Dives and Me: Thoughts on Proper 21

I never bothered to take music history in college because I’ve always known what the oldest song in the world is. It has been intoned for millennia by people of all races, languages, ages, and cultures. The lyrics may change in different places, but the spirit behind the song and the emotions that prompt it are universal. The oldest song in the world is Nyahh nyaah-na nyaah nyahh. As I don’t know how to insert a staff with musical notation in this blog, I will offer the following for the musically literate among you:

Key of G, no sharps or flats

F (half note), D (half note) , G (eighth note), F (quarter note), D (half note).

 

Since the song has been around since the beginning of time, it’s not surprising to see it surface in the world’s great literature. I’ve seen it in the Iliad (Achilles diss-ing Agamemnon), Njál’s Saga (Njáll Porgeirsson’s  triumph as Gunnarr Hamundarsen is exiled from Iceland), and the Hebrew Scriptures (Elijah taunting the priests of Ba’al at the contest on Mount Carmel). So, I don’t find it surprising that a variant of the song would surface in the teachings of Jesus. This Sunday’s Gospel lesson from Luke sees the song being sung again:

 

Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, `Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, `Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, `Then, father, I beg you to send him 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.'” (Luke 16: 19-31)

 

I can’t read the parable without thinking of the word come-uppance. It feels like heavenly retribution. Justice delivered. Redress of wrongs. A celestial “Just you wait, buster!” I can just see poor Lazarus, tucked snugly in Abraham’s bosom, peering over the edge of the precipice that descends into Torment singing to Dives (the once-upon-a-time designation given to the rich man) the ancient song of dismissive taunt.

 

There’s only one problem. As far as we know, Dives didn’t do anything wrong, other than being rich, dressing in fine clothes and feasting sumptuously every day. True, he didn’t see the suffering of Lazarus at his gate, but the parable doesn’t assert that he was wicked or selfish or cruel. He was just affluent, comfortable, and self absorbed.

 

That presents me with something of a bind. It turns out that I, too, am affluent (in comparison to the vast majority of the world’s people), comfortable (I sleep in a bed, have clothes to wear and work to sustain me), I eat pretty well (which is why I spend most of my time dieting), and often turn away from sights of suffering that disturb me. So, it seems to me that this is a pretty good Gospel if you’re poor, but it stings like the Dickens if you’re like 99% of all people in the world who will show up in Church wearing their Sunday best this weekend.

 

And maybe that’s the point.

 

But there may be something else here, something that doesn’t leave the majority of us feeling guilty about our station in life.  It may be that Jesus knew his audience (who were for the most part poor and disaffected and pretty tired of being under the heel of rich and powerful Rome). However, I believe that the Gospel is Good News not only for the poor but as well for the generally comfortable like me. In this week’s lections, the Good News isn’t a release from obligation, but rather a set of admonitions and expectations about how to use our comfort well:

 

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.( I Timothy 6:19)

 

That, I suspect, is what Dives missed, and the way I need to remain grounded so that my comfort, rather than being a reprieve, becomes a mandate.