Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 25, 2022
Luke 16:19-31 Commentary
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” – Jesus (Luke 6.24) So goes the story of the rich man in Jesus’ story. He should have known better; he could have been (and done) better. He received good things, but built up treasures for himself instead of being rich towards God.
This summer the lectionary has really driven home the truth of the verses that ended last week’s selection (16.13): “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
But then again, the rich man doesn’t think of himself as a slave, does he? He was a man who lived on a property with a gate and guard dogs. He was a man who wore purple clothes and fine linen (underwear!) every day. He was a man who ate, drank, and was merry, every day. (Remember our barn builder?)
Even after his death, the man cannot shake his sense of self-importance. When he sees Lazarus at what was considered the best seat in the house of heaven, at Patriarch Abraham’s side, the rich man orders (literally commands) Abraham to put Lazarus to work for his benefit. And when that doesn’t work, he suggests that Lazarus be sent to warn his brothers.
Not once does the rich man own up to his own mistreatment of Lazarus. Not once does the rich man repent. Not once does the rich man even talk to Lazarus. And yet—he knows Lazarus’ name, indicating that he knew all along about this poor, suffering man who laid at his gates, hungry and covered in sores.
(Part of the reason why the rich man knows Lazarus might be the community effort to bring him to the rich man’s gates each day. It is less clear in the English translation, but Lazarus was actually laid at the gate (a passive verb), implying that his family and/or friends brought him there because the rich man was the one in their community with the resources to help. The other exegetical option for a passive verb without a clear subject is the divine passive—which would mean that God laid Lazarus at the rich man’s gate. Credit is due to Kenneth Bailey in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes for this insight.)
Like Abraham tells the rich man about his brothers, the rich man already knew what he needed to know to be and do better in this life. He chose his god. When we choose who we will serve, we cannot love and serve another. And when we choose our god, an encounter with the true God, even through his resurrecting power, may not be enough to convince us to choose repentance or change the way we see.
That is how powerfully effective idols like money and wealth and greed and self-centeredness are at perverting our vision, contaminating our perception of right and wrong, of privilege and stewardship, of responsibility and expectation, and the way we see and treat others.
The rich man was not a man who woke up every morning and wondered how he might put his resources to service. The rich man woke up every morning and determined that today was yet another good day to be noticed—to be rich and fabulous. Abraham reminds him that “received” his “good things”: his riches were not his own, he did not earn them, they were not his right; they were given to him.
And even from his place of torment, looking at the comforting position of Lazarus, the rich man does not seem to comprehend the great reversal that has taken place. His idol has not saved him or protected him, but he still does not understand the difference between his idol and the God of Lazarus. This is perhaps the most alarming part of the story for me. What he has given his heart to still warps his vision to the point that he is unable to explicitly state what it is his brothers need to be warned about. (Not to mention what we’ve already noted—the man cannot acknowledge his actions against Lazarus, to Lazarus, still seeing Lazarus as part of the class of people who serve him, rather than the other way around.)
It is haunting. But that’s the point, isn’t it? The chasm that is fixed (in the Greek perfect tense) between the rich man in his torment and the place of comfort at Abraham’s side haunts the chasm that the rich man established between himself and Lazarus on earth. There was the literal separation of the gate, the status symbol separation of his purple clothing compared to Lazarus’ body covered in sores, and the power differential represented by the fact that, occasionally, the rich man would allow Lazarus to have some of the scraps from his feasts—scraps that went to his dogs. There was much that was already wrong that could have made this man turn from his ways and repent.
All of these were acts and decisions on the part of the rich man; they directly stemmed from who/what he loved, and therefore worshipped. This isn’t a story about karma, Jesus tells this story to make a point of consistency: we can only follow one god/God, we can only give our heart to one true devotion; we must have attentioned discipleship.
The story is the only time that Jesus gives one of his characters a name: Lazarus. That makes the name significant; it literally means “God helps” or “the one whom God helps.” The focus in the story—the one with something to learn and who is in need of repentance—is the rich man, but Jesus does not let this opportunity to also speak a word of comfort to those who might be listening in the midst of suffering, slip by. Giving the poor, suffering man the name “God helps” Jesus adds even more hope to the image of him being comforted at the place of honour in heaven. The story may be for the transformation of another, but Jesus subtly communicates to those in need, “God sees you, too. God helps those in need.”
Donald Hilton’s prayer in Blessed be the Table would have been a good one for the rich man. It’s definitely a good one for us:
If it should be, loving Father of all,
that, all unknown to us,
our eating causes others to starve,
our plenty springs from others’ poverty,
or our choice feeds off others’ denial,
and strengthen us to work for fairer trade
and just reward. Amen
Lazarus’ community carries him, day in and day out, to the gates of the man who can help him. It is a visual protest as well as a call to action, and a way of trying to name and call for change. This way of speaking truth to power appears to cut across culture and time—and often, sadly, still seems to carry the same results. Remember those two months in late 2011, when Wall Street was “Occupied”? Those who camped out as representatives of “the 99%” were trying to raise awareness about income and wealth inequality.
Or in 2018, when a group of activists laid out 7,000 pairs of children’s shoes on the Capitol Hill lawn (outside the US legislature). Each pair represented a child who had died by gun violence since the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012. It is just one of many examples of visual protests laid at the feet of those with the power to do something about mass shootings in the US.
A little closer to my home, another installation of children’s shoes has come to represent a call to never forget, and serves as a call to continue the work of truth and reconciliation. These shoes represent the 215 Indigenous children buried in unmarked graves at a former school run by the Catholic Church in BC—the first among a large scale ongoing process to search for more throughout Canada. Alongside a space of mourning a lament, the shoes are “a rallying cry for accountability.”
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