The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents 

Pentecost XIX: what will it take?

​“Read my lips...” “....what part of x did you not understand?...” We love these emphatic phrases because they reinforce the value of direct communication, of unveiled messages...they communicate our belief that there are times when there is no hazy interpretive horizon, nor fancy word play nor clever turn of phrase. They appreciate unambiguously clear expectations as happy-making and desirable. They make sense because they communicate the consequences of accountability to another, and to self. 

“...father, I beg you to send him [poor Lazarus] to my father's house-- for I have five brothers-- that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' He said, `No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He 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.'"[1]

[1] Luke 16:27-31, NRSV

“If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” In my Homeland’s patois, “Tru dat.” 

We live in a world of yes-but people [we can name them] who give lip-service to life’s imperatives, expecting that they will be rigorously enforced on others, while seriously believing that such emphatically clear expectations or boundaries do not apply to themselves, or at least will not be enforced. 

We see this in the bully who, developing intimidating overbearing behavior and persisting with it for so long, is amazed to be confronted and held to account for such behavior. 

We see this in people who persist in making poor life choices when loving imperatives are made clear by those who love them. 

We see this in people with poor personal boundaries. Busybodies. The ones who behave as though knowing something means they are entitled and invited, if not indeed required, to comment upon it. These are the ones who give advice that hasn’t been asked for….those who break the boundaries of our lives, insinuating themselves in the spirit of “my business is my business and your business is my business,” and then take umbrage when we push back or don’t take seriously claims exerted by them to maintain their own boundaries. 

We see this in those who miss a firm start time, expecting the meeting to catch them up on things they did not arrive in time to hear. 

We see this generally in those who believe themselves to be exceptional, and therefore worthy of any/every exception they may require...those who live their lives assuming and depending upon, the forgiving break...and they’re thunderstruck when they do not receive it. 

We see this in those who put off making/revising a Will because, at an age when they should know better, they still really cannot imagine that they will die, believing with Woody Allen that God might make an exception in their case. 

Exceptions are granted perhaps for not having gotten the memo or not hearing a deadline or warning[1], but not for ignoring it. Not hearing and not heeding are very different problems, aren’t they? One is ignorance and the other is pride. Luke draws the extreme cartoon: people like this rich man in Hell don’t “get it,” and they won’t get it even if a messenger is raised from the dead to bring the message. It is one thing to treasure God’s Mercy as a gift and receive it gratefully, and quite another to expect it from Him as from an associate or peer- a cosmic professional courtesy if you will. 

All of this stems from arrogant human pride...unbounded apple-picking-in-The-Garden-of-Eden pride. Luke’s exquisite irony is that, even burning in Hell, the rich man asks that one his tone suggests he still believes inferior to himself be tasked to come and relieve his suffering. His behavior toward poor Lazarus certainly contributed to his being where he is, and he asks that the one he ignored, or worse, be sent to relieve his suffering. This guy can’t hear himself! And when he finally comprehends that there is a distance between himself and Paradise- a distance that Father Abraham chooses not to cross- he still asks for a favor: “father, I beg you to send him [poor Lazarus] to my father's house-- for I have five brothers-- that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' REALLY?! This is cluelessness measurable on the Richter scale. Gretchen’s uncle, a wise Down Easterner named Archie Taylor, had a phrase descriptive of such persons: “Nummah than a bag of hammers.” 

These behaviors get started early. They usually assert themselves first as a personality whose inner monologue is so captivating that they literally cannot hear another conversation in the same room. For those who have genuine learning differences, we have clinical diagnoses like ADD and ADHD. That’s not who I’m talking about. I’m talking about the person who has no situational awareness, the one who is so self-absorbed, so self-referent, that s/he comes to expect the World to shake them out of the little world they’re wandering in, and back into the larger life going on around them “when it’s really important.” This is cultivated air-headedness; it’s amusing for about five minutes, after which it quickly becomes tiresome. When cute won’t work any longer, a manipulative cultivated incompetence emerges- the hapless soul who invariably slows the World around them to conform to their pace...the one we dread getting on the ‘phone because it will never be a short conversation...the one who un-amusingly will be late for her/his own funeral. Finally there emerges a hardened, oblivious, entitled ignorance- the bright mind that can see the World’s ills, but feels little if any compassion for the sufferers. FWIW, such chronic lack of such compassion is one of the symptoms of sociopathic behavior. 

That’s who this purple-clad occupant of Hell is. His profile is familiar. Luke’s perceptive sense of humor has this guy in torment, a large part of Hell being himself. He is his own punishment, and he has been perfecting that agony for a lifetime. He’s in Hell suffering himself, only finally understanding when it is eternally too late. He is Jacob Marley: “...the Ghost, wringing its hands again, "Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The deals of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”[2] 

We can diagnose all we want. It’s fun and we do it with anonymous impunity. We know however that people don’t follow analysis, they follow leaders. We follow those see what is, and point toward what’s next. That’s Jesus, the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”[3] 

So where is Jesus leading us in this parable? He’s leading us to get over ourselves. He’s leading us to hear what Father Abraham is saying. He’s leading us to be active and faithful in ways that need no messenger thumping our heads to get our attention- the place where God already has our attention. He’s leading us to the place where we grow/have grown as Paul’s first letter to Timothy describes the blessed, the fortunate of any age: 

“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.”[4] 

These are Jesus’ friends engaged in the fight to end human trafficking…those seeking just wages and safe conditions for all who labor…those acting daily for reconciliation among tribes and clans, nations and peoples…those perceptive enough to know that they may unwittingly be a part of the problem they are committed to solving, and choose to undo that smaller internal error as well as the larger systemic one…those so involved in the commonwealth, in the life of the World where they are set down, that they truly are able to “take hold of the life that really is life.” 

The rich man and poor Lazarus is a cautionary tale. Jesus is saying, “Don’t let this happen to you.” He’s saying “Be aware of God’s agenda- the one that brings poor Lazarus to our very doorsteps not as an annoyance, but as an opportunity.”

Love you. See you in Church. 

FBC3+, 25 September 2016, being The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost 


[1] And the time-honored premise that “ignorance of the law is no excuse” comes into play here, doesn’t it?

[2] Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. Chapman & Hall, London. 1843. A Christmas Carol has been continuously in print since its first edition.

[3] Hebrews 12:2, NRSV

[4] I Timothy 6:17-19, NRSV