Not Quite "A Christmas Carol" - Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost (September 25, 2022)
Scripture Readings: Amos 6:1a, 4–7 | Psalm 146 | 1 Timothy 6:6–19 | Luke 16:19–31
“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 know it’s only the end of September… but is it too soon to be thinking about Christmas?
I blame today’s Gospel reading, which got me thinking about A Christmas Carol: the classic short story by Charles Dickens, which I must confess I’ve never actually read... although I have grown up watching A Muppet’s Christmas Carol… which, even if its not always accurate, has the advantage of some really catchy songs. Anyway, as most of us probably already know, A Christmas Carol tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a rich but hard-hearted Victorian moneylender, who is visited on Christmas Eve by the ghost of an old business partner, now suffering torments in the afterlife for neglecting the needs of his neighbours.
Later that night, Scrooge has three more ghostly visitors, who all help him see his past, present, and dark future in a brand new light, which not only scares, but stirs up in him a change of heart. The hard-hearted rich man changes course and becomes a fountain of good will and generosity.
While Dickens’ story is certainly well known today in our culture, there were other kinds of stories like this on in the ancient world as well… flawed characters turned back to the right path by a visit to, or from, the grave. Apparently, these kinds of stories were common in Jesus’ day too. Among others, the professor and Presbyterian minister, Marguerite Shuster, claims that: “The basic form of the story, which involves reversals of fortune in the afterlife, is common in folklore and was popular among Jewish teachers”.
And so here in St. Luke’s Gospel we have Jesus offering His own take on this common story, with His own unique twist which adds a whole new dimension to the warning and invitation it offers.
The warning? That God’s people already know the way of life, but are refusing to follow it… and the path they are on right now seems safe, but will only lead to agony.
The invitation? To trust and follow Jesus now, who is the fulfillment of what the Living God has revealed to His people all along… through Moses and the Prophets… it’s the invitation to believe now in the One who would soon enough Himself be returning from the dead.
Before we go much further, an important point needs to be made here: This story is another parable… that is, it’s a narrative or story not meant to describe in detail actual events, or to offer a fleshed out depiction of the afterlife… but rather it’s meant to drive home a message… to open us up to an important but challenging truth about God’s Kingdom… about what Christ Himself is up to, and how we are to respond.
And like most parables, if we want to understand their point… their message, it helps to take a closer look at their context and surroundings… which in this part of St. Luke’s Gospel highlight a growing confrontation around the priorities of God’s Kingdom.
St. Luke’s spends a lot of time in his account of Christ’s life and ministry depicting how God’s Kingdom was not quite what most people were expecting… especially those who were seen as the religious experts in Jerusalem… the Pharisees and Scribes who claimed they knew best what God wanted for His people, and who focused their energies on close observance to the Law, that is, the teachings of Moses, and the Prophets… much of what we call the Old Testament Scriptures.
But St. Luke tells us that Christ challenged many of their assumptions… not by arguing against the Old Testament teachings, but by pointing out that while these leaders were claiming to be faithful followers of the Law and the Prophets, in their hearts they were actually chasing after their own selfish desires.
Back in Chapter 14, St. Luke tells how Jesus challenged their understanding of the Sabbath… that it’s not just a religious duty, but a taste of the wholeness and healing that God’s Kingdom would bring about. In Chapter 15, St. Luke gives us Christ’s parables about God’s love seeking out those who are lost, which Jesus was putting into practice by welcoming outcasts and sinners.
And last week, we looked at the Parable of the Dishonest Manager in Chapter 16, which ends with a call for God’s people to be faithful, not just with their money, but with their entire lives. Luke 16:10-13 left us with these words:
“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Once again, Jesus was challenging the assumptions and priorities of those who were opposing Him… as St. Luke makes plain that one of the major obstacles dividing the Pharisees from following Jesus was their attachment to material wealth… to money, and all it claims to offer.
Luke 16:14-17 says this: “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. 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. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped.”
In other words, the Pharisees wanted people to think they were faithful to God and His commandments, but were not willing to put their money where there mouth was, so to speak. Christ was inviting folks to put their wealth into the service of God’s Kingdom by caring for their neighbours with compassion, generosity, and love, but the Pharisees were content to keep their material blessings for themselves.
So Christ was calling them out: contrasting their priorities with those of God… priorities spelled out clearly in the Law of Moses and the prophets… priorities brought forward by the message of John the Baptist, and fully unveiled in the Good News of the Kingdom that Jesus Himself was bringing about…. and calling into question our confidence placed in money.
Our first reading today from Amos utters this same challenge in his own day, with the prophet pronouncing woe to those wealthy Israelites indulging in luxury, but who give no thought to helping their own neighbours in ruin. Those on top, Amos claims, would soon find themselves the first ones to be led into exile.
This same message about the dangers of wealth are echoed in St. Paul’s letter to Timothy from our second reading: 1 Tim 6:6–10 says, “Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But 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.”
The prophet Amos and St. Paul are on the same page: rather than a sure sign of God’s favour, wealth often poses a dangerous obstacle to practicing compassion, generosity, and love… dividing people from each other, especially creating distance between those with money and those without it. A distance completely at odds with the Kingdom of God.
After His challenge to the Pharisees’ love of money which was keeping them from sharing in God’s Kingdom, Christ goes on to tell the story of the rich man and Lazarus.
The rich man enjoyed a life of comfort and ease, unmoved by the suffering of his neighbour, Lazarus, whom he could easily have lifted up from his misery. St. Cyril of Alexandria in the fifth Century had this to say about Lazarus: “Cut off from compassion and care, he would have gladly gathered the worthless morsels that fell from the rich man’s table to satisfy his hunger. A severe and incurable disease also tormented him. Yes, it says that even the dogs licked his sores and did not injure him yet sympathized with him and cared for him. Animals relieve their own sufferings with their tongues, as they remove what pains them and gently soothe the sores. The rich man was crueler than the dogs, because he felt no sympathy or compassion for him but was completely unmerciful.”.
But in the end, death comes to all, rich and poor alike. We are told that Lazarus finally finds comfort and peace, while the rich man finds only agony awaiting him.
Now the rich man begs for compassion and relief, but is told they are now totally cut off from one another, divided forever. With no hope for himself, he now starts to think of the fate of his own family, and begs for Lazarus to be sent like a servant to warn them before it’s too late. But these haunting words come back to him: “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).
N.T. Wright makes the point that this ending is an unexpected twist to a fairly familiar story: “a variation on a folk tale that was well known in the first-century world—with one dramatic difference. In the traditional story, the request that somebody be sent back from the dead, to warn people in the present life of what is to come, is normally granted. In this case Jesus declares that his contemporaries knew enough, from their Scriptures, to see that their behaviour was out of line with God’s intention, and that even resurrection will not convince them otherwise.”
In this parable Jesus was challenging the hard hearts of the Pharisees… whose love of money was keeping them from truly loving their neighbours, or for that matter, the Living God in whose image they were made… offering a warning and an invitation both to those who opposed His ministry two thousand years ago, and to those of us who claim to care about God’s Kingdom today.
How are you and I like the rich man, or the Pharisees for that matter… seeking our own comfort, but blind to the pain and misery of those around us? And who is Lazarus today? “[W]e all know Lazarus.” N.T. Wright affirms: “He is our neighbour. Some of us may be rich, well dressed and well fed, and walk past him without even noticing; others of us may not be so rich, or so finely clothed and fed, but compared with Lazarus we’re well off. He would be glad to change places with us, and we would be horrified to share his life, even for a day.”
So in our temptation to ignore the Lazarus’ of our day, Jesus warns us that if we don’t take seriously God’s call to practice compassion, generosity, and love towards our neighbours, we too will find ourselves at odds with God’s Kingdom. But along with the warning we have the invitation to believe the Good News of God’s Kingdom, and put its ways into practice… to not only confess it with our lips, but to reframe our lives around its beautiful truth.
This is what St. Paul is talking about in his letter to Timothy which we heard this morning: 1 Timothy 6:11-12
“…pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.”
And specifically when it comes to how we handle wealth, St. Paul goes on to say: “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.” (1 Timothy 6:17-19)
The Pharisees in Christ’s day, and many in our world today are trapped by the temptations of wealth, but Jesus is inviting us into a whole new and beautiful life not based on money, or material possessions, but on an unending communion with the Living God and with one another based on His compassion, generosity, and self-giving love. What we do with our money is now to serve the priorities of God’s Kingdom, not simply to keep ourselves comfortable for a time, but to help break down the many barriers that keep us from loving each other, and our neighbours in their need.
We are invited to be thankful for the many good gifts we have received… not only enjoying the comforts that come from money, but the greater gifts of friendship, of being brought into God’s worldwide family… of not only receiving His compassion, generosity, and love, but of being given the opportunity to share it with others as well.
Pope Leo the Great, also in the fifth Century says it well: “Let those who want Christ to spare them have compassion for the poor. Let those who desire a bond with the fellowship of the blessed be “readily disposed” toward nourishing the wretched. No human being should be considered worthless by another. The nature which the Creator of the universe made his own should not be looked down on in anyone.”
Love of money may be the root of all kinds of evil, as St. Paul says, but the love of God at work in us is the root of all kinds of good.
Going back to A Christmas Carol, Dickens gives us a nice story of rich man having a change of heart scared onto the right path by some ghostly encounters, which spur him to love his downtrodden neighbours.
But in Christ, we have the true Christmas story: God sending His Son into our broken world to rescue us all… pouring out His life in self-giving love at the cross to reunite us all in Jesus Christ with God and with each other.
Far more than a parable or a classic tale, Christ Jesus has truly been raised from the dead, as the fulfillment of God’s plan at work from the very beginning. Unlike our earthly wealth, Christ’s Kingdom will have no end, a bright future guiding us forward. And it calls to us today in the present to put into practice the compassion, generosity, and love of God… to take part in the work of His Kingdom here and now, so that along with our neighbours, in Christ, we may take hold of the life that really is life. Amen.
 Marguerite Shuster, “Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume Three, ed. Roger E. Van Harn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 419.
 St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke, Homily 111. Quoted in Thomas C. Oden and Cindy Crosby, eds., Ancient Christian Devotional: A Year of Weekly Readings: Lectionary Cycle C (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2009), 225.
 N. T. Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays: Reflections on Bible Readings, Year C (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2000), 108–109.
 Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 200.
 Pope Leo the Great, Sermon 9.2. Quoted in Thomas C. Oden and Cindy Crosby, eds., Ancient Christian Devotional: A Year of Weekly Readings: Lectionary Cycle C (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2009), 225.
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Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School