19th Sunday after Pentecost

September 25, 2016

Summary

I am Lazarus
“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and  fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.
And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus,  covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what
fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died
and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades,
being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he
called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and
cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your
lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and
you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that
those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he
said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house – for I have five brothers – so that he
may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and
the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the
dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be
convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”  (Luke 16:19-31 ESV)

The account of the rich man and Lazarus – the only parable of Jesus that isn’t an ‘everyman’ type – is a bit
of a stand-alone parable. It doesn’t have a context or a situation. Strictly we don’t know the teller of the story
nor the intended audience but the wider context of Luke 15 – 17 tells us that Jesus is speaking to his
disciples but others are listening. It is part of a teaching section in Luke whereby Jesus teaches
because of context – usually controversy with the scribes and Pharisees – or clarifying and helping his
disciples be oriented towards him. So because of the grumbling about Jesus eating with
sinners and not seeming to require their repentance and good deeds and maybe some probation as well,
Jesus tells the story of the lost – a sheep and then a coin – life happens and the shepherd and woman
expend time and energy finding what was lost. The younger son in the next parable loses his part of the
inheritance foolishly – it is his father’s really – he just got it early – but he wastes it. And we’re left to
wonder what the older son will do. Jesus turns his attention then to his disciples and the
grumblers are listening in and we hear of a dishonest manager who wasted his master’s wealth. Jesus is
blunt that you cannot serve two masters and in the case of money, mammon, wealth there is the reminder
and call not to let it be a god for you. The Pharisees mock Jesus because they believed they could manage
both but their self justification was just a dead-end, literally as Jesus called their attitude an ‘abomination
in the sight of God’!

We then have one verse on divorce and remarriage – no specific context – it seems out of place in the lost,
wealth, forgiveness theme – but Luke records it and the teaching remains clear.
And then comes the parable of the rich man and ‘the one whom God helps’ which is the meaning of the
name Lazarus. It seems to be a ‘this is what happens when wealth is your God for it can make you a cruel
god’.

The rich man clothes himself in purple and fine linen which has been suggested1 is a touch of humour
because it leads the hearers to word association with underwear – this man had the best outer garments and
the best underwear – and feasted or banqueted every day; no Sabbath rest for him or for his employees – he
is god of all he surveys and he acts like it; a tyrant. And Lazarus is laid at it his gate – someone – his
family – the community bring him into the neighbourhood of the rich man who seems to be the
only one with resources to help. Lazarus is unknown to us – except for his sores – and the fact that he was
not unaware – he probably could hear it – of the excessive banqueting – that he wanted the scraps fed
to the dogs under the table – not house dogs but probably guard dogs. And here’s the irony that the
only ones who helped Lazarus in the rich man’s neighbourhood was these dogs who seemed to have
more compassion than their master, the rich man, for the dogs tried to help with their licking to ease
Lazarus’ suffering because canine saliva can facilitate healing, containing a type of antibiotic. Lazarus
suffers and is in torment – not just physically but because he is invisible to this ‘lord of the manor’.
But Lazarus is not invisible to God. And the next scene we have death and a reversal for now it is the
rich man in torment in Hades – not usually translated Kenneth Bailey (2008). Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: p.382
or regarded as ‘Hell’ but in this case seems to be for the torment is hot – and Lazarus is comforted in the
‘bosom of Abraham’ – an image of secure and close and personal salvation in heaven. In heaven Lazarus
isn’t invisible but known and loved – and we can imagine enjoying the heavenly banquet.
So visible is Lazarus that the rich man sees him and Abraham and the rest of the parable is a dialogue
between the rich man and Abraham with an imagined message from Lazarus – who remains silent
throughout. Death hasn’t changed the rich man – no death bed confessions here – same arrogance as before
– now seeing Lazarus only as a functionary – a slave – for him – water please! There’s no apology to
Lazarus; no realisation that life could have been very different for both of them and he had the power to
make it so – just command and more commands – each refused by Abraham. The rich man even treats
Father Abraham dismissively with his argumentation!

Do it – and do it now – water now – no, there is a chasm. Send Lazarus to my brothers now – no, they
have Moses and the Prophets. No, you stupid Abraham do as you’re told – a man returning from the
dead will wake his brothers to reality and bring about repentance. Everyone thinks so but it doesn’t happen
– in the parable, back then, and still today – the dead among us again do not automatically lead people to
God. Abraham is firm, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets’ who point to the Messiah and we today
have, in addition, the New Testament which points back to that Messiah Moses and the Prophets
proclaimed and adds the message that Jesus is the Son of God, our Saviour and Lord.

One thing is curious to me and that is the geography of heaven and hell and this great chasm – no way
from one side to the other – and Abraham says firstly that the people on his side can’t get to the other side
and vice versa. Why would the people in heaven want to go to hell? I can imagine it – to relieve suffering –
and in the silence of the story and the rich man’s demands, I can ‘hear’ Lazarus ‘saying’, ‘It’s ok Father
Abraham, I’ll take him the water; yes, he was miserable to me and everyone when he lived but
surely we can have compassion and help him a little’. Abraham or Jesus or God is clear that this parable
pitches the salvation business in this world – not the next – which is the outcome.

Jesus’ parable isn’t a social revolution and diatribe against wealth but a call to acknowledge that our
relationships – the ones that matter to us – affect our behaviour and the lives of the people around us. And
there is no difference when that relationship is a religious one. Faith and religion that stays as
knowledge or in the head is a ‘mind game’. Faith and religion is reality in objective truths and when it is
lived out. And since we live each day thus ‘working backwards’ from our behaviour we can ascertain the
relationships important to us, our priorities and our gods. The rich man’s wealth allowed him to worship
himself – which is a temptation for all of us – that we follow our own voice rather than Jesus’ voice.
Why follow Jesus’ voice? That’s a good question when we consider Lazarus and his name ‘the one
whom God helps’. Because God did help Lazarus – through his community that brought him to the gate
and took him home, through the dogs, and through his patience in suffering because life is tough but that
doesn’t mean God abandons us when he doesn’t help us as we want. Often in life the question isn’t so much
‘Why is this happening?’ but more ‘What do I do in this situation?’. Sometimes the answer is quick and
easy and sometimes it isn’t but turning away is not what God does to us nor do Jesus’ followers in this
world.

We don’t know what the reaction was to this parable. What did the lovers of money think? What did the
disciples think? What do you think? The next chapter (17) goes on to talk about temptations to sin and those
who lead others astray will be severely punished but that the goal of all dealings with sin is repentance and
forgiveness – even 7 times in the day. To which the disciples reply with a ‘Increase our faith’! Yes, so
often Christianity can seem too hard for us – sin’s got too hard a grip or I’m too weak or selfish to really
struggle with my sins – but that’s why we’re here today.

To be strengthened at the Lord’s table – not with  scraps that fall to the ground – but with the finest food
and drink – Jesus himself in his body and blood with the bread and wine. We are here to hear not our own
thoughts about God’s Word – read our favourite passages – but to hear from all of Scripture and to
respond to the sermon because you’re not sure what is going to be said next. In this workshop here and now
we are being ‘worked on’ and find ourselves with the name Lazarus – given in baptism – for as we look
back on the past week and look forward to the next both under the cross we find ourselves saying – loudly
or softly – confidently or hesitantly – with smiles or with tears – ‘That’s me – I am the one whom God
helps – I am Lazarus’.

Bible References

  • Luke 16:19 - 31

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