Sermon for 17 Pentecost Yr C, 26/09/2004
Based on Lk 16:19-31
By Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
“Who is poor? Who is rich?”
Every 3.6 seconds someone dies of hunger. 75% are children.1 1,800 children worldwide are infected with HIV/AIDS each day.2 1,270 children die each hour from preventable diseases such as measles and malaria.3
In stark contrast to these sobering facts of the world’s poorest people, are the extremely rich of North America—athletes who sign multi-million dollar contracts, businesspeople who claim to be billionaires possessing more money than some nations’ budgets, and even the ordinary middle class person who enjoys luxuries like a computer, a new car, a university education, and a secure job. For example:
If we could shrink the earth’s population to a village of precisely 100 people, with all the existing human ratios remaining the same, it would look something like the following. There would be: 57 Asians; 21 Europeans; 14 from the Western hemisphere, both north and south; 8 Africans; 52 would be female; 48 would be male; 70 would be non-Christian; 30 would be Christian; 6 people would possess 59% of the entire world’s wealth and all 6 would be from the United States. 80 would live in substandard housing; 70 would be unable to read; 50 would suffer from malnutrition; 1 would be near death; 1 would be near birth; 1 (yes, only 1) would have a college education; 1 would own a computer.4
Obviously the gap or chasm between the rich and the poor today is still very great, if not increasing. Hence, this reality makes today’s gospel passage of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus even more pertinent for us than ever. The parable is, essentially, a story in three acts. Let’s explore a little each of those three acts and see what they have to teach us.
Act One: Everyday life of the rich man and Lazarus in this world. In verses nineteen to twenty-one, Luke give us a description of what life is like for the rich man and Lazarus. There is, as we see a huge difference and gap between the two men. By the way, it’s interesting that the rich man has no name—although tradition names him Dives, but that is from the Latin translation, which means “rich man,” it is not a proper name. In contrast, Lazarus comes from the Hebrew Eliezer, which means “God helps,” and is a proper name for a Jewish male. The meaning of Lazarus is also a clue for us as to where this parable is going—God does, in fact help him. Luke then uses his description of the two men to emphasise the huge difference between them. The rich man “was dressed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day.” The colour and quality of this man’s clothing, along with the fact that every day he ate as if it were a grand banquet drive home the point that this chap was very wealthy as well as very self-absorbed. His was a life of extravagance and selfish pleasure-seeking.
Then, in stark contrast to the rich man, Luke describes Lazarus. He, we notice was not sitting or standing, but lying at the rich man’s gate. This detail may refer to Lazarus’ weakness and ill-health, not having the strength to do anything but lay down. It may also symbolize Lazarus’ lowly position or status in the world as “a nobody, a poor beggar.” At any rate, Luke tells us Lazarus is “a poor man,” and that he was “covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.” The sores Lazarus suffered from may have been a sickness caused by his malnourishment. We learn here of Lazarus’ desperation in that he is not looking for a banquet, a full-course meal—rather, he is only longing for the scraps and crumbs from the rich man’s table. The only relief poor Lazarus seems to get is that the neighbourhood dogs come and treat him better than human beings do—they lick his sores to give Lazarus some comfort from his pain.
A few questions that arise from this situation are: why is there such a gap between these two men? Why is Lazarus so neglected by the rich man? Why did the rich man become so self-centred that he failed to see Lazarus and the need to help him? Is it true that wealth can make people more selfish and less compassionate towards the poor? Who is the Lazarus at our gates? Do we see or neglect them?
Next, we turn to Act Two: The life of Lazarus and the rich man after they die. In verses twenty-two to twenty-six, Luke gives us a description of what happens to Lazarus and the rich man after they die. First of all, there is a surprising reversal of the situation from that of this world. Now we learn that angels assist in carrying Lazarus to be with Abraham. This for the Jewish people would be regarded as the place of honour and reward for those who are faithful and righteous. So now it is Lazarus who is rich and privileged with his heavenly reward. In stark contrast, the rich man becomes very poor. He goes to Hades where he is tormented and finds no relief from the heat. Here the rich man is given a very hard lesson in reality. Two things have now changed. First, now that he’s in Hades, he is no longer privileged. He was used to giving the orders, but now that’s changed—he cannot order Abraham around at his beck and call. Even more shocking, he cannot order Lazarus around either—he certainly cannot reduce Lazarus to being his water boy. Rather, Abraham explains to the rich man the reality of the reversal. In the world the rich man enjoyed his wealth and had everything he wanted. Now in the afterlife, it is Lazarus who is comforted and rich. Abraham goes on to say that even if he or Lazarus wanted to go to Hades and help the rich man they could not because there was a wide chasm or gap that permanently separated them from him.
So, at this point in the parable we are left with the very sober truth that there are eternal consequences for what we do or fail to do to help others with our wealth. Do we see our wealth as something that we must keep to ourselves and horde? Or, do we see our wealth as a gift from God granting us daily privileges and opportunities to share our riches by serving the needs of the poor at our gates? Unless we act now, today, opportunities are missed, and, in the process, we lose our life. In helping others we are helping Jesus—and that has eternal consequences for them and us. This parable reminds us then that God is a God of justice and if not in this world, then in the hereafter wrongs shall be righted and there shall be eternal consequences for how we live our lives in this world right now, today. However, it is not so much God placing us in Hades as we ourselves doing so by having to suffer the consequences of how we live our life. So, may we “Seize The Day!” today, before it is too late.
In Act Three of the parable, we learn that every individual human being is responsible and accountable before God. The rich man, now realising that he’s unable to change his situation, finally thinks of others. This time he thinks of his five brothers who are still living in the world. He pleads with Abraham now to send Lazarus to his brothers and warn them to prevent them from ending up in Hades too. Once again the rich man does not quite “get it,” Lazarus is no longer his slave or servant. Moreover, Abraham tells him that even a resurrection appearance will not convince the rich man’s brothers. They are given Moses and the prophets—in other words, the Bible. That is sufficient for anyone says Abraham. If they listen to God’s word and respond to it by loving and serving God and their neighbour, that shall be sufficient for them to enter heaven.
That is what Jesus says, and this is what he means. In other words, all virtue, all kindness, all charity, all ethics, all obedience, all philanthropy, all duty, all love, and all joy hang on hearing these two commandments and responding to them, this summary of the law. To hear these—that is, not simply to listen to them but to hear them so that you aim to live by them—is life itself, a virtue for both rich and poor. Not to hear them is death, for then you are cut off from God as surely as you are cut off from your neighbour, in a great unbridgeable chasm.5
The greatest sin is that of indifference. May we, upon hearing God’s word, regard it as life itself, a precious gift to be treasured always; and take it to heart and practice it in our daily living. As Jesus often said at the conclusion of his parables: “Let those with ears Hear!” Then, it doesn’t matter how poor or rich you are—you shall be the richest person of all! Amen.
1 Cited from: The Hunger Site, www.thehungersite.com.
2 Cited from: The Kids Aids Site, www.thekidsaidssite.com.
3 Cited from: The Child Survival Site, www.thechildsurvivalsite.com.
4 Cited from: www.jr.co.il/articles/perspect.txt.
5 Cited from: Peter J. Gomes, Strength for the Journey (New York & SanFrancisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), p. 245.