A sermon, based on Luke 16.19-31, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, September 29, 2019
“If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
Another stern, uncomfortable, hard to hear word from Jesus. But lest we cover our ears, running the risk of missing an important message, let us remember that every word of Jesus (as is true of anyone) has a target audience. In this case, the Pharisees. Those righteous and, at times, sanctimonious observers of God’s Law; especially those who had ridiculed Jesus’ teachings about the godly, sacrificial use of wealth because they “were lovers of money.”(1)
That love, which, we are warned, is “a root of all kinds of evil.”(2)
That love, which often is the contagion of the afflictions of envy and greed, mistrust and conflict.
That love, which (and, sadly, I have witnessed this!), at the time of death, can give birth to bitterness when issues of bequests become the focus, the locus of family rivalries.
So, if we believe that money is a primary symbol of our self-worth and, therefore, supremely desired, this parable is for us. If we don’t, then it isn’t. Nevertheless, let’s not tune out too soon. For here there remains a lesson for us. For all of us.
There is a clear and severe dividing line running through this parable from beginning to end…
Between a rich man and poor Lazarus…
Between the rich man’s blindness (not necessarily callousness, but unconsciousness) to human need and Lazarus’ acute awareness of his need…
Between this world and the next…
Between the earthly gates that separate rich and poor and the eternal gap established along strict ethical lines of punishment of the selfish formerly worldly wealthy and the prosperity of the previously poor Lazarus.
This parable (as is true of all stories) was shaped within a historical context. Our religious forebears believed that life’s material blessings were God-given to be used in the service of others and that there is an after-life when the fortunes of the stingy rich and the misfortunes of the poor are resolved, are reversed.
This ancient theme is echoed…
in Jesus’ teaching, “Many who are first will be last, and the last, first,”(3) and…
in the Negro spiritual my Baptist grandmother taught me, “Rock o’my soul in de bosom of Abraham, Lord, rock o’my soul”(4) and…
in Martin Luther King’s declaration, “the arm of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”(5)
Yet how do we, in our day, interpret this parable? A classic method is to ask: With what character do we identify?
I suggest that we direct our attention and imagination not to the rich man or Lazarus who have died, not to Moses and the prophets who represent the Old Testament scriptures, not to Abraham, the symbol of comfort in Hades where the righteous dead await Judgment Day, and not even to Jesus, but rather to the rich man’s five brothers, for they, like us, are alive in this world.
Putting ourselves in their place, we might hear this parable as a call to us to see anyone in need, and then to act to alleviate that need. For like the five brothers, we have our “Moses and the prophets,” our sacred scriptures with lessons of God’s love and care for the needy. Unlike the five brothers, we have Jesus, risen from the dead, whose life and death of self-sacrificial love is to be resurrected and incarnate in our daily Christian living.
And like anyone, everyone else, there is a dividing line running through us. We, in some ways, with some folk, at some times, are most generous in our service. And we, in other ways, with others, at other times, less.
So, who are those around us like Lazarus whose need we don’t see and for whom, while we have time, our eyes and our hands need to be open that we can see and act?
(1) The Pharisees, who were lovers of money…ridiculed (Jesus). So, he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16.14-15).
(2) 1 Timothy 6.10
(3) Mark 10.31
(4) The Negro spiritual was first documented by William Francis Allen (1830-1889), a classical scholar and an editor of the first book of American slave songs, Slave Songs of the United States (1867).
(5) From the speech, Our God Is Marching On!, delivered on March 25, 1965, on the steps of the state capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama, at the conclusion of the civil rights march from Selma.
Illustration: Lazarus and Dives (Dives, from the Latin, dīves, meaning “wealthy,” the name historically given to the unidentified rich man of the parable) from the Codex Aureus of Echternach (11th century illuminated manuscript of the four canonical gospel accounts). Note: The top panel shows the rich man (on the left) “feast(ing) sumptuously” and “dressed in purple,” the color of wealth and luxury and Lazarus (on the far right) naked, his body with sores, languishing at the rich man’s doorway. The middle panel shows Lazarus (on the left), naked and alone in death, being “carried away by the angels to be with Abraham” (on the right, seated on the rainbow and surrounded by the lush vegetation of eternity). The bottom panel shows the rich man (lower left), in death, lying on a bed of ease, his loved ones and servants nearby and (upper left and middle) being carried away to Hades and (on the right) bound in green (i.e., fresh, ever-renewable) fetters in Hades’ torment.