By The Rev. Sherry Deets
19 Pentecost, Proper 21 – September 29, 2013
Parables are meant to give us a glimpse – often surprising, even jarring glimpses- into the kingdom of God. They present various slivers of the “kingdom logic” of the God who regularly surprises us with His compassion and concern. So maybe this parable isn’t interested in explaining to us how people get to heaven but rather invites us to look at the people around us — right here, right now — from the perspective of this peculiar logic of God.
The story begins with a drastic reversal that happens after these two men die. In his lifetime, the rich man ostentatiously displayed his wealth with beautiful clothes and lavish feasts. Conversely, Lazarus was covered with sores, was hungry, and had only dogs to lick his sores. After his death, Lazarus is carried away to an honored place beside Abraham, God’s friend and the father of Israel. By contrast, the rich man finds himself in Hades, a place of torment and eternal punishment.
A conversation ensues between the rich man and Abraham. The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to ease his pain in Hades, but Abraham responds that this cannot be done. Their fortunes have shifted. In their lifetimes, Lazarus suffered bad things and he experienced good things, but now Lazarus is comforted and he is in agony. A “great chasm” now exists between the two, which cannot be crossed.
The rich man then begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers about Hades. Abraham replies that they already have Moses and the prophets to warn them. When the rich man maintains that his brothers will change their ways if someone comes to them from the dead, Abraham replies if they have not listened to Moses and the prophets, they definitely will not be convinced by someone being raised from the dead – an allusion perhaps to Jesus’ resurrection.
The gate in the story serves both as a sign of the rich man’s wealth and as a barrier to unwanted visitors–insulating the rich man from the harsh realities of the world outside his gate. The gate also symbolizes the distance that separates Lazarus from this rich man’s world. Lazarus not only has no gate–he does not even have a house. Lying just outside the rich man’s gate, he is physically separated from the rich man’s house by only a few meters, but the rich man’s world is no more accessible than the moon.
So, let’s use our kingdom logic. I believe that the chasm set between the rich man and Lazarus in heaven is only the manifestation of the one that existed in their earthly lives as well. Although the rich man apparently made no attempt to relieve the suffering of Lazarus, it’s not that he didn’t know him, or even that Larazus was invisible to him. After all, in the afterlife he not only recognizes Lararus but refers to him by name. And, notice that he continues to treat Larazus as if he were a servant, asking that Abraham send him to bring a drop of water and, failing that, to warn his brothers. The rich man, that is, continues to fail to treat Larazus as a person, as an equal, as one deserving of compassion and regard.
Notice that Abraham acknowledges the rich man as his child, but is unable to render assistance. Verse 25 makes it seem as if the rich man is punished for being rich and the poor man is rewarded for being poor. The rich man’s sin, however, was not his wealth but his hardness of heart. Lazarus’ presence at his gate gave him opportunity to render an important service, but he felt no compassion and took no action. “His deep pockets had been sewn tight when it came to others…” (Bock, 276).
In life the separation was one-way. Lazarus could not approach the rich man to plead for help, but the rich man was free to render assistance. In death, however, they are separated by a great chasm that cuts off access from both directions. Even if Lazarus wants to help, he cannot do so.
Rabbi Joshua, the son of Levi, traveled to Rome in the third century. He was astonished at the magnificent buildings he saw. He was especially struck to see how the statues were cared for, because they were covered with fine cloth to protect them from summer heat and winter cold. As he admired these statues, a beggar pulled at his sleeve and asked for a crust of bread.
“Here are statues of stone covered with expensive clothes,” thought Rabbi Joshua. “Here is a man, created in the image of God, covered with rags. A civilization that pays more attention to statues than to people shall surely perish.”
Rabbi Joshua was right, of course. The decline of Rome had already begun.
We are called to recognize people of many sorts and conditions as the Lazarus on our doorstep. We need again and again to take him by the hand and bring him to the table of abundance. This is not something the high do for the low. It is simple justice. The way things should be. What one brother or sister does for another. This is how we are to redeem the present and insure the future.
Today’s Gospel tells us nothing about how the rich man became wealthy and Lazarus, destitute. What it announces in no uncertain terms is the moral imperative that the rich man, while he lived, needed to fulfill: an imperative of caring for Lazarus as his brother, of reconciling with him, of bridging the gap before it was too late.
One way a community can insure the future is by redeeming the present. On Tuesday evening at the school board meeting, I saw this community begin to redeem the present. As part of this church’s mission statement we state that we are “unified in diversity”. In other words, we view diversity as a God-given strength. On Tuesday, at the school board meeting, the community was unified in our diversity. What two misguided people texted, brought the community together to say that is not who we are. I believe we took a chunk out of that chasm that exists between people here on earth. I believe we came closer to bridging the gap. May we continue, with God’s help, to redeem the present and learn how to really see and care for the Lazarus’ in our midst, our brothers and sisters. Amen.
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