In this sermon, based on Luke 16:19-31, I explore the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, and what it means to be known by God.
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You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:
Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Ever heard the expression “You can’t get there from here?” When I was younger, admittedly, I could never wrap my head around it. It just didn’t make any sense…but keep in mind that I grew up in the northern part of the state…far enough away from the rivers that border both sides of Iowa that things are pretty open and flat…and for the most part…every road is straight, and there’s an intersection pretty much every mile…so if you are trying to get somewhere…more often than not…there’s a direct route…You can get there from here.
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve driven in some different places where this…IS NOT…the case. Having lived in the city…you deal with all sorts of stuff that gets in the way…Vacationing in the mountains of Colorado…its even more prominent as the roads follows the contours…and you can’t drive straight to anything.
And finally, living here now…down close to the river…and the ways that pretty much all of our roads within 50 miles curve and bend all over the place…I’ve certainly learned the truth of the statement…particularly when I’m trying to drive over to Crescent…which is only about 10 or 11 miles as the crow flies…but somehow it still takes almost half an hour to drive there.
You can’t get there from here…we all know what that really means don’t we? Its not just the lack of a straight road between where we are and where we are trying to get to. Rather, it implies some sort of barrier in the way. It can mean rolling hills or rivers…it could mean bridges out or road construction…it can mean a lot of things…but unlike those physical barriers to travel that the phrase implies…those things that the human race has found ways to overcome…making travel to literally anywhere in the world possible…in today’s gospel story, there’s a barrier that we hear is unbeatable…not just difficult…but impossible.
Now today’s gospel is an interesting parable…the rich man and Lazarus…one unique here in Luke’s gospel…but perhaps if think about the other stories we’ve encountered in recent weeks, one that kinda fits in. There’s a rich guy and a poor guy…and the little details that Jesus shares sheds light on just how opposite these two guys are. The rich guy wears purple, nearly impossible to get in those days…saved for the ultimate elite in society…and he feasts every day…living every day in celebration of all that he has.
And on the flip side, there’s a poor guy laying at his gate…physically kept out…and he’s stricken with some disease that leaves sores all over his body…which would make him ritually unclean…and not only that but his only companions seem to be dogs who come to lick his sores…which sounds bad enough…but add to it the fact that dogs were unclean animals…and we see that he’s ostracized completely. (pause)
These two guys in the parable lives their lives as polar opposites…utterly separated both physically and culturally…even though Lazarus literally lays at the gate of the rich man…they exist mere feet from each other…but they might as well be on opposite sides of the planet.
But…as we hear…regardless of their differences…regardless of the separation…the great equalizer shows up, seemingly at the same time…and they both die. (pause) Now this is where the parable often times gets hazy…because we see that the rich guy ends up in Hades…tormented in flame…and Lazarus is hanging out in paradise with Abraham…and though apparently they can see one another…there’s a great chasm placed between them…some sort of separation…and though the rich guy cries out for mercy and help…Abraham says well, you can’t get there from here.
Now there’s the odd little statement made about their respective lot in life…and how that’s been reversed here in the afterlife…and because of this…often times this parable gets lumped into the notion that wealth is bad…and to limit this parable to that understanding is a bit of a mistake.
Rather…I think we need to focus in on attitude of the rich guy…who, upon finding himself in the midst of torture here in Hades…which if you’re wondering is simply “the place where dead people are.” We see that his attitude of self-importance that must have defined his life as he ignored Lazarus languishing just outside his door…this attitude continues.
Father Abraham…Send Lazarus to attend to my needs…send him with water to cool my tongue…Now we already know that this doesn’t happen…and can’t because of the great chasm…so then, he changes his tune. Well then Father Abraham…send him to my home…for I have brothers and I don’t want them to end up here as well. (pause)
Its almost funny, how this guy seems to think that he can order others around…and how much he’s clinging to his status…even in the way that he addresses Abraham…Father Abraham…By doing this…he is claiming the status as a Jewish person…as a descendent of Abraham…and an heir of the promise God made so many generations before…and ironically, Abraham doesn’t dispute it…going so far as to call him “Child” at one point…confirming that YES…he is a child of Abraham…but where does that get him? (pause) Absolutely nowhere.
Now we might think that its commendable that the rich guy changes his tune and hopes to warn his brothers so they will avoid his fate…but Abraham’s response here is telling…for as Children of Abraham…as members of the Jewish culture…they have Moses and the Prophets…they have calls to repentance…invitations to turn away from sin and look back to God…to turn away from selfishness and follow God’s command to care for all people….the invitation is already there…offered to them freely in life…before the great barrier of death places them on the opposite side of the chasm…before the separation occurs. (pause)
Now perhaps as you hear all this, you are thinking that this is a call to repentance…and that’s all the message that Jesus is making today…you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking this…and yes I think that Jesus is reminding us of the need to repent from our selfishness and to open our hearts to meet the needs of those around us. (pause)
But…its also important to look at the flip side…to look at Lazarus…now as per usual…we lose a little bit of meaning in translation…because the way many of our current translation read…we hear that Lazarus seems to just be standing there next to Abraham…just standing there on the good side of the chasm of death…seemingly in heaven, which admittedly is where we would expect to find Abraham in the afterlife…he was counted as righteous by God after all.
I think we can all agree…that where ever it is that Lazarus is found…it represents paradise…heaven…and Abraham, being the father of the covenant…the original recipient of the promise…the one who seems to be the embodiment of God’s promise…well, it doesn’t seem like much a stretch to think that Abraham is the stand-in for God within this parable…and we also need to recognize that Lazarus isn’t just standing next to him…in the original language…Lazarus is found in his bosom…pressed up against his chest…within the very heart of God…and all we have to do is consider how close a mother is when nursing her child to see that Lazarus is experiencing the ultimate connection with the Lord. (pause)
And we need to remember…that this has not happened simply because Lazarus was some poor guy…but rather because Lazarus is known. (pause) Remember that this is a parable…a story told by Jesus to make a point…and Lazarus is the only character within any parable…the only one ever…to have a name. Lazarus is identified…he is known by God…known intimately just as God knows each of us intimately…calling us by name, Lazarus is named…and interestingly enough his name is a clue into this as well…for Lazarus means “helped by God.” (pause)
If this parable teaches us anything…it is that to enter into paradise, whatever that’s going to look like in the age to come…to be on the “good” side of that great chasm caused by death…we must be helped by God…we must be known by God…its not about our status here in this life.
And how wonderful is it to receive the promise that truly God does know us…that he knows our names…he knows our every thought…he sees every tear that falls from our eyes and hears every laugh that comes from our mouths…for we are claimed by God and we are named by God…through our Baptism, we join with Christ, and through his life death and resurrection it is made possible for us to be known as heirs to the promise…and we are claimed as beloved children of God. (pause)
This is good news for all people…but as recipients of that good news…as heirs of the promise…we are given a task…and so we must also look back to the rich man in the parable…for once he recognizes his fate…he hopes to save his brothers from the same and asks that Lazarus return from the dead to testify…but as we hear, it is not enough for someone to return from the dead…and as we know, that’s already happened…Jesus has already returned…but there are those in this life who have not come to believe…and so we pray for those people…that in this life they would come to faith…that the holy spirit would work within them.
But before the Spirit can work in them…before they can believe the gospel…they need to hear it…and so in this life…before we cross that great barrier of death…we are called to share the good news…Lazarus doesn’t come back from death…but we who are still in this life are invited into the important work of God…who is bringing reconciliation between himself and the world…and we who have been claimed as God’s children are sent out to share this good news with all that we encounter so that one day…one glorious day…every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus is Lord…and on that glorious day, when God brings about the new heaven and the new earth…whatever that’s going to look like…then may we all be held in the bosom of the Lord…to be held by the one who knows our name.
We know that we cannot get there from here by our own power…but thanks be to God, that through Jesus Christ…through his death and resurrection, God has helped each of us…and we are all known as Lazarus…as the one that God helps. Amen