Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost September 25, 2016 Mass by the Reverend Peter R. Powell

The Rich Man & Lazarus

Luke 16:19-31

One of the most difficult tasks in reading a familiar parable is to read what’s really there and not read into it what we have heard about it in the past.  In this task I have been greatly aided by the work of Amy-Jill Levine[1], a Jewish Feminist New Testament scholar who teaches at Vanderbilt.  I highly recommend her scholarship.  It is readable and makes sense.  She challenges us to understand the Jewish context in which Jesus, a Jew, told his stories.  She is particularly helpful in removing our unconscious antisemitism from our reading of the Gospels.  Everything I say today is influenced by her scholarship.

We have typically seen this as a parable castigating the unfeeling Jewish contemporaries of Jesus and assumed that were we the man of wealth then we would’ve behaved differently.  The reality is that the Rich Man is not meant to be indicative of what first century Jews were like but instead is indicative of wealth is no indicator of blessing.  It illustrates that Yahweh has an absolute preference for the poor.

The reference to Moses and the Prophets drives home the point that Jesus was citing Jewish practice and pointing out how the Rich Man wasn’t following it.  On this level the parable tells us that our future is dependent today on how we treat the least among us, to speak of a contemporary issue for instance, how we accept and treat refugees from the Middle East.  It seems to me that we are being told that we are to worry first about saving them and only secondarily at best, about our safety in our relative wealth and security.  Helping the helpless always trumps[2] worry about there being enough or about whether or not we have eliminated all chance of a threat to our way of life.  Of course a secular president will worry about security and faithful Christians have to pressure him or her to extend more compassion.  We cannot simply say that we are electing a commander in chief and not a pastor in chief.  Our pressure on the government to be more compassionate must be unrelenting even in the face of security scares.  That I believe this way is doubtless not a surprise to anyone who has ever heard me preach.

On the other hand this parable makes me extremely uncomfortable.  This parable challenges everything I think about Salvation.  I conducted a funeral on Thursday for a man who died drunk after living many years as a drunk.  I didn’t tell his family that he was damned because his behavior had destroyed the family.  I don’t believe he was damned.  I talked about hope even for someone who died in anything but a state of grace.  I did not refer to this parable or even hint that there are conflicting ways of understanding who gets to heaven.  This parable clearly, as frequently, talks about the reality of judgment.  We see something similar in the Matthean apocalypse[3] where Jesus separates the sheep from the goats.  In the Gospels judgment is real and choices we make count.  I believe, but can’t find it in today’s text, that there is nothing that can separate us from the Love of God.  As you may have tired of hearing me say I turn to Lewis’s The Great Divorce for my understanding.  So a primary challenge today is how do I be faithful to the text and preach on what’s there rather than what I certainly wish were there?

The Rich Man, otherwise unidentified, is described as being one of the 1%.  As happens to many of us who are wealthy we believe we are entitled to our position in life.  We may have pity on those who don’t have as much and we may envy those who have more, but we feel that we are at least entitled to what we have.  The Rich Man is described as having more than most rich men and he enjoys unusually fine clothing and rich food.  He accepts this as his condition in life.  He is, if he thinks about and probably doesn’t, entitled.

The poor man has been placed in his doorstep with the hope that the Rich Man will be generous to him.  The text says nothing about the poor man except his name Lazarus.

We have no idea whether or not either man was devout, prayed, and went to Temple or Synagogue.  We just know that one is wealthy beyond all imagining while the other is so poor he would find the scraps left for the dogs to be sufficient.  A 1st century Jew would’ve recognized that the behavior of the Rich Man is immoral and that Lazarus, regardless of who he is and what he did or didn’t do to get in the doorway, is deserving.  This is not a parable about the evil of wealth and the worthiness of the worthy poor.  It is a parable about our need to give of who we are and what we have regardless of the reason those who need it are in need.  In the parable there are only worthy poor, or to use an earlier reference, only worthy refugees.  Their condition makes them worthy.

They both die.  Lazarus ends up in the Bosom of Abraham, at the heavenly banquet while the Rich Man ends up in Hades in perpetual torment.  Whether or not this is an exhaustive statement on how our behavior in this life determines our eternal life it clearly says, you see I’m hedging because I’m uncomfortable, that our actions have consequences.  The Rich Man asks for an emissary from the dead, Lazarus, to go to his brothers because they will respect the uniqueness of a risen dead man, and Abraham refuses.  While as Christians we certainly see in this a reference to the denial of Jesus as the Christ it is unlikely in the extreme that Jesus meant it that way. In other words I don’t see it as a prediction of the Passion but instead as the simple fact of life.  Given what the Torah says and how the Rich Man has ignored its commandments to treat the poor with sharing the wealth, it is unlikely that a risen Lazarus would’ve made an impact.  Of course as Christians living in a cultural Christian world we know that the Resurrected Lord has had a vanishingly small impact on the way we as a people treat the poor and refugees.  We as a people are willing to give to the worthy poor and perhaps Syrian Christians who become refugees, but not to the unworthy poor who really, our culture tells us, can only blame themselves for their condition.  Lazarus has not led, as far as we know, an exemplary life of holy poverty.  He’s simply poor and dependent and therefore ends up in the Bosom of Abraham. The only hope the Rich Man had was to recognize his obligation to the poor, in this case Lazarus, and failing that he suffers the consequences.  I don’t and won’t water down the starkness of this conclusion and it troubles me greatly.  If we are to be faithful then we must as the Gospels say repeatedly, express that faith by our tangible, not just spiritual, love for the poor.  Not the poor in spirit, not the poor seeking to better themselves, but the poor.  This is a hard gospel but at least this Sunday the Gospel clearly tells us that our salvation depends upon following it and treating the poor as Abraham did.  Not an easy Gospel.  No wiggle room.  A challenging Gospel but the Gospel nevertheless.  We can do this.  Other weeks other discussions but this is always in the background.  Our treatment of the poor today is crucial to our being Christian.  I would like to say that it enhances our Christianity but this text says that it defines it.  This is not the only word on the subject but it is a constant theme.


[1] Short Stories by Jesus.

[2] Pun intended.

[3] Matthew 25:31-46