I Tim- 6:6-19
Proper 21C RCL HE 2A 10:00
Sources in Our Church Times 10/1/89 pp.2,3; Pulpit Resource 9/28/86; Interpreter's Bible
Prev.preached 9/25/83; compare later versions 86,89,95,01,07
Today's Gospel is the fairly well-known story told by Jesus, of the rich man and Lazarus. In the Latin Bible, the rich man is given the name Dives, which just means "rich man". This story was the spark that touched off the revolution in the life of Albert Schweitzer. He read the story and concluded that Africa was the beggar lying at the door-step of Europe; and so he founded his famous hospital at Lambarene, in the African country now known as Gabon. The parables of Jesus have that kind of power.
I. This one is a drama in three acts. The first act is a tableau, a picture. The rich-man is luxuriously clothed and fed; Lazarus is too hungry to refuse the pieces of bread which the rich man has used for napkins, and too weak to drive off the scavenger dogs that lick his sores. Wealth is not necessarily wicked, but it has temptations that are hard to resist. Poverty is not necessarily good, either; but it can be more easily turned to the good account of one's soul, for one has less to hold on to. The rich man hardly saw Lazarus, and so was condemned.
The second act of the story shows heaven and hell on one small stage. Each man has died; the rich man was buried; his good fortune on earth continued to the last moment of his earthly history; he did not even suffer the shame of not being properly buried. But in the next world, the parts played by the two men are exactly reversed. Only now does the drama break into speech. The rich man from his place of torment begs a drop of water, as Lazarus had begged a scrap of bread. The rich man still treats Lazarus as a beggar, a servant: "Send Lazarus", he says. But Abraham tells him that there are two reasons why no joy can be given: first, he had his joy on earth, and second, there is a great gulf fixed: the time for penitence has passed, and judgment is now relentlessly fixed.
The third act comes unexpectedly: the rich man asks that his five brothers on earth may be warned. The hint is that he himself had not been properly warned. His brothers will repent if one goes to them from the dead. Abraham denies the truth of this argument: a visitor from the dead will not change a selfish will. His brothers already knew the way of life - or they could have known it, for Moses and the Prophets made it clear. But the brothers had not heeded, and no sign, however powerful, could change them. Herod was not changed, even though he thought that Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead. Many hard hearts have remained hardened,even in the face of the Resurrection of Jesus.
II. This parable is not theology. It is a vivid story, not a guidebook to the next world. There were many such stories current in the day of Jesus.
A) But we dare not be casual with it, for its symbols are the shadows of realities. The story tells us that inequalities on earth are balanced out in heaven. Lowliness is rewarded hereafter, and self-indulgent pride is rebuked. We all see that selfishness makes hell on earth; why should we doubt that it brings hell hereafter? The story tells of a great gulf fixed. If a person chooses a cheap heaven here, he can hardly expect to have a real heaven beyond death, for he has lost both the taste and the aptitude for heaven. If a person lives without compassion, he clearly digs a gulf between himself and his fellow human beings; by the same token, he separates himself from God, for God is love, and love includes compassion.
B) If the story gives hints about the next world it also tells us that life here fashions an eternal destiny. What right have we to call any day commonplace? Every time that the rich man walked by Lazarus, every time he listened to time-serving speeches in which greedy people find comfort - he was building hell. And every time Lazarus refused to be embittered by the bitter bread of poverty, he was building a home in heaven. Every step is destiny. The reading of this story might change your destiny, or mine, whether we are poor or rich in the things of this world.
C) The rich man did not see Lazarus. He was not intentionally cruel. He most likely not only gave Lazarus scraps from his table, but also generously contributed to charity. But he did not see Lazarus. He did not say, 'This man is lonely; this man has pains of conscience and flashes of glory, and longs for God. This man wakes at night and asks, "Why?" and "where?'" The rich man is one who would speak about the colored races, and never see the Black person who passed his gate. He would discuss employment statistics, but would never imagine himself out of work. He did not see.
He was too absorbed in himself to be able to see. He was a man of large affairs. There were problems galore connected with his house and estate. (Do you or I see ourselves here?) Soon he was so close to himself that he could not see Lazarus, though the beggar was as close as his doorstep. His religion was only perfunctory; this we know, for if he had prayed with sincerity, some measure of the life and love of God would have come to him, and he would have begun to see. So he became locked into himself. A person is not meant to live alone any more than a house is meant to be shut away from the world. A man or woman, or a house, shut away, becomes a prison, a place of torment.
There is little reason to believe that the rich man changed at the end of the story. He is still trying to justify himself - he had not been properly warned - and he is still concerned , not with any Lazarus on earth, but with the fortunes of his own household - his five brothers.
How is any such person changed? The hard of heart are sometimes changed by tragedy on this earth. They can be changed by this story, or by the Cross of Him who told this story.
III. "Son, remember", said Abraham. The word is almost "Child, remember". Perhaps the rich man had never become an adult, for he had always regarded life as his, to have and to hold. Yet the reminder given by Abraham almost seems like turning a knife in a wound, until we recall that no one can be saved until he does remember. For memory has the power to restore experience, to select from experience the one saving item, and to use experience for a nobler way of life. So memory is a door of hope.
Most of the time we live in a roving state of mind, absorbed in the flow of events. But sometimes we live in memory, in reflective mind: we stand above the flow, to mark its meaning and direction. Statesmanship is reflective; when it becomes absorbed in passing events, it becomes mere politics. If a person is afraid to be still and reflect, that person's humanity disintegrates. City streets are filled with many an amateur rich man, who 'takes life as it comes'. If only there were some Abraham to button-hole them with the words, "Child, remember." For if one would remember, he might visualize his name in an obituary column ten years hence, and that remembrance might turn him from mere roaming, into the reflection that might breed sainthood.
We cannot be saved unless we remember. Yet the remembrance alone is not enough. It can reveal the shabbiness of a person's life, but it cannot by itself save us.
Beyond remembrance a person must pray in utter confession and in trust. We can imagine the rich man from his torment, thus casting himself on God, not to escape the consequence of his cruelty, but to be freed from his sin. The story might have had another ending.
Is the great gulf forever fixed?
We cannot answer that question.
We CAN say that the compassion of Jesus abides, and we believe that that compassion will not be in vain. But human will also abides, and that can become hard and set. We know that here and now, the rich man need not remain that way, hard of heart. Jesus told the story to save us from the results of hard-heartedness.