It was my first day as a parent at a Georgetown toddler's playgroup. We had done playtime, snack time, circle time and now it was playground time. I started talking to a mother whose daughter was about the same age as mine. Within a few minutes of talking to her, she started to complain to me about how stressful her life was right now. Stressful not because of work demands, toddler sleep issues, or health concerns. No, stress because she just had too many houses. Eight houses, to be exact!
I tried to figure out what the most appropriate response would be to this strange stranger. This was a horrible caricature played out in real life. It was something you would see depicted in a New Yorker magazine cartoon--two moms at the playground fence complaining about their latest first-world problem. It is funny and jarring and unbelievable all at the same time.
That is what today's parable is for me as well--funny, jarring, and unbelievable. This parable is a caricature of both the rich and the poor. The rich man in the story isn't just rich--he is over the top--this guy dresses only in regal clothes--in royal purple hues and fine linens--he only does fine dining and banquet feasts. And the poor man isn't just poor; he's dirt poor. He is crippled and starving and lying at the rich man's gate. He is covered in sores and is being licked by savage dogs. He is unclean, a total outcast, desperate even for the scraps from the rich man's table. The rich man goes past the gate each day, but somehow he never notices this poor, desperate soul. Both of these men die--the rich man is buried and ends up being tortured in hell, and the poor man is carried away by angels and welcomed to the heavenly banquet table. Death to the poor man is a blessing; death to the rich man is a curse. Their worlds were incredibly close yet utterly separate.
T.S. Eliot's Stranger puts the question:
What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?
What will you answer?
"We all dwell together to make money from each other?" or "This is a community."
And the stranger will depart and return to the desert.
O my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger,
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.
What we know about the gospel writer Luke is that he is all about reversals. The poor man in heaven. The rich man in hell. The rich man in poverty. The poor man in abundance. The one who had daily feasts is now begging the poor man for a sip of water. The poor man is named and known Lazarus. The rich man remains unnamed. We hear echoes of Mary's song from earlier in Luke, "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty." This is a woe to those who are rich parable, the type to make us squirm in our seats uncomfortably.
A colleague of mine who preaches in the financial district in Manhattan said there are five biblical words which are most likely to make his parishioners stop listening. Those five words are the ones which start this parable today, "There was a rich man...."
I remember in high school my father storming out of his Presbyterian church at the end of the service, after a set of the prayers of the people he found to be totally damning. He said to the minister on the way out of the door, "You know rich people need Jesus too!" And that is the point of the parable after all. The rich man needed Jesus.
There are three aspects of Luke's understanding of Jesus which must be held in tension. First, Luke believes and scripture confirms that God has a special concern for the poor. In the Old Testament, New Testament, up and down it would be hard for you to argue this point. The second thing, Luke drives home for his readers is that there are spiritual and moral dangers that come with wealth and social standing. And the third, and here comes the good news: there is great potential for blessings to be given and received with the right and generous use of wealth.
If you are poor, if you identify with Lazarus, this is good news; there will be a place for you and God loves you. If you are not poor and you do not identify with Lazarus, it does not mean God doesn't love you. Because God loves you, you are getting this parable, this parable as a warning. This lesson warns that if you are rich, then your life circumstance comes with its own unique set of temptations and perils. As preacher Fred Craddock said, "The main obstacle to faith is not lack of proof; it is an excess of other interests and investments--of time, money, dreams, and so on." Because of God's love for us, we have received this parable as a warning.
Unfortunately, most warnings we get these days we totally ignore or gloss over. When you buy something new and open the box, generally you are met with excessive amounts of printed materials. All this paper usually fits into two categories: instructions and warnings. Instructions for how to assemble, use, and maintain. And warnings not to let kids put pieces in their mouths, or not to use while in the bathtub, or to use without protective eyewear. Maybe they should come with one additional warning label saying, "Owning this product could be dangerous to your spiritual health."
You have probably heard of the modern expression 'Affluenza' and the unfortunate cases that go along with that title--it is a sickness caused from having too much. This parable is warning Christians against catching that disease. The rich man in the parable caught affluenza, which caused him blindness, lack of sensitivity, and numbness in his heart. His status and circumstance caused him to be unable to even see this poor man lying at his gate. The message for us is that there are stumbling blocks for those with access to money and access to power. These stumbling blocks are abundant, they are subtle, and they are often masked as good and well-deserved things. Yet the warning here is that nothing is to blind us to those in need and nothing is to confuse us about our need for God.
Luke has painted this scene for us with these two caricatures of the rich and the poor, and I would venture to guess that most of us would not feel comfortable identifying with either one of these men. So I would propose you place yourself in the scene as one of the rich man's brothers. You are one of the brothers the rich man and Luke wanted to warn and to save. We are the ones for whom it is not too late. We can still be cured, we can still be protected, we can still become the kind of people Jesus asks us to be. The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers. But Abraham says, "Your brothers have Moses and the prophets. They should listen to them." "No, father Abraham," begs the rich man, "but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent."
The rich man knew all about humanity's selfishness, our hardness of heart, and our ability to ignore messenger after messenger and warning after warning. Because the rich man knew about the faults of their humanity, he knew it was going to take something radical to get through to his brothers.
A dead man would have to come to warn the rich man's brothers. A dead man would have to come to preach a message of salvation. A dead man would have to come to offer a bridge from the land of Hades to the banquet halls of paradise. If a dead man was needed, then God would send no other than his own beloved Son, for the sake of the sinner. As bizarre and other worldly as resurrection is for us, as it turns out, this is exactly what we needed. The good news is that the chasm between the rich man and Lazarus, between the sinner and God, this impasse has been repaired. The chasm of sin and death has been bridged in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
God sent a message for the brothers of the rich man--the message came with instructions and warnings, the message came with grace and truth, the message came with big responsibilities and great promises. But the message was very good news--the barrier to God has been removed, and so we are compelled to respond to that gift.
As brothers and sisters of the sinner, let us learn that the lessons Jesus is trying to teach his disciples in this story:
1) That nothing we own should keep us from depending on God's faithfulness alone.
2) That our positions in life should never blind us to the strangers at our gates.
3) That we are to respond to the gifts in our life with faith, with generosity, and with service to the poor.
This parable might be hard to hear, but it is not hard to understand. We have received Moses and the prophets, we have received the gift of Jesus Christ--therefore no one is going to say we haven't been warned. As Jesus said, "Whoever has ears, let them hear."
Let us pray. Lord, correct us, convict us, and inspire us so that we might grow more and more into the people you have called us to be. May the witness of Jesus Christ continue to shape our lives and reform our hearts. It is in His name we pray. Amen.