September 29, 2019
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois
Most of us have it pretty good. We have food to eat, clean water, clothing, shelter, and a loving family. Many of us have much more. I don’t consider myself rich, not in comparison to many of the people in communities I drive through on my bus routes. Yet, I have a three-bedroom home, a decent car, a smartphone, cable TV, and I get to take vacations and travel. I may not feast sumptuously every day, but I don’t go hungry either.
According to the World Bank, over the last 25 years, more than a billion people have lifted themselves out of extreme poverty, and the global poverty rate is now lower than it has ever been. Fewer people are living in extreme poverty around the world, but the decline in poverty rates has slowed. Access to good schools, health care, electricity, safe water, and other critical services remains elusive for many people. In 2015, the number of people living on less than $1.90 a day was 736 million. More people live a life like Lazarus than live in all of the United States, Canada, and Mexico combined.
In this parable, Jesus is once again taking on the Pharisees. Luke sets this parable just after Jesus says “’You cannot serve God and wealth.’ The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.” The Pharisees are meant to see themselves as the rich man in the parable, and the message is clear: your riches cannot save you.
The story is full of contrasts. There is the world of the haves and the have-nots, the world of the rich and the poor, the world of the comforted and the afflicted. There is the rich man with no name, and a poor man named Lazarus. The rich man is covered in purple and fine linen, while Lazarus is covered in sores. The rich man feasts while the poor man starves.
The divisions between wealth and poverty are mean to evoke a strong reaction. Perhaps Jesus, in his travels, has witnessed this very scene. Struck by the contrast, Jesus exposed through this story that the Pharisees loved their money more than people, their possessions more than the poor, their clothes more than compassion, and their extravagant feasts more than sharing food with the hungry.
The economic divisions of our time are a source of tension too. Income disparity is not new, but it has become much more pronounced in the past 30 years. Those who live in the top income bracket cannot imagine what life is like for those in the bottom half. The rich man in the parable may have never noticed Lazarus before, and now, in agony, still sees him as only a servant. The rich man, still unable to bridge the gap, does not even address Lazarus directly, asking Abraham to send him with water.
In the parable, the reversal comes as both of our characters die. Lazarus is carried away by the angels to be comforted in the bosom of Abraham, while the rich man is buried and receives agony in Hades. A great chasm divides them, just as it did in life, except this time “those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” And now the moral of the story becomes clear: if you do not cross the chasm between rich and poor in this life, you won’t be able to cross back in the next. You who received the good things in life have received your share. In the next life it is those like Lazarus who will be comforted.
But wait! If you won’t help me, at least help my family. Send Lazarus to warn them! Maybe they will listen and be saved from this torment. And Abraham, perhaps sadly, replies that they have been warned. “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” You, and all of them, have been given the message. If you heed the message, you’ll find yourselves on the other side of the chasm that cannot be crossed.
It is not too late. Not for us. We can still reach across the divide between rich and poor. When we come to the end and we are asked “Did you listen to the prophets?” we might yet be able to answer Yes! This parable, and many like it, are part of the sustained message of the prophets, that the time to do right is now. The time for justice is now. Jesus came to preach good news to the poor. He spoke out against the inequities of his day with stern warnings for the wealthy and powerful. Will we listen, even if one should rise from the dead?
Perhaps, like me, you don’t see yourself as rich. We long for the scraps from the tables of wealth. But this parable is about us. If we only seek to move up, to enrich ourselves, and to find our comforts, then we may find ourselves on the other side of the chasm. We must also look down. We must notice the homeless poor on our streets. We must see the hungry people longing for a simple, healthy meal. We must notice when Lazarus is laying at our gates. We must act to bring comfort and compassion. We must cross the divides in this life, because it may be too late in the next. Amen.
 Luke 16:13-14. The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 Luke 16:26.
 Luke 16:29.