09 Oct The Rich Man & Lazarus
Calvary Presbyterian Church, Alexandria, VA
September 29, 2019
Once upon a time there was a rich man – the most powerful man in the world, some said –who lived in a fine white mansion with manicured lawns. Kings, queens, presidents, prime ministers regularly joined him for sumptuous banquets prepared by his extensive staff. He was entertained by the most famous singers and actors in the land. Footmen accompanied him wherever he went. Guards stood at the gates to let some people in, and send most people away. The entire grounds were surrounded by a strong, high fence. Even the rich man’s garbage was locked up tight.
Every night, a homeless man named Marcus unrolled his sleeping bag near the East gate of the white house. In the summer, cool air hovered over the grass of the lush lawn, giving a little relief to the day’s heat radiating from the sidewalk. In the winter, Marcus lay his sleeping bag over a grate in the sidewalk, where warm air rose from tunnels below. Sometimes he made a tent for himself out of cardboard to keep the snow off.
From his bed on the sidewalk, Marcus could see the warm lights inside the white house. He could see famous people come and go in their fancy cars. He imagined the food scraps in the precious garbage cans as his stomach rumbled with hunger.
One day, an advisor to the rich man said, “Mr. President, it is not suitable that homeless people should camp outside the office of the leader of the free world. We should make a law that bans people from sleeping on public sidewalks around the White House and sidewalk grates anywhere.”
And so the advisor talked to the DC government, and now homeless people are prohibited from sleeping near the White House and on grates near Metro stations.
Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus is an exaggeration for the sake of clarity: Not only is the rich man rich, but he dresses in purple – the most expensive dye of the day – and fine linen – a fabric most people could not afford. Not only did he feast, he feasted sumptuously. And not just once in awhile, but every day.
Lazarus, on the other hand, lies by a gate wearing little more than sores and starving to death.
Clearly these are caricatures drawn to make a point.
And yet, when I moved to this area in the late 1980s, many homeless people did sleep on sidewalks surrounding the White House. They did sleep on grates around Metro stations, in great numbers. Sometimes they put up semi-permanent spaces with cardboard and tarps so that they could have some privacy and safety.
But such obvious and abundant homeless people in public spaces is bad for tourism, and tourism generates billions of dollars in revenue for our region. So instead of doubling down on program to end homelessness, we passed laws that said homeless people couldn’t exist here. They had to move out. Move on. Go to the suburbs.
Truth, not a caricature.
Today’s parable follows a string of parables in Luke regarding wealth. This one is aimed directly at the Pharisees, who, in the passage just before today’s reading, are described as “lovers of money” (v. 14).
Jesus condemns them, ending last week’s parable by saying, “No servant can serve two masters, for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (v. 13).
Today’s parable is the starkest lesson by far. While there is an income gap between the rich man and Lazarus in this life, there is a physical chasm between them in the afterlife. The rich man would not try to close the resource gap in life. Father Abraham says the chasm between them in eternity is fixed. No one can cross in either direction.
The rich man is lost, doomed to an eternity of torment and thirst. Even so, he does not acknowledge Lazarus. He addresses himself only to Father Abraham: “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue” (v. 24), as if Lazarus would even want to do such a thing.
When the rich man does show compassion, it is for his brothers. For people like him. Again he addresses Father Abraham: “Send Lazarus to warn them.”
But Father Abraham, father of the faith, perfect example of true faith, says no. The rich man’s brothers have all the information they need. They can follow the teachings of Moses and the prophets. Or not. The rich man had his chance. Now he must eternally suffer the logical consequences of his life choices.
Where do you see yourself in this story? Are you Lazarus? Poverty-stricken, hungry, wounded? Or are you the nameless, faceless rich man?
Or are you Father Abraham, pious example of perfect faith?
Here’s a hint: 16% of the world’s population uses 80% of the world’s natural resources.
The United States – 5% of the world’s population – accounts for 25% of the world’s fossil fuel consumption. And 50% of the world’s solid waste.
So where the good news here?
Well, if you’re really, really poor, clearly God is on your side, so that’s good news.
But where is the good news for the rest of us?
Well, we are alive. We are not Lazarus. But neither are we the rich man in Hades.
We are the rich man’s brothers.
And that is good news. Because we still have a chance to make better choices than the rich man.
The rich man’s sin was was not that he was wealthy. Money in and of itself is not evil.
His sin was his behavior. His sin was indifference. He was not hospitable. He did not even see Lazarus at his gate. He did not even care that someone – a person, a child of God, a son of Abraham – was starving before his eyes. He never said, “Hey, Lazarus, how’s it going?” And then listen for the answer. He did not even recognize Lazarus when he desperately wanted something from him.
As long as we are alive, we can choose to live as God would have us live, to live as Jesus taught us. Our Lord hung out with some of the most despised people of his time. Our Lord lived as an itinerant preacher rather than in a cozy household. Our Lord used his privilege to challenge the wrongs of his day, to speak truth to power, no matter what the consequences. And his consequences were the greatest.
Friends, we have been warned. We, too have Moses and the prophets. We even have someone risen from the dead.
We must choose to care. We must choose hospitality, even if – especially if – it’s icky or inconvenient. We can choose to surrender our privilege and resources to God’s plan for the world: Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Care for people who have no one else to protect them. Visit prisoners.
Let us pray, “Lord, save us from our comfort. Save us from ‘othering’ inconvenient people, from legislating them off our sidewalks and our consciences. Help us claim the faith you teach us not just with our lips, but with our very hearts and lives, to your glory. Amen.”
Now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.