Temporal Deeds, Eternal Consequences

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Wesley Chapel, FL
Preacher: The Rev. Adrienne R. Hymes
Proper 21/Year C: September 25, 2022
Gospel: Luke 16:19-31

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen. (Psalm 19:14)

The comedy, “Trading Places” hit movie screens in 1983. Two rich brokers play with the lives of a high-level executive and a down-and-out hustler. A scheme to topple the high-level executive and replace him with the hustler is implemented. The scheme eventually backfired when the men, being used as pawns for the amusement of the rich brokers, “turn the tables” on them. Those who, at the top of the movie, were once without a financial care in the world, were reduced to beggars by the end of the movie.

No doubt, most of us are familiar with the story of a poor young girl who was subjected to a life of subservience to her cruel stepmother and jealous sisters. A visit from her fairy godmother resulted in a total transformation of her outer appearance so that she could have access to the high-society ball—social circles, from which she had been previously hidden by her family.  Cinderella’s lost glass slipper led the prince to her, thereby elevating her from servant girl to the prince’s most wanted, catapulting her to the heights of society which her wicked family attempted to hoard for themselves.

Today we encounter one of many instances of the reversal of fortune theme embedded throughout the Gospel. Last week, Jesus told his disciples the parable about the dishonest manager and his shrewd behavior in business. This week Jesus’ audience changes from the disciples to the Pharisees.  Sandwiched in between last week’s gospel and today’s, there are five excluded verses (vv. 14-18), which provide valuable contextual clues for why Jesus told the parable at all and why his message was redirected.

In one of the excluded verses, v. 14, the Pharisees are described as “lovers of money” (v.14). This is an important description because the epistle in first Timothy today underscores this label given to the Pharisees by the narrator.  In today’s epistle, Paul warned his co-worker, Timothy, that as he went about his work he was to be aware that “…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”1. The Pharisees’ misdirected love for money prompted Jesus to respond to their ridicule by calling out their manipulation of the law to justify themselves to others, and reminded them that they could not hide their hearts from God. 

With our parable’s stage now set, we are introduced to two men—one named and one unnamed; one rich in appearance and excessive in behavior and the other, poor, hungry and diseased.  The poor man, Lazarus laid at the rich man’s gate longing to eat, like a dog would, the crumbs that would fall from the rich man’s table.2 The socio-economic division between the two men is glaring. There is another instrument of division, which is so obvious that it might go unnoticed—the rich man’s physical gate—which created a relational chasm. On one side of the gate, life for the rich man was abundant, and on the other side of it, life for Lazarus, was hell on earth. 

Enter humanity’s great equalizer, death, which set in motion the reversal of fortune for the men. After their deaths, Lazarus was in the honored place with Abraham and the rich man was being tormented in Hades.  “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus…” to relieve me from my agony, said the rich man (v.24).  Note, that the tortured man knew Lazarus’ name, indicating that the withholding of his mercy from the poor man who laid at the foot of his own gate, for an unknown time period, was intentional. 

In this after-death dialogue between Abraham and the rich man, the rich man’s pleas for Abraham’s mercy were rejected. And, Abraham said, “…Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us” (v.26). Nothing the man could have said or done, and certainly no amount of money, could have saved him from his fate. His actions in the temporal realm had real consequences in the eternal realm.

In an attempt to save his five brothers from his doomed fate, the rich man pleaded with Abraham to send the dead man, Lazarus, to warn them. Abraham told him that if his brothers did not believe Moses and the prophets, who had already been sent, they would not believe even if someone rose from the dead. The gospel writer, of course, alluding to Jesus’ resurrection and the gospel message.

We are left to assume that, without some divine intervention to warn his brothers, they too, would die and be surprised to find themselves eternally tortured in Hades.

You and I are forced to confront the haunting reality that deeds done, and deeds left undone, in this temporal, human experience, have eternal consequences.

Lazarus’ tortured existence before he died, serves as a powerful reminder that people don’t have to physically die to experience the torment of hell. As we walk amongst the living, there are people living in hell right now.  Every day we encounter people who live with the internal, self-imposed torment of guilt and unforgiveness, and those who live with the torment imposed by external forces.  We encounter people who wear smiles to mask deep spiritual woundedness and suffering. We are called to uphold the law of love and compassion for those who are marginalized through layers of unjust societal structures and from whom dignity has been stripped. These symbolic gates within, and around, our society create deep, relational chasms which continue to widen. 

Those who are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, have been saved from eternal separation from God.  Therefore, the impassible, great chasm, of which Abraham spoke, is no longer fixed in place. The breach between God and sinful humanity, has been forever repaired—through Jesus’ saving work on the cross. As Christ’s body in the world, the church is compelled to claim her prophetic voice in order to warn all people to repent of their sins.

We have been given time to spread the Gospel, but it is not limitless. God’s kingdom is coming, and our actions in this temporal life have real consequences in the eternal realm. And, as Jesus’ disciples, you and I are responsible for bearing Jesus’ life-saving gospel message, to the spiritually “walking dead,” that belief in the risen Christ, is life—abundant life now and the promised eternal life with God when this human experience is no more.   Amen.

1 1 Tim 6:10

2 Mt 15:26-27; Mk 7:27-28