I was listening to my favorite preaching podcast this week, which is hosted by three to four seminary professors and scholars. Usually they spend about a third to half of the podcast talking about the gospel lesson, and then spend the rest of the time on the three other lessons. But this week, the focus on the gospel was pretty truncated. In fact, one of the scholars basically said, “If you are looking for some new knowledge or some hidden message in this gospel, there isn’t one. This one is pretty straightforward.”[i] After a convoluted, at times ambiguous, lesson last week about a crooked manager who gets praised for his deviousness, this week’s gospel has very little ambiguity. You can almost hear echoes of Luke’s beatitudes from chapter 6, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God….but woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”[ii]
We could easily read this parable about the rich man and Lazarus and think, “Wow that rich man really messed up; I am so glad I am not rich so I do not have to worry about that kind of poor behavior.” But here is the thing: Jesus is not telling a story about “that guy.” The fact that Lazarus has a name but the rich man does not gives us a big interpretive tool for this parable.[iii] This is not a parable about a man who messed up ages ago. This is a parable for faithful people everywhere who daily must navigate the truth of scripture with the reality of being persons of wealth. Our very citizenship in this country means that we are people of wealth. We are the rich man.
So, if we are the rich man, what can we learn from him? Unlike in our passage a few weeks ago, Jesus is not telling us to give up our possessions so we are no longer rich. What Jesus is saying is our wealth will make behaving faithfully very difficult. Later, Luke will tell us behaving faithfully with wealth will make getting into the heavenly kingdom as difficult as getting a camel through the eye of a needle. Jesus warns us because wealth has a corrosive impact on our lives. Wealth can make us confuse wants with needs. Wealth can make us think we somehow deserve wealth – as if we did something to earn favored position in life, instead of blessing coming from the grace of God.[iv] Wealth can deaden our empathy, turning us inward, slowly turning us into people who avert our eyes in the face of poverty, who dehumanize those in poverty, seeing them as servants instead of equals, who become convinced just being Christians and not living as Christians is enough.
We can see how the rich man in our parable gets there. We are told his clothing is of fine quality. He eats sumptuously every day. He clearly ignores Lazarus, sitting by his gate every day. We know he actively ignores Lazarus because we find later he knows Lazarus’ name without ever having reached out to him. Even in his death, the rich man is buried with dignity and care. Therefore, his behavior in Hades, or Sheol, should be no surprise. Even in suffering afterlife, the rich man dehumanizes Lazarus. He regards Lazarus as a servant and messenger who can be ordered around to bring him water or warn his brothers. When your whole life has been blessed by wealth, slipping into a pattern of forgetting to respect the dignity of every human being is quite easy.
The judgment of the parable is both gentle and direct. Beloved father Abraham, who gathers Lazarus into his bosom, still sees the humanity in the rich man. Calling him “child,” he almost sadly has to remind him of his poor earthly behavior. When the rich man desperately tries to help his living brothers, Abraham finally has to be firmer. Like the beloved father he is, Abraham draws a definitive boundary. As the rich man insists his brothers need a personal testimony to change their own wealthy behavior, Abraham reminds the rich man they have already been warned by Moses and the prophets. And if any of us wonder if Abraham is being overly dramatic, we need only catalogue the scripture lessons warning about wealthy behavior: Exodus 22.21-22, 23.9, Leviticus 19.9-10, 19.33, 23.22, Deuteronomy 10.17-19, 15.1-11, 24.17-18, Amos 2.6-8, Hosea 12.7-9, Micah 3.1-3, Zephaniah, Malachi, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and on, and on, and on.[v] And Abraham is not even talking about Jesus’ warnings. Even later letters, like we heard today in the first letter of Timothy, take up the mantle.
So if our very citizenship makes us like the rich man, what can we do to resist the corrosiveness of wealth? The gospel lesson today seems to suggest three things. First, one way to combat the seductive lure of wealthy living is to root ourselves in Scripture and Christian community. One of the things our Discovery Class attendees are learning is how steeped in Scripture Episcopal worship is. Just by coming to church on Sundays, we hear a large portion of the Bible’s words. Add in our songs and our prayers, and suddenly we find our liturgy is dripping with the words of Scripture. Coming to church and hearing hard texts like this one and the ones we have been having for weeks, we find ourselves among a community of people who want to live life differently, and need Holy Scripture and each other to do that. Of course, reading and praying with scripture and your Prayer Book outside of Sundays doesn’t hurt either.
Second, another way to resist the pull of wealthy living is to spend time examining the chasms in our lives. Abraham insists Lazarus cannot help the rich man for many reasons; one of those reasons is the great physical, uncrossable chasm between the two realities the men now inhabit. But that chasm is just a reflection of the chasm that existed on earth too – the rich man’s gate that prohibited connection, help, or even awareness of Lazarus’s suffering and need.[vi] We create those same chasms, those same gates in our everyday lives too. We ignore the dilapidated housing we pass on our drives, we allow ourselves to forget the vast number of students on reduced and free lunch in our schools, we choose homes and sidewalks that allow us to avoid the homelessness we meet every winter at the Shelter. Today’s gospel lesson encourages us to use our eyes to see, really see, the gates we have built and to begin to dismantle them.
Finally, another way we fight the power of wealth is to use the wealth for goodness – to shine our light into the world, as our stewardship team will be encouraging us to do this month. I know that kind of charge can feel overwhelming – we could give away every cent we have and not heal every Lazarus we meet. I am not saying we should not use some of our wealth to try – whether we give to the Lazarus in front of us, the non-profits that create support systems for Lazaruses, or, and particularly important, we use our wealth to support this faith community: the community that teaches us how to be faithful, that brings together the community of support we need to follow Jesus, and that propels us into the world as enlightened people of faith. As the dishonest steward taught us last week, we can use our corrupting wealth for goodness. We can use the precarious nature of wealth to be agents of light in the world – to shine our lights as Hickory Neck.
The work will be difficult. Jesus assures us the work will be hard and shows us that reality in parable after parable. But we are encouraged today because of the people in this room. This is a community of people who not only give us a sense of belonging and support, this is also a community of people who have your back in figuring out this whole faithful Christian living thing. This is a community of people who vulnerably, humbly, and joyfully are willing to walk with you. We can shine our lights because each person in this room is shining their light too. Together we can do the work to open gates, dismantle closed doors, and fill in chasms of separation. Together we can turn the lure of wealth into a tool for goodness. Together we can show the world another way, shining our lights. Amen.
[i] Matt Skinner, “Sermon Brainwave #682 – Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Ord. 26),” September 21, 2019, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1180 on September 24, 2019.
[ii] Luke 6.20, 24
[iii] Charles B. Cousar, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 117.
[iv] Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 196.
[v] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina Series, vol. 3 (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 253.