Common Sense Interrupted

Sermon on Luke 16:19-31

Psalm 91:1-2 1[They] who dwell in the shelter of the Most High, abide under the shadow of the Almighty. [They] shall say to God, “You are my refuge and my stronghold, my God in whom I put my trust.”

Introduction

Here’s a friendly reminder: common sense is common. Common sense is derived from experience in the world, the perception of natural law, and the narratives and stories handed down from one generation to another. Common sense is informed by geographic location, cultural expression, moral sensitivities, and subjective experience turned localized objective fact correlated to and within the life of a group (thus, common). Common sense isn’t universal; common sense doesn’t have to be correct. It’s just common, agreed upon.

What’s common sense on the Front Range isn’t common sense here in the Western Slope. What’s common sense in America isn’t common sense in England. What’s common sense for kids, isn’t common sense for adults. And whatever is common sense for teenagers will always only be common sense to them. *chuckles

For instance, if I said, it’s common sense that every preteen girl start cotillion, you might look at me: huh? But for anyone raised in Southern Connecticut that’s very common, and many of us little girls were forced into patent leather shoes and ill-fitting dresses stumbling through waltzes against our will because it was common sense to do so. In our western context, it’s common sense to go to college right out of high school; but in other contexts around the world it might not be. If you ever want to see the limit of “common sense” read ancient medical texts and what they say about bodies presenting as female. That’s a completely what-in-the-world experience. If you’d like a disturbing way “common sense” has been employed, look no further than our history and slavery and segregation; within the world, genocides are conducted using the same metric.

These days I find myself growing weary with feeble attempts to appeal to common sense in order to stop violence in our society. I find myself asking, what if violence *is* common sense? What if oppression *is* common sense? What if working ourselves to death *is* common sense? What if our growing isolation and alienation from each other *is* common sense?

And then I find myself asking another question: what if we need uncommon sense, something from outside of us, something other, some interruption to our “common sense”?

Luke 16:19-31

Now [the rich man] said, “Therefore, I am requesting you, father, to send [Lazarus] to the house of my father, for I have five brothers, so that he may declare solemnly to them in order that they, they might not also come into the same place of torment. But Abraham said, “They have Moses and the prophets; they must listen (completely) to them.” But [the rich man] said, “By no means, father Abraham, but if one from the dead were to go to them they will change their mind.” But [Abraham] said to him, “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither then will they be persuaded by one raised up out of the dead.”[1]

Luke 16:27-31

If you’re feeling targeted with Luke’s stories and Jesus’s parables articulating the demise of the rich and powerful, just remember he wrote this to the “most excellent Theophilus” (Luke 1:3). So, imagine being that guy receiving this text.

The lectionary skips over vv. 14-18 of chapter 16. Those verses bridge how a disciple of Christ uses mammon for the glory of the kingdom of God for others and our gospel passage. That bridge is: what’s prized by humans is an abomination in the sight of God (v. 15, NRSVUE). The Pharisees who’ve been listening to Jesus teachings are offended at Jesus’s parables. Why wouldn’t they be? Jesus’s parables interrupt their common sense; his words intercept their conceptions of the law, humanity, the world, blessedness, and God. Where the Pharisees saw themselves as superior, of a higher social ranking, more favored and blessed by God than the average lay person,[2] Jesus articulated a radically reversed social order in God and redefined favor and blessedness. Leaning hard into the Law and the Prophets, Jesus flips the hierarchy and declares: now! it’s right side up![3]

So, Jesus’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus, is a continuation of this theme started with the dishonest about-to-be-former house-manager. Jesus mentions two men: one rich defined by his daily habits of feasting and the wearing purple;[4] the other poor, covered in many sores (divine curse[5]), with street mongrel dogs coming to feast on him, worsening his degradation.[6] Interestingly, the rich man is deprived of a name while the poor man, covered in sores, has a name, Lazarus (“God’s Help”). In human society, the rich and powerful are known by name while the poor and powerless are deprived of names—the unclean are unknown, and unseen, even when they lie at one’s gate.[7] Here, however, Jesus inaugurates a great reversal: what is prized by humans is an abomination in the sight of God.[8]

When both men die and go to Hades (the realm of the dead for all)[9], the reversal is heightened. Lazarus, the poor man with sores is whisked away by the angels to the bosom of Abraham, while the nameless rich man—he is not evil, he is just rich[10]—is left to exist in torment (ὑπάρχων ἐν βασάνοις). As the rich man’s pain and suffering consumes him, he calls out to Abraham requesting Lazarus serve him some water and then go witness to his brothers so that they don’t end up where he is. Abraham denies both requests. The first one is denied because the distance is too great between the two men—a great space has been fixed firmly. The second request is denied because, well, it won’t make a difference if one out of the dead is raised up, they will not be persuaded.

Ugh. Neither signs nor wonders will convince these brothers—that doesn’t make sense!; they’re too consumed with and by the things of their world to change their mind (repent). Not even the dead raised again will alter their trajectory. They won’t believe because it goes against everything they hold to be true: the rich are the blessed of God; theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Both their experience and power run in opposition to the kingdom of God, clearly and boldly articulated in, to quote Abraham, Moses and the Prophets. However, if the rich man’s brothers can read the testament—the scrolls of Torah and Nevi’im—and walk away unchanged, there’s no proof on this side of earth that’ll cause them to change their mind.[11]

Because…

Get this…

Why would there be change? The rich man (himself) still doesn’t get it. In Hades, being tormented, among the dead, faced with the vision of Abraham and Lazarus resting on his bosom—literally experiencing the divine reversal—there’s no change of heart, no alteration of mind, no acknowledgement that he got it wrong (he’s still ordering Lazarus about[12] and arguing with Abraham from his assumed position of privilege[13]). If this man hasn’t experienced his wake-up call, his brothers will not do so either, no matter how big the sign and wonder.[14]

Because it’s not common sense.[15]

Conclusion

Our common sense needs to be checked. While it helps us navigate our world (to some extent), it also helps us to remain blind, deaf, and dumb to the problems of our society. Solely relying on it and never checking it, will lead us further into our captivity and complicity in social structures causing us to ignore those whom God loves, those whom God declares blessed. In fact, in coming here every Sunday our common sense is set on a definite collision course with God’s uncommon sense; here you are guaranteed to be confronted, common sense shook with the echoes of Mary’s declarations in Luke 1,[16]

“God has shown strength with his arm;
    God has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
52 God has brought down the powerful from their thrones
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 God has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty.
54 God has come to the aid of God’s child Israel,
    in remembrance of God’s mercy,
55 according to the promise God made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Luke 1:51-55, NRSVUE

Do we believe this? If so, we must let common sense go by the wayside and dare to embrace the uncommon sense of God so articulated by Mary—where the rich and powerful are cast down and made low. Are we listening? Really listening? No longer can we declare those who have in abundance are the blessed. If we’re hearing things rightly, we have to say: blessed are you who are poor, hungry, thirsty, broken down, exhausted, oppressed, barely breathing for God is with you and will lift you up. If our eyes are opened by the proclamation of Christ, we can no longer trust in our storehouses of goods or our positions of power; we must do away with the seductiveness of a prosperity gospel.[17] For these are our creations built on shifting sands of our common sense and are antagonistic to the will of God.

What is the will of God? Jesus has shown us: to walk humbly, liberate the captives, love mercy, justice, and peace. Today and every Sunday, Beloved, we are lovingly interrupted and intercepted by profound and ancient stories declaring God’s love, not only for us but for those our society declares unlovely. From Genesis to Revelation, let us hear the stories of God’s radical break with what was and God’s ushering in of something new, something wonderful, something completely uncommon.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 193-194. “According to Luke, there is a connection between the Pharisees love of money and their ridiculing Jesus. This is a significant insight. Theological positions and religious opinions are not entirely disconnected from economic interests and agendas. The Pharisees consider themselves better than the ‘sinners and tax collectors’ in part because they think they belong to a ‘better’ social class. … The Pharisees seek to justify themselves ‘in the sight of others’ by claiming that what Jesus teaches is ridiculous. Jesus tells them that God sees things differently than do humans.”

[3] Gonzalez, Luke, 194. “Jesus’ general response to the ridicule of the Pharisees, both directly beginning in verse 15, and by means of a parable beginning in verse 19, is to insist that what he is teaching is in full agreement with the Law and the Prophets.”

[4] Gonzalez, Luke, 195. “Roman law codified who had the right to wear purple, at that time a very expensive dye. Thus the original hearers and readers of this parable would understand that the rich man was sufficiently respected to merit this particular honor, and also indirectly that he had achieved this with the approval of Roman authorities. He an important, respected person—which immediately reminds us of what Jesus has just said in verse 14, that ‘What is prized by human beings is an aberration in the sight of God.’ He is so rich that he has sumptuous feasts, not only on special occasions, but every day.”

[5] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 605 “In contrast with the wealthy man, the clothes Lazarus wore receive no mention. Instead, we are told, he is covered with sores condition that undoubtedly marked him as unclean. The term used in his description suggests that Lazarus would even have been regarded as suffering from divine punishment. In familiar to us from the common theology of Job’s friends, surely the wealthy man is blessed by God while Lazarus lives under the divine curse.”

[6] Green, Luke, 606 “Although we may be tempted to think of the dogs of Jesus’ story in sentimental terms, we should rather imagine pariahlike mongrels that roamed the outskirts of town in search of refuse. These curs have not come to ‘lick his wounds’ (as we would say), but to abuse him further and, in the story, to add one more reason for us to regard him as less than human, unclean, through-and-through an outcast.”

[7] Green, Luke, 605. “The rich man is depicted in excessive, even outrageous terms, while Lazarus is numbered among society’s ‘expendables,’ a man who had fallen prey to the ease with which, even in an advanced agrarian society, persons without secure landholdings might experience devastating downward mobility.”

[8] Gonzalez, Luke, 195. “But the parable does not give the man’s name. This is significant as one more of Luke’s many examples of the great reversal Normally, it is important people who have a name. They have recognition. They are somebody. But in the parable the rich and apparently important man has no name, and the poor and insignificant man does. From the very beginning of the parable, Jesus is illustrating what he has just said, that ‘what is prized ne sight of God.’ The very name ‘Lazarus’ means ‘God’s help’; and the parable will show that this is indeed the case.”

[9] Green, Luke, 607. “Both Lazarus and the wealthy man are apparently in Hades, though segregated (“far away from each other. Thus, while Lazarus is in a blissful state, numbered with Abraham, the wealthy ma experiences Hades as torment and agony. This portrait has many analogues in contemporary Jewish literature, where Hades is represented as the universal destiny of all humans, sometimes with the expected outcome of the final judgment already mapped through they separation of person into wicked or righteous categories.”

[10] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname Trans. Donald D. Walsh. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010. 422. “I: ‘Christians usually believe that the good rich man is saved and only the bad rich man is condemned. But that’s not what is said here. The rich man isn’t called evil, he’s just called rich.’”

[11] Gonzalez, Luke, 197-198. “Jesus is telling his hearers, who are lovers of money, that they do not need special signs or wonders to know what they are to do. They have the Law and the Prophets, which are firmer and more durable than both heaven or earth (17). He is also telling them that their love of money prevents them from truly listening to the Law and the Prophets. At the end of the parable, when the rich man wants Lazarus to be sent to warn his brothers, Abraham tells him that they already have ‘Moses and the prophets,’ and that this should be enough for them. When the man insists that they would repent and do right ‘if someone goes to them from the dead,’ Abraham replies that this is not so. If they are not willing to obey Moses and the prophets, they will still remain disobedient ‘even if someone rises from the dead.’ In other words, there is no miracle capable of leading to faith and obedience when one has vested interests and values that one places above obedience to God, such as “the love of money” of the Pharisees whom Jesus is addressing.”

[12] Gonzalez, Luke, 196. “Even after such a reversal of fortunes, the rich man considers himself more important than Lazarus, whom he wants sent, first to him, and then to his brothers.”

[13] Green, Luke, 609. “Abraham thus refuses to grant an apocalyptic revelation of the fate of the dead, insisting that the witness of Moses and the prophets should suffice. The wealthy man, accustomed to extra considerations, will not take No for answer. Continuing to speak from his supposed position of privilege, the wealthy man insists that for his family, more is needed, that a special envoy is required.”

[14] Gonzalez, Luke, 198. “The main obstacle to faith is not lack of proof is an excess of other interests and investments—of time, money, dreams, and so on.”

[15] Cardenal, Solentiname, 424. “I: ‘It seems to me that Jesus’ principal message is that the rich aren’t going to be convinced even with the Bible, not even with a dead man coming to life (and not even with Jesus’ resurrection).’”

[16] Gonzalez, Luke, 197. “Such an interpretation, while perhaps helpful, misses the point of the great reversal that is so central to the Gospel of Luke. The parable is not only about a rich man who ignored the poor, but also about the rich man ending up in poverty, and the poor man in abundance. The man who had daily feasts now goes not even have water to cool his tongue. The one whose sores had been licked by unclean dogs, and who therefore was not even worthy to be counted among the faithful children Abraham, is now in the bosom of Abraham. Once again we hear echoes of Mary’s song: ‘He has brought down the powerful from the thrones, and up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty’ (1:52-35).”

[17] Gonzalez, Luke, 198. “But the truth is exactly the opposite: the rich man is accursed, and Lazarus is blessed. So much for the ‘gospel of prosperity’ that many find so attractive today! It may be as weak a reed as the rich man’s trust in his riches.”

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