This is the third of three parts of the teaching of Jesus on the road to Jerusalem that I believe need to be held in tension as we aspire to live as Christians. In the first set of teachings Jesus reminds us that on any given day a tower can fall on innocent people and people can die at the hands of a ruthless ruler, so it is important to repent and be prepared for that every single day. He encourages us not to look for loopholes or shortcuts or minimum requirements for salvation, but to aim for the narrow door by intentionally living your life for God daily. Like the unfruitful fig tree, God is willing to grant reprieves to give us more chances to become fruitful as Christians.
The second set of teachings flip to show us images of a God whose compassion and grace are so radical that they seem too good to be true. God is a good shepherd who leaves ninety nine to go find and restore one lost lamb and then wants everyone to celebrate with him. God is a woman who spends all day searching for a lost coin and wants everyone to celebrate with her when she finds it. God is a father who waits and watches and hopes for a lost child to return, and when he does he runs out to welcome him home in spite of everything and wants everyone to celebrate with him. No lecture, no period of working his way back into the family to prove his remorse, just joy and complete restoration to sonship.
The third set of teachings, represented by today’s parable, reminds us that we can’t count on an endless number of opportunities to run away, to reject the Father’s values and wishes, and that a time will come when chances end and it will be too late for a change of direction.
This particular parable is about wealth, and the reason for that is the context. At the beginning of chapter 16 Jesus has told a parable about money, and his punch line is that people cannot serve both God and wealth. When he finishes, Luke says, the Pharisees ridiculed Jesus for this teaching, because they were lovers of money. The Pharisees were early proponents of what we call today “the prosperity Gospel,” which teaches that if we have lots of money it is because God has blessed us and wants to have lots of money. The obvious corollary in this theology is that if you are sick or disabled or poor then God is obviously not pleased with you for some reason and it is your fault that you are in that position. This mindset, prevalent in Jesus’ day, is shown perfectly in John’s gospel. Jesus and the disciples pass by a blind man and the disciples ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that caused him to be born blind?” Jesus constantly rejected this way of thinking and sought to teach new understandings.
In today’s parable, Jesus intends for the Pharisees to identify with the rich man, and I think they would have been happy to see themselves in that position of obvious blessing from God. Well dressed, able to shut off the outside world with walls and gates, feasting every day with their friends. The rich man has no name, perhaps so they can all see themselves in this role.
Jesus directs their attention out to the gate, where a poor man lies starving to death. He is so weak he is unable to shoo away the dogs which come to lick his sores. This man has a name, Lazarus, and he watches people come and go through the gates to the feasts, hoping in vain that someone will share something from the table with him. The word used for “feast” is the same word used for the celebration when the prodigal son returns home where the fatted calf is killed and everyone is called together for a party. It was a special occasion kind of word, but the rich man did it every day. Why is Lazarus given a name in the parable? One possibility is that the community he was in actually had such a poor man with that very name so that they are faced with the example of a particular person rather than a generality.
Death comes for both Lazarus and the rich man. The rich man has a proper burial by his family and friends. Angels carry Lazarus to be with Abraham. The rich man finds himself in a place of torment, a hot place which fuels many stereotypes of hell. The situation is reversed for the two men, which would be scandalous and sacreligious for the Pharisees. The rich man, whose life so clearly showed the blessing of God, is rejected by God, and Lazarus is embraced by God. In the same way that Lazarus used to look through the gate in the wall longingly up to the house where the people were feasting, the rich man now looks longingly up towards the comfort and security Lazarus is enjoying in the presence of God. The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to bring him some cool water. Abraham laments that there is a big chasm which cannot be crossed, and reminds him that he enjoyed good things in life and Lazarus had nothing, and now things are reversed.
Then the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his five brothers so they won’t suffer the same fate. Abraham refuses, saying that the Scriptures are all they need to teach them how to live, and that even if someone were to come back from the dead they would not believe them. Especially someone like Lazarus. They might not even realize he had died. Another possibility for his having a name is a connection with the Lazarus who Jesus raised from the dead. Jesus bringing him back to life certainly did not convince his opponents of anything except the need to have Jesus put to death. Nor did Jesus’ own resurrection convince many of the sons of Abraham that they had it wrong.
The other possible reason for the poor man having a name but not the rich man is purely symbolic of the absolute reversal that Jesus portrays in this parable. In this life, everyone knows the name of the rich man, envies the rich man, wants to be pals with the rich man. No one knows the name of the poor man, no one wants to be like him or be friends with him, and indeed most people just walk by or ride by without even noticing him. But in the life to come, it is the poor man who is honored, valued, and comforted. God knows his name. He was on the wrong side of the wall and the gate in this life, but he is on the right side in the life to come. Lazarus could sing, “His eye is on the sparrow (a plain, insignificant bird), and I know he watches me.”
There are some important things to note about the rich man in the parable as well. There is nothing to indicate he is a bad or immoral person. Since the Pharisees are the object, the rich man may be a very devoutly religious person. He does not call the sheriff to come remove this eyesore from in front of his house, and he does not berate Lazarus for not having a job and being a lazy bum. His “crime”, if you will, is the feeling of entitlement which leads him to believe God wants him to have all this wealth and it is right just to spend it on his own enjoyment. He could assume that the poor deserved to be poor and that didn’t have anything to do with him, so he could just act as though Lazarus was not even there.
Charles Cousar suggests that it is probably difficult for us to identify either with the abject poverty of Lazarus or the limitless wealth of the rich man, so maybe the place to identify is with the five brothers of the rich man who he would like to send a wake up call to so they don’t make the same mistake he did. It is not too late for us to study the scriptures and learn the kind of life God wants us to live and change our attitudes and practices.
The consumer culture we live in will not teach us this lesson, nor will our economic and political climate. I read this week that 40% of Americans believe they will have to save $1 million in order to retire. That kind of fearfulness will not inspire generosity, just more hoarding.
Jesus talked more about money than any other subject. He wants us to keep it in perspective. Money will not save us and cannot make us secure. Money cannot get us into heaven, though it might be able to keep us out, and we won’t be able to take it with us there anyway. It is right to believe that God gives us everything we have, but it is wrong to believe that God just wants us to stockpile it or spend it all on ourselves. He gives it to us to make a difference with, to learn how to let go and trust, to experience the joy of generosity. God gives us what we have and expects us to be good stewards of it. The daily Bible readings for this week will include the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector and the story of the rich young ruler, and next Sunday we will look at the story of Zacchaeus, who was not only a wee little man but a very rich man.
Karl Barth said Christians are called to engage the world with a Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. What do they have to say to each other and how do they affect our attitudes about poverty and prisons and health care and education and welfare and taxes and immigration and race?
Our country is debating these very issues very hotly now, so this will be a good time for each of us to be studying our Bibles and discerning what we believe God has to say to us about them. Regardless of our politics and regardless of the role our government ultimately choose to play with regard to Lazarus and his kin, none of that will let us off the hook as Christians who are called by God to care for the least of these among us.
Through our partnerships with the Haven of Rest as they seek to help people conquer addiction problems and re-enter society; with Clean Start and the Soup Kitchen as they minister to the homeless; with Family Promise as they work with homeless families; with AIM as they provide basic necessities and assistance and as they help women succeed with education and child care; and all those other ministries and agencies listed in the Mission Drive booklet, we are paying attention to that call from God to share what we have to help those who are in need. It should be only a beginning point for us, depending on our ability, but it helps us remember who we are and that we are accountable to someone for all we have been given in this life.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey March 26, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church Anderson, SC