A sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 25, 2016
St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California
“If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
There is a deep irony to this last sentence of today’s Gospel. The Gospels are not written as mystery stories with a surprise ending. They are the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ who rose from the dead. This story that Jesus told is not about the dead, it is about the living. The story starts, “There was a rich man…”
A lot of the stories in the Gospel of Luke have those words: The rich young man who asked Jesus how he might attain everlasting life, the rich man who tore down his granaries to build bigger ones, the rich man who had a steward, the rich tax collector Zacchaeus who followed Jesus. If you look at all of these stories, there is no particular animosity towards wealth or the wealthy—rich people certainly existed in the ancient world. But there weren’t that many, so why do they show up so often in the gospels?
In the Gospels, the stories are there to be readily understood, to make their point clear. And one thing that was clear in the ancient world was that if you were rich, you were free to act. As opposed to almost everyone else, whose lives were pretty much circumscribed, especially the slaves. There was, after all, very little of what we consider middle class in Jesus’ time. So it was only the rich who had almost total control over their lives and the choices they made, which is why the rich show up so often in Jesus’ stories – as examples of people who could choose to live responsible – or irresponsible lives. And Jesus’ listeners could realize that they too, could take responsibility for their own choices.
Which means that these stories apply equally to us.
So Jesus is telling a story. A folk tale or a parable, really. It’s about a rich man and a beggar whose name is Lazarus. That is to say, a person responsible for his own actions and someone who was suffering and unable to take care of his own needs. The rich man is described as feasting sumptuously every day—that appeared to be the sum total of his occupation. In fact, the rich man isn’t even given a name because there isn’t anything to say about him beyond that he was only taking care of himself, and ignoring the needs of others, or, in this case, Lazarus. Even after the rich man dies and is begging Abraham for relief, he wants Lazarus to be used as a slave, to bring him water.
This story isn’t moralistic in the way we understand fables. It’s not saying that the rich man learned anything after he died and was in the same miserable condition as Lazarus. Look what he does: He asks for the servant to return from the dead to warn the members of his family about his heritage or legacy. He still gives not one whit for Lazarus the beggar, nor the people of Israel – he cares only for himself and his own. And there’s no reason to believe that the brothers he wants warned were any different. They weren’t going to change and respect the warning of Lazarus—even if a man were raised from the dead.
This story is about the respect of the living for the living. The prophets spoke to Israel about justice, about respect for the poor and the weak. The books of Moses spoke about respect for the strangers living in the land. The rich man in this story had no excuse – because of his wealth he was fully responsible for his actions. His lack of compassion was his own, it was not forced by God or by circumstances. Yet somehow he behaved as if it was. “Let Lazarus bring me water.” “Send Lazarus to warn my brothers.” As if some special personal warning would guide them to take care of their interests, as if God owed them those things that they denied to other human beings, as if their only problem was a lack of information. This man’s life was impoverished because he lacked compassion and mercy, the basic building blocks of an abundant spiritual life. He was free and able to avail himself of all the generosity of God, the wisdom of the Torah and the passion of the prophets, but instead he looked to himself, to his own self-centered benefit—and ultimately, self-pity. There was no magic solution, some astonishing miracle was not going to change that.
This story is deeply ironic. Jesus WAS raised from the dead. But it is not the impressiveness of the miracle that makes that significant, it is the depth of his compassion. Jesus faced death—suffered death as a free person with compassion to all, even his executioners. His resurrection is the compassion of God for all of us. His mercy and compassion do away with indignity, and indifference. We are one in Christ, let us do away with indignity and indifference, and respect all those, even those most different from us, with the mercy and compassion of Jesus.