Meditation on Dives and the gospel

I cannot abide sermons in which both we and God lose. Which is to say, sermons in which there is no gospel. Which is always a shame when the exegesis is so evidently excellent!

The connections between Luke 16:19-31 and Amos 6 are quite well made, for which we may thank the wisdom of mother church (and her modern descendents maintaining the RCL). The call in both texts is not against leisure and wealth, let alone in favor of poverty, but against failure in the burden of hospitality. Other-concern. In the social locations, both texts set the notion of God-given benefits against the impiety of the recipients. We might say, "the burden of charity," but I was reminded this morning that we clearly misconceive charity. It follows the power gradients, and becomes down-reach. Giving downward with one hand, while pushing downward with the other. Or, as bad, while pulling upward hegemonically. Charity becomes the creation and maintenance of social obligations to the self, to the upper classes, and to the dominant cultural system. Not for nothing do we translate Kultur as "civilisation" in Freud.

It is worth noting the law implications of the parables and Paul, in which God becomes the owner, and we the recipients of charity. The pervasive notion of human misappropriation follows these accusations of impiety-by-failure-of-hospitality. (There has to be a German word for that...)

This morning, I was reminded of the necessity of the concept of dignitas implicit in caritas, the worth of the other levelled with that of the self, or raised higher in illustrative compensation. Which was a damn good point! I received into my understanding a new way in which we lose.

But what I didn't receive, in such an otherwise well-crafted message, was how God wins. No usus evangelium; no evident dependency of the usi legis upon the gospel. (Which may just make it typically Lutheran in ethos, but it shouldn't be!) Just "Go forth and do otherwise."

So where is the gospel in Dives? It is undeniably a law text, spoken to Pharisees who are "lovers of money," and the point in 16:16-17 must be taken as principle for illustration, that no matter how much people crowd their own way into the Kingdom of God (proper middle voice), the law and the prophets remain in effect. And in that light, we see Dives attempting to crowd his own way in to "the bosom of Abraham" after the fact, and failing that, attempting to push his family in with fear of hell.

Which won't work. And still we haven't gotten at God's opus proprium.

Let's advance in the same text, as Jesus turns from the Pharisees to his disciples. They get instruction, and what's the response? "Increase our faith!" And we get an excursus on the value of following up on your obligations: "Does he have gratitude for the servant, that he did what had been commanded? No. So also you, when you shall have done all that had been commanded of you, say: "We are useless servants; what we were obligated to do, we did.""

What can we say, then, of an hypothetically pious Dives? Only that it is a necessary but not sufficient condition. Speaking, of course, of piety as considered in terms of social obligations and deeds. As with Euthyphro, civil piety isn't enough to appease the gods. It's not wrong; the law and prophets don't disappear, including Amos and Jesus-of-the-parables. God still wants justice, and thinks of it in terms of hospitality and charity. But we remain obliged to say 1) it's not enough, and 2) increase our faith!

We remain obliged to say that the solution remains with God. We do work which God desires, and we do it insufficiently at best, but Christ is our righteousness. And the gospel, as it so often is, is where we least expect it: in the Psalm. 1 Timothy for the day is no help. It commands what we might also be led to command from the other two readings. But Ps 146 has it right: The lord may not praise the servant for doing what was obligatory, but the servant will praise the Lord, because:

"Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin."

We have been baptized into the service of a God who does all this, who has done all this, who will always do all this. Who keeps faith forever. A Lord who promises, and fulfills. A Lord whose grace is for his servants, not because of their works, but because they belong to God. Who executes the justice in which we are called to participate. A Lord whose good graces cannot be coerced, but can always be beseeched, and will always be received. A Lord in whose Kingdom we live, not because we are worthy, but because Christ is worthy.

So do worry about the practice of your piety, but not for the sake of your soul. You rest in the bosom of Abraham for Christ's sake already, though by the grace of God you may not arrive there today. God deals justly with you, and gives you faith. Strengthen yourself in the grace of God freely given, which enables you to go forth and do likewise.


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