The Sin of Uncaring
A sermon based on Luke 16:19-31
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on September 25, 2016
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Once upon a time there was a Wall Street commodities broker with a lot of wealth. He was terminally ill and, well, he wanted to take as much of his wealth as possible with him when he died. So in typical Wall Street fashion he started negotiating with God about it. God pointed out that it had not been done before, but after hours of long drawn out talks God finally gave in and agreed to allow the broker to bring his wealth to heaven. Just a few days before he died the man converted all his money into gold with instructions it was to all be buried with him. And when he died the funeral home made sure that all the heavy suitcases containing the gold were buried with him. The man arrived at the Pearly Gates with the suitcases, but Saint Peter told him he could not bring them into heaven. The man smugly smiled and retorted he’d already spoken to God and God said it was OK. Peter texted God and a reply came back indicating that, sure enough, it was true. He could bring them in. Peter told the man he was right, it was okay, but being curious asked “Could I look in the suitcases?” The man opened them up and proudly showed him all that gold. Peter shook his head and said “Why are you bringing pavement with you to heaven?”
The lesson we just heard Kasie read is about someone like that Wall Street broker. By worldly standards neither person does anything unlawful. Their earthly acts were not, as far as we can tell, intentionally mean or malicious. In fact they acquire an abundance of material wealth, a culturally laudable thing in both the ancient and modern world.
Our lesson today is one of the least known and maybe the least preached on parable of Jesus’. I assume that’s because wealth is a laudable thing and folks tend to think the parable is some sort of general indictment by Jesus against wealth. But the parable is not such an indictment. The parable is better heard as an indictment on so blindly focusing on our own care and false idols like money and gold that we show no care for God or others. To use the image from the joke, gold is no more valuable than pavement if we have it and only focus on acquiring more and use it only for the care of self.
Simply put, this parable is meant to illustrate and teach that not caring, not doing something about people in need of care is a sin. In our story the Rich Man did not throw Lazarus down at his gate. He did not make him lame so that he could not work and had to lay there and beg for food. He did not do evil to Lazarus. He. Did. Nothing. To. Lazarus. And that is the sin, he did nothing. In the face of others’ wounds and ailments we must help – whether the wounds are natural like disease, injury and disasters, or manmade like war, violence and oppression. We must care in our hearts and in our actions. The parable is not indicting care for wealth, it is indicting lack of care for God and others. The parable lesson is not about being rich, it is about being indifferent.
The sin of indifference is referred to in English as “sloth” on the list of seven deadly sins. But in Latin the word translated as sloth is “acedia” and it means “without care.” And here’s the kicker, or the punch line in Jesus’ parable about omitting doing what needs to be done . . . we only get this one life to do those deeds that we need to do. We can cross the chasm to Lazarus in life over the bridges of care like those we find in the Abrahamic faiths, but after life the bridges are gone. Father Abraham is no longer reachable when our life is over. We learn in the parable that we only get once chance to not blindly focus on our self care, we must open our eyes and get our care focused right – on not just self, but on others and God.
Ordinarily I tell the point part of a sermon – like I just did– at the end, but the point is so often overlooked in the reading and understanding of this parable –and actually in the teachings of Jesus in general– that I want it resonating in our heads at the start. Sin is not just doing wrong things. Sin is also just not doing right things.
Truth be told, most of us do not do terribly wrong things to others. That kind of sin is hard for moral people to do. But it is a whole lot easier to do the sin of sloth, the sin of not providing care beyond self and our close knit circle of family and friends. Consequently humans often just do not do the right things to, or for, others. Like the rich man in the parable, we step over Lazaruses – those in need of help– in our lives. We do not focus on them. We are even blind to their presence.
Our Lectionary lesson today lets us see that good resonating after life happens based on a life well lived, not with finery and feasts, but with good action and compassion for the Lazaruses we encounter. The way to Father Abraham, to right faith, is by doing what God calls us to do. And what God calls us to do are acts that matter not just for self, but when the opportunity arises to act for God and others. We are not to ignore that call. We are to do those acts. By such acting we do good and Godly work. And by not doing it we sin. That’s what the revered prophets and Moses taught over and over and over. That’s what the Bible texts we’ve been looking at the past few weeks can be heard to teach.
In today’s text Jesus applied that teaching to a rather common and simple story about a non-evil person with the daily opportunities to care at his own front gate, opportunities he does not see even as it stares him in the face. We can even image him literally side-stepping the opportunity to help Lazarus laying at his feet.
We tend to hang out and help those who are like us. And Jesus’ imagery in the story begins by painting a picture of two men who could not be more culturally opposite. One is covered in royal purple cloth, the other is covered in purple oozing wounds. One is comfortable, feasting and full, the other is in agony, starving and empty. One is an upright man on one side of the gate, the other is a downtrodden man on the other side. One gives the dogs something to lick, the other is licked by those dogs. One has the opportunity to help another, one has no such opportunity . . . because the other did not help him when he could.
The two also have some things in common, they live and die in the same place and neither is said to have had what we would call a religious faith.
When they die one gets a final act of earthly care, a wealthy burial. The other gets no earthly care even in death. He is, however, tellingly carried away by angels to be with Abraham. The one not cared for on earth gets eternal heavenly care. And the one who did not care for him on earth, he gets no care at all after life. Indeed crossing the threshold from life to afterlife inverts the images of the men. The “uncaring man” is forever in agony un-cared for by Father Abraham with no bridge of faith left to cross to provide salvation from any direction. But the “un-cared for man,” he is forever in the comfortable care of Father Abraham cradled and embraced and stood up for, not for his faith, but for his receipt of things of a bad nature in life. No opportunities were provided to him by those who could provide them– the un-caring non-embrace of humankind sends him to the caring embrace of the Father – the parent– of our religion.
We can hear in this parable the remarkable truth that the parent of our religion is care and siding against oppression of others. And that is, of course, exactly what Father Abraham does FOREVER in Jesus’ story. And it is no accident that Jesus chose the name Lazarus for a poor, ill, un-cared for, unembraced oppressed man. And Lazarus is the only named character in all of Jesus parables. The name Lazarus means “God helps.” 1
That God helps the poor oozing sore beggar laying on the streets is counter to a lot of theological claims. Back then and today we hear claims that wealth, power and good health are signs of God’s favor while poverty, powerlessness and illness are signs of God’s disfavor. But it is not true (at least not in Jesus’ teachings). God helps those who need it. God cares for the uncared for and God expects that help and care to be done through the affirmative actions of those who have the opportunity to do it.
Despite whatever it is we were taught or led to believe, God does that helping through us.And if we focus our actions on just ourselves and false idols like gold and money instead – like the guy in the parable– it will torment us individually and collectively.
And it is quite interesting to also note that the Greek word for torment in the story is basanos a word originally used to describe the testing of coins. The coin would be rubbed or scratched with a hard stone to test its genuineness. Later the word was applied to torture . . . by which the truth was extracted from prisoners. 2
The way the “uncaring man” would have treated the coins he held in higher esteem than God and his neighbor Lazarus is the way he is now treated. What he cared for, how he cared for it to the exclusion of others comes back to be how he is treated in order to get him to face the truth. He left Lazarus in agony day after day so HE is now in agony day after day. It is what we would call a “what goes around comes around” warning. We can hear a somewhat Karmic sense to Jesus’ depiction of the afterlife. Our actions and inactions affect us, and not just in what we do and don’t do for ourselves, but what we do and don’t do for God and others. The wake up point is that what we do or don’t do for God and others affect us . . . and eternally so.
There are stories we grew up with claiming that heaven is paved with gold. That sounds fancy but, maybe what it really means is that on God’s way, gold is like pavement. It has no value if it is not used to pave the Way to heaven. And there is no way to heaven if we pave our earthly way around those in need of help.
We need to work to fashion a cultural ethos in line with Jesus’ Way that works for the good of all making sure that the Lazaruses, those God helps– are helped. We can be covered in royal purple cloth, but we cannot let others be covered in purple oozing wounds. We can be comfortable, feasting and full, but we cannot let others be in agony, starving and empty. We can be upright, but we must not let others be downtrodden. When we have the opportunity to help others who cannot help themselves we must not step over them, or walk on by and do nothing. We are through whom God helps others. To be God’s hands and feet and voice and resource we must act and close the distances between others and us in life now. If we that do we will embrace and be embraced by the Father of our religion. AMEN!
1. New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol IX, p 316
2.Ibid., p 318
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