October 13, 2013 Luke 16: 19-31
The parable today is addressed to the Pharisees, who weʼre told were
lovers of money, and who had just ridiculed Jesusʼ teaching about money.
To be fair, their response was based on their theology, which was informed
by their understanding of scripture. They believed that wealth was a sign of
Godʼs blessing and poverty a sign of Godʼs displeasure. Obey Godʼs laws
and you will be rewarded.
Jesus, who blessed the poor and urged us to share our goods with those in
need, argued that they were not interpreting their scripture correctly. While
this parable seems to be about money, itʼs really about values, and
compassion, and our ability to see. So letʼs hear what the parable has to
say: Luke 16: 19-31
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who
feasted sumptuously every day.
Purple symbolized wealth and power. The Romans had set standards
regarding who could wear purple, and even how much purple they could
wear. Fine linen was also a mark of wealth. In a country where the common
people were fortunate if they ate meat once a week, feasting daily, well,
you get the point.
And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who
longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich manʼs table; even
the dogs would come and lick his sores.
Lazarus is the only person named in any of Jesusʼ parables. His name
means “God heals” or “God helps”. He is separated from the rich man (who
remains nameless) by a gate, protecting the rich man from the riff raff
While the rich man is covered in purple linen, Lazarus is covered with
sores, and the only creatures that notice him are the dogs who come to lick
them. Heʼs longing for the scrapes from the rich manʼs table. At banquets
back then, people would wipe grease from their hands onto a piece of
bread and then throw the bread on the floor - not exactly a tasty morsel.
The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with
Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.
Ahhh death, the great equalizer. But in this story, the great reversal was
In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham
far away with Lazarus by his side. 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.”
The rich man didnʼt notice Lazarus while he sat outside his gate. Now that
he needs his help, he refers to him by name, but only through an
intermediary, Abraham, a person of ranking.
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. 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.”
In life the rich man wanted to avoid all contact with Lazarus. Now he is
tormented by the gulf that separates them. The parable takes the
Phariseeʼs theology that wealth was a sign of Godʼs blessing and poverty a
sign of Godʼs displeasure, and turns it on its head.
He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my fatherʼs house— for I
have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come
into this place of torment.”
Well thatʼs nice. Heʼs finally thinking about others, but in this case, only his
Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to
The Hebrew scriptures, like the one Siu Wai read from Deuteronomy, are
filled with instruction on how we are to treat those less fortunate than us.
He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead,
they will repent.” 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
He must have known his brothers well. They werenʼt listening to any
scriptures. I donʼt think Jesus is using this story to discuss where weʼre
going when we die. My grandmother always told me she didnʼt believe in
hell. “Hell is here on earth”. Iʼm sure there are many who would agree with
her. There are some today who would say, “Hell is not a place, but a state
of mind.” In the case of the rich man, a narcissistic one - one that canʼt see
This story, like many in the bible, existed in various forms in Judaism and
throughout the ancient world. Jesus, the ultimate storyteller, uses it to talk
about what was important in this life. Letʼs do a little Jewish midrash to tell
a story based on Jesusʼ message - for our time.
(Susan walks down center with clip board and petitions, person A walks by)
Susan: Are you registered to vote?
Person A: (as you walk past) No thank you, not today.
(Person B walking by notices Susan, then turns head to look away from her
as she begins to speak. Person C walks by)
Susan: Excuse me, are you registered to vote?
Person C: Yes, but I donʼt have any time for that today.
(Person A walks back across from the other direction, looking back and
forth to make sure she doesnʼt approach him/her)
(Person D walks across)
Susan: Good morning, are you registered to vote.
Person D: No, Iʼm not interested.
Have you ever stood on the street trying to get people to sign a petition for
what you believed was a worthy cause? I feel for those people. Several
years ago I sat at a table at our very busy farmers market one Saturday
inviting people to sign up to walk in our first ever Hunger Walk. I believed
that with a little encouragement, a reasonable percentage of the 27,000
residents of our town would be moved to reach out and help their fellow
neighbors in need. My goal was 100 walkers.
After two hours I could count on one hand the number of people I spoke
with that I felt relatively confident would be supporting the walk. I packed up
my table and packets and left feeling a little like the empty handed Lazarus
watching the rich man leave his house and walk on by. After all, I had been
representing those like Lazarus in our community, and for the most part I
had been ignored.
Why werenʼt the people as enthusiastic as I was? Why, with all the media
coverage about the event and the need out there, were people in our
community, those who had good jobs or pensions, roofs over their heads,
food in the fridge, not stepping up to the plate?
Why didnʼt the rich man reach out to Lazarus sitting by his gate?
Was he just greedy - wanting to keep it all for himself? Was he fearful that
heʼd loose it all tomorrow and have nothing left? Did he blame Lazarus for
his condition - thinking him lazy, unwilling to get a job? Did he just lack
compassion, never having been in a situation like Lazarus and unable to
identify with his pain and misery?
Had he just given a large amount to a poor widow down the street to help
her out and felt he had done his part for the poor? - or was he just so
wrapped up in his own life that he was oblivious to Lazarus sitting by his
gate, rendering him invisible? Was he overwhelmed with the magnitude of
the need - too many Lazaruses lining the streets - too many blind, lame, ill,
suffering, poor people, so he just shut them all out of his vision. After all, he
couldnʼt solve all their problems.
And then it was too late. Never put off till tomorrow what you can
accomplish today. You never know what tomorrow will bring.
The sin of the rich man was that he never noticed Lazarus, that he
accepted him as a part of the landscape. We all are guilty of that at one
time or another in our lives. I know I am. Itʼs why I feel that hands on
ministry is essential to really seeing the plight of those outside our doors. It
is through seeing the face of Christ in another that our capacity for
compassion blossoms, that our passion for a cause or a group of people is
I didnʼt understand the plight of the Palestinians until I visited Palestine, met
with them, saw the conditions in which many of them lived, and heard their
stories. Itʼs pretty hard to put yourself in anyone elseʼs shoes, but it
certainly helps if you can walk side by side for a while.
Jesus walked among them. So often his stories are about generosity, about
reaching out to those in need, making whole those who are broken in body
or spirit. The Jews at that time couldnʼt change the oppressive system
under the Roman Empire. Jesus rose up against it and look where it got
him. The roads into Jerusalem were lined with crosses holding those who
crossed authority. When large insurrections of the masses finally rose up,
they were put down with force, along with the temple in 70 C.E..
They didnʼt have a political system that enabled them to vote to change or
improve the laws governing their lives. So Jesus encouraged them to do
what they could in acts of compassion and generosity - to care for one
We are so lucky to live in a country, unlike many others today, who are
given the opportunity to do both. It takes both; acts of charity, and
addressing the systemic problems that make those acts necessary, to
begin the process of creating the kin-dom Jesus came to usher in over two
We will always, in this country, have differing opinions as to how that will be
accomplished. Thatʼs part of living in a democracy. But as Christians, we
are instructed to turn to our scriptures, to the stories and actions of Jesus,
to help guide us in forming our opinions and making wise and
Many preachers over the years have asked “Who are you in this parable: a
pharisee, the rich man or Lazarus?” I see myself as one of the five
brothers. Iʼm still a work in progress, but thereʼs time for some adjustments.
Peter Gomes, the former chaplain at Harvard, describes this parable as a
cautionary tale. In it Jesus is saying itʼs not too late for us. He challenges
us to get our act together now - listen to the gospel, hear it, and act on it in
whatever way we can. Gomes says, “Here it is in clear color. God does not
expect you to do the impossible, but God does expect you to do both what
you can and what you must.”
So that is my rallying cry to you today: What can you do today, and what
must you?” Only you can answer that question for yourself.