Sunday, March 10, 2013

Ministry to the Rich and Needy; Or, Stepping Over Lazarus: A sermon on Luke 16:19-31

"The Rich Man and Lazarus," by Aaron Lee Benson, Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park 

Scripture can be found here...

Years ago I took my children to the IMAX Theatre across from Lincoln Center to see the documentary “Everest.” It followed an expedition up that mountain, called Chomolungma in Nepali, a word that means “Great Mother.” At 29,029 feet (8,848 meters) Mount Everest is the tallest peak on earth, and it has long been the ultimate challenge to those who hear the particular call of the wild that results in climbing mountains.

It is perilous. Elevations over 26,000 feet are known to be in what they call the “Death Zone,” and many people rely on supplemental oxygen to enable them to survive. People die on Everest, climbers often describe hauling themselves up alongside frozen corpses of those who failed in the attempt to get up or get down. In the days in which the documentary was shot—several days in May 1996—nine people died on the mountain, and for a time, the documentary team put down their cameras and became a part of the rescue effort.

Watching “Everest” with my children, especially on that enormous IMAX screen, I had a visceral reaction to the scenes in front of me. The worst for me and, I’m pretty sure, for at least some of the climbers, was the moment when they crossed the Khumbu Icefall. The icefall is at 17,999 feet, formed by an enormous glacier, which is moving, though more slowly than a waterfall. To cross the chasm created by the icefall, climbers travel on a bridge formed by several ladders that have been lashed together. One image is burned in my memory, which actually gave me a serious attack of vertigo as I sat in the movie theater: a camera shot looking directly down, through the rungs of a ladder, into the chasm, a drop of anywhere from 200 feet to two miles.

I am telling you all this because, as perilous as Everest is to the mountain climber, every Sunday preachers do something perilous, in our own geeky way. We climb into pulpits and try to say something true about our holiest book, something relevant about the ancient stories we cling to as a faith community. We try to string the stories together like so many ladders across an icefall, without tumbling down into some awful chasm from which there is no escape. And some stories are more perilous than others.

This story is particularly perilous for me.  I stand before you to try to say something intelligent and helpful about a passage in which the guy who ends up on the wrong end of judgment, the guy being tormented in Hades, is someone who wore a lot of purple and really liked to eat. This parable is my Khumbu Icefall.

And isn’t it so much easier to read the bible when we don’t relate to the people in the stories? When we can say, “Well, thank goodness, that’s not me,” or, “Oh I don’t do that” after we’ve read a parable or a commandment. But we can’t really distance ourselves from these stories. The bible consistently holds up a mirror to human nature. We read it—and interpret it—at our own peril.

Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem, and he is teaching and telling parables, one story after another, and one theme running through them is wealth and ease, and the challenges presented therein. As I’ve said before, parables themselves are perilous, or maybe the way we read them is sort of perilous… we see a story about seeds and growth and we think, “Seeds: gospel. Growth: the kingdom. Check.” Or a story about fathers and sons, and think, “Son: sinner. Father: God. Check, check.” Or a story about a rich man and a poor man, and dear old Father Abraham… now, who is he standing in for? Check?

And the answer is: not so fast. To any of it.

There was a rich man, and he loved to wear nice clothes, expensive ones. The ancient near-Eastern equivalent of designer labels, especially if they were purple. Purple was the color, favored by the Roman Caesars, and the trend for royalty to wear purple was well-established. Purple cloth was a luxury item; only the rich could afford it.

And at the gate of the rich man’s house lay a poor man named Lazarus, who was desperately hungry, and who was covered with sores that were only tended to by sympathetic dogs.  Lazarus yearned for the scraps of food from the rich man’s table.

And oh my we can tell Jesus is up to something already. Do you know why? Because we know the name of the poor man, and we do not know the name of the rich man.

And both these men die, and what we witness is the great reversal foretold by the prophetic song of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who intuitively knew all of this when she was pregnant, and she sang,

“[The Lord] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…”

Lazarus is carried by angels to be with old Father Abraham, the ancestor of his people. That was the classical understanding of the afterlife in the Hebrew scriptures: to be at peaceful rest in the bosom of Abraham, to lie with your ancestors, until the final judgment day.

The rich man died and “was buried,” we are told. No angel escort for him, which sounds bad even before we are given to understand that he is being tormented in Hades.

At this point the audience… imagine the people gathered around Jesus, hanging on his every word, wondering what he’s going to say next… they are getting… annoyed. In fact, they don’t believe it. This scenario: poor man, comforted by Abraham; rich man, tortured by flames… this makes no sense to them whatsoever. That is not the way it works, in their worldview. The rich are rich because God has rewarded them in this life for their virtues, or maybe the virtues of their parents. The poor are poor because, well, you get the idea. That’s what they deserve. Jesus’ audience is starting to shift in their seats and look at one another and get very, very uncomfortable.

Unless, of course, they are poor. Which some of them… many of them… are. And those listeners… well, they might, at this point, be leaning in, to hear better, to make sure Jesus is really saying what he’s saying.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus said. Remember? “…Because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…”

And then the rich man does something understandable, and yet, unfortunate. He sees that the poor man who used to lie in front of his gate is resting comfortably with Abraham, so he asks for just the tiniest drop of water… that Lazarus would dip his finger in water to cool his tongue. Completely understandable, given the flames, etc. The unfortunate thing is: he’s still got this notion that he can order people around. After spending his days stepping over Lazarus to go out to on his visits to his rich friends, or perhaps to see his tailor, he still thinks of Lazarus as someone he has power over by virtue of his position…which means, he fails, completely, to understand exactly what his position is.

Abraham replies kindly. He calls the rich man “child.” He still acknowledges him, a member of the family. But he gently points out the great reversal that has taken place… “[The Lord] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…” “Good news to the poor.” Abraham says, in so many words, that this situation cannot be altered.

Then the rich man asks that Lazarus be sent to his brothers, a kind of first century Palestinian Marley’s ghost. “He wears the chain he forged in life…”

Abraham declines. The rich man’s brothers, like the rich man himself, can listen to the words of the prophets and figure this out on their own. The rich man knows all to vividly that that approach is not foolproof, as he is the fool. Surely, he pleads, they will listen to someone who comes back to them from the dead…?

And like a mother with a child who wants just one chocolate chip cookie half an hour before dinner, Abraham says a final, definitive, “No.”

No…to a drop of water.

No… to the hope of being freed from torment.

No… to the prospect that a resurrection will make any difference whatsoever.

There’s one thing about parables… have you noticed that, oftentimes, the parables are not exactly… finished? Think about last week’s parable, the story of the prodigal son, the sinner who was welcomed back into the embrace of family and grace… but whose brother stood outside, shifting from foot to foot. We don’t really know the ending of that story, do we?

This parable is also not finished. Our clue is that last tantalizing line of dear old father Abraham: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” To which I reply: You want to make a bet?

There was a resurrection. There is a resurrection. There will be a resurrection. And that has made all the difference. Jesus finished the parable alright… he finished it on Calvary. He finished it emerging from the tomb. He found a way… finds a way… across his own Khumbu Icefall.

The rich man’s sin, by the way, is not “being rich”… it is not a sin to be rich. The sin of the rich man is that he was so immersed in the texture and charm of his gorgeous purple robes… and I have a lot of sympathy for this… and he was so enamored of his sumptuous feasts… again, I have sympathy… that they completely obscured for him the fact that Lazarus was every bit as human as he was. Which is exactly what the prophet ani difranco tries to tell us in her song, which just happens to be titled “Everest.”

from the depth of the Pacific (she sings)
to the height of Everest
and still the world is smoother
than a shiny ball-bearing
so i take a few steps back
and put on a wider lens
and it changes your skin,
your sex, and what your wearing
distance shows your silhouette
to be a lot like mine
like a sphere is a sphere
and all of us here
have been here all the time…

Distance shows the rich man and Lazarus’ silhouettes to be indistinguishable, which is something the rich man never figured out. But Jesus did. Jesus figured it out. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus said. Remember? “…Because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…”

I’m not going to lie to you. Having all the clothes we need and all the food we want and the ability to order people around puts us in spiritual peril, especially if it convinces us that those who have less somehow deserve their lot. If we believe that, we are needier by far than Lazarus ever was. But the good news is for us too… it is for all of us. Because Jesus also says that he will “proclaim release to the captives…” and I include those of us who are so captive to our own worldview that we don’t recognize the starving man at the gate. We will be released from our ignorance. And he “proclaims recovery of sigh to the blind…” and I tell you, those of us who step over Lazarus will be healed of our blindness to his suffering.  And he proclaims “the year of the Lord’s favor…” and I tell you, that year will see all of us, rich men and women and Lazaruses alike, side by side at the bountiful table of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.

* Title shamelessly stolen from Brian Stoffregen and Alyce McKenzie


  1. The Lazarus illustration is one of my have used it well, I especially like your last paragraph and the reminder that it is not a sin to be rich, it's what we do or don't do, our perspective that matter.

  2. Thanks Terri! I really appreciate your comments.