St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church
Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
1 Timothy 6: 6 – 19
Luke 16: 19-31
Rich Man, Poor Man
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief!
This was a childhood counting game I used to play with my friends in England. We would use stones, bottle caps, or tiny twigs to discover our fate…which would we be…. rich or poor. Then in the 1970’s I read the novel, Rich Man, Poor Man, written by a Russian Jew born to immigrant parents in New York City, Irwin Shaw. You might have read it, too. It sold millions of copies and was so popular, that it was later made into a TV miniseries, which I never knew about, but probably could find on Netflix these days. But I didn’t need the miniseries — the book was enough to become an important piece of theological formation for me. The story about two brothers: one a rich man who lets no one interfere with his drive to success and the other, a poor man….the one the family would rather not think about…who is anything but successful. I recognized parts of myself in each character and, though I didn’t know it at the time, in a way, the book prepared me for the discovery of another Rich Man, Poor Man story, written long before by the author of Luke’s Gospel. Rich Man, Poor Man…and this time only one of them with a name – Lazarus.
Like the issue of a very real rich and poor divide, it is, perhaps, one of Jesus’ parables that we would rather not think about. It is not as complex and puzzling as the parable we heard last week about the rich man and his dishonest manager. On the surface, this story is far easier to understand and seems far less complex. Unlike last week’s parable, this time it is pretty clear who gets the comeuppance and then some. This story isn’t just about getting our just deserts in this world, it is all about justice in the world to come.
And not just one world. We can discover in the parable that there are two worlds within two worlds. There is the world that exists as we know it and live in it, and a world that exists beyond this one. And within each lie two other worlds. The earthly worlds of the haves and have nots and the world of the comforted and that of the afflicted. There are some pretty clear boundaries for us to notice between the worlds and we are caused to wonder, each in our own hearts, just where it is we land on the spectrum of rich to poor in this life, and just where we would be likely to land in a world beyond this earthly life. There doesn’t appear to be any middle ground.
So perhaps the parable, while easier to understand on the surface, becomes far more complex than it appears with a quick read. There are interesting and notable inclusions, omissions and contrasts made as if to emphasize the vast and gaping chasm between the rich man and the poor man. For instance, we know who the poor man is…he is named…Lazarus. But we don’t know the rich man’s name. The rich man is dressed in fine clothes of purple cloth, while the poor man is covered with sores. The rich man feasts sumptuously…with little regard for where the food is from or who has prepared it, served it, cleared its remains away leaving a few bits and pieces for the poor man, Lazarus, to scrabble for. When death comes, the rich man is buried with all his finery with a proper funeral while Lazarus is merely carried away by angels. To all earthly eyes, he simply died and was probably thrown into the paupers’ pit.
The socio-economic situation is not unfamiliar to us. We understand these divisions and live with them. The story is very familiar. There was a rich man and a poor man and they never connected in life. Why would they? That’s the way of the world where there is structure and clear divisions regarding status. We can easily relate… and prefer to relate…. to the rich man. I don’t think any of us want to be Lazarus…lying there, covered with sores, hated by everyone and tended by no one except the dogs who came to lick his sores. Who wants to be him?
But the story brings us up short, because it doesn’t end with death and Jesus won’t let us get away with not thinking about it anymore. Death of earthly living is just an introduction into the main core of Jesus’ teaching, and as we leave the physical earthly world and enter the worlds beyond life, we find the roles reversed, as Lazarus looks down from heaven upon the rich man and as the rich man, looks upward toward heaven and begs for comfort.
If we are feeling an edge of reaction to all this, then Jesus has succeeded in making us squirm just a little bit at the thought of what could lie ahead. Jesus was talking to people who liked money and what it could buy for them. People like us. More importantly, perhaps, Jesus is sending a message to all those before him in his own time and to us today, who love their money and comfort more than people. They work to protect their possessions with more passion than the com-passion they hold for the poor. The availability of their favorite food is far more attention getting than their sense of sharing with whoever is hungry. Their love of status and power is far more enticing than recognizing that everyone has a presence that counts to God. And you could probably add other relevant dualities to the list.
We’ve talked a lot about radical hospitality in this church and our need to think about what that means and what it entails. Here is the story that highlights it. To whom do we offer food and from whom do we take it away. To whom do we offer compassion and from whom do we withhold it? To whom do we direct orders for service and whom do we serve? When do we withhold gratitude in order to uninformed or unfair opinion? When is it not all about us?
Do we check the box when we work one evening a month at Snowcap or a day in the Zarephath Kitchen and call it good? To be sure, those are good and worthy offerings of time. But, do we stop there? Is that enough? Have we fulfilled our quota? Do we pretend to feed the hungry when we are really just feeding our own sense of satisfaction? Do we feel we have reached the end of our spiritual awakening? Don’t need to learn any more about our own personal and/or our communal service to others? Is our sense of completion part of a very slippery slope about which Jesus is cautioning us?
There is no doubt that this piece of scripture is one of the toughest and hardest to read and it is difficult for us to ponder without some sense of accompanying self-condemnation. Is the story simply bad news for the rich and good news for the poor? It certainly seems so….with its echo of the Magnificat which the faithful repeat daily when they say their daily office…. “the rich shall be sent away empty….”
So we are left with a question…is there redemption for us easy-living, Western comfort lovers, who do what we can for others when our schedule allows and after we’ve paid for our extras? Where do we find redemption in a parable that screams out at us…. “be careful….or it will be too late!”
The parable forces us to turn and face our world today and the redemption lies within our courage and determination to do so …..and to do something, however small, about it. Because, make no mistake about it, according to Jesus and to the moral of this story…..all of us here today are, or have the capacity to be, the rich man.
We all know that the gaping chasm between the rich and the poor in our own society and in the world today grows wider and wider with every war, every disaster, every shooting, every riot. The chasm carries with it a familiar complacent excuse, “what can one person do?” Or worse….the chasm carries within itself a reflection of a “do nothing” response today as it did in Jesus’ world.
The hard truth of this parable is that if you don’t do something about it in this world, you will most certainly not be able to do anything about it in the next. If you hoard more than you share and if you hold on to more than your share of power over others, through your money, your need for power or just a complacent and offhand attitude toward others, you will find little or no reward coming your way beyond life as you know it. And if you do things just to feel good or just to have others view you as good, you get the same result.
If the rich man had cared, had noticed and had found passion in helping to feed and care for Lazarus, maybe he would have been sitting with Abraham, too. Yet, he paid no heed to the warnings from the prophets and Moses and Abraham and the doors to Heaven were closed to him forever.
The story carries with it warnings and messages which have been and still are left unheeded and, at the end of the day, the chasm our complacency has created, simply cannot be crossed.
There is a saying in law: “Justice delayed is justice denied,” which seems to be illustrated clearly here by Jesus who extends the teaching to imply that redemption delayed is redemption denied..
The formula is pretty straight forward. If you help to create the economic divide by greed and selfishness, then you are foregoing any opportunity in this life or in any other life to change course to one more acceptable to God.
Yet not all rich people are going to go down in flames….for those who give of themselves freely in an effort to create a little piece of heaven for us all here on earth, will surely find a place in God’s heavenly kingdom when their time in this world is complete.
Most of us can readily think of some multi-millionaires and even billionaires who have made all their money from technology or from some other area of enterprise in the global economy. We hear about a small percentage of them who give their money away to try to solve health issues, or to bring education to those who cannot access it, or who support humanitarian efforts around the world and work to ensure that all people have access to and can enjoy the arts. I know a very wealthy couple who do just that and who live fairly simply, and yet give huge amount of their money to support world-wide problems and at the same time, sponsor free concerts at the opera, or at the symphony and simply make it possible for those artistic entities to exist at all.
And there are many people who might be classified as part of the middle class who generously give money away to support efforts that are working to make life better for others….be it church, animal rights, trafficking, racial injustice and many, many more.
If ever we were to think of our call as Christians to bring good news to the poor, we should be keeping this story in our thoughts.
This parable is directed toward those of us who are hanging on to our privileged lifestyles at the cost to another. Be that through money, or through our words or actions. Sometimes our attitudes are the hardest part of us to change. The rich man in the parable, even in his torment, is still clueless about his own misguided behavior toward others. He is still ordering people to do things for him. Even as he suffers in torment of his own making, he doesn’t speak directly to Lazarus. Rather, he speaks over him to Abraham, asking him to please send over Lazarus to tend to him…to bring water to his lips. Can’t you just hear Abraham now….or see his face? It must have been a sight to see. Abraham refuses all the rich man’s requests for assistance by essentially saying, 2000 years ago style….. “Are you kidding me!?” You want the man who lay in an agony of sores while you feasted on the fatted calf, to come and tend to you? Really? Are you kidding?
Even so….. the rich man actually continues negotiating with Abraham and attempts to manipulate him…perhaps because these approaches worked for him in his earthly world. “Oh, well, if you won’t send Lazarus over here then go and warn my brothers that it’s no fun over here.” But Abraham, says, no way…. “they have Moses and the Prophets…they should listen to them.” (29)
But the rich man persists: ‘No Father Abraham……see, if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” “ And 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.”( 31) Boom! Game over. With these last words on the subject, Abraham brings home perhaps the hardest part of the story to hear…..that to step out of or away from one’s perceived privilege…… together with the attitudes that are attached to it …….is one of the hardest parts of the long walk to transformation.
“Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed,” ring the words of Abraham loud and clear. There is no crossing over once you are on one side or the other. Abraham, the father of three powerful faith traditions throughout history is at once judge and jury and he is sitting with Lazarus. Abraham is not being mean, or cruel or heartless in his responses to the rich man. Even though he is probably disgusted by the rich man’s behavior, Abraham still finds compassion for the rich man lying in torment and takes no pleasure in witnessing the rich man’s plight. But the reality is that he can simply do nothing but, with great mourning, point out that it is far too late to bridge the chasm that lies between the rich man and Lazarus.
And….we are to understand that it is not wealth that is being judged in this parable……it is what we do with it…. how we use it….how we handle it and its accompanying complacency, apathy and neglect. The rich man was not disdainful of Lazarus, he simply didn’t see him…didn’t notice his pain or his dire circumstances.
In our Bible Study time together last Thursday morning, we heard from another Prophet…Amos…who called us to be aware of those who labor for us that we do not notice or even think about. We talked about needing to be aware of who makes our clothes and how they are paid for their labors. And, as if to emphasize the point, I read in the newspaper last week of people in Thailand who are kept in factories fifteen to sixteen hours a day peeling shrimp in icy water. Needless to say, as directed by the outraged author of the article…..I will read the labels much closer when I buy shrimp or anything else. I will need to think about my actions.
Is it better to buy so that people keep jobs regardless of their working circumstances? Or do we find out if, indeed the people who work to bring comfort to us, were paid adequate wages and received benefits. Regardless of what we do, we are called to do something and, at the very least, become informed about how our buying decisions….or any of our actions….affect someone else.
What of the people in our own midst? Who are working 16 hours a day, 24/7 with no vacations, no paid sick time, no benefits…in order to make our lives easier. Yes….they do exist! Who are they? Where are they hidden…..behind which factory walls we have never seen. We all have a responsibility to find out. And we all have a responsibility to care? To see them? To know them and to love them.
What is our response to people who are running from war. Millions of people fleeing to countries who are trying desperately to accommodate them. You probably saw the picture of anguished Egyptians waiting to pull dead bodies of refugees from the waters washing them ashore. Surely, those people waiting on the shore, will be sharing space with Abraham in heaven alongside all those they pulled out of the sea.
The directions had been given clearly in life to the rich man by God through the words of the Prophets and through his Word in Christ. And the same directions have been given to us. We just have to ask ourselves where our boundaries lie. Because our boundaries are not just between us and Lazarus…..be he in our own church and our own neighborhood, be he the suffering servants of the world, be he the lost and the hungry wherever he may be and wherever we find him…..the boundaries are between us and God.
Who and where is the Lazarus Jesus wants us to find? Where is he lying and what barriers do we erect to keep us from having to notice him and that keep him at bay? Where is Christ waiting for us to recognise him….when is he among us, even as we turn away….when he asks us, even as we do not hear…..
“Who is Lazarus?”
Written to the Glory of God
- J. R. Culver+
September 25, 2016
 G. Penny Nixon, Sr. Minister, Congregational Church of San Mateo, United Church of Christ, San Mateo in Feasting on the Word, Homiletical Perspective commentary on Luke 16: 19 -31., Barlett & Taylor, Eds. (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 121.