Luke 16:19-31 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
“There was a rich man who was dressed in
purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 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; even the dogs would come
and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels
to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where
he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by
his side. He 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.’ 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 here, and you are 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.’ He
said, ‘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, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them
from the dead, they will repent.’ 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.’”
As I was preparing for today’s sermon I thought it might be interesting to share with you some of the processes of writing a sermon, before I share with you the sermon. Keep in mind that for just about every minute of preaching time, there is an hour’s worth of work that goes into it. Basically, there is 20 hours devoted to a 20 minute sermon.
I begin a week or so before sermon writing by reading scripture several times to get a focus. This rich parable Jesus shared had me going in several different directions. I look at the background of when the text was written and the context of the text within the particular writing. For instance, where does this parable of Jesus fit in the context of the Gospel according to Luke?
By doing that research we find important clues for why this passage is included where it is. One commentator noted: “It’s very important that we not miss that context, because Jesus is angry here at the religious leaders of his own traditions and times who have let him down – the ones who are supposed to be leading the people but instead are too busy loving money.” (Kathryn Matthews; sermonseeds.com) So he tells stories to get his point across.
By doing the important work of exegesis we can begin to focus on the work of hermeneutics. This is the work of understanding the ‘there and then’ of the text and bringing it to the ‘here and now’ to relate to our own lives today. We can understand in that culture several hundred years ago that people then, like us today, believed a lot of different things about money. Then as now, there is a warning to understand that money itself is not evil – but realizing how the love of money can damage our souls.
So with that background work complete the sermon itself can begin to be crafted into, hopefully, one cohesive whole for us today. Usually that takes two to three drafts and several edits. And while I prayerfully work on the message I am hopeful that you, as well as I, can hear the challenge the “good word” poses and how it might impact our daily living – giving things for us to chew on and ponder over. And I pray that I do so in such a way to not sound condemning (hellfire and brimstone), or abusive (you should), or too easy to do (church lite).
I rehearse out loud what I’ve written several times so I can become familiar with the sermon, and also to ‘hear’ it myself. Sometimes I decide I may need to add something that would bring more clarity. Sometimes I decide I need to remove something that is only a distraction from the main message. Like many editing jobs in life – much is left on the cutting room floor.
So hopefully you can begin to understand that the work of the minister preparing a sermon just doesn’t happen without preparation, prayer and persistence. I know that so much of what ministers do is just not seen, but hopefully, it is helpful for you to know that about 20 hours a week is spent on sermon preparation. Now we turn to the sermon.
In some ways, this passage reminds me of some old church jokes about the pearly gates and who will be getting into heaven and who won’t. Rather than St. Peter, Abraham is the greeter. This passage is also called “The coming great reversal” because Jesus, as we know, tends to shake up our understanding of who gets into heaven and who won’t, and confounds us saying that ‘the first shall be last and the last shall be first’. I find it interesting that it is the poor man in this story who is named, giving him dignity and identity he did not have while alive. The rich man is left unnamed but is given the name Dives by many commentators. Dives is Latin and translates literally to mean “rich man”. Dives, of course, expects to be granted entry into heaven because his wealth has granted him entry to so many exclusive places in his life. On the other hand, I don’t think that poor Lazarus has that expectation at all. Why would he?
While alive Lazarus and Dives pass each other every day. They live in the same neighborhood – in fact, on the same block. One person lived inside a beautiful home, another person lived outside that same home. One feasted sumptuously every day, the other hoping for scraps from that rich man’s table. Even Dives dog took advantage of Lazarus. And although they pass each other every day, Dives is blind to homeless, hungry Lazarus as a human being – a child of God – who is in need.
One commentator notes that “Dives would have felt very comfortable living in our present time. He was a progressive kind of guy. He was self-indulgent and this is the age of self-indulgency. The contrasting life-styles of these two men is so obvious that you can’t miss it. [And that’s probably Jesus’ point.]
Dives was a connoisseur, a lover of the arts, one who knows and appreciates fine living, four star restaurants. We are told in vs. 19 that he habitually dressed in purple which was known as the color of royalty because it was the most expensive dye in the ancient world. Only the upper echelon and the high priest could afford it. We are also told that his undergarments were made of fine linen. Linen, the lifestyle of the rich and famous.
The other man in the story is Lazarus. How can we describe Lazarus? Lazarus is homeless. We are told that he was a cripple. Lazarus barely made it from day to day, living off the leftovers thrown to him by Dives as he daily passed him. He is just a survivor, that’s all you can say of him.” (sermon.com)
Lazarus, like many homeless today, would probably go to a public place to rest and clean up during the day – perhaps a counter-part to our libraries, or even to a McDonalds. These places often provide safety and an opportunity to get out of the cold or the heat. They also provide a sense of community. The homeless often have nowhere to sleep other than a park bench, cold floor, or cardboard box.
A recent book, Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America, by Chris Arnade, helped to open my eyes and heart to understanding how some of us become homeless and penniless through no fault of our own. Getting out of a financial downward spiral bind is difficult. I am thankful that Las Cruces has the Community of Hope to provide meals and a way back into safe shelters for the homeless and financially insecure of the area. If you can help, the community is always looking for volunteers. Mike Bureman can help you get connected.
It’s important to note that this story does not condemn the fact that Dives had money. It does condemn, however, how Dives attitude of entitlement continued to cause a great divide between him and Lazarus that was ultimately Dives downfall.
Brian Stoffregen, Exegetical Notes, writes: “Whenever we generalize people – the poor, the right, [the left] the elderly, teenagers, the clergy, the laity, etc., we dehumanize them. We may be tempted to generalize the rich – since so few of us belong to that category. The rich man is not named, but he is also not condemned for being rich, but for his indifference and uncaring attitude towards poor Lazarus right outside his door. Remember that Abraham was also wealthy, and he isn’t in the place of torment.”
As the story reveals, both men seem to die just around the same time. And even after his death, Dives still expects that he would be treated like royalty, and orders Abraham to have Lazarus take care of him. It must have been a rude awakening for Dives to face an eternity of stark discomfort. He may also have felt for the first time like a victim, and only wished he could have been more aware of the meaning of the words of Moses and the Prophets, but that came too late for him.
Dives continues to see Lazarus in such unequal ways and as a servant. Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this’ says Abraham, ‘between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’ ‘But please, father Abraham,’ cries Dives. ‘I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ Once again Dives expects Lazarus to do his bidding, but Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ Dives is desperate now . . . ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ Abraham shook his head. He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” (sermons.com)
And as theologian Helmut Thielicke noted: “The torment of the dead is that they cannot warn the living, just as it is the torment of the mature that the erring young will not listen to them.” And so it goes from generation to generation.
Sometimes it is hard for us to hear words of wisdom. And when it’s too late we want to make a bargain with Abraham, with God, with Jesus, with “The” church. Sometimes we wake up too late to understand what we’ve been asked to do all along. Living the good life has very little to do with worldly goods, gourmet foods, best country clubs. More than a moral message, this is a wakeup call for all of us.
One commentator notes that “this parable targets the violence of apathy and neglect which is widening the chasm between rich and poor. The trouble is that even such abstractions become easy to live with.” (sermons.com)
The call for us is to understand what “it really means to be poor, to be a refugee, to be caught on the wrong side of the chasms which vested interests maintain.” (William Loader, First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary). Sharing – isn’t that something we learn in preschool?
Often, the work of sermons is for us to identify with a character in the text. Maybe some of us have identified with Dives. Maybe some of us have identified with Lazarus. I think, however, that most of us may identify more with the rich man’s siblings who he wants to warn to wake up. In fact, isn’t that the very thing Jesus is doing by telling us this story? Jesus is challenging us to open our eyes and see, to open our ears to hear, and to open our hearts to understand.
Kathryn Matthews notes that “at the heart of these passages, and at the heart of being a follower of Jesus, is generosity.” She writes: “I really believe that all the virtues flow from generosity.” She writes: “Think about it. If we’re generous of spirit, we trust in God and not in ourselves and our own devices. If we’re generous, we give people the benefit of the doubt, and we don’t judge them, just like Jesus said. If we’re generous, we can open up our hearts to forgive people, just like Jesus said. If we’re generous, we make room for others in our lives; it has been said that hospitality, after all, is generosity in elegant action. God has generously given us life, our lives and the life of this beautiful creation, and abundance with far more than enough for everyone.” The challenge for us is finding of sharing that abundance from what we have so generously received.
May God bless our ongoing awareness of God’s hospitality and generosity in our lives and the many opportunities to share these gifts with others – especially those in need. Amen.