By the Rev. James B. Craven lll
[Hear this sermon here or on Spotify or TuneIn, or read the text below.]
In the name of one God – Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Amen.
We have today yet another of Jesus’ parables, though presented differently than
those we heard the past few Sundays. This one, the story of the rich man and Lazarus,
appears only in Luke’s gospel. It is clear from the portion just previous to this that Jesus
is addressing “the Pharisees who were fond of money.” Well, who isn’t? could this be
addressed to us too, 2000 years later? Remember that this is a parable, Jesus’ favorite
teaching device. It is not a factual story of the sort seen in a news paper or Time
Generally the character in Jesus’ parables aren’t given names, though tradition
tells us the rich man was called Dives or Nineveh. Lazarus is named by Jesus though,
the only occasion that happens in the gospels. Similar stories existed in Egypt and
among the early Talmudic scholars. Jesus could easily have adapted these stories to
his own parables. Remember that Jesus was very much a Biblical scholar, of the
Hebrew Bible. To put it mildly, Jesus was exceptionally bright and very clever. Debating
Jesus would have been a tall order.
The rich man was clothed in purple, a tip right off at the outset that he was in a
pretty high tax bracket., as purple dye was quite expensive, and often reserved for
royalty. The rich man of course ate well. He may have been pulling his audience in, as
likely few if any of them would have worn the purple clothing of royalty, but little did they
know. Nor would they have so totally ignored the needs of Lazarus, the leprous poor
soul who would have been happy to eat the scraps which fell from the wealthy man’s
table. And even the dogs came and licked his sores. At this point we imagine Jesus’ listeners were likely on Lazarus’ side, and not identifying at all with the rich man. Well if
they knew Jesus at all, they may have been selling him short.
A national study last spring about the Episcopal Church may have caught some
of us unaware in a similar way. The study found that while Christians have favorable
views of their own generosity, compassion, and respect, non-Christians see them as
hypocritical and judgmental. Christians describe themselves as being giving (57
percent), compassionate (56 percent), loving (55 percent), respectful (50 percent), and
friendly (49 percent), while non-Christians associate Christians with characteristics like
hypocrisy (50 percent), being judgmental (49 percent), self-righteous (46 percent), and
arrogance (32 percent).
Put another way, we think more of ourselves than others think of us. This hurts.
Jesus would likely have agreed that hypocrisy is a much overlooked and misunderstood
human virtue, in that it obliges all sorts of otherwise wretched folks to lead exemplary
lives solely through fear of scorn. And one’s motivation for good works does make a
difference, make no bones about it. As the great Archbishop, Saint Thomas Becket,
said in T.S. Eliot’s Murder In the Cathedral at Christmas 1170:
Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain.
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason,
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
Well, the poor man Lazarus died and was carried away by the angels to be with
Abraham. Shakespeare has Hamlet say “May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” I
usually close funeral homilies with that wonderful line, and I shall never forget being asked once “Where in Scripture does that come from?,” and I answered “Why, from the
Book of Hamlet!” And “with Abraham” calls to mind Paul Green’s classic tragedy, In
Abraham’s Bosom, about a poor black field worker, Abe McCrainie, the son of a white
man, Colonel McCrainie, in 1885 in the turpentine woods of Eastern North Carolina. Abe
wanted to start a school for black children, but the Klan ran him out, drove him to
murder and killed him. He landed though in Abraham’s bosom, while the rich man, who
died soon thereafter, landed elsewhere, Hades, where he was tortured. Hades was also
called Pluto, in ancient Greek religion the god of the underworld. Hades was not a
destination of choice.
Now my guess is that none of Jesus’ listeners took this story literally, knowing it
was a parable, but I am confident that many if not all knew folks who fit the story, and
who may well have been embarrassed by some of their behavior. Nor is the parable
relevant only to the time 2000 years ago in Israel. We can bring it forward to the 21st
century and find it fits well here and now too.
The rich man in the parable certainly owed a debt to Lazarus, just as we all owe
a debt to those hurting and in need. Suppose a three level subordinate of Pilate or one
of the satraps of the Roman Empire has in his political subdivision a number of women
and children, poor and hungry refugees from a foreign land. Our junior empire official
could reach out all over the country, put together a refugee task force, gather
contributions of food and clothing, and just go all out to take care of his refugee brothers
and sisters. That would be one approach. Or the same fellow could take another
approach. Instead of feeding, clothing, and housing these refugee women and children,
and providing needed medical care (all of which would take time, effort and money, to say nothing of love), let’s do this! Let’s gas up a 707 and just fly these folks to Martha’s
Vineyard. That’ll work! Happily Massachusetts is a long way from Florida in so many
ways. And Charlie Baker, the kindly Republican governor in Boston and the three
Episcopal Church parishes on Martha’s Vineyard (St. Andrew’s, Grace, and Trinity)
participate in big time welcomes there for refugee women and children to Cape Cod. It
may not be such a long way to Tipperary, but it is certainly a long way to Tallahassee.
From his hot seat in Hades, where he was being tormented relentlessly, the
wealthy man looked up, and it was up, and saw Father Abraham far away, with Lazarus
by his side. It is interesting that 2000 years ago, heaven was up, while Hades and hell
were down. I have always had my doubts about assigning geographical limits to
heaven, or a mark on the compass rose, but then Chapel Hill has long been known as
the southern part of heaven.
So the wealthy man cries out in desperation to Father Abraham, asking that he
just send Lazarus to dip his finger in water and cool the man’s tongue, “for I am in
agony in these flames.” Abraham noted that in his lifetime the rich man lived well, while
Lazarus suffered, but now their positions are reversed. And besides it is just too far
from heaven to Hades. You can’t get there from here or vice versa. The wealthy man
then for the first time in this parable thinks of someone other than himself, his five
brothers. “Then father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—for I have five
brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of
torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to
them.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they
be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
I cannot tell you how many times I have heard young men with lengthy criminal
records say to a judge “Please just give me one more chance,” when the fellow has had
a dozen extra chances. Well the wealthy man in the parable and his five brothers have
had one chance after another, for a lifetime. At some point you have to wonder how
serious they really are.
Paul understood this in his first letter to his young colleague Timothy, likely
written about the time Paul crossed the Bosporus into Macedonia, taking the gospel for
the first time into Europe. In fact the letter could have been written to Dives, the wealth
man in the parable. “We brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out
of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who
want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful
desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of
all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the
faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”
And, “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be
haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly
provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good
works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a
good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”
Interestingly Scott Fitzgerald had much to say about this in correspondence with
Ernest Hemingway, and he surely must have been familiar with this gospel passage
Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.
And W.C. Fields too:
A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money.
Years ago Anne Hodges-Copple asked me to preach a stewardship sermons. I
had already prepared my sermon for that Sunday. I think it was on a Friday afternoon
that she called me. About all I can remember is talking about what a loss it was that we
couldn’t pass the plate at weddings and funerals. There are some pretty good lessons
on stewardship in the lectionary today. So, walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave
himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God.