Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Rich Man and Lazarus: Waking Up

I am indebted to David Lose for his insight into today's Gospel reading. I preached the core of this sermon in 2010, but have reworked it somewhat. I as always look forward to your comments and constructive criticism.

LUKE 16:19-31
"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.'"

This is the Word of the Lord.

When Jesus spoke in parables, he used scenery, items, situations and characters which were familiar to the people who were listening to his words. There are scholars who believe that our parable this morning is an adaptation of a Jewish folk tale, for example. But Jesus does something in this parable that he does nowhere else, in any parable at any point in any Gospel in the entire New Testament in any translation: he gives one of his characters a name.

Oh, it sounds normal enough, like all of Jesus’ parables. Here’s the rich man, enjoying the fruits of his wealth, while right outside his doors, at the gates of his compound, a sick, starving, forgotten man slumps weakly, wracked with hunger, eaten with sores. But alone among every story Jesus ever told, this poor, suffering man has a name: Lazarus!

Now, I’ve heard a lot of sermons about this parable: I’ve heard preachers who used it as a way to describe the afterlife, for example. Once, I even heard someone suggest that the rich man and Lazarus were actual people that Jesus knew, and that the parable was describing eternal events which had actually happened.

Those kinds of interpretations frustrate me, because the point of the parable isn’t any of that.

This parable, with its rich description of comfort for the suffering and torment for the disengaged wealthy, isn’t at all about the afterlife, not really. The parable is a parable, a story which drives home a point. It is not a systematic theology of the afterlife.

This parable isn’t even about money, believe it or not. The point of the parable is found in one small word: Lazarus. Not, like so many people in the parables of Jesus, a loosely-defined character in a larger story, nor is he, like so many people who ask for healing or restoration in the Gospels, defined by his condition or his disease. He is Lazarus. He is a person, an entity – singularly among all the people who occupy all of Jesus’ stories, he has flesh.

We know who Lazarus is… and the shocking truth is, so does the nameless rich man in this parable! Honestly, I confess that I have read and heard this parable for as long as I can remember, and it never occurred to me. I always imagined that Lazarus, the poor, diseased, marginalized, forgotten, impoverished man, was invisible to the man of wealth and means, the powerful, the respected, the comfortable. But when he, in his torment, calls out across the chasm to Abraham, he sees and calls Lazarus by name!

Can you imagine? This rich man would have gone in and out of his house regularly; even if he conducted business in his home, he would have gone to synagogue meetings, would have visited relatives, he would have gone out of his home to meet with other powerful people. He would have walked past Lazarus every day, must have noticed him, had to have seen him! What is stunning about this parable isn’t simply that this rich man did not help Lazarus, did not send out a plate of food or offer to have his wounds treated or give him a place to sleep or even some bedding to soften the ground he lay on, it’s that it apparently never crossed the rich man’s mind to do so!

It seems an impossibility, doesn’t it? To, every day of his life, stroll nonchalantly by someone starving to death, huddling in stinking rags, and not even think to offer assistance! How is this possible? The words he uses when he speaks to father Abraham across the abyss offer us a clue.

Notice that he never addresses Lazarus directly. He speaks to Abraham, and expects Abraham to command Lazarus to act as the rich man’s servant: bring him some water, be his messenger.

Even though he knows who Lazarus is, t the rich man, Lazarus isn’t really a person. Apart from his ability to in some way serve him, for the rich man, Lazarus doesn’t really exist. He has no face, no voice. In this rich man’s universe of experience, it is not much of a stretch to say that he sees people tools, objects, things that exist to be used. To serve, to come and go at his bidding, to fulfill his desires. They are not his equals, not even really human beings.

In short, the rich man is not dealing with reality. He is disconnected from the world around him. He has lived his life in a fantasy world, where he is the center of the universe, and everything lives and moves and has its being by his power and for his pleasure. And by the way he speaks in his torment, he never wakes up from this terrible dream, even after it’s too late.

I’ve been privileged to know some pretty rich people in my time, folks who are wealthy enough to get their names on buildings, business owners, philanthropists, executives, folks like that. None of these comparatively rich people have acted like the rich man in our parable today. They at least appeared to care about others, they were charitable and engaging, seemed to be committed to helping others, compassionate, all of that.

Having money isn’t the problem. It’s a thing, a tool, in some ways money isn’t even real, it’s nothing more than a set of figures on a balance sheet or a bit of data on a bank’s computer. To say money is the problem, that money is evil or lacks compassion or refuses to give the poor a name, to give the powerless a voice, is a ridiculous statement. It’s like blaming a table for climate change.

We live in a world where, right now, the UN estimates that hunger could be completely eradicated for thirty billion dollars a year.

Americans spend thirty billion dollars per year losing weight!

The entire population of the planet could have clean, safe drinking water for about ten billion dollars per year.

That is one-half of what Americans spend each year on pet food.

The problem is not money. The problem is us. Our priorities. Our focus.

The focal point of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus can be distilled to a simple, yet razor-sharp, question: what, or who, is the center of our universe?

If the center of our own universe is ourselves, then everyone and everything else, including the love of money, becomes a means to an end, and that end is our own self-fulfillment.

I know people who have no more money than I do, yet act like that rich man in the parable. If I’m honest, there are times when I have acted like that rich man in the parable. I ignore the needs of those around me, walk past someone who is hurting because I’m in a hurry, or in a bad mood, or don’t want to be bothered. At those times, at far too many times, I am the center of my own universe.

Our readings today call us to abandon our fantasy world, to wake up from the dream where we are the center of the universe. Give the poor a name, yes. Give the powerless a voice, yes. But even they are not the true center of our universe, are they?

The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his brothers, because if someone were to rise from the dead, surely they would awaken from their own fantasy worlds, certainly they would listen!

I don’t ever like to read more into Scripture than is there, but this statement… surely it is a message to you and I, to everyone who lives on this side of the Cross, to all Resurrection people.

That chasm that existed in the parable between the tormented rich man and the comforted Lazarus exists, in reality, today. There have been many sermons which call upon us to identify with Lazarus, which remind us how like the rich man we are, but what if we were to identify ourselves with the rich man’s still-living brothers?

After all, we Resurrection people have seen a man put to death for caring for the poor, for announcing God’s mercy for all, for daring to forgive the sins of any, and we have heard the testimony that this man was raised from the dead and vindicated by God as the supreme embodiment of God’s kingdom logic and royal love.

Though we indeed have the law and prophets, God loves us enough to also to send a man from the dead to awaken us!

We cannot afford to remain in this fantasy where we are the center of our own universe. All that we have, the stuff we own and the green paper in our wallets and the balance on our checking accounts and the value of our stock portfolio, these things cannot save us. If we have learned anything from the housing bubble bursting and the Great Recession and the constant lesson of natural disasters, it is that any security we find in these things is an illusion, a dream. We might as well treat them as what they are meant to be, tools to be used to fulfill the mission and purpose of the Kingdom of God.

Our things cannot save us, no. Our wealth cannot provide real security, no.

The Good News is that we who call upon the name of Jesus have already been saved, are being saved, and shall be saved. We who call upon the name of Jesus find our security and hope, our calling and our purpose, ultimately in him.

The center of our universe, the heart of all we pursue, our focal point and foundation, is, and always must be, Jesus Christ.

In Christ, the poor have a name. We all have a name.

In Christ, the powerless have a voice. We all have a voice.

It’s as simple as waking up.