There are still 90 shopping days until Christmas, but today’s gospel has a strong connection to a story written by Charles Dickens, which has been turned into many a film, called A Christmas Carol. Although called A Christmas Carol and always shown during Christmas, the actual story has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus and everything to do with greed, charity, goodwill, life, and death, all of which figure into this reading from the 16th chapter of Luke.
My favorite figure from the story is Jacob Marley, who I can’t help but picture as Frank Finley who played him in the 1984 version of the film starring George C. Scott. The thing you remember about Jacob Marley is that he is covered by chains.
“The chain he drew was clasped about his middle,” Dickens writes, … [and] made of cashboxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.”
Upon being asked why he is fettered, the spirit replies, “I wear the chain I forged in life, I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”
The spirit tells Ebenezer Scrooge that upon his death he would become aware of his own chain, which he has been busy forging through the exercise of greed and a lack of charity.
Scrooge asks for comfort but is told by Marley’s ghost, “I have none to give. It comes from other regions and is conveyed by other ministers, to other kinds of men.”
It is for such an intervention such as Marley’s errand to Scrooge that the rich man in today’s gospel asks Father Abraham: Send Lazarus to my father’s house and warn my brothers about the fate of greed. But he is told that Moses and the prophets should be enough. They should listen to them.
The picture of this spirit covered with chains forged of the things of greed which held him back in life is a powerful one; it’s a picture of the truth eloquently rendered in our second reading from Saint Paul: those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Trapped, St. Paul says, in much the same way as a man can be trapped by chains, in a pursuit that leads to ruin.
Our theme today is liberation, and in song we are celebrating the ideas of freedom. But to be liberated involves knowing what one needs to be liberated from, and knowing what true freedom looks like.
Surely we must be aware first and foremost that there are those both far and near who suffer from a lack of freedom in very concrete ways. From people living under oppressive governments, to people right here at home whose freedom is limited by racism, sexism, and classism. It is surely the case that the struggle for all to be free is one that is ongoing, and a struggle to which the Church has a calling to be committed.
Here in the community of the Church we believe that outward freedom begins with inward freedom. We recall Luther’s definition of a God is that to which we look for all good and where we resort for help in every time of need; to have a God is simply to trust and believe in one with our whole heart. When we put anything but God in the place in our lives which is meant for God, we are diminished, and as Dickens and Paul would note, we become trapped by the very things in which we sought solace. To make an idol out of money or anything else limits our freedom; we become the servants of our idols.
But the God we worship seems determined to be known as a God who loves freedom. The most defining story of God’s people is that of the Exodus, where through many miracles God won God’s people freedom from slavery in Egypt. And on transfiguration mount when Moses appeared in order to set his seal of approval upon Jesus’ ministry. The bible says that Moses and Jesus talked together about the exodus that Jesus was about to accomplish, connecting the story of Jesus’ ministry to this great story of liberation, this new exodus being about freedom not just from earthly taskmasters but from sin itself, and death itself. Jesus is the new Moses leading a newly defined people of God to true freedom.
There are a couple of barriers in the way of grasping the vision that Jesus is casting for us. The first is that from our perspective, the rich are always someone else. Since we are all aware of people wealthier than ourselves, it is easy to imagine that this particular piece of judgment and warning is aimed elsewhere. Let the one-percenters take heed to Luke chapter 16. But the bible was not written just to Prairie Village and Mission Hills, but to the whole world throughout history. So do not doubt that, in the grand scheme of things, you and I are very rich people. Do not decide that this message is not meant for you.
Also, it’s worth noting that Jesus is not telling a parable about a rich wicked man. He simply says a rich man. It is not said that the rich man was guilty committing. He is guilty of apathy. Again, back to Luther who, as he famously taught the ten commandments, said that to honor the commandments was more than the act of refraining from doing things. To truly honor the commandment not to kill, it is not enough for me to refrain from killing you, but to support you and your life with all that is mine. The rich man did nothing to harm Lazarus; he did nothing at all. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
But though the parable ends not well for the imaginary rich man, we find in it, as Jesus intended, opportunity for ourselves. We also do not need a ghost to return from beyond the grave to show us the chains of regret. We have Moses and the prophets. We have Jesus, the great bringer of freedom. And today we have this story he tells to remind us that we do well in our everyday affairs when we look on them with the eyes of faith and eternity.
This story shares a literary similarity with the end of the gospel of Mark, with its unsatisfying ending. The gospel ends suddenly, saying that at the discovery that the tomb of Jesus was empty, the witnesses fled, and said nothing to anyone because they were afraid. It is an ending that makes the hearer want to jump into the pages of scripture and handle business for themselves. How could you run in fear when you have just witnessed this miracle of God? How could you not run yelling the story of Jesus’ precious death and resurrection at the top of your lungs? The hearer of the gospel of Mark is meant to make up for the failings of the first witnesses and take up the task of telling the story herself.
And in the same way, Jesus does not tell this parable so that at the end we will bemoan the fate of an imaginary rich man, but so that we will not pass over the Lazaruses that are at our own gates. So that we can be free, both from the love of money that would cause us not to share of what we have and of the apathy that would cause us to look over those in need. So that we will stop forging chains for ourselves and turn to worship the God whose favorite miracles are about freedom. Israel is free from Egypt, Jesus is free from the tomb, you are freed from all that would hold you back to celebrate life as an agent of God’s mercy and blessing. May God continue to open our eyes and break our chains for the sake of the world. Amen.