One Hell of a Story (A sermon from Luke 16:19-31)
The late Ken Chafin, who was a Baptist minister and professor 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 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 a little bit, 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. His text came out of the book of Revelation. The preacher was in a 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.
When I was a teenager 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 actually look like or be like. That’s not what this is about.
However, a major theme of the story that does indeed relate to the afterlife is the theme of 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 is drawing upon a familiar legend and adapting it to teach what he wants to teach. And one of the things he wants to teach with this story is that there will be vindication for those who have had a really hard life.
Playing on the reversal theme that shows up in several places in Luke, the roles of the rich man and the poor man are reversed. The rich man ends up in misery, which is how the poor person lived his life on earth, 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 main point seems to be that the poor and the oppressed and the downtrodden will be vindicated in due time. There are folks who have been dealt in life a really bad hand. In fact, the whole deck of cards are stacked against them.
So, what I am saying that this story is saying 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 in the next life? What form will that take? I have no idea. The point here is simply that God will make things right. I don’t know what that will look like, but God will make things right. By the way, historical scholars think this was the primary factor that led to Jewish belief in resurrection. For hundreds of years the Jews did not believe in an afterlife. Then, around the third or second centuries BCE belief in resurrection began to emerge, primarily as a way of vindicating righteous persons who had been wrongly killed. And it won the day. It became a popular belief, so that by the time of Jesus most Jews believed in resurrection, though some, like the Sadducees, did not. This story in Luke 16 is about vindication, so in that sense, it is about the afterlife, but only in that sense.
I think most of you know that I am a hopeful universalist. I am hopeful, though not certain, that in due time all people will be redeemed. But that doesn’t mean everyone walks in as is. What would an evil person do if the main thing in God’s world is about loving others? How would that work? If an evil person is not allowed to do any evil, how would that work? One’s heart has to change. This is why repentance is an important teaching of Jesus and a dominant theme in the Gospel of Luke. So, how does a person have a change of heart who has spent his or her entire life using and abusing and hurting others? How does that happen? I am guessing here, obviously, but maybe they have to learn what being hurt, being forgotten, being abused feels like before their heart can change. Maybe that has to happen somehow. I think we all understand to some degree the truth of tough love don’t we? Maybe a kind of role reversal is necessary in order for one’s heart to change. According to the Gospels, one of the most remembered sayings of Jesus, maybe the most frequent saying of Jesus is, “the first will be last, and the last will be first.” Now, I have no clue how that might actually work, but maybe that has to happen. The point here, however, is that there will be vindication. God takes notice of the downtrodden, and God will vindicate them. They have a future that is glorious even though they have been beaten down in life.
A related point this story makes, a point often made by Jesus through both his actions and his teachings, is that God gives special attention to the poor and downtrodden. This is why Jesus tells his disciples that when they host a dinner to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. These are the ones God takes special interest in, and so they should too. God loves everyone, but God gives special attention to the most vulnerable and the disadvantaged.
In one sense this story actually functions as an indictment on the huge disparity that can develop in societies between the rich and the poor. Much has been said about the 1 percent in this country controlling 45 percent of the income, while the number of people living in poverty is increasing at an alarming rate. And this story by Jesus paints that contrast in the most vivid, starkest colors. The rich man engages in conspicuous consumption. A lot of folks, and I suspect many Christians, would say that he is just enjoying his hard earned fortune. But that’s not how Jesus or Luke sees it is it? The rich man 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. Congress has cut his food stamps. He can’t even find an open soup kitchen to get a meal. 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, but 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 by name, the one who would have had place and position and name recognition has no name in the story.
Do you ever wonder how Christianity and the church got so far away from this? Think about it. Just look at the success of present day Christian ministries who actually teach just the opposite. But this has always been a problem in religion – using our religious faith to justify our wants. It was a problem in Jesus’ day. 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 at his gate? How did the religious leaders justify their love for and accumulation of money? It wouldn’t have been all 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 a terrible theology, but you can find it supported in the Bible, because the Bible is a human book after all. It’s not infallible, because human beings are not infallible. We get stuff wrong –a lot of stuff.
And this idea that riches and health and good fortune is the blessing of God was apparently a popular theology during the time of Jesus. Jesus’ own disciples seem to have been indoctrinated in this kind of theology and had to unlearn it. In John 9 when Jesus’ disciples stumble upon a man who was blind, they ask Jesus, “Did this man sin or his parents?” What kind of question is that? They assume his blindness was some form of divine punishment. If there were no biblical texts to support this bad theology Joel Osteen and those 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. That works well in America, and apparently in some other countries too.
The rich man could have appealed to this theology and these scriptures that promise wealth to the righteous and judgment on the unrighteous to justify his in-attention and do-nothing response to the poor man who was at his gate. He might have argued that if he tried to alleviate the man’s poverty or bring some relief to his suffering, he would have been interfering with God’s will. He could have found a number of scriptures to argue that point. There is some really bad theology in the Bible. But there is also some really great theology in the Bible, which reaches its pinnacle in the life and teachings of Jesus. And we can find this transformative theology all through scripture. 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.” That’s from the book of Deuteronomy, the very same book of the Bible that gives us the bad theology of blessing and cursing. We also find this counter transformative 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 . . .” (58:6–7)
So, bad theology and good theology, religious rationalizations for greed on the one hand, and commands to care for the poor on the other hand, are all part of our sacred tradition. What we need, sisters and brothers, is the wisdom to tell the difference between what is good and bad. If our heart is not ready to change, then the Bible alone won’t do it. If we have a sick heart, we will just use the Bible to justify our sickness. If we have a loving heart, then we will read and use the Bible in loving ways.
Another point I want to make that should give us all pause is this: The fate of the rich man is not tied so much to what he did, but what he didn’t do. It’s not what he did that is judged here. It’s 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. He didn’t give him relief. 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. Sometimes when it comes to injustice, to be silent and say nothing, or to do nothing makes us just as guilty as those who commit the injustice. And this hits us all doesn’t it?
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 person is me. Maybe that person is you too. Maybe we are all that person. And one could argue quite legitimately, I think, that we have to do this on some level or we would be inundated with the suffering of the world, because there is so much suffering and poverty in the world. And there is some truth in that argument. We need to be careful, however, 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, because we have to find some balance.
There is one final point to be made. I remember the preacher years ago who preached this story in that youth revival being fixated on the fixed chasm separating Lazarus from the rich man. Here’s my take on 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, some honesty, and some contrition about our lack of love. This is what opens our eyes and enlightens us to see. This is what will change us. We can do all sorts of religious stuff and sing Jesus songs all day and all night but unless we have some honesty, some humility, and some contrition about our lack of love and our need to be more loving, 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 and God never gives up. But we have to want to be found and we have to have a change of heart. That’s all inside work that God cannot force anyone to do.
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.