The late Ken Chafin, who was a Baptist professor, minister, and something of a statesman, tells about a friend in college who use to preach a lot in some of the small country churches not far from the campus. Chafin would get a card from his friend saying something like: 35 saved in rival at the Mossy Bottom Baptist Church. Chafin thought that was pretty good since they only had about 25 members. This pricked his curiosity, so one evening he drove out to hear him preach. It was a Friday night and his friend’s sermon that evening was on the Great White Throne Judgment. The text came out of the book of Revelation. The preacher was decked out in white: white suit, white tie, white shirt, white belt, and even white shoes. He thundered from the pulpit that if you didn’t become white as snow through the blood of the lamb you would find yourself literally in one hell of a predicament, a hell of fire and brimstone. Chafin said that he didn’t think he was going to get home that night until the preacher was sure that all 52 people present had decided to purchase fire insurance.
Years ago I remember a youth revival where the evangelist used this story from Luke to preach on hell. If I remember correctly he preached this message each night of the revival. Let me say very clearly, that is not what this story is about. Now, this story does have something to do with the afterlife, but this story is not about where you go when you die or what the afterlife will look like or be like. That’s not what this is about.
One of the major themes of this story, however, that does relate to the afterlife is vindication. This story is not really a parable like Jesus’ other parables, and it’s not unique to Jesus. This story is more of a fable or legend that made its rounds in the ancient world. It pops us in different forms in several different cultures. It can be found in slightly different forms in the writings of several ancient Jewish rabbis. Some scholars think it may have originated in Egypt. So Jesus draws upon a familiar legend, adapts it for his purposes to teach what he wants to teach. And one of the things he wants to emphasize with this story is that there will be vindication for those who have had a really hard life.
Playing on the theme of reversal that Jesus talks about in other places in Luke, the roles of the rich and the poor are reversed. The rich man ends up in misery, whereas the poor man finds comfort by the side of Abraham. Abraham says to the rich man, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.” Their roles are reversed. The point seems to be that the poor, the oppressed, and the downtrodden will be vindicated.
There are folks who have in life been dealt a really bad hand. In fact, the whole deck of cards are stacked against them. And I know you are aware of this. School teachers can identify kids who, because of their home life, because of the difficult circumstances in which they find themselves, they have almost no opportunity to succeed in life.
So, what I am saying that this story is saying and what Jesus is teaching is that God takes notice. The poor and forsaken are not forsaken by God. God will vindicate them. There is more to come. Wrongs will be made right. Justice will prevail. Love will win. The poor will not always be poor. Now, what will that look like? What form will that take? We don’t know. The point here is simply; God will make things right. I believe that.
But the next point is just as important and may be the purpose for Jesus telling it. If God takes notice, then shouldn’t we? The story functions as an indictment on the huge disparity that can develop in societies between the rich and the poor. Much has been said recently about the 1 percent in this country controlling 40 percent of the income, while the number of people living in poverty is increasing at an alarming rate. And this story by Jesus paints the contrast in the most vivid, starkest colors.
The rich man engages in conspicuous consumption. He dines at the most expensive restaurants, he dresses in the finest clothes, his gated, luxurious estate is filled with every convenience. The impoverished man at his gate is covered in soars. He has no health care. No hospital will take him in. He can’t even find an open soup kitchen to get a meal. Congress has cut off his food stamps. The rich man is living in the lap of luxury while Lazarus is living in abject poverty.
Maybe you noticed this in the reading, maybe you didn’t: The poor man is named in the story. We know the poor man by name as Lazarus. That’s a significant detail. The very ones who are no-names in society, God names, God gives special consideration and attention. On the other hand, the rich man, who on earth everyone would have known, has no name in the story. You see, their roles and fortunes are reversed. As Jesus says elsewhere, “the first will be last, and the last will be first.” This is why Jesus tells his disciples to host dinners and invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. These are the ones God takes special interest in. God loves everyone, but God gives special attention to the most vulnerable and the disadvantaged. And we see this concern incarnated in the life and teaching of Jesus. And if we are followers of Jesus this must be our concern too, right? This is how Jesus defined his ministry in Luke’s Gospel in terms of Isaiah 61: to bring good news to the poor, to preach freedom for captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to set the oppressed free. This was Jesus’ agenda according to Luke.
How did we get so far away from this? Think about it. Just look at the success of present day Christian ministries who actually teach just the opposite. Of course, Jesus and his followers had to contend with such opposition in their day as well.
In Luke 16:14-15 a couple of paragraphs before the story of the rich man and Lazarus Luke says, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this (that is, they heard what I talked about last week, what Jesus said about not being able to serve God and money; that money is a rival god, and so forth), and they ridiculed him. (They didn’t like what they heard). So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.’”
How did they justify themselves? How would this rich man have justified living in conspicuous luxury while the poor man lived in abject poverty? How did the religious leaders justify their love for and accumulation of money? It wasn’t that difficult. In the Bible there are theologies and counter theologies. There are biblical texts that either directly teach or indirectly suggest that material wealth is the blessing of God and disease and impoverishment is the result of God’s judgment. It’s terrible theology, but you can find it in the Bible.
And it was apparently a popular theology during the time of Jesus. Jesus’ own disciples seem to have been indoctrinated in it and had to unlearn it. Remember in John 9 when Jesus’ disciples stumble upon a man who was blind. They ask Jesus, “Did this man sin or his parents?” They assume his blindness was some form of divine punishment. If there were no biblical texts to support this bad theology of blessing and cursing Joel Osteen and some of his colleagues who share his views about money would not have the largest churches in America. They go to the Bible to support their bad theology and to justify their vast accumulation of money.
The rich man would have no doubt appealed to this theology and these scriptures that promise wealth to the righteous and curses on the unrighteous to justify his lack of response. He could have quoted scriptures to say that Lazarus’s condition was due to the judgment of God, so if he tried to alleviate his poverty or bring some relief to his suffering, he would be interfering with God’s will. He could have justified his inattention and do-nothing response with scripture. And people still do today. We appeal to the same scriptures. Another way we avoid our responsibility to the most vulnerable among us is by pushing everything into the future. We make salvation about heaven and hell, rather than about healing, wholeness, liberation, and transformation now. In the Gospels salvation is about healing and liberation now and in the future. It starts right now. But by pushing it all into the future, we can avoid caring for the poor now. I can’t recall in the Christianity of my youth one sermon about taking care of the poor. I can’t recall one sermon about Jesus’ agenda as outlined by Luke.
So, there is this bad theology that religious people use to justify themselves. But, there is also a counter theology to this in the Bible that reaches its pinnacle in the life and teachings of Jesus. And we can find it all through scripture. We find it in the Law. For example Deut. 15:7-8 reads: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of the towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.” (This is the same book that gives us the theology of blessing and cursing).
We also find this counter theology all through the prophets. Isaiah says: “Is not this the fast that I chose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free . . . ? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself . . .” (58:6–7)
So, bad theology and good theology, religious rationalizations for greed and commands to care for the poor are all part of our sacred tradition. What we need, sisters and brothers, is the wisdom to tell the difference. If we stick with Jesus we should be able to don’t you think?
One aspect to this story that should give us all pause is this: The fate of the rich man is not tied to what he did, but what he didn’t do. So often the prophets announced judgment on those who exploited and took advantage of the poor. But here, the indictment against the rich man is not because of what he did to the poor man; it’s because of what he didn’t do. He didn’t come to his aid. Jesus seems to be saying that to do injustice one doesn’t have to directly exploit the poor. To do injustice one simply has to do nothing to alleviate their poverty. And this hits us all doesn’t it? This makes us all complicit to some degree.
I am reminded of the man who rides a commuter train back and forth to work everyday. The train goes through an extremely impoverished section of the city. When the man first became aware of the desperate plight of the residents there he felt some compassion and thought about how he might invest some resources to help them. But then, you know, life happens. He got caught up in his work, in his family, in his daily routine and responsibilities, in his own agenda, the way we all do, the way I do right? So now when the train takes him by that section of the city, he pulls down the blinds.
That man is me. Maybe that man is you too. Maybe we are all that man. And one could argue quite legitimately I think that we have to do this or we would be inundated with the suffering of the world because there is so much suffering and poverty. And there is some truth in that argument. But here is also where we need to be careful, because it is so easy to excuse ourselves of our responsibility isn’t it? This is a kind of unresolved paradox we have to live with. We have to find some balance.
There is one final point I want to make. I remember the preacher years ago in the youth revival being fixated on the mention in the story of a fixed chasm separating Lazarus from the rich man. Here’s what I think about that: It’s fixed only as long as we allow it to be fixed. We can break through that chasm anytime. It opens from the inside. And the combination that unlocks the door will always involve some humility, honesty, and contrition. This is what opens our eyes and enlightens us to see. This is what will change us. We can memorize the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Baptist faith and message (take your pick) and we can sing Jesus songs all day and all night but unless we have some honesty, humility, and contrition in our lives none of that will make one bit of difference.
I don’t believe God ever shuts the door and locks it from the outside. If we are willing to walk the path of true repentance then the chasm collapses. God is like the shepherd and the woman in the parables of Luke 15. God searches until God finds. God never gives up. God is like the waiting father in the parable of Luke 15. God runs to meet us on our journey home. And should we find ourselves in the far country today, all we have to do is set our hearts toward home and God will welcome us with open arms. God will come running out to meet us.
O God, we are so grateful, as Paul said so beautifully, that where sin abounds, grace does much more abound. There is nothing that can keep us from you, if we would only be humble and honest and contrite. O God, we fail daily and often come short of living out the values of Jesus. Thank you for being patient with us and forgiving us time and time again. Empower us and embolden us to do more, to open our eyes and see those who are hurting and afflicted around us. Help us to find constructive ways to help. In the name of Christ. Amen.