Luke 16:19-31 CEB
“There was a certain rich man who clothed himself in purple and fine linen, and who feasted luxuriously every day. At his gate lay a certain poor man named Lazarus who was covered with sores. Lazarus longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Instead, dogs would come and lick his sores.
“The poor man died and was carried by angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. While being tormented in the place of the dead, he looked up and saw Abraham at a distance with Lazarus at his side. He shouted, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I’m suffering in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things, whereas Lazarus received terrible things. Now Lazarus is being comforted and you are in great pain. Moreover, a great crevasse has been fixed between us and you. Those who wish to cross over from here to you cannot. Neither can anyone cross from there to us.’
“The rich man said, ‘Then I beg you, Father, send Lazarus to my father’s house. I have five brothers. He needs to warn them so that they don’t come to this place of agony.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets. They must listen to them.’ The rich man said, ‘No, Father Abraham! But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will change their hearts and lives.’ Abraham said, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, then neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’”
Would you believe me if I told you that today’s sermon is about hope? After hearing today’s scripture passage, it would be understandable if you had some doubts, but I assure there is this hope in this parable about the rich man and Lazarus. This final parable in our September sermon series, “Having Words with Jesus,” gives us the hopeful message that gaps can be crossed and divisions bridged in this life. You’ll notice I said this life as what this parable does not give us is the luxury of waiting until the next life for everything to be made right. In the world to come, God’s priorities will be made plain, and the entirety of the world we thought we knew will have been turned on its head to reveal what the kingdom really looks like. When the dust clears and chasm stands before us, where will we have landed? Already you can see that our story has it all this morning: the afterlife, economic disparity, and holy living. In the end, we are left with the hopeful message that we have the tools and resources to live into the kingdom of God now if only we are willing to listen and carry God’s words out in our lives and in our community.
In this morning’s parable, we have our great story of reversal, the world turned upside down. So, where to start? First off, did anyone notice something strange about today’s parable? This is at least the fifth parable we’ve spoken about since this sermon series began, and thus far, none of them have had a character with an actual name. And yet, here while we have the unnamed rich man, we also have a poor man, named Lazarus. Right away, something seems strange. Normally, we hear about the rich men, for they are the names that make it into the paper and into history. For instance, Andrew Carnegie, a 19th century billionaire, is behind the creation and funding of over a thousand libraries, and his philanthropic foundation has used the money he earned to fund everything from the discovery of insulin to the creation of Sesame Street. His name decorates many buildings today but the names of the millions who have entered their doorways often go unrecorded and unmentioned. Here though, it is one of these many unnamed that goes named while the rich man is left in obscurity.
The reversals only continue after they die. In life, the rich man adorns himself in purple and feasts in luxury everyday while Lazarus lies outside his gate, longing for even the crumbs from his table with his only company being the dogs who lick the sores on his body. When they pass, Lazarus is taken into Abraham’s embrace while the rich man finds himself in hell. In life, the rich man had only to look out his gate to see Lazarus, but here in this odd geography of the parable’s afterlife, apparently hell and heaven sit on either side of a vast chasm. Not only can each side see the other but apparently they can hear each other as well.
Their positions are reversed, and when these two sides do start exchanging words, we can see this reversal has clearly caught the rich man unprepared. Listen to his words to Abraham, he shouts, “‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I’m suffering in this flame.’” Now, first, you might be asking yourself, “Why is Abraham even in this story?” I would invite you to table that for now, as we will revisit why Abraham is perhaps in this story later. For now, look at how the rich man addresses or more accurately, fails to address Lazarus. He sees himself as a child of Abraham, but not Lazarus who he commands to be sent to give him some water. He would not see him as someone to care about in life and fails to see how that is wrong in the afterlife. He cannot even address him directly, instead only speaking to Abraham, and twice in their conversation he tries to have Lazarus sent like a dog to do his bidding.
At this point, it is almost ironic that the rich man would call Abraham his father because he does not act at all like a child of Abraham. You see, by this point in history, Abraham was seen as this fatherly figure and his hospitality to strangers was seen as one of his principle qualities. Let’s not forget he even unknowingly entertained angels by being so welcoming! Abraham appears in this story because it shows that anyone who would behave like this is not a true child of Abraham for this is not what Abraham would have done.
What I find distressing and shocking in this parable is a detail in the rich man’s exchange with Abraham which is so small as almost to be missed. In that first exchange with Abraham, did you notice it, something important, something key? The rich man cannot claim he never saw Lazarus, never knew his need. For you see, he calls Lazarus by name. This poor man at the very gate of his house was known to the rich man and he still failed and did nothing. Simply put, we are reminded again and again that the rich man knew what was required of him toward Lazarus and failed to do it. He has called himself a child of Abraham but could not follow his forefather’s example. As a child of Abraham he is also calling himself a faithful follower of God, but he has failed to listen and apply what scripture has told him. In Deuteronomy 15:7 it says, “Now if there are some poor persons among you, say one of your fellow Israelites in one of your cities in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, don’t be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward your poor fellow Israelites.” Again in Isaiah 58:7, the command is clear: “Isn’t [what is acceptable to the LORD] sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house, covering the naked when you see them, and not hiding from your own family?” While at first, the rich man’s sin might seem to be his wealth, but more accurately, a closer look shows us it is the rich man’s failure to hear and apply the measure and concern of God’s word that damns him, namely, that it’s not about what we have but what we do. The rich man could have closed the gap and crossed the gulf between himself and Lazarus when it was only a gate between them, but nothing can be done now that it is a chasm and now he is on the wrong side.
The rich man made the mistake of presuming that his status as a child of Abraham or his wealth demonstrated that he deserved heaven. We often do the same. There are many who call themselves Christians and say that they follow God today that are no better off than this rich man. Even if we do not possess the obvious worldly wealth of the rich man, we all demonstrate where we have stored up our treasures in how we decide whether someone like Lazarus deserves our help or not. Often we will only give our aid to those poor we deem worthy and withhold from those we see as less than deserving. What gives us the right? By virtue of our resources in this world, do we really think we get to be judges of whether another deserves to be treated like family or shunned at the gate? Tell me, would any of us be seen as worthy without the grace of God? Where would we be if Christ had not done what he did on the cross and in the tomb? Jesus did not wait until we had earned our place, but gave us grace and tore down the gates that separated heaven and earth. All I can say is that we should be careful about building gates, for we don’t know when we might find ourselves on the other side of them.
Now, I said that this sermon is one of hope, and it is. Our parable reminds us that there are gaps in this world, and we even told in the words of Abraham that they may be crossed in this life. The rich man learns from Abraham that the chasm in our story’s afterlife cannot be crossed, and so he again demands that Abraham send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them. Again, he reveals his concern is not really about Lazarus, for the warning is not so these brothers can rescue the many millions of unnamed Lazaruses but instead for them to be kept from “‘this place of agony.’” I love what our parable says this morning. Abraham tells him that his brothers have the tools to cross the gap, but the rich man pleads that only a man raised from the dead could persuade them. Here’s the response I love from Abraham: “‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, then neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’” As we heard in Deuteronomy and in Isaiah and we see echoed in the cross of Christ, God has given us both the command and the means to love our neighbor and care for those separated by the gulfs and gaps of this life. That’s our hope after all. There is no gulf or gap that cannot be crossed because God would not have given us the words of the law or the prophets or of Jesus if it could not be done.
Jesus is the key, for it takes a cross to get across the gulf of the chasms we have built in this world. In our parable it is between the rich and the poor. These gaps can have many different names. They can be the gaps we have dug between political parties. They can be the gaps we dig between our Christian religion and others. The chasms in this life are many, and as vast as they might seem, again and again God has reminded us that they can be crossed if only we are willing to listen and see. Even a man coming back from the dead is not enough if we are not willing to listen to the words God is trying to tell us! Christ through the cross has put us in right relation with God which is our salvation but this right relation can only happen when we are right with people too. Remember, that there are two laws, love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself. To neglect to hold these two parts together is a sure way to one day find ourselves looking out from the wrong side across a chasm that cannot be crossed. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman