Lazarus and the Rich Man

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The following is a homily that I shared for first-call pastors and rostered ELCA leaders gathered for a retreat on Tuesday September 20th in Nebraska. The retreat centered especially around topics related to stewardship, faith, and finances. The focus passage was Luke 16:19-31 in preparation for the upcoming weekend’s appointed readings from the revised common lectionary. 

Eduard von Gebhardt,
Eduard von Gebhardt, “Lazarus and the Rich Man,” Public Domain.

This week’s parable is another doosie. It follows on the heels of the confusing parable of the Dishonest Manager, and put in context of Luke 16, appears to be a response to the Pharisees. We’re always so hard on the Pharisees, but today, they are the subjects of Jesus’ rebuke because of their love of money and ridicule of Jesus’ lessons and warnings. [1]

I love this parable. I love it, not just because it might challenge our Lutheran warning bells of works righteousness. I love it, because it’s deep, complex, and with multiple meanings. For those of you preaching on it this coming weekend- notice the altering perspectives and wonderful insights from Justo Gonzalez, Karoline Lewis, and David Lose. They all focus on different aspects of the same story this week, and offer plenty to chew on thinking about the many questions created and pondered in light of it.

I love this parable most though, because it’s this story which probably first lit a fire about stewardship for me. I was in undergrad at PLU (Pacific Lutheran University), in a class called “Wealth and Poverty in the Ancient Church.” I had recently decided to declare a double major in Economics and Religion, so the class sounded intriguing and about half way through the class I was reading St. John Chrysostom’s, “On Wealth and Poverty,” basically a small book with different sermons on this very passage. I would share it with you, but it’s currently in the back of a moving trailer somewhere in Omaha, I hope…

That book challenged me, as it was shaped by the Middle Ages’ perspective on this parable- where not only do we need to give alms, our salvation may depend upon it. I don’t prescribe to that latter view, I’m a Lutheran after all, but I do believe it matters how we steward all that we’ve been entrusted with, especially in response to the pure gift of the gospel- that of the knowledge that someone indeed has risen from the dead- conquering sin, death, darkness, and all that gets in the way of our relationships with God- including money and the power we give it.

If there ever were a clear anti-prosperity gospel passage, this is it. The unnamed rich man, goes from his daily feasts and fame, from his life set a part in his luxury gated community… to an end where he simply died and was buried. No mention of legacy. No story. No relationships. No tears shed perhaps?

To early hearers of this passage, there may have been no sympathy for this man- someone respected by the empire. A member of the 1%, a person of “the haves,” not the “have nots.” Yes, this is one of Luke’s many stories of a great reversal. But there’s more than this.

The rich man really isn’t even the center of the story. Perhaps more important, but also not the center of the story is Lazarus.

Lazarus lived a hard life. But is given a story of resurrection and comfort in the bosom of Abraham.[2] It’s interesting that this story is the only parable where a character is actually given a name. [3] That’s one more layer of the reversal Luke illustrates about what the Kingdom of God is like, and another example of Mary’s Magnificat made manifest.

A rich man ends up in poverty, a poor man in abundance. But, I think at the center of this story, are not these characters. It’s not Abraham who comforts Lazarus and responds to the rich man, who he calls child, acknowledging a relationship as another one of God’s children. No, at the center of this, is an acknowledgment of the human condition, the complexity and challenges of faith, and the hope for abundant life.

In light of this story, Justo Gonzalez writes, “There is no miracle capable of leading to faith and obedience when one has vested interests and values that one places above obedience to God, such as ‘the love of money,’ of the Pharisees whom Jesus is addressing… The main obstacle to faith is not lack of proof- its is an excess of other interests and investments- of time, money, dreams, and so on…”[4]

This parable is perhaps a way Jesus is returning to the heart of the law and the prophets- such as Amos. At the heart of the rules and law, is the hope that life may go well for you. That you may live life abundantly. That the poor, the widow, the orphan, the marginalized are seen and cared for- that community exists. When this all happens, the Kingdom of God breaks in.

This story is a challenge though. It’s in part a call to confession of the many times we know of the needs of others, but we refuse to see them. The rich man knows Lazarus by name, but refuses to see him, his plight, and as a person, and more than just as a means to serve him and his own interests and needs. Even in death, the rich man doesn’t get it.

“Before you can have compassion, you need to see” the person in need.[5] You can’t build a wall or bigger gate and try and stay on one side. That doesn’t work in God’s kingdom. You can’t stay on one of the tracks or river. God calls and leads across barriers and chasms.

We know this. It’s engrained in each of our calls of ministry, and identities as baptized children of God. We can probably even repeat the words of the Gospel of Matthew that relatedly reminds of Jesus’ declaration, “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”[6]

We were created to be in relationships. And it’s out of these relationships with each other, in community with one another, where abundant life comes.

We know that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, for us. But, does it matter? Are our lives changed because of this? If so, what’s our joyful response?

The answers to these questions are what shape a life of discipleship, and a life of being a steward. The hard work of beating sin and death was done for us. But, how are we responding to this pure gift of Good News now? How do our lives tell this story?

Are we out seeing, listening, and being with our neighbors, or are we passing people by, who are clinging to the promise of the resurrection and the very hope of being seen?

Do we lock our gates and build bigger walls out of fear, or do we go out, shaped, changed, and sent by the gospel, in the co-creative work of building the Kingdom of God?

Do we store up food for a potential cold winter that may come, or do we feed the malnourished child needing food now?

These are stewardship questions. These are life questions.

These are questions best pondered in community, in faith together. But that takes intentionality and time. And it starts with a willingness to listen and make time. A willingness to stop, see, and be present. A willingness to admit that all that we have and all that we are, come from and are God’s, really.

So, in light of this, what have you been called and are being called to do about it?

Plenty of questions to wrestle with, in the comfort of the promises of the Gospel, and the challenges because of it. May we each have the time to be present, to wrestle, to be, and to do. Amen.

———————————-

References and Citations:

[1] Justo Gonzalez, Luke, (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2010), 193.

[2] Karoline Lewis, “The Bosom of Abraham,” (18 September 2016). Found at: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=4712.

[3] Gonzalez, 195.

[4] Gonzalez, 197-198

[5] David Lose, “Pentecost 19C: Eternal Life Now,” (19 September 2016). Found at: http://www.davidlose.net/2016/09/pentecost-19-c-eternal-life-now/.

[6] Matthew 25:35-36, NRSV.

Image Credit: Eduard von Gebhardt, “Lazarus and the Rich Man,” (Public Domain) found at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGebhardtLazarus.jpg

1 comments on “Lazarus and the Rich Man”

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