Sermon for October 4th, 2020

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Luke 16:19-31

19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Jesus and His Pair of Bowls: The Rich Man & Lazarus

Bill and Larry both loved baseball. They loved it as kids, they loved it as adults, and they loved it in their old age. One day, Larry asked Bill, "Do you think they have baseball in Heaven?" Bill said, "I imagine they do. But whichever one of us dies first should come back to tell the other whether or not it's true."

As it turned out, Larry died first, and true to his word, about a week later he visited his old friend in a dream. "Well?" asked Bill eagerly. "Is there baseball in heaven?" Larry's ghost paused, and said, "I've got good news and I've got bad news. The good news is, yes, there really is baseball in Heaven. The bad news is, you're scheduled to pitch tomorrow."

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus has often been interpreted as a story about the afterlife--one that proves conclusively that there is a place of eternal torment, and a place of heavenly bliss. And (so the interpretation often goes) your actions in this life--good or bad--determine which place you go.

Jesus does describe two very different places in this parable: Lazarus dies and is carried away by angels to be with Abraham where he is comforted, while the rich dies and goes to "Hades" where he is tormented in agony and flames. But the rich man is never described as a "bad person," nor is Lazarus described in any way to make us think that he is "good." One is simply rich, and the other is poor. Jesus certainly has plenty of challenging things to say to rich people in the gospels, but he also befriends some rich people, like Zacchaeus, Nicodemus, and the Roman Centurion, whom he praises for having great faith. Conversely, while Jesus often speaks words of comfort to poor people, I don't think he ever intended that being poor is a free pass guaranteeing one's eternal reward.

I actually don't think this parable is about eternity, or the afterlife, at all. Remember, it's a parable, a fictional story where one thing often represents something entirely different in order to make a point. And that point usually has to do with something in this life. The descriptions of "Abraham's bosom" (the literal Greek translation of where Lazarus goes) and "Hades" (which is a very Greek concept of the afterlife, not at all a Jewish one) are, in my opinion, a caricature, an exaggeration of ideas that were popular among people in the 1st century. Jesus uses these caricatures to make his point, but I don't think we should take them literally. When we take the parable too literally, we usually miss the point.

So then what's the point?

To understand that, we need to understand a few important themes that run throughout the parable.

Comfort and Agony

In the beginning of the parable, the rich man lives a life of comfort, and he derives that comfort from his earthly possessions, his purple and fine linen, his sumptuous feasts. We learn later in the story that he also has a large family (five brothers) which was a sort of social safety net in the ancient world--people to protect you and look out for you. Also, the fact that he has a "gate" in front of his house implies that he has a pretty nice house, one worth protecting.

Lazarus, on the other hand, has very little comfort--materially or physically. His sores imply some kind of long-term illness, and Father Abraham later tells us that in his life he has received all sorts of "evil things." His one hope is for the comfort of some crumbs from the rich man's table. Crumbs which are usually reserved for the dogs. Those same dogs, we are told, would come and lick Lazarus' sores. Often this gets interpreted as a cruel thing, a source of agony, but I don't think so.

I have a dog--his name is Buddy--and whenever I get frustrated or upset with him, instead of running away from my anger, he comes right up to me and licks me. He doesn't know I'm angry because of something he's done. He just thinks, "Wow, something's wrong with my human; he's very upset. Maybe it will help if I lick him." Whenever he is hurt, that's what he does for himself--he licks his wounds. I think the irony Jesus is trying to point out with this graphic depiction of the dogs licking Lazarus' wounds is that "even" the dogs--the lowliest creatures in the story, are offering what comfort they can to Lazarus, while the rich man offers none.

Later in the story, the roles are reversed. Lazarus receives comfort, while the rich man is in agony, and begs Abraham to send Lazarus to dip his finger in water and cool (or comfort) his burning tongue. Interesting that it's the rich man's tongue, above all else, that is in the most agony. More on that later.

Named and Unnamed

Another theme that runs throughout the parable is names. What's in a name? Lazarus has the distinction of being the only character in all of Jesus' parables who is actually given a name. The name Lazarus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name אלעזר (El-yazar), which translates as "the one whom God has comforted."

The rich man, on the other hand, is given no no name in the story--and that's precisely the opposite of what we might expect. So many powerful, ambitious people spend a lifetime trying to "make a name" for themselves, to be known and remembered after their days are passed. Names are also deeply personal--think of how it makes you feel when someone remembers your name.

Here's a mini-lesson in the story: The names we make for ourselves will ultimately be forgotten, but the names that God gives to us will last. The same could be said about comfort: The comforts we provide for ourselves are fleeting, but the comfort God gives us cannot be taken away.

One more thing about names: The rich man, in death, clearly knows Lazarus' name, but he cannot bring himself to speak directly to him. Even though Lazarus is standing right next to Abraham, the rich man speaks only to Abraham, and commands him three times send Lazarus to do his bidding, as if he were the rich man's servant.

Perhaps this is why his tongue bothers him so much--the same tongue that withheld a precious name when it might have made a difference, and then finally spoke that name so selfishly, so impersonally when it was already too late.

Gate and Chasm

One more theme: The Gate and the Chasm. In life, the only thing really separating Lazarus and the rich man is a gate. A gate is a barrier, but not an uncrossable one. Lazarus cannot cross the gate unless the rich man allows him to--and that is clearly his one hope, to cross the gate and receive crumbs from the rich man's table. But the rich man, probably crosses the gate every day as he comes and goes from his house.

In the second half of the story, the gate that divides the two men becomes a great chasm. Father Abraham says that it is "fixed" and that even those who might want to cross it cannot, from either side. Be careful about the barriers that you build between yourself and others--they have a way of becoming deeper, wider, and often they limit the freedom most of those who built them in the first place.

Who Are We?

I have said many times that the key to understanding a parable is to ask the question, "who are we" in this story?

I think we can safely rule out Father Abraham, and (hopefully) the dogs. Many interpretations of this parable suggest that we are either the rich man or poor Lazarus. Some of us aspire to be like the rich man in the first half of the story, but certainly not in the later half. Likewise, most of us would love to be Lazarus in the second half of the story, but probably not in the first half. And ultimately, just like the extreme depictions of the afterlife, I think that the rich man and Lazarus are both caricatures, exaggerations to make a point. Most of us are not so tremendously rich or destitute as the two main characters in the story.

But there's one other option: I think we are the five brothers. Why? Because all of us are still alive. Because we still have time. And we don't have the benefit of someone speaking to us from beyond the grave, telling us what we should do. Even if we did, we would probably find ways to second guess ourselves, to explain it away and continue pursuing our own selfish interests.

All we have is what we have already received: In the case of Jesus' original audience, the "law and the prophets." In our case, we have...well, this parable of Jesus, among other things. And the message of Jesus is consistent throughout all of his parables, miracles, and teachings: "Love one another as I have loved you." Don't withdraw yourselves from the world, and all of its pain and heartache--instead engage with it. See the hurt around you and offer whatever comfort you can. Instead of trying to make a name for yourself, lend your name, and your voice, and your help, to those who have none. And do these things now, in this life, today, when it counts--not tomorrow, or after you solve all your own problems, or after it's already too late.

Death is an uncrossable chasm. But today, we can still open our gates, step outside, and invite a hopeless, hurting world to feast with us at the table.