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Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle C (2)
What parable would make a man with three doctoral degrees (one in medicine, one in theology, one in philosophy) leave civilization with all of its culture and amenities and depart for the jungles of darkest Africa? What parable could induce a man, who was recognized as one of the best concert organists in all of Europe, go to a place where there were no organs to play. What parable would so intensely motivate a man that he would give up a teaching position in Vienna, Austria to go and deal with people who were so deprived that they were still living in the superstitions of the dark ages for all practical purposes. The man who I am talking about, of course, is Dr. Albert Schweitzer. And the single parable that so radically altered his life, according to him, was our text for this morning. It was the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
The Rich Man and Lazarus were neighbors you know. They saw each other every day. Oh, not socially you understand, but there was contact. Every day the Rich Man saw this beggar at his front gate. Who were these men?
We shall call the Rich Man Dives [pronounced ‘Dive-ees’: it’s Latin for “Rich Man” as he has been called for centuries] Dives would have felt very comfortable living in our present time. He was a progressive kind of a guy. He was self-indulgent and this is the age of self-indulgency. The contrasting life-styles of these two men is so obvious that you can’t miss it. Dives was a connoisseur, a lover of the arts, one who knows and appreciates fine living, four star restaurants.
We are told in vs. 19 that he habitually dressed in purple. Purple was known as the color of royalty because it was the most expensive dye in the ancient world. Only the upper echelon and the high priest could afford it. We are also told that his undergarments were made of fine linen. Linen, the lifestyle of the rich and famous.
The other man in the story is Lazarus. How can we describe Lazarus? Lararus is homeless. We are told in vs. 20 that he was a cripple. Lazarus barely made it from day to day, living off the leftovers thrown to him by Dives as he daily passed him. He is just a survivor, that’s all you can say of him.
One day, said Jesus, both men died. Death after all is the great equalizer. Death does not care about your social standing, your color, or your standing in the community. Lazarus, said Jesus, was carried away by the angel of death unto heaven, where he occupied the seat of honor next to Abraham. About Dives, the rich man, all that Jesus says is that he was buried. Isn’t that strange that that is all that he says. After all, Dives funeral must having been something that the community would remember for years to come. Apparently, however, that fact failed to impress Jesus. Oh, Jesus did add one additional fact about Dives death that may be of interest to you. His soul was sent to hell.
This is an unnerving story. I can well see why this was the irritating grain of sand in Albert Schweitzer’s oyster. Why is this story so bothersome? For a few moments this morning I would like to share exactly why. It is bothersome because….
First, it shows how God reverses the standards of the world. We call this the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Notice that the rich man in Jesus’ story is never actually named. It is the church that has given him the name of Dives, a Latin derivative meaning rich. In the parable only the poor man has a name. That is exactly the opposite of how the world does it. We all know the names of the rich. We know the Donald Trumps, the Sam Waltons, the Warren Buffets. We all know about, and many long for, the lifestyle of the rich. With the poor it is exactly the opposite. They are not named. We refer to them collectively as “the poor”, “the homeless,” “the third world,” “the welfare cases.” They are the neighbors we never met.
For generations in the South blacks who worked as domestics in white homes were known only by their first names. They were “Betty” or “Sally.” No one ever knew their last names. That is the standard of the world. Did you know that in many places in this country there are potters fields, grave yards where the poor are buried for nothing. It is interesting that one of the rules is that there can be no markers. Only small numbers mark each grave. No names allowed. That is indicative of how we view the poor.
Let me tell you friends, in heaven that will all be reversed. God will know the name of every poor suffering person who ever walked this earth. There is a special place in his heart for the poor. I hope he knows my name when I get there, but I know he will know their name. You can be poor in the eyes of the world, but fabulously wealthy in the eyes of God. That is what Jesus is suggesting here. In heaven everything will be reversed. Maybe that is what troubled Albert Switzer.
Secondly, this story is troubling because Dives was not a mean man. We could somehow justify in our minds his eternal outcome if he were. But, in fact, Dives never mistreated Lazarus. He never kicked him. He never chased him away. He never lectured him about getting up and getting a job. Still, that was not enough to put him into heaven and that bothers us.
Why? What did he do that was so horrible that he should deserve such a terrible fate. I’ll tell you. He acted as though it was all supposed to be that way in life. He accepted it all without question. It never occurred to him that the fate of Lazarus’ birth and the fate of his birth could be changed. Lazarus, therefore, became not a part of suffering humanity but just a part of the landscape. In a word the rich man was indifferent: Indifferent to his plight, indifferent to his hunger, indifferent to his needs. They were the neighbors who never met.
Some years ago before the death of Mother Theresa, a television special depicted the grim human conditions that were a part of her daily life. It showed all the horror of the slums of Calcutta and her love for these destitute people. The producer interviewed her as she made her rounds in that dreadful place. Throughout the program commercials interrupted the flow of the discussion. Here is the sequence of the topics and commercials: lepers (bikinis for sale); mass starvation (designer jeans); agonizing poverty (fur coats); abandoned babies (ice cream sundaes) the dying (diamond watches).
The irony was so apparent. Two different worlds were on display–the world of the poor and the world of the affluent. It seems that our very culture here in the United States, and any other place that has a great deal of commercialization to it, is teaching us to live as the Rich Man in the story of Lazarus. We are occasionally presented with the images of the poor man Lazarus at our gate but we are immediately reminded of the next car we ought to by and the next meal we should eat. We are slowly and methodically told it is O.K. to live our life of luxury while others live their life of poverty. Some of you here relate to Lazarus having been homeless, but the VA has given you a life of luxury, You still collect money but you don’t have expenses. You are saving your money for when you leave here, but what about the Lazarus you know are you not really seeing them.. But alas, it is not so! Heaven’s reversal of fortune shall one day awaken us to the fact that we have separated ourselves from the agonies of others. That we did not care about others who suffered.
This parable invites us to sit along side of Lazarus and see the world from his point of view. That is troubling because when I do that I look a lot more like the rich man in this story than I do the poor man. And I know what eventually happened to the rich man in this story and I don’t want that to happen to me.
The great thing about having small children is you have a great excuse to watch cartoons again. One cartoon that I am particularly fond of is Garfield the Cat. There is a great humor in those sarcastic witticisms of his. One cold winter night Garfield looks out the window and sees Odie the Dog peering through the window. Garfield thinks to himself: This is horrible. Here I am in the comfort of a warm house, well fed, and there is Odie outside begging to get in, cold and hungry. I can’t stand it anymore. I just can’t stand it. So at that he goes over to the window…and closes the curtains.
Friends, that is what you and I have done to the poor. Rather than dealing with them, we have simply closed the curtains. We drive by people holding those signs: “Will work for food,” and we have seen it so much we don t even give it a second thought any more.
It’s not our badness that will send us to hell friends; it’s our lack of goodness. It is how we close the curtains on those who represent suffering humanity. Maybe we do suffer from compassion fatigue as some have suggested. I don’t know. But I do know that this story is saying to us that in the end we will be judged from the viewpoint of love.
I will tell you something wise that makes me uncomfortable about this story. The church is in the position of Dives. Well, you say, we don’t run the poor off. We give to missions and relief work. We even do work once a year at the soup kitchen. Dives could have said all of those things. There is a warning here. The poor and the disenfranchised are God’s special people and they dare not simply become a part of the landscape to us.
Third, we are told that Dives begs to come back to earth to warn his brothers. We get the impression that they are on the same path as he was. He had five brothers we are told, but for our purposes we are going to assume that this was actually 3 brothers and 2 sisters. WE don’t want to leave the women out. The point is that he wants to warn his family about their impending fate. Yet, he is denied that privilege.
Now why couldn’t Jesus have let the story end like Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”? In that story Morley, Scrooge’s business partner, comes to him with a stern warning of what will be if he continues his present path. And, in Scrooge’s case, it worked. He is frightened into changing. But Jesus doesn’t end his story that way. The request is flatly denied. Now Jesus shouldn’t have done that. He shouldn’t have done that because he knows how we all love happy endings and this story has no happy ending. In his story Abraham says that they (Dives family) have the word of God to warn them and if they ignore the word of God then the walking dead would not convince him.
Besides, says Abraham, there is a big gulf, or as some translations word it, big chasm, that cannot be bridged. What is that gulf that cannot be bridged? I’ll tell you what it is. It is an attitude. It is a way of looking at people as them and us. It’s the false philosophy that says that we can give our food baskets at Christmas and we have done enough to relate to the poor. That is the gap that keeps us in hell. You see, Dives didn’t simply die and go to hell. Oh no. He also created his own hell on earth by closing his eyes to suffering humanity. What he experienced in the afterlife was merely a continuation of what he started for himself in this life. Since he did not respond to people in this life, then he will not be allowed to respond to people in the after life. Maybe that is a good definition of hell. Being unable to respond.
Well, the point of the story is that because Dives was insensitive to the needs of suffering humanity, he missed the Kingdom of God. By seeing Lazarus as merely a part of the landscape, he missed his very key to heaven. Oh, he lived sumptuously. He had the best of everything. He added to the economy in a significant way. But he missed the Kingdom of God.
And what about the homeless person at our gate? What will happen to him? According to this text, one day he will die. And on that day he will be greeted in the waiting arms of a loving God who will speak to him the words: Home, at last.
I hope this parable by our Lord bothers you as much as it bothers me. And in the name of Christ you make the neighbor you haven’t met the neighbor you know.
Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle C (1)
(Begin with your warning device.) What was that, boys and girls? How many of you have heard something like that before? (Let them answer.) Do you know why we use a siren? (Let them answer.) That’s right, we want to warn people to get out of the way, to tell them someone is coming who needs to get somewhere in a hurry, and that they want everyone else to get out of the way until they get there. Ambulances use them, fire departments use them, and sometimes the police use them. A siren is a very important thing, and it keeps us from having big wrecks and hurting other people. Of course, you must listen to the warning and pull over if you are driving. A warning is not any good if you don’t pay attention to it. Some children do not pay attention to the warnings that their fathers and mothers give them, and they get hurt. I know a child who was warned not to play with matches, and he did. Do you know what happened? (Let them fill in the answer.) That’s right, he was burned.
Jesus tells us about the warnings that we have gotten in the Bible from God about the way that we should behave, and what will happen to us if we do not listen to the teachings. He said that the reason these things were written was not to scare us, but to warn us so that something terrible would not happen to us. I think that this is a very loving thing for God to do. He warns us about the bad things so that they will not hurt us and cause us great harm.
Jesus told stories like this to the disciples and to everyone else who wanted to listen. Some people listened and did what he told them not to do anyway. Those people did not listen to the warning. They suffered what they thought was an awful accident. But it was not an accident, because they had been warned. If you hear a siren and still try to drive down the middle of the street where the fire engine or ambulance is coming, you will have a terrible accident and cause other people to get hurt as well. The same thing is true about not listening to God’s warnings that he gives us in the Bible. If we hear the warnings and still cause the trouble, then it is not an accident. We will be hurt, and others will be hurt also because we did not listen. When you read the Ten Commandments, and they warn you about how to live, then you should pay attention to them the same way that you do to a siren. They are God’s warning to teach us how to live safely.
The rich man wanted Lazarus to warn his brothers. Abraham reminded him of the prophets. He also stated, they wouldn’t believe if someone who had died came back and warned them. Who is that man that came back and they didn’t believe Him? Jesus
The Gospel story has picked up new details in tradition. Jesus told a story about a rich man named Dives and a very poor man named Lazarus. Dives drove a Mercedes, lived in a fifteen-room mansion, ordered his suits tailor-made from Europe. Poor Lazarus was a street person. The Public Library, where he tried to rest during the day—particularly on cold days—threw him out. Even the police turned their heads when they drove by. They were tired of giving him a free ride to jail for a meal and a night’s lodging. He had nowhere to sleep except a hard sidewalk.
There was a gate in front of the driveway leading up to Dives’ mansion. So Lazarus, tired and hungry, dirty and covered with sores, sat on the sidewalk and propped himself against the gate to Dives’ mansion and tried to sleep. Dives’ Dobermans wandered out to see the sleeping man. They perceived that he was no threat and quietly came over and licked the sores on Lazarus’ face. Each time he drove his Mercedes out the gate, Dives looked in disgust at the filthy piece of humanity leaning against the gatepost of his house and wondered why somebody didn’t do something to get people like that off the street.
But that, of course, is not the end of the story. Eventually, both Lazarus and Dives died. Unexpectedly, Lazarus went to heaven, but poor, rich Dives went to Hades. Obviously, the very affluent Dives couldn’t believe what had happened to him. He had made it a personal rule in his early life never to experience any discomfort. It was his conviction that he deserved to travel in style—after all, in the words of the popular commercial a few years back, he was worth it! But now he was experiencing an eternity of stark discomfort. The air conditioner had failed and the water was turned off. “Please father Abraham,” he cried out, “have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.”
Interesting, isn’t it? Dives is in Hades. Lazarus is in heaven, but Dives still thinks of Lazarus as no better than an errand boy.
Abraham replied, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this,” says Abraham, “between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.”
“But please, father Abraham,” cries Dives. “I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.”
“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’”
Dives is desperate now. . . “No, father Abraham,” he said, “but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.”
Abraham shook his head. He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
You would think that, if a man is resurrected from the dead, people would listen to what he says, but not so. Are you willing to listen? It’s amazing how many who call themselves Christians are not willing to listen. There are at least three things that Jesus seems to be saying to us in this popular story of the rich man and Lazarus.
The first is that we are responsible for one another. The message of the story of the rich man and Lazarus is no different than the parable of the Good Samaritan. We are responsible for the good of our neighbor. The great commandment? We are to love God with all our heart, soul mind and strength. The second commandment? We are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Who is our neighbor? Anyone who is in need. That is a strand of truth that runs through both the Old Testament and the New.
In responding to Dives’ request, Abraham appeals to Moses and the prophets. Immediately we think of Amos and Micah and some of the other prophets who challenged Israel to remember its responsibility to its poor. Do you recall that as far back as Leviticus, however, God instructed the farmers of Israel not to take all of the grain out of the field or all the grapes off of the vines, but to leave some there for the poor? “Gleaning” it was called. Ruth, a great-great-grandmother of Jesus was gleaning in Boaz’ field, when she caught Boaz’ eye. Without that charitable law many of the poor would doubtless have starved.
In Deuteronomy 15 the people are instructed to deal generously with the poor. Every seven years all debts are to be canceled. That’s one of the most radical laws in human history. We are not certain that it was obeyed, but that shows God’s heart for the poor. According to the tenth verse of that chapter, the people are to give generously to the poor and do so without a grudging heart; then because the people have obeyed God’s command in caring for the poor, God promises them that He will bless them in all their work and in everything they put their hand to. There is that recognition that while a few poor people are that way because they refuse to work, most are the victims of circumstances over which they have no control. Throughout the entire Bible, Old Testament and New, there is this concern for the unfortunate.
Jesus was concerned about the poor, as this story and several of his other teachings reveal, as was the early church. If you love God, you care about people—all people, rich and poor alike.
You and I have so much. Others have so little. The seven billionth baby was born on planet earth recently. Chances are very, very high that baby will live all his or her life poorly clothed, poorly housed, poorly fed. That is because most of the babies born today are in the so-called third world where poverty is the rule and not the exception.
Most of us have never seen real poverty. We drive past houses that are run down and see children who are neglected. We say, “That’s poverty.” Someone has noted, however, that what impresses people in deprived countries about America is not how the wealthy live, but how the poor live. Our poor are wealthy compared to the poor in many developing countries. This is not to say poverty is not a great problem in America. It is probably more painful to be poor in America than in any other country upon earth, because everywhere you look, you see other people with so much. It is to say, though, that we are living in a world where there are millions of people who face such grim lives that even death can be a welcome prospect. And in Jesus’ name we must care about those people.
But there is a second thing to be said: Judgment is a very real part of the Gospel message. There are consequences to our actions. Or to use the words which are mentioned often in scripture, “we reap what we sow” (2 Corinthians 9:6).
It is very difficult for a pastor today to talk about judgment. For one thing, recent surveys indicate that most Americans do not believe in a literal hell anymore. We have done a wonderful job of convincing people that God loves them, but we have done a poorer job of convincing them that actions, both positive and negative, have consequences. Secondly, it is almost impossible to speak from the pulpit about judgment without sounding moralistic. Even though we see judgment being worked out in people’s lives every day, it is difficult to deal with such a grim theme in worship, except perhaps in humor.
A young pastor was unsettled one morning when he heard a church member boasting about how he had used a radar detector to avoid getting ticketed for speeding. The pastor couldn’t help but think that this sounded a mite unethical. Moments later, however, he was pleased to hear another parishioner tell this ethically-challenged church member in a somber tone, “It’s the man upstairs you need to be worried about.”
The pastor was about to chime in with a hearty “Amen” when the second man added, “That guy in the helicopter will get you every time!” (1)
Ah, yes, the man upstairs will get you every time. But to go the other direction . . . I heard about another man who had a very difficult mother, but he felt obligated to take care of her. He had a basement apartment built in his home for her. A friend of his was visiting. They were chatting in the living room. “I remember,” said his friend, “what a difficult time your mother gave you. Where is the old girl now?”
Fearing that the conversation would be overheard by his mother, the poor man simply pointed downward . . . in the direction of the basement apartment. “Oh, I’m sorry,” said his friend, “I didn’t even know she had died.”
Scholars tell us that Jesus probably did not mean for us to take the story of Dives and Lazarus as a definitive statement of the nature of life after death, but as a firm Biblical principle that we will be judged on our treatment of the poor.
Do you think this is the only time that judgment comes up with regard to our treatment of the poor? Remember Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgment when the sheep and the goats are to be divided? What was to be the decisive factor between heaven and hell? “I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat . . . I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink . . . I was naked and you did not clothe me . . .” We are not advocating a theology of works, but if we are faithful to the Scripture as a whole, we have to declare that caring about the down-and-out is very important spiritual business.
Our country should have learned that lesson from our own history. Germany lay devastated after World War I. Poverty and unemployment provided fertile ground for the terrible weeds of Nazi dogma to grow and prosper. It took a Second World War to show us that it is a mistake to leave your enemy desolate and forsaken. So after World War II we sought to rebuild our former adversaries . . . and it worked! Today West Germany and Japan are among our finest allies.
I hope that our benign neglect of Third World countries today does not produce a terrible judgment on us someday in the future as the Second World War judged our conduct after the First World War. If we do not seek justice and compassion in such places as the Middle East, Africa, and Central and South America, if we do not become peacemakers, do we not face the possibility that one day we ourselves may pay horribly? This is becoming a tiny world. Other nations are only a matter of hours away. Terrorism has become a part of our twenty-first landscape. The spread of nuclear weaponry and even biological weapons means that a mad man could one day wield awesome destruction upon our land.
What I’m trying to say is that not only is it sound Christian doctrine for us to care for the needy at our door, it is also in our best interest.
Dives could not see that how he dealt with the street person outside his gate would determine his own destiny. Many of us may be making the same mistake. We are our brother’s brother. The problems of the down-and-out are our problems. There is a judgment built into the very fabric of creation on those who ignore the needs of their neighbors.
It is important to remember that the road we start traveling in this life is the road we end up on at the end. It is never too late to change direction.
That brings us to the final thing to be said. More than ever before, you and I need a missions-consciousness both at home and abroad.
Can you possibly think of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus without thinking about our responsibilities to those who are not as blessed as we are? And here is my observation on this matter: the happiest people in the world are people who have learned to share a bit of their time and personal resources with those who are in need.
From 1941 to 1953 Louis Evans was the pastor of the prestigious First Presbyterian Church in Hollywood. He decided he needed to visit his church’s missionaries to find out their needs. One stop found him in Korea where he was to meet a missionary surgeon. The doctor had been a successful surgeon in the States before sensing God’s call to minister in Korea.
On the day Dr. Evans arrived the missionary doctor was prepping for surgery on an eight-year-old child. The pastor watched through a window in the tiny hut where the operation was going on. The operation lasted for nearly three hours. After cleaning up, the doctor went outside to walk with his pastor. As they walked Evans asked, “How much would you have received for that operation back in the States?”
“Oh, $500 to $750 is the going rate, I guess.”
This was years ago. It would be much, much more now. As they talked, Evans noticed that the surgeon’s lips were purple with the strain and his hands were trembling from three hours of tedious work. Then he asked, “How much for this one?”
“Oh,” the doctor replied, “A few cents.” Then he added, “A few cents and the smile of God.” And then the doctor put his hands on Pastor Evan’s shoulder, shook it lightly, and added, “But man, this is living!” (2)
And many people have discovered it really is living. I honestly don’t know if Dives ended up in a physical hell or not. I do believe this—there probably was not much joy in his life while here was alive. You simply cannot have a truly abundant life without Christ . . . and you cannot love Christ without loving your neighbor. We are responsible for one another. Judgment is a very real part of the Gospel message—what we sow, we reap. Perhaps more than ever in human history, we need a missions-consciousness both at home and abroad.
As George Bernard Shaw once wrote: “The worst sin to our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them; that’s the essence of inhumanity.”
Dives ignored Lazarus at his door and he paid a price. We pay a price, when we ignore our neighbor too. We never discover the joy that missionary doctor found when he placed his hand on his pastor’s shoulder and said, “Man, this is really living.” That’s the abundant life which only Christ can give. He gives it to those who walk in his footsteps.
- Contributed by Dan Schnell, Readers’ Digest, April 1998, p. 185.
- J. Daniel Baumann, An Introduction To Contemporary Preaching(Baker Book House; New ed. Edition, 1988), pp. 172-173.
ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., Dynamic Preaching Third Quarter 2019, by King Duncan