Trading Places

A sermon for Proper 21

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15, Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31

Randolph and Mortimer are wealthy beyond compare. Their commodities brokerage business is the envy of all. Which, to some, is a surprise because the brothers bicker about any, and everything.

Louis Winthorpe III is their managing director. By chance Louis runs into Ray Valentine a hustler who begs for money in the disguise of a blind wheelchair bound invalid; well actually Ray runs into Louis, literally. Louis insists Ray be arrested, and he is.

As it turns out the Duke brothers have always argued about whether nature or nurture determines a person’s behavior. They decide to switch Ray and Louis. So, they frame Louis for theft and drug possession, fire him, and with all his assets, including his posh downtown apartment, frozen, Louis is on the streets. Then they bail Ray out of jail, and arrange for him to be hired as managing director of their firm, with all the perks, housing etc. The great experiment is on.

By chance Ray over hears the Duke brothers discussing their $1.00 nature vs. nurture bet. He sets out to find Louis, and returns to the streets he came from. He finds a former fellow hustler, and together the search for Louis. They find him nearly dead from an overdose. After Louis recovers they tell him of the Duke’s bet. Then a chance TV news report gives them the opportunity to turn the tables, which of course they do, in classic Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd comic style. [i]

Here is what connects Trading Places with this morning’s readings. Randolph and Mortimer Duke treat both the high society Louis and the street hustler Ray with indigent contempt. They do not see either of them as a person. Both are mere beings, who, because of their extreme wealth, power and privilege, they can treat as they desire. In this respect they are very much like Dives, from Jesus’ parable.

Actually I must correct myself. There is no “Dives” in this morning’s parable. Though often used as a name ‘dives’ is actually Latin for rich man. And it is more important that you’d think. Lazarus, is the only character from all the Parables with a name. Throughout scripture names, naming, and changing names are key elements. So, it is critical to gleaning truth from this parable that the rich man remain unnamed, and that Lazarus be known by name. Without being judgmental that difference reveals something about the qualitative difference in their relationship with God.

Back to the Duke brothers, sort of. When Lazarus is in heaven, the rich man refers to him by name! Lazarus is no faceless, stranger, he is just a person the rich man ignored. Upon closer reading, we will notice the rich man continues to relate to Lazarus as a servant. He does not ask father Abraham to ask Lazarus for help, he asks Abraham to tell Lazarus to help him. Lazarus is still just a being, who, because of his extreme wealth, power and privilege, the rich man can treat as he desires, even from the torment of Hades. One has to wonder, if the yawning chasm between Lazarus and the rich man is of the rich man’s own creation. A colleague blogged about the foreshadowing of Abraham’s words: 

neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead. [ii]

They are full of doom. However, he got me to looking at literary devices, and how Abraham’s words:

so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so,

is foreshadowing Jesus doing exactly that, in shattering the bond of death; these are words full of surprising hope.

All this attention to relationship moves us away from hearing this parable as a primer on heaven bound behavior, to a subtle hint to the importance of interpersonal relationship, with all people. The rich man did not, could not see Lazarus as a person worthy of his time, his assistance, because the rich man believed his wealth, power and prestige put him above others. Even from the depths of Hades he maintained this belief. In doing so he put wealth, power and prestige between himself and God. And that is exactly the lesson Paul is impressing on Timothy. Read closely, Paul never condemns wealth, power and prestige, he does speak the truth, they are fleeting and unreliable, the last 7 or 8 years has taught us that. Paul also says the rich are to: do good, be rich in good works, generous and ready to share. All of those qualities relate to how we relate to others around us, especially those whom we perceive as different. You see, I think both Randolph and Mortimer got it wrong. It’s neither nature nor nurture that matters. What matters is that everyone is a beloved child of God, and that determines how we should relate to them, and that determines how they … well it’s like that old insurance commercial, where one person does a good for another, who does a good deed for another, who does a good deed for another, and on and on and on, each showing another a foreshadowing of God’s salvation. In this way everyone sees that the Kingdom of God is, that God’s will is done right here, right now.

[i] Trading Places, IMDB,
[ii] Draughting Theology, Steve Pankey,
Working Preacher,
       Craft of Preaching, On Stretching Parables
       Monday, September 23, 2013 10:35 AM | David Lose

       Commentary on Luke 16:19-31, Lois Malcolm
       Commentary on 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Christian A. Eberhart

Sermons that Work, st-proper-21-c-2013/
Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz, 19 Pentecost, Proper 21 (C) – 2013, September 29, 2013
This Week at the Center for Excellence in Preaching
       Luke 16:19-31,  Scott Hoezee
       1 Timothy 6:6-19, Stan Mast


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