Year C Proper 21, 25 September 2022
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
Collect: O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
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 looked up 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, 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.' Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' 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.'"
It would be an easy sermon today if I were to stand up here and denounce the rich, and uphold poverty as an ideal. But, in my reading of it, Jesus is not saying that. This story is profound and deep, and according to commentaries, this tale predates Jesus to which he added his own unique spin.
This story is not about rich versus the poor, though that is in there at a surface level.
This story is not about heaven and hell, even though the afterlife is the setting.
This story is really, deep down, about priorities, privilege, and a certain hardness of heart.
We are still in Chapter 16 of Luke from last week and we were in Chapter 15 in the weeks before. We are still looking at how the Pharisees are so close to Jesus’ teachings in some ways, but so far in others. Last week, we looked at what God treasures most, each and every one of us for those that missed it, and calls us to put first in our lives. We must look at the chapter as a whole and we get a fuller and more rich picture.
Chapter 16 of Luke begins with last week’s confusing parable about the Dishonest Manager. (vv. 1-13) But then we get into an argument with the Pharisees which our lectionary readings skip over.
I want to read a part of that and summarize the rest.
14 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. 15So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.
The Pharisees understood earthly gain as an external proof of God’s blessings. We still hear it in phrases like, “I must be living right!” when something good happens. I hate to say it, but Prosperity Theology is still with us. This just simply is not how the universe works. God knows our hearts, and what we hold most dear. We cannot hide it. Is it stuff, or love of God and others? As mentioned, I talked about this last week about how it was intended to be love of each other, and our deepest, truest self.
Verses 16 & 17 talk about how the prophets continue to ring true and cannot be dismissed. And Verse 18 upholds the sanctity of marriage and how divorcing one’s wife leads to adultery. These were other sins of the Pharisees, and then we dive into this tale of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Do not confuse this Lazarus with the one resurrected in John.
The name here is so important. There is a sense of irony maybe, from a cynical perspective, in its meaning. It comes from the Hebrew word, Elazer, which means “God has helped.” Pivotal in understanding both Luke’s Lazarus and John’s, “God has helped” does not receive help at first, and it leads to many questions. In John, Lazarus dies because of Jesus’ delay. Here Lazarus begs at a rich man’s gate with dogs licking his open sores. I will have to focus on Luke’s Lazarus because of time.
But in this story, notice a few things. The word used here in the story is Hades, which is a very different understanding than the word we use for hell. Hades was the gathering place for the dead. Some understandings were that death was it. Nothing more. When you are dead you are dead, and you may or may not be conscious.
Some other understandings were that this was the gathering place for the souls of the dead awaiting Judgment Day. There is no mention of that in Jesus’ parable. And remember that. This is a story to point out something to us. I do not hear Jesus saying that this is what the afterlife is like. I think it is a story, as I mentioned, about the hardness of heart.
Lazarus dies after a hard life. And when he dies, he is welcomed into the bosom of Abraham. Now once again, remember who Jesus is speaking to. His disciples, and the very upset Pharisees who thought that a righteous man, like they were, would never eat with tax collectors and sinners. But Jesus is showing one that would have been judged for his sins (Lazarus) as receiving the ultimate reward, nestled into Abraham’s bosom for eternity. Are you starting to see how controversial this story would have been to the listeners. Jesus is flipping tables in the hearers’ minds just like he did in the Temple.
And then we have the Rich Man. And before we get any further. I do not think that the lack of name here is accidental, any more than I think that the use of Lazarus (God-has-helped) is accidental. That Rich Man could have been so many of his listeners. Nameless they could unconsciously place themselves in this spot. The nameless Rich Man dies soon after Lazarus, and finds that his expected place of comfort in the world to come is anything but that. He is hot and thirsty. And to add insult to injury, the beggar he ignored on his own doorstep is in comfort, and here he is suffering. As a child of Abraham he begs Father Abraham to send Lazarus over with a drop of water on his finger. He has learned some humility in that while dogs licked Lazarus’ wounds in life, the unnamed Rich Man is willing to lick his finger in the afterlife. But Father Abraham recognizes this privilege for what it is, and breaks up the plea with a reminder of the chasm between the two of them.
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.
But the privilege expected then went on to his family. In the final interchange we see some hard and deep truths. And it closes with a phrase that catches our attention knowing the “rest of the story.”
‘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.' Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' 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.'"
Your brothers had all they needed. Moses. The Prophets. They were warned. Now, I am hearing the 5 Books of Moses, the Torah, the first 5 books in the Bible, summed up in Moses. The Prophets, the Nevi’im, are included as well. They had all they needed to do right, and if they have not listened now they never will.
“Then send Lazarus to warn them! Surely if someone rises from the dead they will change their ways!”
And here is where our Christian ears perk up, for Father Abraham announces what may sound as judgment, but I hear it more as a declaration of human nature.
'If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'
Lazarus coming back would not do it, and neither would anyone else’s resurrection, even the storyteller’s. Those hardened of heart would explain it away as fraud or “fake news.”
Friends, this is why I have to say that this parable is not about rich vs. poor, or about what comes after death. This is a story told to make a point. A point to the hearers then, and the hearers 2,000 years later.
One of the most atrocious of sins we can commit is hardness of heart, not because one sin is greater than any other. I see hardness of heart as so devastating because there is nothing outside that can make a difference. We have to choose to become vulnerable, to unharden our deepest self, to love.
Friends, that is where we are today. We can talk about helping people. Some may do it for show. Some may do it out of kindness. Only God can look on the heart. But each and every one of us has a Lazarus on our metaphorical doorstep. They may seem like a pain or a bother, but maybe they are a gift from God to crack our hardened hearts. “We are put on earth a little space to learn to bear the beams of love.” But we learn to bear them not to hoard them, but to share them.
Love is not a zero sum game, where there are winners and losers. When love reigns, it expands and grows. Being married taught me that. Being a parent just as much. Being a priest even more. We all are given all we need to do what God has called us, has GIFTED us rather, to do.
While it may be a story, the Rich Man and Lazarus still teaches us and humbles us. Let us not forget. And may our hearts break open and the love flow out while it can. We do not have eternity, we are only given Now to do what God would have us do. Amen