Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. (Read the whole passage)
Is anyone here worried? Did any anyone else take a moment to think as we heard this parable? Am I like the rich man and I don’t know it? Will I end up in Hades because I have a house and a car and RRSPs? These are fair and honest questions. Last week there was confusion about the Master who praises his dishonest manager. But this week things are clear. The rich man is rewarded in this life and punished in the next. Lazarus, the poor man living in front of the rich man’s house was punished in this life and will be rewarded in this next.
Well, let’s think about this. How much makes you rich? Well, if your annual salary is $40,000 a year, you are in the top 5 percent of the worlds richest people. If you make $60,000 a year, you are in the top 1% of the world’s richest people. These can be staggering figures.
If this parable is really about the amount in your bank account, then most Canadians are in deep trouble.
And while this parable is familiar to us, we cannot reduce it to its surface meaning. When Jesus tells a story, there is always more to it than what’s at the surface.
The rich man is more than just a rich person. He is the epitome of wealth and excess. He wears the clothes of kings, the feasts each day like he is at the royal court. He is a caricature more than real person. And Lazarus, he is the poorest soul you have ever seen. Starving at the rich man’s gate and too weak to move. Diseased and unclean. He is so pitiful that even the street dogs take mercy on him.
Yet, something strange happens when Lazarus dies. For you see, normally an unclean sinner like Lazarus should not be taken to heaven, at least according to the religious understanding of his day. The poor and the unclean are unrighteous, and while they are to be cared for in this world, they excluded from the next. But when Lazarus dies, he is carried into heaven by angels, similar to Elijah or Moses, heroes of the Hebrew people. Heaven was reserved for only the most favoured of God.
And something even stranger happens when the rich man dies. Most people in Jesus’ day didn’t believe in an afterlife for the average person. The place you went to when you died was Sheol, the ground, the grave. But the rich man isn’t just buried. He goes to Hades. And Hades is not just generic Hell. No, the rich man winds up in Greek Hell. Gentile Hell. Being buried wasn’t bad enough in the parable, he had to go to the hell of another religion.
And here is where we get to see that this isn’t about what we need to do to get in heaven. Even in Hades, the rich man still doesn’t have clue about what is going on. He cries out to Abraham from gentile hell. And even from hell he maintains his superior attitude. As if poor Lazarus hasn’t suffered enough, the rich man say to Abraham, “Send that poor Lazarus fellow down with a drop of water.” Here he is in hell, acting like a snooty hotel guest ordering room service. And when Abraham says no, the rich man tries again. He orders a message to his brothers, and still Abraham refuses.
The rich man is the epitome of selfishness. He does not care for the poor on his door step as religious law dictates, he dresses like a king and eats like a king. And even when he is in Gentile hell, he doesn’t give up on his sense of entitlement. The chasm that has been set between Abraham and the rich man is the chasm of self-righteousness.
The chasm of selfishness that we create for ourselves so often keeps us from seeing the world around us. The rich man might be an exaggeration and Lazarus might be an extreme example, but the reality of these feelings and emotions about others, about ourselves, remains the same. Often we get stuck inside ourselves. We cannot see beyond what we are owed, what we believe we deserve and what injustices have been done to us.
And we have a name for this as Lutherans — original sin. We are curved in on ourselves. We try to be like God. We try to save ourselves.
And in the end, we fall short and we fail.
Its the last few words of the parable that cue us into what Jesus is talking about today.
“Neither will they be convinced, even if someone rises from the dead”.
We have heard those words before. The rich man wants Lazarus the ghost to go to warn his brothers of their fate so that they can save themselves. But Jesus is not talking about Lazarus the ghost.
It is not Lazarus who comes to us from the position of the poor in order to save us. It is God in Flesh. It is Christ who comes into our world as the child of peasants, Christ who is a homeless and penniless carpenter, Christ who is put to death as a common criminal.
The rich man is trying to save himself while Lazarus is dead to the world. These two are not really people, but reminders of who we are. That we are in need of salvation. And it is God who is giving up all power and might, to become like us. Christ is born into the muddy, dirty places that we live in, the places of self indulgence, the chasms of superior attitudes, the gates of self-pity and death. And it is in these places, where God comes near to us.
Whether we are rich or poor, entitled or humble, in the mansion or on the street.
God is turning death into life regardless.
God is licking our wounds of suffering and sin.
God is loving us, even when we do not deserve to be loved.
And God is doing this whether we see it or not
God is acting in the world no matter what we are doing. God is making the dead alive, even if we are too busy to notice. And God isn’t swayed by our righteousness or unrighteousness. God acts out of love, God comes near enough to touch us because we belong to God.
The world is so much more grey, so much more complicated than the story of the rich man and Lazarus. We are all too rich too see others around us. And we are all too poor to do anything to save ourselves. And this parable isn’t about condemning the rich and nor is about the value of being poor.
This parable is about the cross.
The cross where new life begins in the most powerful symbol of death.
The cross where God empties Godself of all power and might to take on human flesh and dies like us.
The cross where God hides in plain sight, where God turns the world on its head and where God reminds us all that it is God alone who saves us.
Will our riches will keep us out of heaven? Yes they will, not even money can pay our way. Will being poor and dead to world make us worthy of salvation. No. Nothing that we do will save ourselves.
God alone saves.