Sermons That Work

How Could Anyone…, Proper 21 (C) – 2007

September 30, 2007

How could anyone stand to have a poor man lying in the doorway, covered with sores, those sores being licked by stray dogs – a poor man who longs for nothing but the crumbs that fall off the table? Aren’t we outraged that a rich man, dressed in purple and fine linen, who feasted sumptuously every day, ignored this poor man? We’re not surprised when he ends up in Hades and can’t even get a tiny drink of water. We’d never do that to anyone, would we? What was that rich man thinking of?

It’s easy to feel pretty self-righteous about the rich man. It’s also easy to think that this isn’t a hard parable to understand. The poor man who suffered on earth is rewarded in heaven because those with the means to help him while he was alive didn’t. The rich man who had more than enough – lots more than enough – is sent to Hades because he didn’t share. Serves him right.

But wait a minute. That’s a bit too easy. If we understand this parable right away, it must be that it strikes a chord with us. It’s a lesson we hear all the time. Those with many gifts must see that those with nothing get the assistance they need to live a decent life. If you’re rich, give to the poor. This is obviously a moral lesson for rich people, churches, and nations, and there you have it. So we’re through, and we can all go home, right?

But then what do we do with the verses of Luke that come before and after this passage? This story of the rich man and Lazarus is the last in a whole series of parables Jesus tells in Luke. Jesus seems to be on a teaching frenzy. He’s told stories about a good Samaritan, a rich fool, being watchful and faithful, about a great banquet, and a dishonest manager. Jesus ends with this story that teaches a lesson that pertains to every one of us. The Book of Common Prayer says it well: “Do not let the hope of the poor be taken away.”

A few verses later the apostles say, “Increase our faith!” What does that mean? What do they want? In any case, what they get is Jesus telling them they have to change. Jesus preaches the kingdom of God, which means he preaches and teaches a different way of seeing and a different way of living. To be part of God’s kingdom, to live that way, is to see people differently. Then we feed the hungry not because we think it’s the right thing to do, but because we see their hunger, see as if we were hungry, and then act accordingly. To see another the way God sees that person is to live in the kingdom of God.

Maybe these disciples are a little bit nervous. After all this teaching, all these lessons on what it means to live a godly life, they may be beginning to see where they’ve fallen short and they don’t want to end like the rich man. Maybe they’re thinking it might be better to suffer now and wind up standing at the side of Abraham in eternal life. Maybe suffering here and now is the guarantee of blessing there and then? You know, “Suffer now, take up your cross; God will only give you as much hardship as God knows you can handle. If life here is tough, don’t worry: heaven is paved with streets of gold.”

We get a lot of this one-sided theology from TV, websites with pretty pictures, or self-help books. Yes, of course, there’s a great deal of suffering in life. There are people like Lazarus all around us. Maybe we don’t see them lying at the gates of grand houses surrounded by dogs licking their wounds, but we see them lying on the streets of our cities. Some of them we don’t see at all. Poverty today is often a hidden problem. And Jesus is not teaching his disciples that we need to be poor too. He’s teaching us that we are poor too, for every last one of God’s children is dependent on God for everything, even for life itself.

So, is eternal life the only place where we’ll really be happy? Is that what Jesus is saying? Can we just hope that when we die, we’ve been good enough to merit standing with Abraham? That’s a depressing idea. We sometimes think we need to figure out all the rules and regulations that will merit the kingdom for us. But the kingdom doesn’t work like that; it’s a gift. We can’t earn it, no matter what we do. We are all dependent on God, in need of God’s grace.

And yet we are all rich, all of us. Not just most people in this country or most people in our congregation. There are too many who have too little, even in our own congregations (unless we’ve so alienated the poor that only the rich are left). But every last person on earth is rich in one respect: God’s unmerited, unbounded love.

God cares about everyone. Therefore those who live by God’s kingdom are bound to do the same. We give out of our richness, whatever that is. And we all have something to receive as well. What could the rich man have received from Lazarus if he had been willing to open himself to the possibility? Maybe he could have learned from Lazarus to be thankful for a healthy body as well as a fine house and table. Maybe he could have learned the joy of receiving a gift he didn’t merit, if he had given such a gift to Lazarus.

But merit is a tricky notion, isn’t it? In a way, Lazarus did merit a gift of care from the rich man, not because of what he did but because of who he was. And who was Lazarus? Not just a poor beggar, but a fellow human being, another child of God, someone else in God’s image. God’s care for all of us means that everyone in need merits help from those in a position to give it. It also means that givers all are potential recipients, not only of the gratitude of the needy but also of the lessons their lives have to share with us.

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Christopher Sikkema


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