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.”

Divine Love Song

Luke 1:46-55 (Homily)

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1)

 

Music moves and keeps me. I absolutely love music. I study to music, write to music, live to music, and even my classroom often welcomes students with music. I’m one of those people who definitely has multiple soundtracks to her life; one for each era, if not one for each year. My workout play lists have everything from Taylor Swift to Childish Gambino, and I’m not even sorry. I prefer the Orchestra to the Symphony and some of my favorite instruments are: guitar, piano, and the cello (which I’m comically trying to teach myself to play). I love music.

I love how music has the ability to get to our subterranean layers of our person and being. I love how with or without words music can draw up in us emotions we’ve had or are having a hard time articulating in word and deed. I love that when I’m happy, there’s a song on my lips. I love even more that when life has dragged me into darkness and an existential crisis and its cousin depression seize the fibers of my being, there’s a song on my lips then, too. When I’ve struggled with saying the words, “I believe…” my voice through worship and song cries out, “…help my unbelief.”

And it’s not just humans who sing and make music. But the whole world does, too. The cacophony of a vehicle-infested metropolis is music as much as is the cricket and grasshopper symphony surrounding the farm stuck out in the middle of nowhere. The trees make music, the birds, the stars in the night sky, and the sun at noonday, even the creeping and crawling things along the ground. All of it is song and music. Dogs barking, cats meowing, horses neighing, all of creation sings. Harmony is everywhere. The cosmos is a song; a song sung over us and to us. And we have no other response than to sing back and to join in the great song of creation.

The biblical story is no stranger to songs. From Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, songs weave and wend through the story of God’s love for God’s creation. The biblical narrative is wonderfully decorated with songs about the work and activity of God almighty on behalf of God’s people and the world. We sing to God and God sings to us. The great song of the cosmos was set in motion and is sustained by God’s love song sung over us, like a mother rocking her new-born child to sleep using her voice to soothe and comfort this child she loves so very dearly.

Or like a mother who understands the heavy burden that is on her unborn son’s shoulders: God’s love for the world, reconciliation and redemption, love and sacrifice, mercy and justice and peace.

“‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” (v.47). Mary begins to sing. “…for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed…” (v.48). Mary’s voice isn’t unique here; her voice pairs with those of the other noble women of Israel: with Miriam after safe passage through the red-sea (cf Ex. 15) and with the barren Hannah who longed for a son and received one (cf 1 Sam 2). “…for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (v.49), Mary continues, “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (v.50). Mary declares the character of the God she worships, of the God she knows intimately, of the God who is about to overturn the world as she knows it.

“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts” (v.51). Mary’s song here in v.51 turns from praise of God’s mighty historical deeds to prophetic utterances (what God is about to do). “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (vv.52-3). And here I can’t quite distinguish whose voice I’m hearing; is it Mary the mother of Jesus who is praising God? Or is this God’s song over us? “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever’” (vv.54-5).

And maybe that’s the point? Maybe that I can’t distinguish between the song of this young woman to God or God’s song over the world is the tension where I need to be located, where we need to be located. Because it’s here in that tension where we see our role in the story. Mary sings to God of Jesus, but Jesus sings through her voice to the world: I am coming low to bring liberty to the captives and freedom to the oppressed. Jesus is the royal[1] son who will cast off his royal robes and stoop down[2] to take on the role of a servant, a lowly servant to redeem and reconcile humanity to God. It is Jesus (God of God, Light of Light) who will associate with sinners and tax collectors, with the sick and the lame, with those who are far-off and those who are abandoned and thus declare to the world: blessed are these![3] Jesus is the one who lifts the faces of those who are cast-down, gives dignity to those society has declared barely human, and brought the light to those who feel trapped and hewed in by darkness; and this activity becomes the very definition of the reign of God, of the good news, of God’s activity in the world in Jesus Christ, this man who is God. [4]

And it is this lowly servant who is the fulfillment of the promises of God to Abraham and his descendants and this is how that promises will be fulfilled: Jesus will die for our sins and be raised for our justification (Rom. 4:25). Mary’s song of praise of what God has done and will do, and that which is God’s song over us, is also Jesus’s funeral march;[5] this is the song that will sound in the background as Jesus climbs Golgotha to his sacrificial death on our behalf to reconcile us to God. Just as the cross hangs in the background behind the manger of the baby born, so to do Mary’s tears lurk behind her words of praise and prophecy.

But because God loves us, because God loves the world, this dirge, this funeral march doesn’t end in the grave. Rather, it leads to life, resurrected life for those who have been brought low; resurrected life for us not just in the future but now. And all of us are of the lowly, no matter what car you drove here or what brand your watch is, or the amount of money in your wallet or in your bank account: none of us escape being the lowly, the ones who are brought low. And as we are made aware of our lowliness and our need of Christ and the Cross,[6] the same gospel that has laid claim to our faith lays claim to our activity in the world; that which characterizes Christ’s reign, characterizes the activity of his disciples. That we—through our movement from death into new life by faith—have become a people whose interest is not on ourselves but on our fellow human beings, our neighbors. [7]

We have been commissioned into the commission of Christ to bear the trajectory (the intended direction) of Mary’s song of good news for the world through the death and resurrection of Christ, and with Christ we are called, to quote the major Prophet Isaiah, “To bring good news to the afflicted…to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners…To comfort all who mourn…” (Isaiah 61:1b-3a).

The good news comes to you today singing over you, incorporating you into the story, into the greatest love song ever recorded: The song sung since the beginning of time about the long awaited son of God, the babe born of Mary, who is the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham and his descendants, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the proclamation of the cross, which is the word of comfort for the afflicted, rest for the burdened, freedom for the captives, and the word of life to those who are dead.

Praise be to God, Amen.

 

 

 

 

[1] Karl Barth CD IV.1.278 “…the distinctive solidarity of the man Jesus with the God who in the eyes of the world—and not merely the ordinary world, but the moral and spiritual as well—is also poor in this way, existing not only in fact and practice but even in theory, somewhere on the margin in its scale of values, as the mere content of a limiting concept. In fellowship and conformity with this God who is in the world the royal man Jesus is also poor, and fulfills this transvaluation of all values, acknowledging those who (without necessarily being better) are in different ways poor men as this world counts poverty.”

[2] Karl Barth CD V.1.277 “The God who stoops down to man… in judgment and mercy, slaying and making alive, is Himself supremely and most strictly an object of desire, joy, pleasure, yearning and enjoyment…”

[3] Karl Barth CD V.1.277 “It is of a piece with this that—almost to the point of prejudice—He ignored all those who are high and mighty and wealthy in the world in favour of the weak and meek and lowly. He did this even in the moral sphere, ignoring the just for sinners, and in the spiritual sphere, finally ignoring Israel for the Gentiles.”

[4] Karl Barth CD V.1.277-78 “Throughout the New Testament the kingdom of God, the Gospel and the man Jesus have a remarkable affinity, which is no mere egalitarianism, to all those who are in the shadows as far as concerns what men estimate to be fortune and possessions and success and even fellowship with God.”

[5] Karl Barth CD IV.2. “It is this merciful and redemptive visitation of Israel by God, in faithfulness to Himself and His people, which forms the subject-matter of these hymns. But in the mind of the authors, or at any rate in the mind of Luke, who incorporated them into his text, this visitation is indirectly identical with the life and works and passion and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, whose story he is concerned to tell…But they are indirectly identical (at any rate in the mind of Luke), we are forced to say, because the introduction of these hymns could serve no literary purpose if they did not speak (at any rate in the mind of Luke) of the Son of Mary whose way was prepared by the son of Zacharias as the prophet of the Most High; and of this One as the One in whom the new act of the faithful God of Israel to His people has found its human correspondence, in whom the divine visitation has become an earthly history.”

[6] Helmut Gollwitzer, The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis Trans: David Cairns (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981.) “Who will free us for discipleship, for imitation of God? For he is the one who does not hold on to his privilege’s, who did not remain on the throne of Lordship, but spent himself and gave himself to sinners, to the men of privilege, to free them from enslavement to their privileges.” p. 82

[7] Ibid, 146 “From [people] whose interests centre in themselves, to make us people whose whole concern is for other people – that is the great concern of Jesus, that is the great change that God wants to bring through the Gospel into our way of life.” p. 146