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Voices From the Other Side
The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus
The Gospel According to Godspell
I don't know about you, but I sure have been enjoying this theme on the parables of Jesus. It's been hard, however, to work much humor into these sermons. So before I begin today's story, let's review some of the basic bible study lessons with which we are most familiar here at UCG.
Jesus sets the stage. "A certain man was rich, and he put on purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day." Purple is a sign of both wealth and royalty. This guy had both money and power. He is really rich, but it is not clear that he is bad. Jesus' listeners might envy him.
"And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table " The rich guy is anonymous. The poor man has a name. This is the only parable of Jesus where a character has a name. Thus the poor man is given some individuality. Lazarus means "One whom God helps." This Lazarus, by the way, is in no way related to the Lazarus Jesus raised from the dead in the gospel of John.
While Jesus' listeners would not necessarily hate the rich man, they would not automatically be sympathetic with Lazarus either. He was a beggar, and at that time poor working people thought beggars were getting what they deserved.
Lazarus and the rich man exist on either side of a boundary. That boundary is not an impenetrable wall. It is a gate. The rich man can easily come to Lazarus' aid.
Then comes the third line, "even the dogs would come and lick his sores." These are not household pets that are trying to be nice to Lazarus. These are wild street dogs. These dogs are bad news.
The audience expects the rich man to take care of Lazarus. Instead the story changes directions. "The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham." (Or to the bosom of Abraham, whence the song "Rocka my Soul in the bosom of Abraham").
Then Jesus says, "The rich man also died and was buried." We don't know if Lazarus had a decent burial, but he is carried away by angels. We know the rich man gets his burial, but we don't know if he is carried away to anywhere.
The story continues "And in Hades, where he was being tormented, he (the rich man) looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus held in his bosom." The separation of the rich man and Lazarus continues in the after life.
This is also the only description of the afterlife in a parable. Hades is a place of torment, sometimes referring to Sheol, a burning garbage dump outside the city. Lazarus is in the bosom of Abraham.
We shouldn't jump to the conclusion that the reason the rich man is in Hades is because he was rich. Luke may have thought this. He didn't like rich people, but the bible tells us that Abraham was rich too. For Jesus, being rich alone doesn't get you into Hades. The surprise of the parable is that radical reversal of their situations with really no preparation.
We come to the next line, "He (the rich man) called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.'"
This is the first time the rich man wants to bridge the gap between himself and Lazarus. He still doesn't try to do anything for himself. He wants Lazarus sent to him.
"But Abraham said, ' Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted, and you're in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.'"
Some bible scholars think Luke added the next four verses to satisfy the argument that the rich man was given no warning and therefore was punished unjustly. In Luke's addition to the story the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his four brothers so they will know what will happen to them. Abraham, in this account, says that they've been warned by Moses and the prophets and never listened.
"But if someone were to rise form the dead, they might listen " the rich man says. And Abraham replies, "If they didn't listen to Moses and the prophets, they wouldn't listen even if someone rose from the dead " That seems to be Luke's addition.
How many of you have been to hell and back in some form? I'm talking about something really awful happening at school or with friends. Or it could be alcohol or drug abuse, a bad marriage or divorce, a terrible career choice, some disastrous financial decisions, abuse by a parent, heartbreak from a child, a senseless death, the horrors of war, or anything else like this. And how many of you, having had these experiences have tried to warn others? And how many of you then discovered that others just don't listen?
It seems hopeless doesn't it? Luke's ending is trying to explain why people reject a message as clear as that of Jesus, who even rose from the dead!
But as true as that experience is to us, I agree with bible scholars who don't think that Jesus would have said this.
Consider instead that Jesus ended the story with Abraham holding Lazarus in his bosom and the rich man calling for a drop of water.
If being rich in and of itself is not a sin, why is the rich man condemned to this torment?
We tend to moralize the word sin, as something we do wrong. But over and over again the bible presents sin as separation from God and our true nature. The sin of the rich man is not being rich. His sin is his separation from his humanity, the insensitivity to pain at his gate. His failure is in staying behind his own wall. Even here in Hades the rich man never makes a move to go through wall. He just asks Abraham to send Lazarus, making Lazarus once again his servant.
This parable is a sign of how the structures we build in life ultimately torment us. The rich man had a gate. A gate not only lets us in and keeps others out of our homes. It's our access to the world outside. There is a gate in every one of our lives. We retreat behind it for safety. That's okay. But God also calls us to open that gate to what is outside.
The kingdom of God, as every parable suggests, is full of surprises. Those surprises reverse things as they are. The surprise of the kingdom is supposed to shake us up so we see life differently. In normal life we see power inside the privacy of our wealth. In the reality of the kingdom, the love that takes us through the gate has true power. If we miss the chance to reach out to another in love, we can wind up, like the rich man, on the outside, not because we were rich, but because we skipped the chance to care. In the Kingdom of God, where love rules, our own lack of care walls us out.
Think of the story in terms of Robert Frost's famous poem, The Mending Wall.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall
Frost says that nature itself heaves up its frozen ground to tumble the stone walls that intersect New England. Frost speaks of walking along his own Vermont wall in spring to repair it, he on one side and his neighbor on the other. Frost acknowledges that there are places where we need a wall, for example to keep cows in their own pasture.
But then Frost and his neighbor come to a place where they don't need a wall.
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbors."
Frost tries to think of how he could argue with this neighbor.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down
But the neighbor will not go behind the saying he learned from his father and that his father undoubtedly heard from his father before him. He says it again,
"Good fences make good neighbors."
Jesus and Frost remind us,
Something there is that doesn't love a wall.
Let's think of the swinging gates in our lives. Perhaps Jesus is like Frost, walking along the other side of a wall we keep fixing. But in Jesus' story we come to a gate. Jesus invites us to come out of the gate and look around. There's Lazarus out there, and we all know that our lives are enriched when we help someone in need. But there's even more. There is a Lazarus part of ourselves out there. We need to go through the gate, bend down and touch our own wounded selves.
Go back to that ending Luke added, about nobody listening, even if someone came back from the dead. The bible scholars I read don't think Jesus would ever have said that there's no hope for those who miss that gate. He would tell all of us who have been to hell and back and who think that no one ever hears us that we're wrong. People hear us all the time. There are always second chances. We can always turn around. Hell is never fixed unless we don't care enough to pass through the gate, even in eternity.
All of us, after all, are kids who have screwed up in school and messed up our relationships with friends only to discover life again. We are recovering alcoholics and addicts, abused and abusers. We are lovers who have broken the hearts of others, who have had our hearts broken, and who have also found healing for our wounds and trusted that those we have hurt have found their healing as well.
I've sung "Rocka My Soul" hundreds of times, and never paid any attention to the second verse. In fact I've never even sung it right. "So high you can't get over it, so low you can't get under it, so wide you can't get 'round it " I've always finished it, "O rocka my soul." But the words are "You must get in at the door."
That may be the door the rich man had, his gate, his gate to Lazarus and his own wounded soul. It's a promise of a door, a gate for each of us out to the world of care and into the arms of Abraham.
Where is the wall in your life? Where also is the gate where God calls you to take the your blessings to the world for the healing of wounds? Easter is next week. See life opening, as if you were walking out of a dark tomb where a stone has been miraculously rolled away to become an open gate.
So let's close this out by singing "Rocka My Soul." As I sing I'm going to imagine the Lazarus part of me that can't seem to get fixed, rocked in the bosom of Abraham. Then I'm going to think of my rich and perhaps selfish part, the part that doesn't go out past my own gate, singing the second verse, facing that big tough wall and finding the door to go through it. And I'm going to see if perhaps, in that moment, I too catch a glimpse of the kingdom of God. I invite you to try this too.
Sing - Rocka My Soul
We come to you O God, as an old friend, as the gift of spring, as the quiet circle of the labyrinth, as a question, as one who cradles us in your arms, as one who calls us to step through the gate and live.
We pause here and offer you our highest hope. We pray for that which we are almost afraid to say. It is the prayer we offer when we feel trapped.
We pray our highest hope, our deepest desire.
We thank you for stirring this hope in us, and follow our prayer with trust.
We also pray for those around us.
We pray for this church,
We pray for this town in which we live.
We pray for our nation, that we who are so wealthy may walk through the gate of care for a wounded world.
May the fire of your holy spirit O God, free us to live in love and grace, this day, and this week, and forever.
Singing, "O Lord hear my prayer, O Lord hear my prayer. When I call answer me.
O Lord hear my prayer, O lord hear my prayer, Come and listen to me." (Taize')