Jesus the masterful storyteller strikes again. We have been in the middle of quite a few weeks in a row of parables from Luke’s Gospel. We have heard stories of banquets and lost sheep and coins and dishonest managers. Today we hear a parable of wealth and poverty and life and death. In the parable that we hear in today’s Gospel, Jesus is making his way ever closer to Jerusalem and on the way, stops to tell a story to some Pharisees. We hear that this parable is directed to “lovers of money” and these are some of the harshest words in all of scripture. Let us set the scene for this parable as if we are preparing to watch a play…the lights go up and the curtain rises…
We see a rich man who is dressed in purple and fine linen, and who feasted sumptuously every single day. This man has a ridiculous abundance of food surrounding him at all times. His table is set with silver cups and overflowing plates of fruit. He never wanted for anything. He lives in a fine home with a gate to keep out the undesirable people. But our scene cuts to the drama just outside the rich man’s gate. We also see the poor man Lazarus on the ground, covered in sores and dressed in tattered rags, his only comfort being the stray dogs who surround him, and is so hungry that he hopes for just the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table. Death the great equalizer comes, and both men die. The rich man is buried and Lazarus is carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.
Then in the sort of reversal that we see so often in Luke’s Gospel, Lazarus is comforted by Abraham after death and we hear about the rich man in agony as he cries out for Abraham to send Lazarus to bring him cool water in the midst of flames that threaten to consume him. Abraham refuses, saying that the rich man received all his good things in life and besides, a great canyon has been fixed between the two men that cannot be crossed. It’s as if Abraham was saying, “Too late, sorry. You have already used up your allotment of good things, now it is your turn to suffer.” And in his only act of compassion in the parable, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to the world to warn his five brothers to change how they live so that they might not end up in this same place of torment. Abraham refuses, saying that those on earth have Moses and the prophets and their writings, the law, from which to learn. And the rich man pleads, saying, “They will repent if someone comes back from the dead.” Abraham ends the conversation by saying, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone rises from the dead.” And like a great drama on a stage, the lights go dark and the curtain drops and the crowd is left in silence to ponder what they have just heard and seen.
This parable seems to be tailor-made to preach about what we SHOULD be doing. There is a villain, the rich man; an underdog hero, the poor man Lazarus; a plot line, plenty of drama and a seemingly obvious moral of the story: Do good in this life and you will be rewarded in the afterlife. Do evil things in this life and you will be punished in the next life. So be good and pay attention and you will be saved. This is the clearest example of how good intentions and expectations convict us that I have ever seen. This is the law, because no matter how much we wish it was not so, we cannot save ourselves despite our best efforts.
Furthermore, this scripture text from Luke sounds painfully familiar. In today’s gospel we hear about an insurmountable chasm between the rich man and the poor man. Between the haves and the have-nots. Between those who have their needs comfortably met and those who do not. The reason this story sounds familiar is that we hear it all the time in the news. Just last week I read a news article, which outlined how the chasm between the wealthiest Americans and the poorest Americans is the largest that it has been since before the Great Depression. How disparities in education, healthcare, and employment have caused this chasm to be nearly insurmountable. It feels impossible, it feels hopeless. The problems seem so big and we seem so small. And it doesn’t seem like there is anything that we can do to fix it, so we often keep living life behind our own gates oblivious to what, or who, lies just outside them.
But what if the story does not end with someone rising from the dead, but rather starts from that promise? And it has nothing whatsoever to do with our ability or decision to believe it in order to be saved? Jesus died on a cross and rose from the dead and took all of that decision making right out of our hands. When we start from that promise of freedom, where might we go?
When we are freed from the bondage of sin and self, what Luther calls “incurvatus se” or a turning in on one’s self, we are naturally turned outwards to see our neighbor. Without the promise of Christ on the cross we might only hear this story as a command to do good works to avoid suffering in the afterlife. But with this promise made for each of us, we are freed. Martin Luther writes that God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does. So we are indeed commanded to serve our neighbor, but this is out of pure love for the Christ in each one of us.
But the reality is that this is very hard. The problems seem insurmountable, the chasm cannot be crossed. It is sometimes painful and it definitely puts us outside our comfort zones. In today’s Gospel text the rich man isn’t evil, he is just oblivious. He fails to NOTICE Lazarus outside the gate. Many of you know that before I started seminary I spent several years in human services work. I entered ministry because I wanted to be able to offer hope in the midst of suffering by way of the Gospel, and be a part of a collective whole working for good in this broken world. In my work, what I heard over and over again, from men and women just like Lazarus, was that the greatest pain they experienced was feeling invisible. Eye contact and a simple greeting made a world of difference. So who lies just outside your gate and how can you begin to notice them?
And where do we start in bridging this chasm? We start by proclaiming the Gospel truth that God in Christ rose from the dead and continues to be active in our broken and beautiful world. God is already among us working to lessen that great chasm between rich and poor. We acknowledge that our world is broken, but we also proclaim that God lives among us and continually redeems us. God is already working to overcome these divisions between us, between rich and poor, old and new. We live in the old world now, and eagerly await the coming of the new. Three weeks ago we marked the 25th anniversary of the formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America with a day of service that fulfills our denomination’s mission statement, “God’s Work, Our Hands.” I cannot think of a better analogy for our lives as Christians. So where are you participating in the life-giving and life-changing work of God?