March 12, 2017
by Rev. Melanie Homan
View, print or save PDF: Sermon.03.12.17.Two Masters
(The Parables Sermon Series)
March 12, 2017
Rev. Melanie Homan
Luke 16:19-31New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.[a] The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.[b] 24 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.’ 25 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. 26 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.’ 27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 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.’”
What do Jesus, Stephen Schwartz, and Charles Dickens all have in common? Any ideas? They are all master storytellers. Jesus’ main tool for teaching people was parables or stories. Stephen Schwartz wrote Godspell, the musical that will be playing here the next two weekends. He, too, had a way with words – taking the parables of Jesus and presenting them to us in a new way. Dickens – well, he’s probably most well known for “A Christmas Carol”. He, too, draws us in with his stories, which have proven to be timeless. Every winter, you can head to the Guthrie for a version of A Christmas Carol. Unfortunately, for Brennon and I, the version of A Christmas Carol that we are most familiar with is the cartoon created by Disney. Mickey Mouse is a household favorite, and it’s free on Netflix…which means we watch Donald Duck as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol ALL YEAR LONG! Dickens, Schwartz, and Jesus…ll master storytellers.
Last week, we looked at the parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus tells the story about a son who blows his inheritance while his father is still alive. Then, he returns home when his life is a complete mess. His father embraces him – welcomes him home for a party – and all would seem well…except that his older brother doesn’t think that it’s fair. Jesus leaves us with an ambiguous end to the story. We don’t know if the brothers ever reconcile.
In Godspell, Stephen Schwartz takes the parable and gives it a happy ending. He has the father asking the siblings to embrace, and they do. “And they all lived happily ever after…” It’s pretty clear that Schwartz is telling a slightly revised version of the prodigal son.
Which brings us to our parable for this morning that is also found in Godspell. The Rich Man and Lazarus. In 14 years of preaching, I have successfully avoided preaching on this parable, because I just don’t know what to do with it. It pricks our conscience. It’s unsettling. There’s this rich guy – who has everything – and there’s this poor guy – who has nothing – and there is this chasm between them that cannot be crossed.
Scene one: When Jesus first introduces us to the Rich man and Lazarus, all is going about as well as possible for the rich man. The description of his sumptuous feasting and purple clothes are meant to let us know that this man has it ALL. Purple cloth was expensive, and you had to be a high ranking official or a member of a royal family in Rome in order to even be allowed to wear purple. He doesn’t have a name, but he doesn’t need one. The most important thing to know about him is that he is rich.
Lazarus, on the other hand, is poor. He’s thrown beside the gate of the rich man’s house, hoping to eat the scraps from his table. The tradition of the time was, if you had enough money, after you were done eating, your servants would give you a piece of bread to wipe your greasy hands. After wiping your hands on a piece of bread, which sounds likean odd sort of napkin, you’d toss your piece of bread on the floor and then the dogs would eat it. Lazarus was hoping to get some of the scraps…from the dogs. But, he ends up not even getting that. Then, to make matters worse, the dogs lick the open sores all over his body. This part of the story has been interpreted in different ways. Either Lazarus is so invisible that even the dogs mistook his body as food scraps, OR these dogs had more compassion for Lazarus than any human being had for him. Maybe their licks were attempts at care. It’s open to interpretation. Either way, the point is, no one, not even the dogs, wants to be Lazarus.
Scene two: Lazarus dies. This isn’t a surprise to anyone, really. He’s poor, starving, homeless, and covered in sores. He dies. The surprise is that the Rich man dies, too. The person who has everything, no longer has life. In death, Lazarus rests “in the bosom of Abraham”, according to Jewish tradition, the place of highest bliss. Not so for the rich man.
Scene three: The tables have turned. The rich man is in torment. He sees Lazarus and Abraham. This would have surprised the people who were hearing Jesus’ parable, because the belief at the time was that “blessings in this life were a sign of God’s favor, while illness, poverty, and hardship were signs of God’s displeasure.”[i]
So, why is Lazarus with Abraham, while the rich man is in torment? The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to give him water to cool his tongue. Even in death, he expects that Lazarus should serve him. Abraham says, “NO.”
Then, for the first time in the story, the rich man thinks of someone other than himself. He thinks of his family. Yet, he still can’t see Lazarus as anything other than an errand boy. “Have Lazarus go warn my family.” Abraham says – “Your family has Moses and the prophets, and what good has that done? Have they not heard the words of Isaiah clear enough?”
Isaiah says, “Is not this the fast I choose; to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7)
Abraham says “NO.” The Rich man thinks they will believe if they hear from someone that has risen from the dead – foreshadowing Christ’s resurrection. But, in reality, even resurrection won’t matter. If the words of Moses and the prophets don’t change how you’re living, how will resurrection?
That’s how the parable ends…with an impassable chasm separating the rich and poor. Hear the words of the prophets and act on them, or face the consequences. Jesus! Why do you do this to us?!? What are we supposed to make of this?!? Are we going to face an eternity of torment?
This brings me to the third master storyteller – Charles Dickens. Dickens never said that A Christmas Carol was based on the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, but they have some things in common. In the one story, we have Lazarus and in the other, Bob Cratchit. In the one story, we have the Rich Man and in the other, Scrooge.
Abraham refused the request of someone coming back from the dead to warn the rich man’s family. Dickens gives Scrooge that chance. The ghosts of past, present, and future show him his life and warn him of what will come if he keeps going down the path he’s taken so far in life. Scrooge loves money and doesn’t want to share what he has…until he gets the warning of what his future looks like.
Lo and behold, he does change. He experiences a drastic transformation. It changes his whole life. The warnings from the dead work! And, like Stephen Schwartz, we get a happy ever after ending. Scrooge comes to understand that, “In God’s economy, some of our prosperity is meant for our neighbors. We are called to order our finances accordingly. To deliberately live on less than all we have so we also can share.” www.saplc.org
Schwartz gives us a happy ending. Dickens gives us a happy ending. Why doesn’t Jesus? Or, more appropriately, why don’t the writers of the Gospels give us the happy conclusions to the stories?!?
It’s not that the gospels leave us with sad endings as much that they are ambiguous. The characters in the parables get to choose how the stories will conclude. We see that in the prodigal son. We see that with Lazarus and the Rich Man. At first glance, it seems like Jesus leaves us with a chasm that, in death, cannot be crossed. But, it’s not that clear cut!
Instead of identifying with either Lazarus or the Rich Man, perhaps we play the role of the rich man’s siblings. We are the brothers and sisters who, in life, still have the chance to follow what Moses and the prophets told them. We still have the chance to listen to what Jesus told. We still get to consider, like Scrooge, how we are living right now and how we want to live in the future. Our futures are open ended and full of possibility. We aren’t guaranteed the transformation that Scrooge undertook, just as we aren’t guaranteed the torment of chasm. But, both are options to us. We have a choice in determining our role in the story and whether our story ends in the bosom of Abraham or across a deep chasm. The conclusion is open ended. What will you do with it?
[i] Page 317, New Interpereters bible commentary on Luke