Rich Man & Lazarus
Pastor Leta Arndt Behrens
Sermon Scripture: LUKE 16:19-31[Jesus said:] 19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”
Oh how I want to make this parable feel better. Tame it down it somehow to make us who sit in the 21st century surrounded by conveniences never even dreamed about when this parable was told and when the words of Jesus were remembered and written down. And there are ways to interpret the scripture in a much “nicer”, more comfortable way. There are interpretations that that tell us that the Jewish people of the time would have heard this text and been shocked to hear that wealth wasn’t a blessing and that poverty could ‘get you into heaven’. There are writings and sermons and devotions that try to explain away why someone who is rich would be denied the comforts of being called home to God just for being rich. I am sure I have even given a sermon alluding to this idea that Jesus was attacking a cultural norm that wealth meant blessing from God and poverty meant curses from God and thus he had come to reverse this notion and be that bridge that brings us together. And while all these things have truth in them, they in effect try to make a story that is true at face value look like it has something to hide.
Remember, this is a parable. A story meant to point out the vast, exaggerated differences so that we have a chance of seeing where we fall. The rich man, who has a gate, who is described as being dressed in fine linens and eating sumptuous everyday is vastly wealthy. Is outside of the norm of the everyday person. And Lazarus, who is laid at the gate, who’s sores are licked by the dogs and who’s very life and breath depends on someone else, is beyond poor, beyond the realm of our own understanding. The two are divided. They are divided by social status. They are divided by how they experience the world. The chasm between them is one that has no bridge to cross over.
The person hearing Jesus tell this story would have known they were not the rich man and they would have known they were not the poor man. Furthermore, they would have known that the problem with the rich man was not his wealth, but that he was the one acting outside of social, cultural, and religious norms. It was not the culture of the time or the religion of the Jews to ignore the poor and step over them at the gate. Many scripture passages in the torah and the prophets tell the people to care for the widow, the sick, the hungry. Deuteronomy 15 commands, If there is any among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns, do not be hard hearted or tight fisted toward your needy neighbor. Isaiah 57: 7 teaches: “Share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, cover them and do not hide yourself from your own kin.” The true shock in the story is that the Lazarus, who may have been lain at the gate of this man precisely because others knew he had the capacity to help, was not even seen or acknowledged. And that in the afterlife, the rich man still did not really see him as he asks him to go and relieve his thirst. This rich man was creating a new system by turning away, the problem with the rich man was not his wealth-remember Jesus said it is the love of money that was the problem–the problem was his placing Lazarus outside of society, outside of Faith practice, outside of God’s promise.
And then in the afterlife, Abraham, known as ‘father’ to the people, as one who would hold the children of God close, tells the rich man no. No, this man is not outside of God’s promise. He is here. You have created this chasm and tried to divide, but that is not the truth. God creates the kingdom, God’s promises and law triumph, God’s love persists here and in the life you were given. So, No he will not help you and no I will not go and warn your family.
This is the harsh part. The no. The no created by the rich man’s not seeing. The no created by the story to show plain and simple that the calling of God reaches beyond social status and also beyond actions. Notice, Lazarus did not do something to earn his salvation. This is not a theology of making us think we have boxes to check. Remember-this is a parable. It is meant to make us sympathize with Lazarus, dislike the rich man in the story, and then wonder–what about us in the middle-what about the merchants and the artists, what about the teachers and the nurses, what about the CEOs and the city council members and police officers and construction workers?
What does this parable, this story mean for us who give money to foodbanks, help in shelters, bring food items for kids to make breakfast and snack kits, who give time and money and prayer to this very church that reaches and changes so many lives. What does it mean for us who do our best to remember to take reusable bags to the grocery store and use our resources wisely?
What does this mean for us who also know that reality is, just as it was for the 8th century Israelites and the disciples walking with Jesus, that we participate in systems of injustice both knowingly and unknowingly. We like our conveniences, we do drive more than we walk, we do run water unnecessarily sometimes, and buy clothing at discount stores that rely on cheap labor from developing countries and we do probably eat more at one meal than three quarters of the world eats all day. So are any of us really free from the systems and power or greed that our in place and can we really tell the difference all of the time? Are we doomed to create chasms in our world whether we want to or not and how can we truly bring blessing into our lives and the lives of others?
Amy Jill Levine, a Jewish new testament scholar writes about this parable and says in summary of this parable: Do not just contribute to the food drive, but invite the hungry into your home. Do not just put money in the collection plate, but use your resources to provide jobs and support for those in need. Do not treat the sick as burdens, but as beloved family members who deserve love and care. Know the names of the destitute; each has a story to tell. Recognize, as Jesus puts it, that you cannot serve both God and mammon.”
Remember, even as Abraham is saying no, he is also saying yes. When the rich man asks him to warn his family, Abraham replies, they already have what they need. Ahh, so there is the grace. Wasn’t sure we were going to find it here, but there it is. A promise. That it doesn’t matter who you know or what questions you have or who your family is or how you make your way in the world. You have what you need. And what you have matters. That is, you have the knowledge, you have the resources, you have the love in your heart to make a difference and to be ones that create bridges not chasms. Jesus came not to tell people they had it all wrong, but to show them and us that God is here, all along, giving us the Spirit that brings us scripture and inspiration and people and eyes and hearts. You have what you need to know how to make your way in this world.
God has nothing to hide. That is grace. This parable pushes us to go beyond what we think is possible and really see the gifts we have and really hear the calling of how to be in the world. This is the blessing from Abraham, passed on and down through the Spirit to us.. That you, and me and the very rich and the very poor and everyone in between matter and God seeks to bring us together, not divide us a part. And the plain, simple truth is that God goes before you and with you and behind you all the way.