A sermon preached on September 29th, 2013 based upon Luke 16:19 – 31
Last week we considered a parable of Jesus from the beginning of the 16th chapter of Luke in which a boss discovers that his manager has been squandering the treasure that his employer has entrusted him to oversee. A day of reckoning comes when the manager is called into the boss’s office to give a final accounting of what he has done with the treasure.
The parable led us to reflect on the fact that each of us has been entrusted with a treasure – the gift of our lives.
We all face a final accounting when life comes to an end. The question is addressed: “What did we do with the gift that was given us.”
We have a saying, “life is what you make of it,” which suggests a similar notion that each of us bears responsibility to make something of our lives.
But this morning’s parable, while addressing similar questions, begins with a twist to the notion of “life is what you make of it.”
It begins like this:
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen 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 parable begins by calling attention to the fact that often life isn’t fair. Some people are born into such harsh situations, that — try as they may — they will never escape a life of great suffering. Poor, homeless, hungry, diseased Lazarus represents people for whom life in this world simply isn’t fair. If there is to be any hope for their life on earth, it will be found if others offer help. They can not, on their own, escape their impoverishment.
We don’t need to limit this reflection upon life’s unfairness to only economic conditions. Some people are born into families where they never get the basic love and nurturance that every child deserves.
They grow up abandoned, neglected, abused.
Some people are born with a set of genes that will make it difficult for them to be successful at much of anything in life.
Some people’s brain chemistry will mean they are destined to a life of interior anguish of which others will have little understanding.
And then there is the rich man.
He represents the other end of the spectrum. He dressed in purple linen – the color of royalty. He “feasted sumptuously every day.”
Did he work hard to build what he has? The parable doesn’t say, but even if we assume he has worked quite hard, his hard work doesn’t deny the fact that he had a multitude of advantages from the very outset of his life that were never given to Lazarus. The deck was stacked in his favor. The suffering he knows in this life in no way compares to the suffering that is Lazarus’ destiny in this world.
How do we measure the significance of a person’s life?
By the common standards of the world, the rich man would have been seen as having lived a significant life. Then, and to a large extent now, wealth was seen as a sign of God’s favor.
It’s safe to assume that the rich man lived a moral life as commonly understood. He didn’t cheat on his wife, he didn’t lie or steal in the usual meaning of the words. He probably kept the Sabbath, attending weekly services, and made an effort to keep the Torah, giving a tenth of his considerable income to the synagogue. He would have been thought of as being a “good man” – his name would have been known far and wide.
Lazarus, in contrast, would have been seen as a totally insignificant person in the community. If we know what follows, we might like to imagine that he was a good guy who quietly did a lot of good deeds that went unnoticed – but the story mentions no such thing. If given a chance, it is likely Lazarus would have stolen food and money simply to survive. The only aspect of Lazarus’ life that is highlighted in the parable is that he suffered terribly throughout the course of his life.
In the parable, the rich man is never given a name. Lazarus, an invisible, nameless nobody to his community is given a name – the meaning of which is “God helps.” He is, in fact the only character in a parable told by Jesus who ever received a name.
The eyes of God never lose sight of Lazarus in his suffering.
The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.
Death is the great equalizer. Kings on thrones and people living in the streets both must face death. In a strange way, death binds us all together, if we could only see it that way. You and I might seem to have very little in common, but one very big thing every two people on the face of the earth share if the inevitability of their eventual death.
The rich man surely had a grand funeral with lots of good things said about him, but he wasn’t there to hear them. In all likelihood Lazarus wasn’t buried at all, which in those days would have been the ultimate dishonor.
In Hades, where he was being tormented, he – (the man who in his life on earth had been rich) — 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.’
With death comes the final reckoning – the rendering of the true significance of the two men’s lives. In the transition to the afterlife Lazarus and the rich man undergo a total reversal of fortunes.
As Jesus tells the story, he doesn’t seem interested in the question of whether Lazarus was what we call a “good man.” All Jesus sees is the tremendous burden of his suffering. That, in itself, qualifies Jesus for the kingdom of heaven. The injustice of his lot in life is finally righted as Lazarus rests now in the bosom of Abraham, enjoying the good things he went without in this life.
In absolute contrast, the rich man ends up in hell. The implication is that the seemingly admirable life of the rich man didn’t amount to a hill of beans. It was all for show. The single fact of his life by which he is being judged is that he had no compassion on Lazarus who was there day after day in plain view at his doorstep.
Consistently in the Gospels, and especially in Luke’s Gospel, wealth is seen as a dangerous thing to the health of a soul.
Being rich need not be a bad thing. Indeed, it can be a very good thing. It can put a person in a position to do a whole lot of good and helpful things in this world.
But the love of money can lead us astray. It’s like narcotic. As a person becomes addicted to a drug, the drug and the feeling it provides becomes over time the most important thing. And simultaneously, the addict progressively needs more and more of the drug to provide the same blissful feeling that it originally provided. The drug becomes consuming.
Money has the same consuming quality. “How much money is enough?” some body once asked John D. Rockefeller. His answer, “always a little more.”
The more money a person has, the easier it becomes to isolate oneself from the sufferings of people less fortunate. The “poor” become an abstract concept rather than an actual flesh and blood human being that is known personally. Behind the walls of his mansion, the rich man can avoid interacting with his neighbor Lazarus in his destitute state. He can pass judgment on Lazarus as inferior to himself, unworthy of help.
Money makes it easier for us to deceive ourselves into thinking we are one of the good people – and to see the needy as morally inferior. Yesterday somebody I’m “friends” on face book re-posted the following.
My “friend” who posted this on face book isn’t rich. This person is, like so many of us, middle class folk struggling to keep from descending into poverty. Nor is this person someone who has no capacity for compassion.
Nonetheless, this quote expresses the sort of heartless attitude that the love of money can seduce us into: All those people on public assistance are “lazy bastards.” Have the people who originated this post actually spent time with people struggling to get by with the help of public assistance? I would suspect not.
It’s the same dynamic as when certain kinds of Christians pass judgment on homosexuals. Since they’ve condemned homosexuals, there aren’t likely to be any out-of-the-closet homosexuals in their churches, so they don’t actually personally know a homosexual person. It becomes easier to pass judgment on someone who is nothing other than an abstraction.
The post on face book was particularly bizarre because the drawing that was included shows two well dressed men smiling, seated in a restaurant, clearly enjoying the “good life”, not the sort of setting I would suspect my friend who posted this can afford to go to very often.
The word “entitled” is thrown about a lot these days, and for good reason. People do often feel “entitled” to certain things they’ve never actually earned.
But Jesus’ parable – and the picture in the face book post – suggest there is another form of entitlement than the sort that is commonly referred to – the sense of entitlement that comes over people when they come into possession of a lot of money.
The rich can forget the countless advantages they’ve been given in life that the Lazaruses were never given.
Too often, when people’s income increases, instead responding to their blessings with a spirit of gratitude and generosity, they respond instead with the sense of entitlement expressed in this picture.
Statistically it has been shown that wealthier people are inclined to give away a smaller portion of their income than people who are not so well off.
And yet, because the rich have more money, they may give away a larger actual sum than poor people, and in doing so, they find it easy to convince themselves of their moral superiority.
But Jesus saw the poor widow place her two copper coins in the temple treasury, and he knew that she had given more than any of the rich people ever had.
One of things that Jesus is saying loud and clear in this parable is this: to those to whom much has been given, much is expected.
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.’
This is a very hard parable to hear, isn’t it? Most of us wouldn’t think of ourselves as poor. We aren’t rich either, but our condition in life is closer to that of the rich man than of poor Lazarus living in the streets with wild dogs licking his sores.
And all of us know that there have been plenty of times we have passed by someone in need and done nothing to help. How often have we seen someone suffering, and refused to let their pain into our hearts?
The parable is humbling for all of us.
For me, there is significance to the fact that for the rich man, hardening his heart to poor Lazarus was a life-long pattern. He did it day after day after day.
Something very harmful happens to our souls when we chose a way of life that consistently distances us from others, consistently choosing to close our hearts down to the pain of others.
Eventually our soul disappears.
If we still have within us the capacity for compassion, our souls are still alive.
He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you 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.’
Oftentimes in our society being a good family man is lifted up as the supreme virtue. Love of family is a good thing. We are put here to love, first off, the people given to us closest at hand, our family. But the love of family can represent a kind of self-centeredness writ large.
God intends that our love extend beyond our family to every human being with whom we come in contact. Every stranger, and every enemy, calls forth our capacity for compassion.
Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’
The Torah is full of commandments to care for the poor and the stranger. The prophets were continually calling the leaders to account for neglecting the poor. As Luke sees it, what Jesus is teaching is nothing new. It has always been there in the sacred scripture of the Old Testament if people were willing to hear it. God put us on this earth to care for one another – and that includes everybody. No exceptions.
He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, 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.’”
So now the question to consider is: does this parable give us some kind of blue print for the afterlife?
I don’t think so. Jesus told this parable to challenge us – to get us thinking about the persons in this world whose humanity we fail to recognize.
This is what I believe. There will be a final accounting of the lives of all of us when we die. The kindness and the cruelty that was a part of our personal story will be set before us.
But the one in whose presence this accounting takes place is the God who made us, who loves us more than we know.
The God who created us is that Good Shepherd who seeks the lost sheep, never giving up – searching until the lost sheep is found and brought home. I do not believe that the searching of the Good Shepherd ends when death comes. Somehow — I know not how — God’s love continues to search for us.
There is a great chasm that too often exists in this world between the rich and the poor, but the choice is in some sense our own whether that chasm remains eternally.
To enter into that realm we speak of with the word “heaven” requires that we give up almost everything. We can’t take our worldly possessions with us. But it’s not just earthly treasures we have to leave behind. It’s everything that we carry around within us that hardens our heart.
Our pride and arrogance, for instance. All of us have some. But if we want to enter the kingdom of heaven, we have to let it go.
The parable that Jesus includes some details that suggest the rich man hasn’t let go of his pride and arrogance in the afterlife.
He still seems to view Lazarus as inherently inferior to him. In the fires of hell he asks Father Abraham to send Lazarus to him with a drop of water to soothe his parched lips. He can’t seem to humble himself in the way required to ask for help from Lazarus directly. Lazarus is an errand boy that one powerful man sends to another.
He does the same thing when he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers. He continues to refuse to recognize Lazarus as his equal, worthy of full respect. It is as if the rich man continues to create the chasm by his refusal to give up his pride and arrogance.
Life is a journey of letting go that prepares us to enter into a realm of indescribable love. We have to let go of everything within us that stands in the way of love.
At the end of the parable, it is little gestures of kindness that stand out — not difficult acts of great courage and sacrifice. Little things like someone offering a cool cup of water to a person with a parched throat, or a kind word of warning to a family that is oblivious to the dangers ahead.
In the end, it is the choice to do small, humble acts of kindness and encouragement when the opportunity presents itself to a neighbor in need that defines our spiritual destiny.
None of us has fully arrived at that place where there is only love within us. Mastery of what it means to let go is not ours, but hopefully we’ve learned some lessons along the way. In the course of being humbled with learned something about humbling ourselves. We’ve learned something about receiving forgiveness and offering forgiveness. We’ve learned something about letting the pain of others enter into our own hearts. We’ve learned something about listening through the struggle of life to the call of God to offer compassion to whomever we meet on the journey of our lives.