Listen!, Luke 16:19-31
Plymouth First United Methodist
Pastor Toni Carmer
Today we hear the story of the rich man and Lazarus, another one of those stories that catches our attention and causes our backbone to stiffen just a bit. We don’t want to place ourselves in the fine shoes of the rich man, but we know we can’t relate to Lazarus, either, sitting at the rich man’s gate, longing to eat whatever might be left over from his last meal, that will end up being tossed into the garbage anyway because there’s always more coming in than he needs.
Isn’t it interesting in this story that the rich man is anonymous and the poor man is named. In real life, things mostly happen in the opposite way; the street people are faceless and those who starve daily nameless, but the wealthy have their faces all over the media and their names on buildings.
Until both men die. Death is the great equalizer, isn’t it? No matter our station in life, death is certain. The poor man is carried by angels to “Abraham’s bosom’—in the great banquet in God’s kingdom. Lazarus shares a dining couch with Abraham. (Remember how folks reclined on couches to eat at dinner’s in Jesus’ day. In the story, Jesus is telling us that Lazarus is eating his meal cozied right up next to Abraham. It’s not exactly to the left or right of Jesus as James and John once asked, but it’s a pretty great spot at the table, seated beside one of the fathers of the faith).
The rich man winds up in Hades, tormented by flames. Since Luke’s Jesus speaks in other places about the general resurrection of the dead, we presume that Luke thinks of the dead residing in Hades or in Paradise, either tormented or rewarded until the Day of the Lord, when all accounts will be settled permanently. In Luke’s understanding, the dead can’t cross from one place to the other, but the wicked can observe the good things happening to the righteous, which increases their torment.
The rich man’s request to Abraham shows us that in life he knew about Lazarus—he knows his name—and so he was at least somewhat aware of his situation. And yet everyday, the rich man stepped right over Lazarus, as though he is invisible.
It’s hard for us to imagine that he could have missed something like that—someone like that—sitting right outside his own yard. Propped up next to the gate he had to open and walk through on his way to work every day. On his way to worship every day. He maybe even had to walk past Lazarus a couple of times a day.
Surely, he noticed the dogs that were attracted to Lazarus. The dogs Lazarus was too weak to push away when they’d come sniffing for something to eat, and finding nothing, would then satisfy themselves by licking his wounds. What a disgusting thing to see, even just creating that scene in my head. But the rich man saw it—and it happened on a regular basis, it seems—and he kept going to wherever it was he was going. He saw it but it didn’t register, he didn’t consider it to be anything that concerned him. What could he do, anyway? That’s just how some people live. Maybe he’s addicted to drugs. Maybe he’s an alcoholic. Or mentally ill. Maybe he’s made some dumb decisions in his life, and his circumstances are his own fault. You can’t just give him money. Maybe he’ll use it to buy some more of whatever put him in this place to begin with. And if we brought him food? He’d probably start depending on our handouts. What would be his motivation to get a job then? And surely he has health care. Everybody’s required to have healthcare; if he doesn’t, well, again, it’s probably his own fault. You can sign up online, you can get the basics at least, for not that much. It doesn’t cover much, of course, but it’s available. And don’t people deserve the station in life where they are? How can I make a difference? Can I change fate? If I do something for this man, what’s next? Who else will I have to help? Who else will I need to respond to? Who else will I become responsible for? It’s too much to think about. Too much to see. So, keep on walking. Go to wherever you’re headed. That, at least makes sense.
Oh, wait a minute. Somewhere in there I got mixed up with the rich man. I started filling in my own thoughts, because I see people along the road, sometimes the same people day after day in the same places, and I don’t know what to do or how to help and so I keep on going. I wonder: how did you get yourself into this place? Don’t you have insurance? Medicare? Medicaid? There are programs set up that can help you, you know? How have you slipped through the cracks? What did you do to get yourself in the pickle you’re in?
So, with a certain amount of angst and guilt about the whole thing, I stop seeing. I stop noticing. He’s still there. But I drive on by.
We can see that the rich man, now being tormented in Hades, hasn’t gained a lot of insight. It seems that he still thinks he’s in a position of being able to give orders. The rich man doesn’t ask for forgiveness, but he does ask for mercy, and tells Abraham to send Lazarus to him. He wants Lazarus to serve him by bringing him some water. He’s parched. He’s hurting. Surely, Abraham, you must see how I’m suffering, the man says. Send Lazarus to me. I need his help.
Abraham reminds him of what once was, and while he now suffers, Lazarus is comforted. There’s no way Lazarus can come to him, there’s no way the rich man can cross over to where they are.
There is a chasm between them.
There was a chasm in life, and there is a chasm now, in death.
At this point, the chasm can’t be crossed.
Chasms continue to divide us. Chasms between those who have, and those who have not. Chasms between the rich and the poor. Between the immigrant seeking a safe place and those who fear the consequences of an open border. There’s the chasm between gay and straight, and even in Christ’s own body, the church, as we hold fast to what we want, to what we believe, to what we hold onto as important, to what we need and want, not listening or caring to see an opposing perspective.
Well, at least send Lazarus to my brothers so they’ll know. So they can change and not have to suffer like this!
It is commendable, honestly, that the man wants to warn his brothers, and yet Abraham responds that they have Moses and the prophets. It’s not like they’ve never heard it before. It’s not like they haven’t had a chance to pay attention.
And yet the rich man is certain that if someone returns from the dead to warn them, surely then they’ll listen…But again, Abraham says no. If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, then neither will they be persuaded if someone returns from the dead.
It seems that this story Jesus tells, this time with no preamble, but directed to the Pharisees who have already been described as “lovers of money” (v. 14), is a warning to them, and for us to listen to, and to hear, as well.
The problem with the rich man isn’t that he is rich. Money is neutral, really. With Abraham being the one who “speaks from heaven” to the rich man now in Hades, it’s helpful to remember that Abraham in life was a very rich man. He held in his possession much livestock, silver and gold (Genesis 13:2). He was powerful in the ways we would define on earth, he related to kings, but what was even more important to Abraham than any of this was his relationship with God. God made him the father of many nations. God promised that his descendants would one day populate the earth. Even hearing this promise childless and 90 years old, Abraham believed God, he listened and followed. He didn’t always make the best decisions, but he always sought to be faithful.
With what better person might this rich man in today’s story interact? They each faced the same kinds of temptations, but their responses were different.
The unnamed rich man failed in his life to engage…he made no attempt to respond to the chasm that existed between he and Lazarus in life. He didn’t see, he didn’t notice, he didn’t care. He didn’t struggle with the disparity that existed between them. And now, in death, it’s too late.
We don’t always have answers, either, as we look at the chasms in life today. It seems that every answer we come up with creates more questions. But perhaps we need to allow ourselves to step into that uncertain gray area, where there are unanswerable questions, where life is messy, where people are messy, and choose to see. Choose to act. Choose to do SOMETHING, instead of nothing.
I shared in my September newsletter article about Craig Groeschel, who was one of the speakers at the Global Leadership Summit I attended in August. He shared the concept of GETMO - Good Enough To Move On. He warned that perfectionism can get in the way of whatever it is we want to do, whether it be the mission of the church, the performance of our team at work, or the effectiveness of our teaching in the classroom—or the way we interact and respond to those with whom we’re divided. Maybe it’s not necessary for us to have all the answers, or to fear whatever questions might be raised as we respond. Rather than waiting to figure it all out, perhaps we should invest enough time and energy to be Good Enough to Move On (GETMO). "Perfection is the enemy of progress," he said. "The pursuit of perfection will limit you," he said.
Starting to address those chasms that divide us now, makes sense. Having that conversation, stepping out in that ministry, whatever action you’ve thought about taking, but haven’t yet taken. We’ve been given this life, this time…doing something is so much better than doing nothing.
It’s a wake-up call, I think. Abraham says no, what good will it do to send someone back from the dead? People were given Moses, the prophets. But here’s the thing: Jesus did come back from the dead. He was willing to do even that, crossing the greatest chasm of all to confront us. It seemed a hopeless plan, but he was desperate to reach us. That desperate idea moves me. I want to listen. I believe you want to listen, too.