Homily: “Religion and Disobedience”

Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 20, Year C). Cross-posted from the Parish of Tazewell County.

In this story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, what kind of narrative is this? Not a narrative of events that actually happened, in the sense that there was a particular beggar to whom our Lord was referring. If there was such a beggar—and I should add, there may have been, for there is no way to prove or disprove the historicity of this beggar based on the account given to us by Saint Luke—if there was such a beggar, that is not the primary point of Our Lord’s teaching. This is not a history lecture by our divine professor.

“The narrative is a representative narrative: a narrative of what is constantly occurring under the form of a typical incident; a typical narrative of what is again and again happening — God’s judgments come on men and women for their sin.” [1] We see this all throughout the Old Testament. A classic example is the story of Adam and Eve, who because of their sin (their choices that separated them from God’s will) receive judgment. We see this dramatically in the account of the Great Flood, also from Genesis. A whole society makes choices that separate themselves from God. “Again and again teachers of righteousness are sent to warn of coming judgment and a ridiculed by a world which goes on buying and selling, using and wasting, feasting and drinking, bullying and oppressing, till the flood of God’s judgment breaks out and overwhelms them.” [1] We are back to the need to understand the role that analogy plays in interpreting Holy Scripture. We are not Adam and Eve, we are not the people that perished in the Great Flood — but we can act like them in the choices we make.

This representative narrative reminds us that following God’s will — of delighting in His will and walking in His ways — begins by listening to Him. This is one of the main purposes of Liturgy — whether on Sundays and other Holy Days for Mass, or Morning and Evening Prayer day to day. We learn to listen to God. We take up the journey of obedience to conquer our own will. We learn to listen to God as He is actually present in all of creation generally, actually present in more concentrated form in the gathered community of the baptized, actually present in the Word of Scripture proclaimed, actually present also in the celebrating Priest and other clerics, and actually present in the Sacrament of the Eucharist and the other six Sacraments of Catholic tradition and faith. The Church teaches that this persistent listening, this obedience, is freedom, not slavery, because it makes our will free to love God alone. This listening exalts us, rather than debases us, and directs our love to the grandest of all objects—Jesus Christ. [2]

We must in all things be directed to Jesus Christ. Despite what some traditions seem to teach, Christianity is not the religion of a book, as important and authoritative as our book, the Bible, is and must be. Christianity is a religion of a Person. The Bible, in fact not a book but a collection of several dozen books, is not the revelation itself, but the official record of the proclaiming and receiving of the revelation, by a body which still exists, and which propounds the revelations to us, namely the body of Christians commonly called the Church. The revelation is in the Person of Christ. And it is the Church that made the Bible, not the Bible that made the Church. [3]

We can see this when we remember that the questions to those receiving the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation are not, in effect, “Do you believe in the Bible?” but rather, in effect, “Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?” If we believe that, then we shall further believe in the Bible.

In the Catholic tradition, of which The Episcopal Church is a part, the primary relationship we have with Jesus is not through the Bible but through His Sacraments; He made them for that purpose. The biblical books, read through the liturgical calendar within the life of the Church, are the primary and authoritative way our sacramental intimacy with Jesus is explained.

So, this representative narrative of the Rich Man and the Beggar typifies how men and women are judged by God for their sin. What else can we say about this narrative? This is a narrative about how our relationship with Jesus is impaired by accumulating the wrong kind of wealth. It is of course permissible, even necessary, for, say, a parish church to accumulate enough wealth to keep the roof impenetrable, the lights on, and the doors open — the purpose of which is to administer the Sacraments in a sacred and holy space. But if that wealth is used like the Rich Man used the wealth — for living in luxury every day, for feasting in magnificence — then our Lord condemns such behavior, and the instigators of it have committed a Capital Sin.

Luxury of that sort blinds us to the real issues of the day. And it blinds us to recognizing that true discipleship, true religion, can only begin and can only grow through humility. A humility able to satisfy its hunger from the scraps of the tables of the rich. Lazarus here typifies true discipleship: Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God.

This is a narrative, then, about disobedience. If one had to pick a single theme to describe the books of the Old Testament, particularly those of the Law and the Prophets, one would do well to pick disobedience. As we say in our Liturgy, “Our disobedience took us far from you.” Disobedience is another way we can summarize the Seven Capital Sins. When we are disobedient, we are filled with Pride, with self-centeredness, desire to control others, to manipulate others, to create factions and instability for our own selfish purposes. When we are disobedient, we cannot hear the voice of God in our hearts, as he speaks to us and guides us, sometimes in the subtlest of ways.

One of the purposes of hearing in particular the proclamation of the revelation through the books of the Old Testament is to sensitize ourselves to the voice of God as He spoke to the Prophets of old. He may not speak to us exactly in the way He spoke to Adam and Eve, to Cain and Abel, to Abraham and Moses, Jacob, Isaiah, Jeremiah and the rest, but He will speak to us in some way, like how He spoke to them.

Brothers and sisters, let us continue, in all ways we are able, to try to listen to God. When we try to listen, we are trying to love God, and that is all God asks of us — to try to love Him. May we be brave, fervent and cheerful. May we not shirk from what is difficult and unpleasant. May we do everything for God, and not for ourselves. And may we throw our heart and soul into every obedience. In so doing may we continue to become more and more sensitized to the way that God loves us, because He does; and more and more sensitized to he way He performs His miracles, because He will.

[1] Charles Gore, “Preface to the Tenth Edition.” Lux Mundi.
[2] Dom Bernard Hayes, The Via Vitae of St Benedict.
[3] Gore, ibid.

Cover image “The Story of Lazarus and Dives” from the Golden Gospels is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.