Proper 21, Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15, Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31
This parable is a cartoon. Jesus makes it exaggerated and extreme and he means it to be funny. Don’t use this parable for direct doctrine on the afterlife. But it does have serious elements: it’s the only parable in which a character has a name, and the name is significant. The name "Lazarus" means "God helps." But Lazarus is not the main character. The main character is the man not named.
We need to be clear about something else, because the translation is misleading. The original Greek does not say "There was a rich man," but, in a word order that is atypical and noticeable, it says something like this, "And there was some guy who was rich and dressed in purple, etc."
The subtle difference is significant. "And there was some guy" who had the particular besetting problem of being rich. Just because you’re not rich doesn’t mean he doesn’t stand for you, whatever your own besetting problem is. Of course, let’s not deny that being rich is a particularly besetting problem when it comes to spirituality and fearing God, but there’s a way in which this guy is any one of us. And that has to with how God helps us.
The guy, who was rich, was being helped by God. God helped him by sending the poor man Lazarus to his gate. God was helping the guy by making it easy for him to keep the Laws of Moses. God had given the guy a "stranger within his gates," and so he didn’t have to go across town to feed the poor, he could do it right there at his own house, and even on a Sabbath day — he could do it without breaking any Sabbath laws.
Unfortunately the guy didn’t take God’s help. His life was too good to need God’s help. Maybe he thought: the name of that bum is Lazarus, so let God help him. Which of course is what happened, when the angels took him to heaven and he finally got to eat a decent meal at the celestial banquet, even sitting in a place of honor right next to Abraham.
And the guy who was rich dies too, and now he’s the one who’s suffering and now he really does need help. "Send Lazarus down to cool my tongue." (Jesus is being funny here, he’s playing with the image of the tongue of the man and the tongues of the dogs. And the audience is thinking, ha ha, serves the rich guy right.)
"Nope, sorry, a great chasm is fixed between us, and we can’t cross it and you can’t either."
"Well, then, Father Abraham, help my brothers. Send him to warn my brothers."
"But my son, your brothers already saw Lazarus whenever they came to your house. Shall we send a different beggar to lie at your father’s gate and help them out?"
"I don’t mean send him back as a beggar. I mean as somebody important, like a prophet."
"Oh, I see. But they already know what the prophets say about caring for the poor and needy. If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, why would they listen to Lazarus?"
While the guy was alive he had to step over him every time he left his house. But he didn’t see him. Or he chose not to see him. Had he blinded his eyes, or hardened his heart, or was he preoccupied with what luscious food he would be eating next? Hadn’t he already fixed a great chasm of his own between himself and Lazarus, a chasm within his own heart that he would not cross, a portable separation from the poor that we always have with us?
And what about you, O listener? Perhaps you too are wealthy. Or perhaps your besetting problem is something else. What particular chasm do you keep yourself behind, that you may keep yourself apart from those persons whom God sends into your life to help you, not to help you do the dishes, but to help you face the fear of God and the love of God and the mercy of God?
They typically come into your life not as angels or prophets but problems, as beggars.
I am sure that when you pray you ask God for help, and the kind of help God sends you is not what you were planning on. Sometimes it’s resistance even, an obstacle in the way that you were going, or an imposition in your life. Can you accept that kind of help from God?
You know that a parable is usually about several things at once. One thing this parable is about is repentance. You can think of repentance as recognizing what’s in front of you. Seeing it and facing it. Not avoiding it even when it’s painful and troubling. Crossing over to it and even touching it.
The guy was not repentant. Even in Hades he remained unrepentant. Notice how he kept on disregarding Lazarus. "Father Abraham, tell Lazarus to do this. Father Abraham, tell Lazarus to do that." He did not speak to Lazarus himself, he thought him still beneath him. And he would not take full responsibility for where he ended up. Read between his lines: "I didn’t know, it was not made clear enough to me. I didn’t know what you wanted, it isn’t fair." Repentance is to accept God’s judgement as God’s help.
This parable is also about love. The man loved money more than people. He loved his riches more than he loved the man outside his gate. His love of money was the root of evil in his life. He didn’t think his life was evil, he probably said that God had blessed him, his life felt good to him, but it was evil, in the way that Lazarus was nothing to him.
When other people are not sufficiently important to me, whether they live or die, whether they are happy or suffering, that is evil. It is to live outside of the claims and obligations of human love, and to find a substitute in the love of money, which is essentially the love of self and the love of power. The love of money and security and power and the satisfaction of my appetites are chasms in our lives to keep us separated from those we really are to love.
Too bad for the guy; Lazarus was his opportunity to love his neighbor as himself — for who is a closer neighbor than the stranger within your gate, and why shouldn’t he have sat him at his table right beside him? Abraham was rich and important, and he did that for Lazarus, why hadn’t the guy done that?
If we are blessed with prosperity, it’s not a reward from God for good behavior. Rather, it’s an occasion for our testing, to see what we will do with it. What do we love? Whom do we love? These questions are always relevant for Christians.
Do you see the connection between love and repentance? Repentance is not only saying, "I’m sorry." If it just stays there, it’s no better than saying, "I feel bad." Repentance starts with sorrow and recognition, but it has to go further, it has to say something more, repentance finally has to say, "I love you."
I don’t mean romantic love, and I don’t mean possessive love, in the way that you love your lover, or good food and nice clothes, which I love very much. I mean loving the unlovely, serving the humble, rescuing the perishing. "I love you, I want to serve you, as God has served us in Jesus Christ." The funny thing is, the more you love as God loves, the more pleasure you get from things like good food and nice clothes, and the better you get at romantic love.
This parable is about repentance and about love, but most deeply it’s about Jesus himself. Do you see it? Lazarus is Jesus. Yes, Jesus is a prophet, but he also comes to you as a beggar, and he comes this way to help you. He is the stranger who lies down in your gate so that you have to step over him. His gifts are often only beggar’s gifts. Jesus never overpowers us, though he is king of kings. He "under-powers" us, and comes in weakness.
Why this way? It is your power that he wants to be expressed in the world. He doesn’t want you to be powerless. He doesn’t want you to be a beggar. He wants you to have power, sufficient power, appropriate power, and he wants you to exercise your power lovingly. Not to keep your power, but to give out power, lovingly, sharing the power that you have.
Copyright © 2007 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.