The Holy Gospel according to Luke. Glory to you, O Lord.
The Rich Man and Lazarus
[Jesus said] “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He 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.” But 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. Besides 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.’ He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ He 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.’ ”
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)
Many times we hear about such and such a pastor as being GIFTED. He/She has so many gifts for ministry; he/she is a gifted speaker, or musician, or counselor; he/she has the gift of leadership, etc. and I applaud and revel in their giftedness. So many people have so many gifts that I don’t have and that I envy.
Singing, for instance. Not only do I wish I could sing better; I wish I didn’t have to practice so long to be somewhat ok. Being creative with Liturgy. Wow, I wish I could do that. I’m a setting One, Two or Ten, pick three hymns kind of pastor. I don’t have the gift of being creative with liturgy. Thak God we have been blessed with Mark and others in that department.
But it’s important to remember why pastors have been given our gifts for ministry. We have received these gifts not for ourselves, not for our own enjoyment and not so that we can be praised and lauded for having these gifts. We have received these gifts for the benefit of the church, for serving God by serving the world, for preaching and teaching, for spreading the Good News of Christ to the world.
The difficulty of this task is revealed to us in our reading from Luke’s Gospel, in the very last line, where Jesus tells the rich man in Hell, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even someone rises from the dead.”
Well someone did rise from the dead, and many are still quite unconvinced, and we, the pastors and the people of the church, still find ourselves talking to people so enamored of their stuff that they are unable to hear the word of truth.
Amos 6:1a, 4-7
The readings for September in both the Hebrew lessons as well as the Gospel lessons have all focused around abundance, generosity, and how we steward the things we are given in this life. Whether we want to admit it or not, and even if it makes us a bit uncomfortable and squirm a bit, one thing can be said in light of these passages: God is concerned with how we use or do not use the gifts we are given in this life.
In other words, stewardship is spiritual. The prophet Amos invites us to ponder the question of security today. What gives you security in life? What allows you to go to bed at night without worries?
In the context of the scriptures Amos, a working-class farmer from the blue-collar ring around Jerusalem, is reminding the elites that unless they start paying attention to the fact that the God does care about how they treat the poor and the marginalized they’ll find themselves joining the poor and the marginalized persons in the world.
This, of course, turns out to be true as Persia invades and the best and the brightest are shipped off to work in Babylon and the wealthy, for the most part, are stripped of their riches and their status while being occupied.
But for us on this other side of history, I think a more pressing question is: how do we imagine our “things” give us security? It’s a two-edged sword, of course. Money is not the end-all and be-all of this life, but it certainly can provide some safety when the storms of life set in. It is a gift to have enough money, a stable place to live, enough food on the table, a bit of savings. All of these things are goods.
We shouldn’t downplay that reality with trite platitudes about how those who go without are often happiest, platitudes that are often repeated but rarely believed.
- It is illusory to trust that our personal bank accounts will insulate us from all disasters.
- It is a lie that we as a society have bought into that the latest trends will make us happy, likeable, and loved.
- It is a fallacy to put all our personal eggs into the economic baskets that the world gleefully offers us and find our purpose and meaning solely there.
Economic comfort is a blessing. Believing it will save us is the curse Amos highlights today. Because if we believe it will save us then we individually seek after it, subconsciously buying into the idea that if more is more, we must have more. More for us. More is a vacuum. The prophet today challenges our profits.
- How much is enough?
- Is more really the end-all and be-all?
- Or perhaps, as the prophet encourages, is a communal understanding more optimal?
Martin Luther contended that in the community gathered around the gifts of God we are free to watch over our neighbor’s well-being because we rest assured that our neighbor is watching after us. The community is more important than the individual. In our boot-straps world we’ve lost this notion, but in the community of Christ perhaps we can regain it.
Going to sleep at night knowing the community of God will hold you, and is counting on you to help hold it? That sounds like security of God’s economy of grace, beloved.
With Luke I need to begin by saying this story is not about the afterlife, it is about the now. This weekend the image that jumps out most in the passage, at least to me, is the image of someone laying at the gate of a home, someone who must be stepped over in order to go in and out of the home.
Who do we step over?
- Do we step over the person with the sign at the intersection, averting our eyes so that we don’t have that uncomfortable stare because we don’t have cash on us, or even if we do, don’t intend to share it?
- Do we step over the hard questions around income disparity in the United States due to gender, education, or opportunity because we’re afraid of the answers?
- Do we step over the reality of climate change in our world and then avert our eyes as Jackson, Mississippi spends a summer without usable water not only because their infrastructure can’t handle the demand, but also because they’re suffering the effects of a warming world?
We ignore a lot in this world and explain away a lot in this world because sometimes facing the realities around us might make us change our behaviors, right? And we hate change.
- Change requires something of us. It requires that we give up on our need for control, give up on our desire to dictate the outcomes of life, give up on our ignorance when it comes to the realities of the world around us.
- Change requires that we’re honest with ourselves and our God, and that we make an honest attempt to shrink the chasm, as the reading says, between what we want to believe is true and what is true.
What we want to believe is true: everyone is awarded in this life according to their merits. What is true, according to the Christ: circumstances are different for different people, and the responsibility placed upon us is to care for our neighbor.
What we want to believe is true: as long as I’m OK, I’m OK. What is true, according to the Christ: your life is entangled with the wellbeing of those around you.
This gift from Luke today is not about the afterlife, but about the stark truths of this life. We need not step over this reality but are indeed invited to live into it today and, yes, make changes accordingly. Afterall, the God we see in Christ did not step over humanity in his life, but rather stood with us, laying with us at the gate of needing mercy, and in return we all were raised to a new life and invited into a new way of being in this life.
Our calling as a community of faith is to take the old, old familiar story of God and sin and rescue and rebellion and death and resurrection; a story that has been told so often that many no longer listen, or if they listen, they think they know what it means and how it’s going to turn out. We are called to take that story and like Jesus, tell it in new ways, with surprising endings. We are called to tell that story to this generation, to people in the 21st century.
We are called to aim the story at the spiritual needs of people living now, in this time of richness and poorness, in this age of technology and social networking and the collective national attention span of a goldfish.
We are called to bring the great truths of Moses and the prophets to people on this side of the grave, so that they will hear the call to repent, to turn, to change, to bring their lives into alignment with God’s will and God’s way.
Delmer Chilton tells a story as he started his career as a pastor in three little churches in rural NC. Wood-frame buildings on isolated dirt roads, a few dozen farmers and shop-owners and their children and grand-children who drove out on Sundays from the cities to visit the folks and go to church. One weekday he went into a church member’s place of business for lunch: Alvis Brigg’s Bar-B-Q. As he walked in, a Briggs grandchild, a boy about 4 years old, spotted him. He stood up in the booth where he was sitting and yelled out, “Hello . . . ” and then he was silent, because he couldn’t remember where he knew Delmer from. He tried a couple more times, “HELLO . . . ” then silence and meditation, “HELLO . . .” again, and more thoughtful silence. By this time everyone in the room was quiet and looking back and forth between the boy and Delmer. Finally his face brightened and he shouted, “HELLO CHURCH!”
We are called to remember who we are as God’s people, and to remember what we have to say and we are to say it and do it in such a way that when people see us coming, they will shout in their hearts, “HELLO CHURCH!”
Maybe the tragedy of the Rich Man is less about him burning in Hades and more about the way he had constructed his life to be cut off from reality, from feeling compassion in the face of suffering, from the joy of sharing what we have, from the satisfaction of being able to see dignity and even beauty in the faces of those whom we might instinctually turn away from seeing, like a man with a dog licking his open sores.
Jesus is retelling a classic folktale of his era. We think it originated in Egypt and was told among Gentiles of Luke’s audience. And he uses a classic storytelling technique about an imaginary future to provoke a change in his listeners.
Think here of the modern story A Christmas Carol. Dickens used the same technique, right? A Christmas Carol isn’t about the reality of ghosts, it is about the possibility of a stubborn, closed-in, old man’s conversion to generosity and joy.
Jesus focuses very little attention on the afterlife through the Gospels, but he regularly uses images of the future to shake us up and help us become more conscious of how we are living now. He speaks about the kingdom of heaven, not as an imaginary destination where your soul goes after you die; it is, rather, how God intends this world to be when we have our priorities right and follow God’s will for our lives. Remember that line, “on earth as it is in heaven?”
On the one hand, Jesus’ parable affirms the moral of the folktale: Don’t be like the Rich Man…or else! But, on the other hand, a parable is a parable because there is always more meaning than just the plain sense. So perhaps some of “the more” in this parable is that God’s Kingdom has a special affinity for the least, lost, last, and lonely. And Lazarus certainly is among the least and last, but maybe the Rich Man is among the lost and lonely.
So, to stay with the imagery of the parable, while his death and confinement in Hades might have poked a few holes in the Rich Man’s buffer, I suspect that the chasm between him and Lazarus will remain until he can see the full humanity of Lazarus, until the scope of his concern for others’ wellbeing extends beyond his own kin.
Friends, Jesus invites us through this teaching to let our guards down, keep our gates unlocked, our ears unplugged, our eyes wide open, so that our souls may become less buffered and more and more porous to the flow of Spirit’s generosity.