Sermons That Work

The First Temptation…, Proper 21 (C) – 2001

September 30, 2001

The first temptation most everyone who hears this parable faces is the temptation to do theological dentistry. That is, to try to pull the teeth of the parable. That’s usually done by saying that we are not like that rich man and we don’t act like he acted. Then we say that the real point is that we have to be sure that we are nicer than that nasty rich man in the parable. So the issue ends up not being about wealth at all, but about being nice, or being nicer than the rich man. Such a conclusion is almost always a relief. After all, it very neatly gets us off the uncomfortable subject of wealth and back to the more comfortable business of comparing our behavior to that of people who do not exist. It’s easy to do well in such comparisons.

Unfortunately, that approach just won’t work. It won’t work because a simple truth is that (although we sometimes have real problems balancing our personal budgets) we are rich as the world sees it and knows it, and Lazarus is at the gate. Lazarus is at the gate here in this community, and he is at the gate around the world. That’s just the way it is.

And from the beginning, from the time of Moses and the prophets, God has insisted that Lazarus is very important, and that the way we treat the poor will somehow be directly connected to the way God deals with us. There is no way around that. That’s what Amos is talking about when he speaks of judgment upon the whole nation for the indulgences and the sins of the rich. God is very clear in both the Old Testament and the New Testament that judgment has much to do with compassion and justice made real in terms of service to the poor. The way we use our money, and the way that its use affects both us and the people around us, matters very much. It is still very hard to get through the eye of a needle.

But as real and as powerful as that is, I doubt if it is going to inspire either you or me to sell all we have, give it to the poor, and set up shop begging outside the door of some local rich folks. The allure of Abraham’s bosom is very seldom that strong. And while such renunciation is not the answer, or the only answer, to the crisis described in the parable, we must never forget that the central point of the parable has to do with being rich, and the dangers and consequences of that. That is one way, and the main way, that the parable is about us.

There is also another way that this parable can be about us. Consider the idea that very little of consequence was altered for the rich man when he died; but the reality that was always there was made considerably clearer. The rich man was in hell because that’s where he chose to be, and that’s where he chose to stay. If he was surprised, it was only because he was not particularly perceptive.

Did you know that in all the parables of Jesus, Lazarus is the only character who is given a real name? One big reason for this is to deepen the contrast between him and the rich man. While everyone knows Lazarus’ name, as far anyone can tell, the rich man had no name. Even Abraham referred to him generically. I suspect that the rich man had no name because he saw no need of one. Names are part of relationships, and they matter most when we move away from ourselves and toward others. Names are really not all that important if you are totally wrapped up in yourself, take little notice of anyone else, and avoid important relationship with God or with other people.

Lazarus was at the gate, and the rich man had to step over him to go out. But there is no sign that the rich man engaged that reality. There is no sign that the rich man’s life was affected by Lazarus or by his pain. Instead, the rich man lived totally in his own little world.

There was no room in that world for the reality of Lazarus, or the reality of Father Abraham. There was no need for them, or for anybody else we know of. So there was really no reason for the rich man to have a name, to be located in terms of relationships.

Living like that is living in hell. Living apart from others, and living apart from God, and living apart from your deepest self — a self that can only be discovered in such relationships — living that way is living in Hell. That is how the rich man lived before he died, and that is how he lived after he died. He was nameless, and isolated, and in a place of torment — whether he knew it or not.

This is why Father Abraham did not say who it was that fixed that great chasm between the rich man’s isolation and Lazarus’ consolation, the chasm one was allowed to cross. Think about that. There is really only one person God would allow to dig such a terrible ditch, (God doesn’t do things like that). That one person is the rich man himself. Had he not dug it, it would not have been there. That is true of all such ditches.

Who knows what might have happened if the rich man had decided to leave the hole he dug for himself and to reach out to the world, and to the people around him. But even at the end, he could see no farther than himself and his own. “Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” It never occurred to him that he might be the one who needed to move, or that Lazarus could ever be any more than an object, a thing to follow his orders, a slave to him and his family. As in life, so in death, he was determined to stay in the place he created, and to step over, or on, Lazarus.

Again, the real reason the rich man was in hell was that he chose to be. One of the real dangers of his wealth was that it allowed him to live a life that was empty, arid, and isolated, to dig a ditch no one could cross; it allowed him to do all that and not even notice that it was happening. But his life was that way before he died, and not much important changed after he died. (That’s part of what it means to say that you can’t take it with you. It means that whatever wealth hides will be revealed.)

That’s another part of the connection between riches and judgment; another way the story might be about us. Riches can do a wonderful job of allowing, or even helping, us to dig a ditch that no one can cross. The rich man had no name because he lived as if he didn’t need one. That was not good for him nor is it good for us.

A final thought on a grim story. On at least one point, the rich man might well be right, and Father Abraham wrong. Moses and the prophets really are not enough, not for most of us, not for most of the time. But it doesn’t end there. There is one who has come back from the dead, and offers us, not all sorts of hard work to do, and not threats of judgment or destruction. Instead, we are offered and promised the incredible and unstoppable love of God. A love that can even leap over the ditches we dig ourselves. And that love is there, and we are called to it; and we still have time to be convinced.

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Christopher Sikkema


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