By The Rev. Sherry Crompton
September 26, 2010
Read: Luke 16:19-31
The story of the rich man and Lazarus. The contrasts in this story told by Jesus are as stark as its message. We are seemingly left here with good or bad, right or wrong, stark black or white with no gray areas in between. We have a rich man, clothed in purple. Purple, as you know, is traditionally the color of royalty. Virtually any commentary will tell you that purple fabric in the time of Jesus was made from costly dye extracted from shellfish. Such clothing was accessible only to people who had what we would today call “large disposable incomes.” This Rich Man, we are told, “feasted sumptuously every day,” was clothed luxuriously in purple when he was out and about doing business and enjoying his leisure time, and clothed with “fine linen” when he made his bed at night.
And then there is Lazarus. Lazarus is a poor man living in the same community as the Rich Man. Lazarus is literally starving. Jesus tells us that he would have been more than satisfied with scraps that fell from the Rich Man’s table, but even these scraps were denied him. A commentator tells us that in those times, bread was used by the rich at feasts to wipe the grease off the diners’ hands, and then was thrown under the table. These scraps of greasy bread were probably collected by the hired help and fed to the dogs who licked Lazarus’ running sores – the dogs, Jesus tells us in so many words, ate better than Lazarus did.
Lazarus, though a poor man, is not “out of sight and therefore out of mind,” as we might say, in a ghetto or remote mountain shack. Neither is he sleeping in an alley over a grate or sequestered in a homeless shelter conveniently tucked away. Lazarus lies right at the Rich Man’s gate. The Rich Man in his comings and goings was literally stepping over Lazarus’ body, perhaps looking away in revulsion at the sight of the dogs licking his sores, and then forgetting about him as he made his way into his mansion. After a while, the Rich man probably just didn’t see Lazarus anymore. It was easier to ignore him.
Each of us probably have some things we tell ourselves to protect us from the pain of those around us. If only he had not dropped out of high school. If only she had not had so many babies. If he would just learn more English. If she would only stop drinking. It is human nature to find some reason why people are the way they are, so that we can get on with the business of being the way we are without too much drag on our consciences.
But, we know that Jesus tended to identify with the poor and the outcast. Recall that “love your neighbor as yourself” commandment. Far from judging the poor—God identified with them. To walk past a beggar was to walk past God and woe to the rich person who did.
As usual, Jesus’ way of getting his message across was to tell a story. It is an awful story all the way around—the oozing sores, the slobbering dogs, the place of torment, the great chasm. When most of us hear it we plummet right into our own chasm of guilt even though that is not the point. The point of the story is to tell us a truth we need to know in hopes that it will change our lives. Otherwise, God could care less about our guilt. The only thing guilt is good for is to move us to change. If it does not do that, then it is just a sorry substitute for new life. “I can’t do what you’re asking me, God, but I sure do feel bad about it. Will you settle for that?”
There is not much guilt in this story. Did you notice that even on the far side of the grave the rich man does not recognize the poor man as a fellow human being. He still sees him as something less. He thinks Lazarus is Father Abraham’s gofer, someone to fetch water and take messages, but Father Abraham sets him straight. Cradling old bony Lazarus in his bosom, he says no, no, and no. The rich man’s days of getting other people to do his bidding are over. Furthermore, there will be no special messages brought back from the dead for his brothers. They have Moses and the prophets just as everyone else does, and if that is not enough to get their attention then no ghost is going to get it either. The end.
It’s an awful story. But remember: this story is for us, not against us. Jesus may have enjoyed snatching knots in the tails of his money-loving listeners, but I would be surprised if that were all he wanted. Even when he got angry he got angry for a reason, usually because he could not stand the way people loved the things they could get for themselves better than they loved the things God wanted to give them. They were satisfied with linen suits and sumptuous feasts when God wanted to give them the kingdom. They were content to live in the world with beggars and “boys” when God wanted to give them brothers and sisters. They were happy to get by with the parts of the bible that backed up their own ways of life, when God wanted to give them a new life altogether.
What they did not seem to know—what we still do not seem to know—is that we are the victims of our own way of life. When we succeed in cutting ourselves off from each other, when we learn how to live with the misery of other people by convincing ourselves that they deserve it, when we defend our own good fortune as God’s blessing and decline to see how our lives are quilted together with all other lives, then we are the losers. Not because of what God will do to us, but because of what we have done to ourselves. Who do you think fixed that chasm in the story? Was it God or the rich man? Sometimes I think the worst thing we ever have to fear is that God will give us exactly what we want.
The best thing about this story is that it is not over yet. For the rich man, yes, but not for us, because we are the five brothers. Even though Father Abraham would not let Lazarus come back from the grave to tell us this story, Jesus has sneaked it out for us. Now we have that as well as Moses and the prophets and someone who has risen from the dead to convince us it is true. All that remains to be seen is what we will do about it. (Italicized portions are excerpts taken from Barbara Brown Taylor’s Bread of Angels)
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