Getting Ready for Sunday: The Rev. Will Brown

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Many pertinent lessons have been extracted from the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). It has been read as a primer on the afterlife, a peek into the world beyond the grave, and about how things stand with the dead. In my own reading of this parable, and in my understanding of it, I have tended to emphasize its essential christocentricity – its pointing to Jesus – which comes out clearly in the last verse, where Abraham says of the five brothers of the rich man, still living in luxury and self-indulgence: “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead,” (Luke 16.31). This is not really about ghosts; its about Jesus and the incredulity of many even in the face of his resurrection. 

But the parable is also, clearly, about poverty and our attitude to it. This lesson is especially pertinent for 21st century Christians. Father Richard Finn, a Dominican friar at Blackfriars, Oxford, sees in this parable a critical commentary on what Charles Dickens called “telescopic philanthropy,” speaking of the character of Mrs. Jellaby from “Bleak House” – “a burning, all-consuming, passion to do good at great distance.” 

This passion flourishes in our time, its flame fanned by the potential, literally at our fingertips, of social media. We do well to recall the raging indignation, and its real-world repercussions in the lives of individuals, attending the death of Cecil the Lion or Harambe the Gorilla. What would have been, twenty years ago, a minor headline in a single newspaper is picked up by virtual winds, and suddenly mob frenzy has gone viral, and everyone is an expert on wildlife conservation or Islam or gender theory or whatever cause du jour. It is now not even “philanthropy” as such that is “telescopic,” but the vagaries of benevolence and self-promotion.

But in the parable from Luke 16, Jesus says that Lazarus, full of sores, lay at the gate of the rich man. He is right there, a tangible, incarnate presence to be stepped around. Here is an implicit but sharp indictment of the ways we have structured our society, removing what is noxious to the margins, isolating and abstracting social problems such that our benevolence or outrage can be undertaken at a comfortable distance from the unpleasantnesses that might, after all, be communicable.

The upshot – the spiritual danger that this dynamic poses to us, who claim to be disciples of Jesus – is that we become ossified and self-confirmed. Commenting on the parable, St. Gregory the Great made much of the rich man’s purple robes and his feasting. He thus draws our attention to the fact that the root problem is not so much that Lazarus and others like him are ignored. That is a symptom of the real problems, the real sins, which are the rich man’s gluttony and pride, the taproot of spiritual disease. And his sins follow him to hell. Notice that in hell he won’t even address Lazarus, but speaks ABOUT him to Abraham, and seems still to regard Lazarus as a lackey: “Send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue…!” (v. 24). 

It would seem that hardness of heart has eternal consequences, that pride has a propensity to fossilize us forever. Thus our social propensity to abstract and marginalize our problems, to remove them to a distance at which they can be comfortably, unsacrificially engaged, poses enormous spiritual risk. It confirms us in our pride, and creates the illusion that our gluttony is, at worst, a victimless crime. When the sick and the poor are right in front of you, the task you face isn’t so much how outraged you will allow yourself to feel, but whether you will allow your heart to be broken and made new.

 

 

Getting Ready for Sunday: Count the Cost

Preparing for Sunday

Luke 14:25-35

If, at the return of Jesus, you discover some deep seated belief of yours must be given up, or that you will be forced to choose between following Jesus or a be with a loved one, what will you do? What has your highest loyalty? In Luke 14:25-35 Jesus lays out a singular condition for being his disciple: you must hate your family and hate your very life, so completely dedicating yourself to him that all other loyalties become lesser. In this passage there are three main parts: the command, the explanation, and a warning.

Luke 25-27 contains one of the famous "hard sayings" of Jesus; and must be careful when reading these sayings to avoid giving them "the death of a thousand qualifications".[1] Therefore take at face value Jesus' uncompromising nature of discipleship, for not following this command makes one literally unable to be his disciple.[2] How can a person, then, "hate" their life and family? It must be remembered that in the culture of the Bible "hate" and "love" where not primarily emotions but statements of personal and communal bonds.[3] To love a person is to choose them, or be attached to them, and to hate is to be unattached. When we say "God loves us" it doesn't mean God has a warm emotional state towards us, but that he is faithful to us and our well being. [4] When we "love" God we are making a similar statement primarily of choice and loyalty.

            In the same way Jesus is using a rhetorical hyperbole to say "choose me over your family and your life." We accomplish this by realizing, as St. Augustine said, "the transitory relationships which will be superceded in the life to come."[5] And "we are permitted to love", says St. Cyril, "but not to love others more than Jesus."[6] In the next part of the command, to take up our cross and follow him, we see the natural outflow of the previous part. We are to not just follow his ideas or teachings, but make our "entire existence determined and patterned by a crucified Messiah".[7] A Christian is not one who "follows the teaching of Jesus" but one who very much follows Jesus and from that follows his teachings. For many early followers of Jesus this would be very literal as they were ostracized from social circles and chose to die rather than deny their Lord.

Verses 28-32 then form a type of explanation of Jesus' two-fold command. Contained in this pericope are two parables with the same meaning told in two different ways. In both cases we have a person (builder, king) who desires to accomplish some purpose (build a tower, win a war) and a statement about how their preparation, or lack thereof, resulted in the failure or possible success of that purpose.[8] In like manner hating one's family and life, and taking up your own cross to follow Jesus, are the necessary preparations for discipleship. To not do so is to be as unprepared as a builder who didn't estimate the cost, or a king who didn't take account of his strength before war. A person who doesn't have a radical allegiance to Jesus is unable to be a disciple because they have not done what was needed to be successful in that discipleship.[9]

Finally Jesus ends with a command and another mini parable about salt which combined function as a warning. Clearly verses 34-35 are an intended part of Luke's account of this saying of Jesus, though the lectionary stops short of including them.[10] The command to give up all possessions is connected to the same rhetorical point as hating one's family, count the cost of what you may need to give up in preparation for a life of discipleship. The person who has not done this, the one who like the builder didn't "count the cost", is doomed to failure in the same way that salt without saltiness is worthless and fit neither "for the soil nor for the manure pile". (v.35) Jesus concludes with a favorite phrase recorded by Matthew and Luke, "let anyone with ears to hear listen!". A warning that though many will hear his call to discipleship on a surface level will fail at listening by being truly obedient to the call.

Following Jesus requires an accurate assessment of the demand Jesus makes on a person's life to keep a proper relationship to the world as in it but not of it.[11] A relationship characterized by a detachment from all other competing loyalties when they would prevent us from following Jesus. We see this fleshed out as well in the earlier account of Luke 12:49-56 and a parallel of both passages found in Matthew 10:34-39. In the Matthew passage Jesus warns that it's not peace but a sword he brings; dividing humanity from each other on his account. Certainly all are One in Christ regardless of family or ethnicity, but that oneness is based on the new divider of Jesus Christ. Our Christian unity flows from the division that Christ has made in the world, thus undoing old loyalties and creating a new one centered around himself. Just as salt without saltiness is worthless, so too is the disciple who loves humanity, society, family, or even their own lives more than they are loyal to, or loves, God made flesh.

So, in conclusion we return to the original question. Is there something in this world, some political or moral belief, some idea of reality, some sense of personal honor, some social tie or family connection that you are unwilling to sacrifice for Jesus? If so then "count the cost" of being his disciple. Determine if you have made the preparations needed to be his follower and if you have taken proper account of what you are being asked to do. Is Jesus not worth giving up that attachment if that's what it takes to follow him to the Cross? May God grant you the grace to fulfill your decision to follow him, even carrying your own Cross. 

Works Cited:

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. Accessed online at newadvent.org 

Jeffrey, David Lyle. Brazos Theological Commentary: Luke. Brazos Press, 2012.

Just Jr., Arthur A. (ed.). Ancient Christian Commentary: Luke. IVP: 2003.

Nolland, John. Word Biblical Commentary: Luke 9:21-18:34. Thomas Nelson, 1993.

Pilch, John and Malina, Bruce (eds.). Handbook of Biblical Social Values. Hendrickson: 1998.

[1] Jeffrey, 190

[2] Luke uses the word for "power" or "ability", translated as "cannot" in the NRSV, rather than a simple negation.

[3] Pilch and Malina, 127

[4] In classical Christian theology God is said to be "impassible" or unaffected by emotional states. Though this has been challenged of late, I'd argue for maintaining this position. For example, Scripture says that God loved Jacob but hated Esau. (Mal. 2:1-3; Rom. 9:13) This reflects God's choosing of Jacob to inherit the Covenant and not a particular emotional hatred towards Esau as a person. Jesus, of course, being fully human has human emotions as a result of the human nature. cf also Summa Theologica I.20.1

[5] Augustine, Sermon on the Mount 15, in Ancient Christian Commentary, 240

[6] Cyril of Alexandra, Commentary on Luke, Homily 105, in Ancient Christian Commentary, 240

[7] Nolland, 482

[8] Ibid., 766

[9] Ibid., 763

[10] Verse 33 and 34 contain the same Greek connector, whereas 15:1 uses a contrastive. Luke is intending 34-35 to be part of the same story and begins a new one at 15:1.

[11] Jeffrey, 188

The Rev. J. Wesley Evans is rector at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Sherman.

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This is a blog of essays meant to prepare parishioners for an upcoming Sunday reading.