It’s  Our Turn to Raise Lazarus – October 2

A sermon based on Luke 16:19-31

given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on October 2, 2022

by Rev. Scott Elliott

The rich man and the poor man in Jesus’ parable that Mearle just read have a few things in common. They are both Jewish and they live and die at the same time within a few yards of each other. There could not, however, be starker dissimilarities between the men in their lives and deaths and after life experiences. In life the unnamed rich man received what Jesus called good things. He had the existence most people dream about. He feasted every day, dressed like royalty in fine purple clothes, and ignored the troubles of the world, even those that literally lay just beyond his gate. In life the poor man, Lazarus received what Jesus called evil things. Lazarus had the existence of our nightmares, starving all the time,  laying just beyond the rich man’s gate and ignored. He had undressed purple wounds that the better fed dogs licked.

Jesus tells us that the manner in which these men lived caused the tables to be turned forever at death. FOREVER. Lazarus dies and is carried away by angels and ends up with eternal comfort beside Abraham–and his name is remembered. The rich man dies, and is buried and ends up with eternal agony tormented beside the flames of Hades– and his name is unknown.

A part of the rich man’s torment includes uncomfortable agonizing thirst in sight of Lazarus’ comfortableness with Abraham.  The rich man never cared about Lazarus’ suffering. While he was alive the rich man was well fed and Lazarus suffered. The rich man only cares about suffering now because he’s the one who is in the poor position of suffering.  He wants what Lazarus has. And we learn that the rich man knew who Lazarus was in life because he recognizes him and knows his name in the afterlife. The rich man even considers Lazarus’ lowly station in life still applicable, even as he still thinks his own privileged status  continues to apply after death.  He wants Abraham to send Lazarus to Hades to tend to his well-being. He tells Abraham “send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.”

That’s pretty nervy. In life he was willing to let Lazarus starve at his gate with open wounds. In death he is willing to have Lazarus sent to join him in agony beside the flames of Hades and use his finger to drop water on his tongue. He wants Lazarus to have it worse than he has it, serving him water with his fingers in Hades.  But Abraham will have none of it. In fact, it seems beyond Abraham or anyone else’s control. Addressing the rich man, Abraham points out that in death there’s an uncrossable chasm keeping Heaven and Hades apart. He tells the rich man it’s there “so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”

The rich man’s told that the reason for the forever divide is “that during your life time you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things, but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.” The rich man’s lack of action in his life toward the well-being of a suffering person at his gate leads to his own agony. On the other hand,  God sides with the person who was at his gate starving and wounded,  and takes care of him after life.

The Feasting on the Word commentary on our lesson points out that Jesus as “the great teacher puts Abraham, the parent of the faith, in the role of judge. Abraham sits with Lazarus, indicating a startling truth about who is faithful and who is not.” The author of the commentary, the Reverend Penny Nixon, goes on to note that,

“What we know from the parable is that because of his lack of action and compassion the rich man cannot cross over to the place of faith, nor does he have a place by Abraham’s side. To an impoverished group of people this parable would offer great comfort that God sees their suffering and is on their side.”

See the vast majority, about 80% of people in First Century Palestine, were impoverished and held in that state by a corrupt system that made and kept rich men rich. We discussed this last week as well. Peasants hearing that God sides with them and will take care of them is good news. It’s also  news of justice that there are cosmic consequences for the rich who do not personally act as God’s agents siding with the poor and sick and taking care of them.  The moral of the story is that what we do has cosmic and eternal consequences. If we do not act Divinely in here and now, there will literally be hell to pay.

Rev. Nixon ends her commentary with this zinger of reality, “ To most of us . . . steeped in a consumer society and often on the wrong side of the chasm, this parable is one of the hardest for us to hear . . . if we really hear it.”  Many of Jesus’ parables can be hard for us to hear . . .  if we really hear them.  The one we are talking about this morning– if we do “really hear” it–  suggests the wealth our culture aims us at has a huge downside to our faith if we do not tend to the well-being of others.

If Jesus’ message is to be believed, if  we are not careful the wealth and comfort we have in our lives can have long term effects on our souls– if we take no action to help others whom we pass by on the street. If we do not act as God’s hands on earth and side with the poor and sick and take care of them, we are causing evil to occur in the lives of the poor and sick and we will be held accountable. What we do here and now has cosmic and eternal consequences. We must act divinely here and now. Prosperity without care for people like Lazarus can lead to separation from heaven on earth now, and have ripple effects forever.

At the end of Jesus’ parable, the rich man wants Lazarus to be resurrected and sent to do his bidding back on earth to be his personal herald to his brothers. The rich man doesn’t want to warn everyone, just his kin, so they won’t end up tormented in Hades,  separated from the leader of their faith Abraham. Abraham responds by pointing out people like the rich man and his brothers have had a long line of messengers– Moses and the prophets who brought that message were not listened to. Abraham notes “if they do not listen to Moses and the prophets neither will they be convinced .  . . if someone rises from the dead.”  The Bible over and over and over again directs us to tend to poor and the sick. Others’ well-being is our affirmative responsibility which we cannot just walk past on the way to our feasting, nice clothes and other comforts.

Jesus tells parables to jolt us from complacently with the way things are and the way we are. This one surely does, if we hear it.  Jesus’ parables are deft stories about the ordinary which draw extraordinary illustrations meant to evoke contemplation and transformation. New Testament scholar, Stephen Patterson, points out that Jesus used parables to,

“suggest[] that God encounters people in the concrete everydayness of their lives. The transcendent is immanent. The Empire of God is –or could be– a present reality already breaking into the world as we have constructed it” (The God of Jesus, p 126-127).

Our lesson today has five ordinary facts from everyday life that apply still today.  We still have rich people who dress and eat well. We still have poor people who do not and suffer. We still have rich people who ignore suffering.  We still have God’s message to take care of the poor and suffering. And we still have the rich and poor people who die.    Jesus uses those ordinary facts and then takes us to the afterlife of two men and asks us to imagine how the Empire of God and our place in it is affected by our actions on Earth.

Jesus makes us think outside the box about life, by using a story about the afterlife. He vividly and strangely teases out what we least expect,  that well-being and comfort for self and not intentionally harming others is not good enough. Inaction can be as bad as inappropriate action. We are not told the rich man was a brute and bully in life. He did not kick or beat Lazarus. He did not even force him to move from outside his gates. What he did to Lazarus was, well, nothing. He did not give him food or clothes or tend to his wounds.  He did not even give Lazarus table scraps or old clothing or the time of day. A poor man was literally starving in front of his house day in and day out and the rich man did nothing to help. A poor man lay covered with sores that even the dogs would try and help by licking, but the rich man did nothing for him.

Doing nothing to help, it turns out, is an evil thing. We tend to think of evil as intentional harm, but according to Abraham in Jesus’ story it an evil thing to let a person starve. It is an evil thing to let a person with wounds go untreated. Moses gave us the law that requires God’s people to love their neighbors. Prophets gave us the requirements to seek justice and love kindness.  Those are not idle commandments that we just hear or read and nod our heads at. They are action commandments. They require action LOVING neighbors, SEEKING justice, LOVING kindness.  If we don’t take those actions we are at least as Jesus tells it separated from our faith. We are so separated that a severe chasm develops keeping us from salvation in the bosom of Abraham, and leaving our souls in agony. We suffer from the evil of not loving neighbors, not seeking justice, not loving kindness.

Heaven it turns out is always on the side of those in need that we step over, turn a blind eye to and ignore. That’s hard to hear.  But easy to fix. What we need to do is act. Act to feed the poor and tend to the wounds of the sick. As Jesus puts it in Matthew 25 we need to tend to his presence in the least among us, the hungry, thirsty, sick, imprisoned and stranger. When we do that we literally tend to Christ. When we don’t do that we literally don’t tend to Christ.

May we avoid separation from our faith by seeing and hearing and caring for every Lazarus we encounter.  May we raise every Lazarus up so that Christ is raised up, even as we are raised up to dwell with Abraham on the heavenly side of the chasm.  AMEN.