Luke 16:19-31 Pentecost 19C
Every day, one man eats a great feast, another man suffers in hunger. Day after day, one man walks in luxury and great wealth eating, not just what he wants, but sumptuous feasts. One man lies at the gate covered in sores that are tended and cared for by no one, only wild dogs come to lick them, and as hunger grips him he wishes he could have even scraps of food. But he cannot. Within one man’s gate is luxury, wealth and comfort. Outside this man’s gate is suffering, pain and hunger. Two men, opposite sides of the gate.
I did not want to preach on this gospel text today, so much so in fact that I had planned to preach on something else altogether. I didn’t want to preach on it because it is a hard text to understand; it’s actually pretty clear. It is, however, a difficult message to hear. I imagine that I am not alone in this.
Of all Jesus’ parables, this is probably not found on the Top 5 Favorites list for many people. I would guess that there are many of us who don’t often think of it at all. Lazarus and the very wealthy man on opposite sides of a gate. Lazarus and the very wealthy man on opposite sides of a great chasm. If one is unwilling to open the gate and welcome others in or take at least some of the wealth out through the gate to those on the outside, then one might come to experience the painful side of an uncrossable chasm themselves. All the wealth in all the world is not what can ever, EVER, save you.
There is a justice in this parable. We see it in even the lightest reading. Reversal of fortune. The hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty, to quote Mary’s famous song. The mighty are cast down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up. If you look for it, there is a strong and consistent theme throughout scripture that follows this very thread. God cares for the powerless, the lost, the broken, and will lift them up. The world will be and is being turned upside down and the gospel of Luke is filled with images of this justice.
The scary part about this parable may be this: the wealthy man does not look particularly “evil”. This is not a crazed despot, a serial killer, a terrible man who spits in the face of God on any conscious level. If he is, we are not told about it at all. The only relevant thing to the story is that he is incredibly wealthy and takes no notice of an unspeakably poor man right outside his gate. Jesus tells this parable shortly after he has made the statement “you cannot serve God and money” just six verses earlier, so this is likely another illustration of that teaching. The wealthy man is so busy serving money, that is to say serving himself his money, wallowing around in his money, soaking up the sumptuousness of feasting every day from his money, that he cannot serve God, specifically in this case serving God by caring for the poor.
Perhaps he cannot see poor Lazarus because he has been blinded by his wealth.
That’s the problem really. He pays no attention to Lazarus at all. And his name is Lazarus. The only man given a name in all of Jesus’ parables. Lazarus. It means: One helped by God. The wealthy man is so consumed by fine clothing and grand feasting that he does not even see the One Helped by God.
And that, to be completely honest, is terrifying. What do we not see every day because we are blinded by something far, far less important? What and who is right outside my door that I do not see because I am absorbed in my own comfort? Who is the One Helped by God right in front of us that we step over simply because we cannot see them for seeing ourselves?
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us that it is he, himself, who is there. It is he who is hungry and in need of food, he who is thirsty and in need of water, he who is the stranger and he who is naked and he who is in prison. It is Jesus who needs to be seen.
Oh, we could comfort ourselves by saying ‘we aren’t really wealthy. We aren’t genuinely rich!” But the truth is, brothers and sisters, we are not poor. Not one of us got up from the street this morning where we had spent the night utterly and completely alone with aching wounds and empty bellies.
After both Lazarus and the wealthy man die, they are still on opposite sides of a divide. And the wealthy man is still concerned with himself. Now, he is the poor and suffering one and Lazarus is the one in the comfort of Father Abraham. He cries out to Abraham to send Lazarus to quench his thirst. Still, he does not even speak directly to Lazarus but asks him to be sent to him like a servant would be sent. Even here, he does not really get it. The answer is no. Abraham also says no to his request to send Lazarus to the wealthy man’s brothers to tell them not to be so selfish and avoid this reversal of fortune. They have been told and told and told and if they have not listened, then they will not listen even if one is risen from the dead.
So, where is the good news in all of this? Well if, like me, you are struggling to see where it is, then that does tell us one thing in particular: we are definitely the wealthy man in this parable because there is definitely much good news for Lazarus.
In the book, The Soul of Money, the author, Lynn Twist, a philanthropist and professional fundraiser, tells the story of the first time she met Mother Teresa. In the midst of her meeting, a very wealthy couple barge into the room and insist on having a photo with Mother Teresa. They are depicted in much the same way as the wealthy man in Jesus’ parable. They are inexplicably blind to anything other than themselves and their own desires. Mother Teresa endures the experience without a single complaint, though Ms Twist is outraged at the carelessness and thoughtlessness of the intrusion. Later, Mother Teresa tells her that although much is now known about the vicious cycles and systems that create and solidify poverty and the great divides that exist between people because of it, what goes almost completely unnoticed and unacknowledged is the vicious cycle of wealth. “There is no recognition of the trap that wealth so often is, and of the suffering of the wealthy: the loneliness, the isolation, the hardening of the heart, and the hunger and poverty of the soul that can come with the burden of wealth.” (pg 41)
Two chapters from this text, Jesus will say, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” That’s a pretty good description for how it looks for those of us sitting beside the wealthy man in this parable. Father Abraham says that the chasm is impossible to cross. But Jesus also says in that same section, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.” Yes, if someone came back from the dead to tell us, it would likely not help very much. But if someone….if Jesus himself, is resurrected from the dead and tears down those gates that separate us all…. Well, that is another story altogether isn’t it?
Ultimately, I think this parable is about what we do with what we have and where we fix our attention. Money is not evil. It is just a thing. Having money is not evil either. There are wealthy people in scripture who are also faithful. It isn’t money that buys us into or keeps us out of heaven, so I’m not even sure that this parable is about who is “saved” and who is not. In fact, focusing on doing something for the poor simply so that we don’t end up on the wrong side of an uncrossable chasm is just as selfish and self-centered as never looking beyond our own satisfaction. Instead, I think it’s about the place that money, things, power, our own comfort and wants hold in our lives; how much of our time and energy these things consume and how much of our view of the world they block out.
One of the central teachings of Lutheranism is the truth of God’s amazing, boundless, bottomless grace. We are, as St Paul writes, saved by grace through faith alone apart from any work of the law. So, now that we are saved, now that we have been forgiven and redeemed and saved in a way that we could never do for ourselves, what are we to do with our precious lives? Lives so precious that Jesus was willing to die for each and every one of them, they are given as a free, priceless gift. In light of that, what need is there to concern ourselves with ourselves so intently as to be blinded to those suffering right in front of us? If God has given us everything we need, and indeed God has done just that in Jesus Christ, then we can remove our blinders, look up from our overflowing cups, see the need around us and reach out, becoming the body of Christ himself to help those who are hungry, hurting, lost, lonely, broken and afraid. We can see the One who is Helped by God right in front of us.
So open the gate and step across into the world. Who do you see, right there, who needs our help?