Sermon for Sept. 29, 2019, Pentecost 16C. Audio will be available here for several weeks.
“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.'”
We needed to update our church website, so I asked another pastor for a recommendation of someone who could help. I met with the man he suggested this past week, and in our conversation, I invited him to Beer & Hymns (which is tonight) and showed him a FaceBook video clip of us singing “I’ll Fly Away.” It turns out that he is a descendant of Albert E. Brumley who composed the song back in 1932.
Everyone loves “I’ll Fly Away” but it is a depressing song, when you think about it. Brumley seems to have lived an awful life — which is not surprising for someone living through the Great Depression. Maybe he was in a bread and soup line, or on a train, trying to find a city with jobs when he wrote, “Just a few more weary days and then, I’ll fly away.” It is a song about longing for the afterlife when the problems of this one will finally be over. “Pie in the sky,” as they say.
A Better Place
That idea, that the afterlife could be better than the present has been around a long time. The ancient Greeks had the Elysian Fields to look forward to, at least for the virtuous. The damned would go to Tartarus to suffer. There are many stories, in the ancient world, of the surprising reversal of fortunes after death, in which the virtuous poor end up in the good place and the wicked rich end up in the bad place.
Jesus used that reversal of fortunes motif in his story about the rich man and Lazarus. But this story can cause all kinds of misunderstanding if we read it the wrong way. On the other hand, it can provoke us to think hard about important issues, so we will look closely at it today.
First, let us talk about one of the elephants in the room. Do the details of this story describe Jesus’ view of the conditions in the afterlife? No. As I have said, I do not believe in hell. But the idea that people in the “bad place” can talk to people in the “good place” and ask for favors is especially fanciful; maybe even humorous.
But imagining it that way allows Jesus to do some serious teaching. The ones hearing the story are invited to imagine, along with him, “What if it were like that; would we live differently before we ‘fly away’?”
The Cast of Characters: The Rich Man
So how would Jesus’ original audience have heard this? Let’s first look at the characters. From the beginning they hear how the unnamed rich man is described:
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.”
There was no middle class in ancient Israel. When the Israelites told the story of their history, they imagined themselves as the descendants of people who had escaped years of oppression as slaves in Egypt, but who were led by Moses to the Promised Land.
After Joshua successfully conquered the land, every tribe was given their own territory. Every family had their own land for farming and grazing, so that every Israelite could be productive and provided for.
But everyone knows that bad things happen; war, disease, accident, pestilences, drought: anyone of those could drive a family into poverty. So, there were Laws in the Hebrew Bible, the Torah which provided for the poor. For example, landowners had to let gleaners have the corners of their fields.
Some taxes were collected by the state for the sake of the poor, collectively known as “the widow, the orphan and the non-citizen.”
But, by the time of Jesus, that was a long time ago. Now, most of the people who came to listen to Jesus were landless peasants who rented land from the few aristocratic landowning families. Or, they were peasant tradesmen, carpenters, fishermen, who eked out a living the best they could, probably singing songs as they worked, like “I’ll Fly Away.”
So, Jesus told a story about a rich man dressed like royalty, feasting every day to that audience of peasants who automatically put him in the “bad guy” category. He was supposed to be helping the poor, according to Moses, not stepping over him as he walked out his gate.
The poor man, Lazarus, was clearly suffering, in many ways. He was hungry — longing for falling crumbs. He had sores, which reminds us of Job who famously suffered for no good reason. And the dogs — don’t think of well-groomed family pets — these were mangy, flea-bitten creatures, unclean scavengers who would eat anything. They licked his sores; he was too weak to beat them off.
The peasants hearing this story would have identified with the poor man. They would have taken great delight in the reversal of fortunes both characters experienced in the afterlife. It feels like justice when people get what they truly deserve.
The Conversation in the Great Beyond
But the story moves on to the conversation between the unnamed rich man and good old father Abraham. Calling him “father Abraham” means that the rich man was not some Gentile, he was Jewish. He should have known his own Jewish tradition about his obligations to his neighbor.
He should have listened to Moses and the prophets. Moses was the one who, as the story was told, gave them the laws about the support they owed to the poor, which the rich man was ignoring. And the prophets were the ones who repeatedly called for justice, especially in the face of conditions of gross inequity between rich and poor. But the rich man had ignored them too.
So now, the unthinkable has happened to the rich man. He has died without anyone remembering his name — a fate literally worse than death to an Israelite — and his situation is irreversible.
Jesus is saying, “What if it’s like that?” Would you live any differently?
Wealth and Corruption
Jesus was serious about the corrupting power of wealth. Great wealth makes people turn a blind eye to the suffering right in front of them. I’ve heard wealthy people talking about homelessness recently. The problem was not human suffering, in their view, it was about how unsightly the homeless made the city. Instead of evoking compassion, for the wealthy, it seems, homelessness provoked contempt.
I want to ask a question: why was there a sick man lying at that gate? Why wasn’t he in a home? Why wasn’t he on a bed, not starving for falling crumbs, but fed nutritious meals? Why was his society content to leave him there in misery? That begs the question: who was in control? What was their vision for society? Where were they allocating resources?
Many people here probably know the answer. King Herod the Great had come to power by force, defeating the other competing aristocratic elites. He taxed the people mercilessly to support his lavish building projects. You can visit the ruins of some of them still, today, as I have.
There was no attention to the needs of the widow, the orphan or the non-citizen. There was no attention paid to Moses or the prophets. There was no plan to come to the rescue of the Lazaruses lying at the gates, desperate for crumbs, dog-licked and hopeless. What brought Lazarus to that gate? Poverty did, in a society in which the wealthy looked the other way.
Making it Real for Us
How does this story touch us? In this room, none of us can identify with the characters in this story. We are not the super-rich, and we are not desperately poor. This story is from another culture and time. Nor are we helpless subjects of a repressive monarchy without voice or vote.
We get to say what kind of society we have. We get to say what kind of leaders we have. We get to say how our resources are allocated. We get to say who is important to care for, and what services to provide.
So who are the Lazaruses of our times? Of course, they are the homeless. Of course, they are the people who cannot afford health care and prescriptions. Of course, they are the mentally ill, the addicted, the unemployed and the working poor. We have many.
And we are on track to have many, many more. In the future, there will not be one Lazarus at the gate, but dozens at each gate, maybe hundreds. Why? Because of things like the “Dry Corridor” in Central America, especially in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador where they are experiencing one of the worst droughts of the last ten years with over 3.5 million in need of humanitarian assistance, according to a United Nations report. It turns out that, “small scale producers and rural communities remain the most vulnerable to drought.”
This situation sets up a process known as “step migration.” The first step is farm to the urban area. Poor farmers move to the cities looking for work. But finding drug-gang violence, crime, and little-to-no employment, they take the next step: migration to the doorsteps of the United States.
Or take Syria for another example. Syria’s civil war has killed 250,000, according to the latest UN count, and millions more are displaced. Data from the study of tree rings by NASA and the University of Arizona has determined that Syria has been experiencing the worst drought in the last 900 years, with the past 15 years the most intense. Livestock dies, crops fail, and consequently, 1.5 million Syrians migrated to urban centers, like Homs and Damascus. Finding little help there, the rebellion against the government started and turned into the horror of civil war.
Both droughts have been directly linked to climate change. The Pentagon has identified climate change as a “threat magnifier,” a factor that can aggravate already existing political fault lines. Syrian refugees, migrants from Latin America, are the Lazaruses of our day.
Wealth and Denial
And just like in Jesus’ parable, the wealthy of today are part of the story. For example, for years we have known about the harm that burning fossil fuels does to our planet. But there has been way too much money on the table to stop mining for them, drilling for them, fracking for them, and burning them.
But in spite of the overwhelming scientific consensus, there are billionaires in our country who have “poured tens of millions of dollars into groups that deny climate science or work to block greenhouse gas cuts.”
Some petroleum industry companies have even employed the very same Public Relations firms that were used by Big Tobacco to sow uncertainty about the connection between smoking and cancer, even though they knew the science. In other words, the money at stake was enough incentive for them to look away at the Lazaruses they were creating.
As some have said, “there are no new ideas.” The rich men will always look away from Lazarus until the unthinkable happens to them.
It is fitting that this story Jesus tells ends in death. Unlike the Good Samaritan who saved the victim, in this story, all the characters die. Death is universal. Death makes a mockery of the power of wealth. No number of billions of dollars can prevent it, and no one will take any of it with them.
The rich man, after death, had no money to offer Abraham to encourage him to fulfill his requests. So, it begs the question: was it worth it? As Jesus asked in another parable about a rich man who died,
“What will he give in exchange for his soul?” (Matt 16:26)
Time is running out for us, but we do have time to act. We must hold our leaders accountable. We must use every tool at our disposal. We have got to stop creating Lazaruses. We do not act out of resentment of wealth. Some wealthy people do enormous good. Rather, as people of faith, we believe that our Creator wants us to be conservative with our planet, and liberal with our love for the people who live on it, before it is our time to “fly away.”