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"Yertle the Turtle" by Rev. Jillian Hankamer


June 16, 2024

Luke 16:19-31

 

            In 1934, a little book called The Life of Our Lord was published for the first time in America by Simon & Schuster. Originally published in London, The Life of Our Lord is a retelling of Jesus’ life based on the Gospel of Luke and written for the author’s children almost 85 years before it was published.

 

That author was Charles Dickens and perhaps because the book was so personal he refused to publish it. For decades “the manuscript was guarded as a precious family secret and handed down from one relative to the next”[1] until Dickens died in 1870. Eventually, the book fell to Dickens’ son with the instructions that it should not be published while any of Charles’ children lived. So, when Dickens’ son - Sir Henry Fielding Dickens - passed away in 1933, the decision about whether or not to publish the book was left to his wife and children. They decided to publish, and The Life of Our Lord became one of the year’s best-sellers.

 

The book begins: “My Dear Children, I am very anxious that you should know something about the History of Jesus Christ. For everybody ought to know about Him. No one ever lived who was so good, so kind, so gentle, and so sorry for all people who did wrong, or were in any way ill or miserable, as He was.”

 

Then follows a simple account of Jesus's life and teachings, with an occasional touch of Dickens' humor: “You never saw a locust, because they belong to that country near Jerusalem, which is a great way off. So do camels, but I think you have seen a camel. At all events, they are brought over here, sometimes; and if you would like to see one, I will show you one.”

Why am I telling you this? Well, because The Life of Our Lord makes a clear statement about Dickens’ faith that’s present in his better-known books, but in broader, more subtle strokes. The best example is the scene in A Christmas Carol in which Ebenezer Scrooge is confronted by the ghost of his deceased business partner Jacob Marley. When Scrooge asks why Marley is “fettered” the latter 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.  Is its pattern strange to you?Or would you know,...the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself?  It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago.  You have labored on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!"[2] Then Scrooge implores Marley, "...Speak comfort to me, Jacob!"[3]

 

            We’ll never know if Dickens based this scene on today’s Luke text, but it seems possible. Just as it’s possible that like the rich man in the parable chooses not to see Lazarus as he lays in need at the man’s doorstep, Yertle doesn’t see the other turtles as anything other than stepping stones. For both characters their lack of seeing leads to their downfall.

 

            Jesus tells this parable after 3 about loss - the sheep, the coin, the prodigal son - and one about a dishonest manager. As you know, the purpose of parables isn’t to give “a complete theological system or to address ultimate questions… [but to] give us a glimpse -- often surprising, even jarring glimpses -- into the [kin]dom of God.[4] Often parables leave us with more questions than answers, and if there was ever a parable to have questions about it this one about the rich man and Lazarus.

 

            Commentators spend too much time arguing that this parable is not about economics. In fact, the argument goes, people in Jesus’ time believe if you’re poor it’s because you’re suffering due to sin. If you’re rich, it’s because your obedience is being blessed. But Jewish New-Testament scholar Amy Jill Levine’s response to this argument is to ask, “Who knew Jews invented the prosperity gospel?”[5]

 

This parable is, in fact, very much about economics because the rich man is hedonistic in his wealth. Jesus’ original audience is aware that this man is not one of them as he “does not merely have extraordinary wealth; he ostentatiously displays it.”[6] The “purple cloth” he wears is one of the most expensive textiles available. He wears the same “fine linen” as high priests, but while they wear linen to serve God, he wears it to eat. Luke tells us the rich man feasts “sumptuously every day.” In the Greek the word for “feast” is Euphraino and “has the connotation of ‘cheering’ or ‘rejoicing’; it is what people should do at major festivals,”[7] not at their own dinner tables where the staff - servants and slaves - are forced to provide “the food, the entertainment, whatever [is needed for the master] to sate himself.”[8]

 

This man is all about conspicuous consumption, and in his hedonism, he refuses to share what he has. As Levine puts it, “the rich man has sinned by omission - he has failed to extend his hand to the poor.” Such omission is galling to Jesus’ original audience because care for the poor is commanded by the Torah. Those with resources to share are commanded to do so, but this rich man is so indifferent to suffering as to be able to simply not see Lazarus who is ballo, the Greek for “to be placed” at his gates for help.

 

And it really is a matter of the rich man choosing not to see Lazarus because after both men die and Lazarus is at Abraham’s side while the rich man suffers in Hades, the latter looks up seeing Lazarus with Abraham calls out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue…”

 

Did you catch what the rich man just admitted? Did you catch the extent of his self-centeredness?

 

The rich man asks for Lazarus by name! So now we know the rich man’s view of poor suffering Lazarus wasn’t blocked because of where Lazarus lay outside his gate. Lazarus wasn’t too far away from the main house to be noticed. He didn’t blend into the background or get lost among all the other people laying outside the man’s gate. The rich man knows Lazarus well enough to call him by name and in so doing forfeits his ability to “plead ignorance.”

 

But what’s worse is even after he’s rather lovingly rebuffed by Abraham who calls him “child,” the rich man asks if Lazarus can be sent to his five brothers to warn them of the fate that awaits them. Despite choosing to ignore, choosing not to see Lazarus in life the rich man has no problem expecting Lazarus to act as a servant in death. “He continues to think of Lazarus as nothing more than a servant or a dog, who is to fetch something for the Master.”[9] 

 

Rotating on an axis of mind-blowing selfishness, the rich man’s request to Abraham fails as Levine again explains, “because he has not fulfilled his role in Abraham’s family; he has failed to display hospitality on earth...he has failed...to understand his sin….he had the resources; he had the opportunity; he had the commandments of Torah. He did nothing, he still does nothing.”[10]

 

And lest you think I’m being too hard on this rich man - after all, he does “beg” for his brothers - let’s be very clear that English translations overstate his action. In the Greek, the word used is erotao and it means “to ask.” Not beg, not plead, not offer oneself up as tribute. Just “ask” because as Levine says so well, “A person who ‘begs’ realizes his subordinate position. The rich man does not beg; he merely ‘asks.’”[11]

 

My friends, neither of this morning’s stories end happily. Yertle sits forlorn as the “King of the Mud” and despite the rich man’s best efforts, he remains in torment without help for his wayward family. If anything, these stories are uncomfortable because they interrogate our priorities and leadership.

 

This parable in particular should make us uncomfortable because it reminds us of our privilege, wealth, and safety. It should make us uncomfortable as we consider those we’ve put in positions of leadership. Those we’ve given power. Those we’ve allowed - whether actively or passively - to climb up our backs to be at the top of the pile. It should make us comfortable as we consider who we’re choosing not to see as they lie in need just outside our gates.

 

So where is the Good News amid these messy, unkind, blind-to-a-fault characters? The Good News my friends is that we have a chance to be different. We have a chance through the continuous love and guidance of Christ Jesus to see people, to as Amy Jill Levine says “[behave] as human beings should behave”[12] by caring for the poor and being our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We have a chance to stand in the way of those who would stand on the backs of others in pursuit of their own power. We have a chance to be hospitable, loving, and Christ-like.

 

Ironically, this parable ends with the rich man asking Lazarus to warn his brothers of his fate. To show his care for them through this Lazarus, a person so far beneath him the rich man actively chose not to see. If Lazarus had gone to the brothers would they’ve listened? Would they’ve have changed? Would they’ve have seen the importance of loving their neighbors and strangers? Would they have questioned their power, influence, and control? We’ll never know.

 

But we can ask ourselves these questions: Will we listen? Will we make the effort? Are we willing to sacrifice our power, our influence, our comfort, our safety for others?

 


[1] “The Life of Our Lord: Written for His Children During the Years 1846 to 1849 by Charles Dickens” from Simon & Schuster website https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/The-Life-of-Our-Lord/Charles-Dickens/9780684865379

[2] Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.

[3] Ibid.

[4] David Lose, “On Stretching Parables,”https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2754, September 23, 2013.

[5] Amy Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, pg. 270.

[6] Ibid, 272.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, 288.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, 292.

[12] Ibid, 295.

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