19 Pentecost, Proper 21 – September 25, 2016
Our gospel story for today, one of Jesus’ parables, with its vivid journey to the afterlife, and its exaggerated imagery of contrast, fits the form of an apocalypse. An apocalypse serves as a wake-up call, pulling back a curtain to open our eyes to something we urgently need to see before it is too late.
“There were these two guys,” Jesus said. One of them was very wealthy. He dressed in the finest clothing from around the world, he ate elaborate spreads of food and drink every day, and for him, life was very, very comfortable.
Lazarus, on the other hand, was very, very poor. Lazarus was poor, to the point that he laid at the gates of the rich man’s home, hoping that some food scraps would fall off the table for him to eat. He was gaunt, and emaciated, and the sores on his body became a sort of licking post for the dogs who also hung out there.
The interesting thing about this parable is, it doesn’t tell us why one went to heaven and the other to hell. We’re left to interpret that for ourselves. Could it be that the rich man went to hell simply for being rich? And that Lazarus went to heaven simply because he was poor? Or is there more to it than that? I think there is. I’m sure there is.
Remember, this story is intended to be a wake-up call, a warning for us; very much like the dream sequences of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. During his life the rich man did not even see the poor man who was at his gate each day. Now, in the afterlife, he sees Lazarus — but too late. The parable portrays a permanent chasm fixed between the rich man and poor Lazarus, with no way to cross over the chasm.
That chasm that is fixed between the rich man and Lazarus isn’t, when you think about, new. That chasm was fixed a long, long time ago and reinforced every time the rich man came and went into his sumptuous abode to feast at his rich table and ignored Lazarus. He obviously knew Lazarus was there and understood his plight, because he knows Lazarus by name. Yet he did nothing. Notice that even in the afterlife the rich man continues to treat Lazarus as a non-entity, a servant who should fetch him some water or, failing that, be sent as a messenger to his brothers. In both his earthly life and in the life to come, the rich man refuses to see Lazarus as a person, a human, a fellow child of God, and so ignores him and his plight.
And seeing, in Luke’s Gospel, is a very big deal. Because before you can have compassion for people, you have to see them, acknowledge their presence, their needs, and their gifts – and above all, their status as children of God – worthy of respect and dignity. This the rich man utterly fails to do.
Which leads to the conclusion that the chasm between them in this parable is only a dramatization of the one that existed before, to the detriment of both, for no good comes from setting barriers between the children of God. And this may be Luke’s point all along. It’s less about warning us of punishment in the next life than it is urging us to the abundant life in this one that comes only in seeing those around us as God’s beloved children deserving our care, attention, and fellowship.
Failing to summon Lazarus to bring him water, the rich man entreats Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his siblings. Abraham’s response is interesting: they already have all the counsel they need in the law and prophets. But the rich man does not give up, arguing that testimony from beyond the grave will be more convincing. And Abraham’s answer to this is now not just interesting but striking: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (16:31).
All of which convinces us that the rich man is not truly the subject of this parable at all. We are. We are those five siblings of the rich man. We who are still alive have been warned about our urgent situation that the parable makes clear. We have Moses and the prophets; we have the scriptures; we have the manna lessons of God’s economy, about God’s care for the poor and hungry. We even have someone who has risen from the dead. The question is: Will we — the five sisters and brothers — see? Will we heed the warning, before it is too late?
Is Abraham right? Does any of this make a difference? Does our faith in and experience of the Risen Lord help us see those we would prefer not to see and regard those around us as worthy of compassion, respect, and honor…or not? Does the testimony of the One who has conquered death and called us to follow him make a difference?
Abundant life comes through community, when we see those around us as gifts of God and experience the blessing of sharing what we have with others. God created us to be in relationship with those around us and we experience the fullness of the life God intends and offers only when we embrace the people God has set in our path.
This parable isn’t about earning or relinquishing an eternal reward; it’s about the character and quality of our life right now. One might even argue that for Luke eternal life isn’t a distant reality at all but rather starts now, each time we embrace the abundant life God offers in and through those around us. So while it is certainly a warning not to overlook those around us in need, it is also an invitation. An invitation to live into a fuller, more meaningful, and more joyous life by sharing ourselves – our time, talents, and certainly our wealth – with those around us here and now. For as we do, we live into the life and kingdom God outlines in the law of Moses, clarifies in the prophets, and makes manifest and available to all in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord.
In Luke’s wonderful imagery, Abraham’s bosom awaits to enfold us in loving arms now and after our death. Amen.