This morning, Jesus is telling another story to teach us something about the nature of God—who God is, how God acts, and what God desires. And as I said last week, we usually find that something in that part of the story that takes us by surprise, shocks us.
It is not difficult to find that moment in this morning’s lesson. But to fully grasp it we need to know a little background about original audience.[i] The Pharisees were notorious for believing and teaching some very bad theology. It is what we call “TV evangelist theology,” “the prosperity gospel” or the “health and wealth gospel.” It means that we can find favor with God, and if we do, whether it is by living a pure and holy life or by giving generously to God “through a seed offering to the name and address displayed on your television,” then God will bless you with health and wealth. In fact, if you give regularly to their ministry, not only can you expect to receive an autographed copy of their new book, but you can expect to get unexpected checks in the mail! You will not only feel good that you are supporting a great ministry, but you may also be healed your disease or disability.
So here’s the thinking:
Have a lot of money, a great stock-portfolio, growing investments? Blessed. Living from one social security check to the next? Not blessed.
Have plenty of food, nice clothes and a nice car? Blessed. On food stamps, wear worn, old-fashioned clothes, drive a broken down heap? Not so much.
Have great healthcare, low co-pay and deductible? Access to great doctors? Blessed. No insurance, can’t remember your last check-up? Not so blessed.
Nice home? Blessed. Live in the projects? Not blessed.
Healthy and fit, training to run a 5k? Blessed. Sick, in a wheel-chair, homebound? Unblessed.
The sick and the poor, well, they’re just not living right. They make poor decisions in life. I hate to say it, but a lot of them deserve their plight.
The healthy and wealthy, well, evidently they have been living right. They make good and wise decisions, and because of that, they have caught the eye of God and found some divine favor. The poor? The sick? Well, they’ve caught the eye of God too!
And because of that belief, the Pharisees kept the poor and sick at a distance, outside of their circle of friends. They did everything they could do to keep a large gap between them. They were never invited into their homes and they cringed each time one would stumble into the synagogue.
So Jesus tells a story. There was a rich man from a big family who was well-dressed, well-fed and well-off, and of course lived in an exclusive gated community. And right outside of that gate, was this poor, hungry and sick man named Lazarus.
Lazarus would look through the gate and dream of being able to eat just the left-over scraps from the rich man. The only attention and care he received were from the neighborhood dogs that came and licked his wounds. How unblessed is that?
Well, one day, both men died. After all that’s what all men do, don’t they? All of the money, good fortune in the world can not prevent it. So, no surprise there.
But hold on, because here it comes. The poor man, the man who was seemingly blessed not so much in life, is carried away by the angels to be with Father Abraham.
And, by this time, you know it is really coming. You can almost feel it! If the church pews had seatbelts, I’d be hearing a lot of clicks about now.
The rich man who had a stellar reputation in the community, the one who was seemingly very blessed in life, the one who always bragged to his friends down at the synagogue how good God had been to him, found himself being tormented in Hades.
C’mon Jesus, really?!? Really?
Really! He looks up and sees Abraham with Lazarus at his side and cries out, “Father Abraham, it’s hot as Hades down here! Please send Lazarus to visit me with just a drop of water!”
Abraham responds, “It’s too late. You are no longer able to be comforted. Besides, there is now this chasm, this gate, this wall separating you from us and us from you. And it has been fixed.
Now, isn’t that ironic? In life, the rich man who separated himself, who kept his distance, segregated and protected himself from the likes of people like Lazarus, is now eternally separated from him. And he is unable to do anything about it.
“Ok,” he says, “If I am unable, my five brothers who are still living are very able! Please send Lazarus to warn them so that they will not join me in this God forsaken place!”
Abraham responds: “They’ve already been warned in the scriptures.”
“But, Abraham, look, uh, I know my brothers, and I am afraid that they are not really into Bible Study, but if someone rises from the grave, then they might listen.”
“No,” says Abraham, “If they are not willing to listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced, even if someone rises from the dead.”
Oh – my – word! Jesus is not just speaking to the Pharisees here, is he? Jesus is speaking to crowds of people gathered almost two-thousand years later on Sunday mornings at 11am who proclaim to know someone who has indeed rose from the dead.
It is too late for the rich man. He is no longer able to change—change his theology, change his heart, change his view of his neighbors living on the other side of the tracks. He is no longer able to tear down the wall and begin building bridges. And although his five brothers are able to change, we learn the sad and the scary truth that they are simply not willing to change.
And here we are, as able as those brothers. The truth is, we are more than able. For not only do we have Moses and the Prophets, we also have Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul and the risen Christ himself. So, the scary question is: are we willing? Are we willing to change our theology, our hearts and our actions? Are we willing to tear down the walls and build some bridges?
Yes, we hear bad theology all of the time from the TV preachers, but we also hear it right here in the local church. And sometimes it comes out of our very own mouths.
When someone compliments us by telling us what a nice home we live in, or what a nice car we drive, or what a beautiful family we have, or how good we look for our age, we respond how we think all good Christians who go to church every Sunday should respond, “Well, the Lord has really been good to me.” “The Lord has really blessed me.” And we even believe responding in such a manner might coax God into blessing us some more!
Through the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus says that our wealth and our health and our nice teeth are not signs that we are God’s favorites. In fact, those things may be some of the bricks in the wall that separates us from those who are poor, sick and have never seen a dentist. And according to Jesus, if we do not do something about it, that wall, that chasm, will eternally separate us from God.
When someone who is doing the best they can to make ends meet, who is struggling to put food on the table and keep the lights on, hears someone who has it all proclaim, “Yes, the Lord sure has been good to me! The Lord has really blessed me!” what are they to think? What else can they think except: “Obviously, for some reason or another, I am not one of God’s favorites.”
So, should those of us with good jobs, nice homes and a clean bill of health thank God for what we have? Absolutely! But should we interpret our nice things as a sign that God has looked down on us favorably, given us a nod and a wink—a pat on the back? Jesus says, absolutely not!
One week before Hurricane Katrina paralyzed the Gulf Coast, a young mother went into labor about 10 days before her due date. Although she needed a C-section, she delivered a healthy boy in a New Orleans hospital. She later interpreted having the baby 10 days early as a sign of God’s divine favor. She said, “God knew that if the baby was born on the due date, we would not be able to get to a hospital. So, God made the baby come early.”
There’s no doubt she should thank God the baby came early; however, Jesus says she needs to be very careful how she interprets and shares her story because, without knowing it, she may be building a wall or a chasm between her and someone else. For example, what is the New Orleans father to think whose baby did not come early, whose wife was unable to go to the hospital because of the flood, and because of that, lost not only his baby, but his wife too? Did God favor one family over the other?
Jesus said, absolutely not! And if you think that because of your good fortune in life you are blessed, one day you might find yourself asking someone who was less fortunate than you in life for a sip of water!
Jesus also put it this way: the sun shines on the good and the evil and the rain falls on the just and unjust alike (Matthew 5:45).
One day Luke says that Jesus cried out, “How often have I desired to gather everyone together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34).
The question for us this morning is this, “Are we willing to be gathered under the wings of grace[ii] and see all people, rich and poor as our brothers and our sisters. Are we willing to start building bridges or keep putting more bricks in the wall?”
The good news for us is, unlike the rich man in our story, it’s not too late. We are able, more than able. The question is, “Are we willing?”
[i]Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Craddock, Fred B., Luke, Interpretation. (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Culpepper, R. Alan, Luke, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)