TEXT: Luke 16:19-31
“The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” (Luke 16:22b-24)
As someone once remarked, “It’s not what I don’t understand about the Bible that bothers me—it’s what I do understand!” That comment could certainly apply to this morning’s gospel lesson—to the story about the anonymous rich man and the poor beggar named Lazarus. One of them “feasts sumptuously” every day, while the other one starves. The rich man’s life is a party; the poor man’s life is a misery.
As Jesus tells the story, both men die. Then comes the moment of judgment, when the playing field is leveled. The tables are turned. The first is now last, the last is now first. The poor man sits next to father Abraham in paradise; the rich man is in Hades, the place of torment. And there is no way to get from the one place to the other.
The rich man understands; he says to himself, “I blew it.”
But then he thinks: maybe he can salvage something out of his predicament. He says to father Abraham: “Send someone to warn my brothers, so that they don’t end up like me!”
Abraham replies, “They’ve got the law and the prophets, they should listen to them.”
However, the rich man knows his five brothers only too well. He knows they won’t pay any more attention to the Scriptures than he did. So he asks Abraham to send Lazarus—the beggar whom he ignored—to his brothers, to warn them. “Maybe,” he says, “if someone rises from the dead, they’ll listen.”
Abraham’s reply is as harsh-sounding as it is true: “If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they listen to someone who rises from the dead.”
Luke tells us (16:14-15) that Jesus aimed this parable at the Pharisees—at the good, religious people of his day. He seems to be telling them: “You don’t get it. You’re not listening.”
And perhaps we—as we hear this gospel passage—want to ask, “Why don’t they get it? Why don’t they listen?”
But maybe we should ask ourselves: are we listening?
Let’s face it: even if we consider ourselves to be near the bottom of the Canadian heap, most of us are wealthy beyond the imagination of the vast majority of this world’s people. And, as much as preachers and theologians like to muddy the waters of the fountain of life, the truth we hear from Jesus is this: how we are judged has a lot to do with how we treat the poor.
There is absolutely no ambiguity about this point in the Bible; it is clear—from Moses to Amos, from Hosea to Micah, from Jesus to Paul. And it is clear in this story: we, the rich, have received our reward.
The poor are the ones who will be blessed from now on. How we will be judged depends in large measure upon how we relate to underprivileged persons. The law and the prophets have prepared us for it, if we will but listen. And in this teaching of Jesus, we are confronted with the matter yet again. Who are “the poor” in our world? And how do we treat them?
In Canada, we are receiving a steady flow of immigrants. And you know, there is some outcry about that, some resistance to that. But is it not true that this settler nation began as a company of immigrants? There has always been wave after wave of desperate persons coming here: first from Ireland and Scotland; then from continental Europe; and now, from China and Korea, from India and Pakistan and Iran and Syria, from Central and South America, from Nigeria and Somalia and Sudan—and, of course, from Afghanistan and Ukraine.
Our Scriptures teach us not to harvest everything, but to leave something so that the destitute and the foreigners might eat and be filled. Why? “Because,” God says, “You were aliens in Egypt, and I heard your cries.”
In this parable that Jesus tells, the rich and the poor are bound up together. And the story gives us both a challenge and a choice: to connect with those who are disadvantaged, or to separate from them. For me, the most powerful image in this story is of the “great chasm”—a wide gap that separates the wealthy and the moneyless.
It surely exists in this life, and—according to Jesus—it exists in the next life, too. But here’s the good news: while the gap cannot be bridged in the next life, it can be bridged in this one. Our challenge, it seems to me, is to bridge that gap while we can.
Every time one of us makes sandwiches for a homeless shelter, that gap becomes a little smaller. Every time one of us donates items to the food bank, that gap becomes a little easier to cross. Every time one of us volunteers at an under-resourced school, that gap gets narrower. Every time we donate money to help hurricane victims in the Caribbean; every time we help build a home in Tijuana or a school in Haiti … that gap is bridged.
Again, here is the good news: in this life we can cross the chasm that separates us from the poor. In the life to come we cannot, but in this life we can bridge that gap. If we seek to make that connection, we will discover that many of the poor are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and that they have something to give to us. And, yes, we will also, sometimes, meet the Jesus of Matthew 25, just as he promised: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me …” (Matt. 25:35)
The fundamental lesson for us is that there are no surprises in this story. Many of the teachings of Jesus do surprise us, it’s true. I mean, think about the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, or about the prodigal son in Luke 15. Remember the dishonest steward we heard about last week? All those passages contain big surprises! But in this story about Lazarus and the rich man, there are no surprises. We have been warned.
In this parable, Jesus’ word to us is: “Listen.” I believe this is a word of God for us. Jesus wants us to listen to the poor.
The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, once commented: “Oh, that God would stir up the hearts of all those who believe themselves his children, to evidence it by showing mercy to the poor.”
The gap between rich and poor is not only economic and sociological. It is Biblical, and it is spiritual.
At its best, the Church of Jesus Christ understands this. As people, we are at our best when we genuinely care about the less fortunate. Still, it is not all about what we have to give to others—especially to the poor. Surely they have something to give to us, as well … maybe even our salvation! The poor are not only beneficiaries of grace, they are channels of God’s grace toward us.
The rich man is there, in torment, wanting to get this message to his brothers—this message that we are judged by how we relate to the poor, that God wants us to connect with them, to cross that great chasm that exists between rich and poor in this life.
“How can I get this message to them?” he wonders. And then it occurs to him: “What if someone came back from the grave to tell them?” They would listen then, wouldn’t they? If someone rose from the dead, they would listen! Surely, if someone rose from the dead, they would listen then!”
And indeed, if someone rose from the dead to tell us, we would listen … wouldn’t we?
By the grace of God, may each one of us become a builder of bridges, and a crosser of gaps. In Jesus’ name. Amen.