Last week, when we had the Parable of the Shrewd Manager, I mentioned to a few people that the readings don’t get any easier in the coming weeks. This week’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is difficult for us to hear, but it isn’t as difficult to understand. In fact, it’s rather straight forward. The question isn’t “what does this parable mean?”, but rather, “what will we take from it?”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The scene is laid out in stark contrasts. On one side of the stage, we have the rich man. You can imagine him, in his dining room, perhaps attended to by his servants. On the other side of the stage is Lazarus, in no room at all, just sitting by the side of the road. The rich man’s table holds a magnificent feast. Rich foods and wines, more than could possibly be eaten in one meal. Lazarus has no food at all, though his stomach bulges with signs of starvation. The rich man is dressed in fine silks and linens, dyed in expensive and ostentatious colors. Lazarus has only rags that do nothing to protect him from the wind and cold. The rich man sits in the midst of every comfort imaginable. Lazarus is left with only the dogs’ meager care and sympathy.
But then the scene changes, although the contrasts do not. Now poor Lazarus is the one who sits being comforted, being cared for, cradled in the bosom of Abraham. The rich man, though, is in agony. Tormented by his circumstances. He cannot stand it, and he calls out for help. From his position, he can see where Lazarus sits in comfort, as Lazarus could once see his fine meals. He begs Father Abraham to send Lazarus to him, to quench his thirst and provide some relief. But he is told that the chasm that divides him from Lazarus is fixed, and it cannot be crossed.
This chasm, this great divide, between the rich man and Lazarus, it’s not a new thing. It’s not something that was put in place after their deaths. In fact, it was always there. It reminds me of a scene in A Christmas Carol, when Ebeneezer Scrooge is shown his future, the fate that awaits him. He has been a miserly man all his adult life, selfish and greedy. And the Ghost of Christmas Future shows him a vision of himself in misery, bound up in shackles.
At this point, Scrooge has already had his eyes opened to his sins, and has begun to think differently about his life, and he realizes: “these are the chains I forged in life.” It is his own actions which have left him chained and tormented.
If there is a chasm between the rich man and Lazarus, it is one that the rich man created during his life. He distanced himself from poor Lazarus. He literally had to step over this man sitting at this gate to get out of his house and go about his business, but he didn’t really see him. He allowed himself to be closed off from the pain and suffering of others, so much so that he ignored Lazarus, and he ignored his daily opportunity to make a difference for Lazarus. And that distance is his sin. We don’t hear that the rich man had done anything particularly wrong. It doesn’t say that he is responsible for Lazarus’ position. He didn’t personally cause this man to be poor and suffering. But he doesn’t help him either.
His indifference continued even after death. He still sees Lazarus as someone beneath him—someone to be ordered around, someone to serve him and his needs. He doesn’t even talk to Lazarus—he just talks about him to Father Abraham. And even then, only to ask that Lazarus be sent to alleviate his suffering. Something he never did for Lazarus in life.
He refused to see Lazarus for what he truly was, which was someone made in God’s image, a child of Abraham. A fellow human being created and loved by God. When Archer is baptized this morning, we will hear once again that we are all God’s children, we are all made in God’s image and created as holy and blessed things. When we look away from our fellow human beings, when we ignore their plight and step around them, we are stepping around the presence of God in our lives.
Who is it that we do not see? Who are we stepping around? Perhaps it is the person dealing with homelessness that we encounter on our commute. The nameless faces we see on the news or in the papers of war victims, of refugees and asylum seekers. The neighbor that we know is all alone and struggles to care for themselves. The children going to school hungry and returning home to empty cupboards. The animals being driven from their habitats by climate change. The need is all around us. And often, like the rich man, we look away. In the face of so much need and pain, we can be overwhelmed. Looking away, choosing not to see, is our defense mechanism. It’s easier, sometimes, than facing the pain we don’t know how to fix.
The story of Lazarus and the rich man doesn’t end on a very uplifting note. The rich man, as troublesome a character as he is, wants to help his brothers avoid his fate. And Abraham says that “even if a man comes back from the dead, they will not listen.” And that is where it ends. But, for the community for whom Luke originally wrote, and for us, we hear those words said with a little wink and a nod. “Even if someone comes back from the dead.”
Well someone did come back from the dead. Jesus did. We know the resurrected Lord Jesus. We are the ones who have the law and the prophets and have seen God’s compassion embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus. We are the ones who gather each week to celebrate his victory over the grave, forgiveness of sin, and the possibility of living in light of God’s grace, mercy and abundance.
Jesus invites us to take hold of the life that really is life. Life not marked by indifference and selfishness but marked by community and love. Seeing one another—really seeing each other–and seeking to ease each other’s burdens and pains. Life that is marked by riches…not in material ways…but richness of spirit, generous and ready to share. Jesus invites us to take hold of this life that really is life.
Jesus crossed the great chasm and embraced our humanity to open the way for us to grasp that true life. In his death and resurrection, we experience the truth that God never turns away from our need. Instead, God draws ever closer, taking our pain upon God’s own self, that we might be made whole in that mercy and grace. And we called to draw ever closer to each other, in brokenness and compassion, in love and in hope. That we might be part of the life that God intends for us, and for the whole world. Amen.