The Demand for a Sign

I spent this weekend with the folks of First Presbyterian Church of Neenah, offering a day of retreat and reflection on Saturday and preaching at their Sunday services.  The Gospel on which I spoke was the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus.  (Great synchonicity: the program I gave Saturday was on praying with Jesus’ parables.)

In the first part of my sermon, I spent some time addressing the attachment to wealth portrayed by the rich man and the dangers of that attachment.

I then talked about the rich man’s request to Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to give them a warning.  What may seem like a simple request designed to save his brothers reveals something else.

What the rich man really says here is what so many people, both then and now have said to God: “If you really want us to believe in you and organize our lives in accord with the revealed word of the Bible, make yourself clearer.  Give us a sign.”  Here: Send us someone from the next world to tell us it is really so.

The demand for signs, for more evidence of Revelation, is something that runs through the entire Gospel.  Matthew and Mark both record the Pharisees and Saducees coming to Jesus and testing him by asking for a sign.  In Luke, Jesus laments, “This generation is a wicked generation; it seeks a sign.  John records the Jews asking Jesus what sign does he show them as his authority for doing what he does.  And Jesus laments, “unless you see signs and wonders you do not believe.”

Abraham’s answer to the rich man, like Jesus’ answers to his contemporaries’ demand for signs in other contexts, is clear: If people do not believe the word of Scripture, then they will not believe someone coming from the next world either.  In the words of Pope Benedict: “The highest truths cannot be forced into the type of empirical evidence that only applies to material reality.

What sign do we have?  George Martin, in Bringing the Gospel of Luke to Life,  writes

While the rich man spoke of someone from the dead going to his brothers, Abraham in his response uses the phrase rising from the dead.  Luke’s readers [although not Jesus’ audience] would naturally think of Jesus’ rising from the dead.  The resurrection of Jesus will not convince everyone that he is God’s Son and Messiah, Lord and savior.  In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke will tell how the Gospel message is accepted by some and disbelieved by others; Abraham’s words foreshadow such disbelief.

And if we think in those terms, we need to ask ourselves: Do we not recognize in the figure of Lazarus – lying at the rich man’s door covered in sores – the mystery of Jesus, who suffered outside the city walls and was stretched naked on the cross, delivered over to the mockery and scorn of the crowds.

And Jesus, the true Lazarus, has risen from the dead – and he has come to tell us so.  Pope Benedict wrote

If we see in the story of Lazarus Jesus’ answer to his generation’s demand for a sign, we find ourselves in harmony with the principal answer that Jesus gave to that demand.” [And he refers back to Jesus’ words when asked for a sign that no sign will be given except the sign of the prophet Jonah.  He continues with Jesus’ words] “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

In other words: God’s sign is the Son of Man; it is Jesus himself.  He is the sign of Jonah.


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