. The Jewish rich man, again, who may have been a priest, is rich in that he DOES know Jewish law. However, the Jewish rich man fails to live that law— for example-the text says that he feasted sumptuously EVERY day— his slaves didn’t have even one Sabbath day of rest. The rich man doesn’t give alms to the poor, either. Jesus, then, is warning his fellow Jews: You don’t live as good Jews, God may just decide to elect a NEW chosen people. Abraham may adopt Gentiles, like Lazarus, as part of his family line.”
So the parable is not so much about heaven and hell as it is about chosen-ness. And, we Christians don’t worry too much about chosen-ness, right? I mean we follow Jesus; We know we are with the IN crowd. If we choose this interpretation, we can go home happy at the end of the service today.
Going home happy. A couple in a previous congregation I served, came from the Baptist tradition. They told me that when they left after a Baptist Sunday service, they always felt like they had been spanked. Choose this interpretation, that this parable is about chosenness, and you can leave here today without feeling spanked!
But hold on. We have one more interpretation to go. What if this parable is neither 1) a window into the afterlife—2) nor a commentary on chosen-ness. What if it is front and center about generosity, and about our sometimes lack thereof?
When I was preaching in Kenbridge, not every Sunday morning, but a lot of Sunday mornings, somewhere past Dillwyn, on those long drives, I would pass by an elderly man. He stood at a street corner, beneath a stop light. He was always by himself, holding a sign, “Need money for food.” It was a sad sight. And I always felt uncomfortable, like I should do something. What really made me uncomfortable was when I was stopped at that corner for a red light. Then I was stuck there for a full, say, two minutes. I avoided looking his way. I could feel that man’s eyes, though, boring xray beams into my sorry soul. Week after week as I passed by him, I would promise myself “I’ll buy some McDonald coupons and give him one next week,” because you know, he could have an alcohol or drug problem, so best not to give him cash.
But I never bought any coupons. Very rarely did I even think about this hungry man on the street corner during the week. The few times I did, I wasn’t near a McDonalds—you know how that goes. So AM I like the rich man? And was that man on the corner, a modern-day Lazarus? Don’t answer that.
I am re-reading a great book at the moment, Mountains Beyond Mountains. It’s about the work of infectious disease specialist Paul Farmer, who founded Partners in Health—modern day saint, Paul Farmer. He has a term that he uses: WL’s—NOT Washington and Lee—there’s no “and” in it. WL stands for White Liberals. Paul Farmer says, “I love WL’s, love ‘em to death. (He’s being facetious here). They’re on our side (politically speaking). But WL’s think all the world’s problems can be fixed without any cost to themselves….There’s a lot to be said for sacrifice, remorse, even pity. It’s what separates us from roaches.”
The rich man is a stand in for the WL’s and all the other self-indulgent, selfish people in the world—people like, well, me, who are quick to say, “Someone ought to do something, or the government ought to have a program to help people like that,” but don’t take any personal responsibility. I guess a roach is a fair description. I too am small. And according to Wikipedia, like them I am “Gregarious and prefer warm conditions found within buildings.” Yep. I’m a roach. Are you a roach, too?
If not roaches, I am at least more like the rich man in our story for today, maybe, than I am like Lazarus. How about you? You feeling spanked yet?
Lest I leave you feeling spanked, though, I give you some shreds of hope—Sorry I can’t give you more than shreds. Jesus assures us in this parable, that the good are rewarded, and the bad are made to pay. Whether or not there is a great reckoning either while we are alive, or after we die, I’ll leave it to you to decide—But I am not sure any of us could stay sane if we didn’t believe in God’s ultimate justice.
And, there may be one other shred of hope for us: because we have not yet gone the way of the rich man, (point down) there is still time for us to do better. To become more generous. I’m working on it. How about you? Let everyone say, Amen!