Proper 21, Year C, St. Michael’s Church, Cookeville

“No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent” (Lk. 16:30).

Jesus tells a story in our Gospel today: a parable about a rich man and a poor man, one of whom receives his reward in this life, and the other in the life to come. So far, so good: a study in contrast. Jesus, however, adds an additional point: the rich man neglected the poor man in this life, and this has brought him into the place of torment. It’s too late for the rich man himself, but perhaps there is still time for the brothers of the rich man. The rich man asks Father Abraham to send the poor man in return from the dead in order to warn his brothers. He says to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Lk. 16:31).

There are three parts of this story that we should take to heart. The first is the notion of repentance. The rich man in the story knows that his brothers need to repent, to make a change of life. It’s too late for him but not to late for them. Repentance means to turn around; to quit heading in the direction you’ve been going and to return along the path until you’re back on track. Repentance is relative to sin, and brings the opportunity to embrace faithfulness. We who hear the story have that same opportunity to repent; the chance that the rich man wants for his brothers.

The second part is not so obvious. Father Abraham tells the rich man that he will not send the poor man Lazarus back to warn the brothers because they won’t be convinced even if someone returns from the dead to warn them. Here the key word is “convinced”: a word that for the Gospel writer Luke is very close to the word “belief.”  Repentance is rooted in conviction, in belief: in the whole-hearted commitment of one’s self to the course that lies before one.

Repentance doesn’t mean a mere adjustment of course, a tactical trimming of sails in order to avoid disaster. Maybe this is the problem with the rich man’s request. Instead it’s a fundamental reorientation of self that brings about a new reality, a “new creation” as St. Paul calls it in the Second Letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 5:17). Belief, real conviction, is a profound matter, and it’s not produced by parlor tricks. The teaching of Moses and the prophets lays the foundation, according to Father Abraham, and creates the possibility of conviction and belief.

The third part of Jesus’ story is obvious, and takes us beyond Moses and the prophets. It gets mentioned twice at the conclusion of the story, to underscore what is meant to be important. That is, the rising of someone from the dead: that is, a placeholder for the resurrection of Jesus. The story is concerned with the poor man being sent back to warn the brothers, but we are meant to understand Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead. Here the story that Jesus tells becomes the story that we tell about Jesus: how he was crucified and then rose victorious from the dead.

This, of course, is ground zero for Christian faith. It’s from this that all belief, all conviction, all repentance flows. The possibility of repentance and a new beginning for each of us, that reality that we so desperately need, is only possible because of the new beginning that Jesus makes in human life and human history, by turning everything upside down by rising from the dead. It is this that invites our belief and our repentance, and offers us the possibility of new life.

All of this (repentance, conviction, and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead) comes together for us as we baptize and confirm our candidate today. Here we see abundantly illustrated the whole process laid out in our story. Jesus’ resurrection creates the new reality, the new creation, into which we baptize our candidate. Yet his repentance and conviction, and our own belief and faith, are called upon and needed in order for grace to be present and made effectual. Let us listen to Moses and the prophets. God is at work in us. Jesus has risen from the dead. Let us turn around and head in a new direction, with full conviction and belief.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee