detail of Van Gogh painting of old bell tower

Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

It’s not fall break yet, but a lot of people were travelling or nursing injuries, so our little congregation looked even littler than usual.

The missing included a number of people from the choir. We could definitely have used a few more voices to make the day’s anthem sound more like music, and less like a 6th grade choir concert.

[Although here’s proof that the right 6th graders would have made this week’s anthem sound like music:

We just have to trust that God meant that line about making a joyful noise …]

Maybe because we were feeling small this morning, the call to worship seemed to affect people more than usual:

One: What shall this worship service be?
Many: Some quiet spaces where faith can form, some joyful times that can help grow our hope, some scripture readings about how love behaves, some prayer time where honest confession can help untangle our knotty lives.
One: Who may join in this worship service?
Many: All who are lonely for the touch of God and hungry for the life-giving words of Jesus.

And then there was the text, Luke 16:19-31, thoroughly familiar. Our pastor-of-the-day even acknowledged, when he saw this was the week’s gospel, he thought “Oh, no …” Because we people in the US forget how rich we are.

But what caught my attention this time through was that last line, Abraham’s line to the Rich Man, in refusing Lazarus’ assistance to the man’s brothers, when he says “If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t listen, even if someone rises from the dead.”

It has been easy historically and traditionally to read that as something of a dig at the Judaism of the day, a smackdown of the Pharisees “who were lovers of money” for instance. And if we read it that way, it turns into a kind of indictment of refusal to accept the risen Christ – “people who won’t listen to their own law and prophets, they won’t listen to the Messiah, either.”

This has for me been one reason to have some reservations about Luke, Mr. Pro-Gentile Evangelist, with his warmly multi-cultural Samaritan-loving Jesus and his convenient exclusion of the story of Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician dog-woman.

But this morning I noticed: It’s simply a true statement, about people, in general.

If you’re going to ignore Torah ethics, you’re going to ignore Christian ethics, which just are Torah ethics, and you’re probably going to ignore any other ethics, which just are, broadly speaking, the same from time to time and place to place. “Don’t treat other people like dirt, don’t make them suffer. Treat other people the way you’d like them to treat you.”

[Yes, yes, I know, God is Not One, values are culturally specific, there has been plenty of socially acceptable and even socially encouraged indifference, cruelty towards outsiders, violence for entertainment, etc. etc. Still: the universality of “the golden rule” is also a real thing. So: “broadly speaking.”]

And if you’re not going to be persuaded into ethical action by a theophany, then what difference does the form of that theophany make? Theophany at Sinai, resurrection appearances, it’s all the same. “Woo,” as some people would describe it. All equally disregardable to the woo-disregarders.

That Rich Man is not particularly defined by this or that ethnic group or religion. He is just a typically human, self-interested, other-indifferent, utility-maximizing rational actor. He could be a feudal lord, or a capitalist, or a libertarian, or maybe even a socialist if socialists were ever rich. He could be anyone.

“If I had only known how much my own personal utility was going to be reduced in the afterlife by my disregard for the welfare of my neighbors …” If I had only known, for sure, then I would have taken that into account. I would have acted differently … to maximize my own personal eternal utility. Hello.

Rich Man still doesn’t get it.

Rich Man still doesn’t get that this is not an accounting problem, that the point of the problem is not calibrating your behavior to maximize your own personal utility, at least not in any of the usual ways, and that none of the standard ways of thinking about a problem like that apply.

You could have understood that this way of life is not about calculation, but about the way love throws all the calculations out the window, already from Moses and the prophets. “Love the Holy One your God …” with everything you’ve got. “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

So if you don’t get that from reading Moses and the prophets, then you still won’t get it even if someone rises from the dead. Because when that person offered you a whole new life, and the desire to live it, and the power to go for it, you would still be asking yourself, “What’s in it for Me?” And from that angle, it still wouldn’t look like much.

The ordinary categories of cost and benefit, profit and loss, lose all their meaning along this Way.

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