Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Mark Twain may have coined the phrase, “Clothes make a man,” but the sentiment goes back centuries earlier to William Shakespeare. In the tragedy Hamlet, he wrote, “Apparel oft proclaims the man.” Mark Twain, however, gave it his own humorous spin, “Clothes make a man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” And ever since then, writers and personalities have created their own phrase. Tennis star Arthur Ashe said, “Clothes and manners do not make the man; but when he is made, they greatly improve his appearance.” Another added, “Clothes don’t make the man. The man makes the clothes.” Poor Lazarus, with his sores, wasn’t making much of a fashion statement.
Of course, men and women are more than just their clothes. It is also said, “You are what you eat.” It is the notion that to be fit and healthy you need to eat good food. The phrase not surprisingly comes from the French. In 1826, the French lawyer Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote, in The Psychology of Taste, or Meditations on Transcendent Gastronomy. “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” Regretfully, the scraps from the table from the rich man, did not say much about Lazarus.
Still others have suggested that, “You are where you live.” After all, the place you live determines the options you have to experience and enjoy life. Lazarus had few options. Based Jesus’ parable, the poor beggar was plopped down at the gate of the rich man. He was dependent on the charity of this man. And the rich man refused to play his part.
That is actually the message at the heart of today’s gospel. We live in a world where men and women believe that their lifestyle and virtue and privilege are evidenced by what they wear, and what they eat and where they life, and so they need not worry about the burdens of their neighbor in need. Indeed, there are religious men and men who believe that their character is borne out simply by their words and confession. But Jesus’ parable warns us that this is not true. Virtue is borne out in your deeds- and your deeds do have consequences.
This morning, let us focus on one little line in the Parable of Lazarus and Rich Man and the story that leads up to it. “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in the water and cool my tongue.”
Jesus begins the parable by portraying the stark contrast between the wealth of the rich man and the poverty of the poor man at the gate. There is, however, one significant difference between in the two men. Lazarus has a name, and surprisingly, even the rich man knows it. And then they die, which the poor and wealthy do in equal proportion. In the afterlife, they still live in great contrast to each other. But now the roles have been reversed. Lazarus is the one living in luxury and the rich man is living in torment. Ironically, he’s still called the rich man, though he now has nothing. The rich man is in torment, but he is not being tortured. Rather his torment is a self-inflicted. The rich man has a moment of regret, and seeks forgiveness. He even calls out to Father Abraham and we even feel sorry for him.
After all the rich man didn’t do anything wicked or dreadfully wrong. He didn’t inflict pain or injury upon Lazarus. No, his human failing was simply … that he didn’t do anything at all. He allowed the poor Lazarus to become a part of his day-to-day landscape, without seeing him or caring for him. That’s the warning in the parable, for who dare to call themselves followers of Christ, there is no going around, above or below the poor and needy of this world. The gate must be opened.
In ancient Israel, begging was not a common or welcomed practice. It was assumed that the division of the land among the twelve tribes and the responsibility for families would provide sustenance for all. But when women were widowed and children were left orphaned, it was honorable and necessary to seek assistance. Indeed, it was the role of the wealthy to provide alms for the poor. Even if it was largely self-serving, patronage was an expected means for some of the poor to be fed while the wealthy reinforced their status with virtuous action. There was often a bench outside the homes of the wealthy where the poor could wait for assistance. A beggar who sat on this bench at the gate could expect some sort of attention, especially from a feasting host and guests. This particular rich man in the parable feasted every day, meaning Lazarus was denied many times as the rich man repeatedly ignored the unwritten codes of honor. Lazarus was not asking for much. Scraps and leftovers from the sumptuous feasting would have made all the difference. The rich man’s sin was his neglect.
That is Jesus’ point. He was teaching us about the consequences of our actions and attitudes towards others. The rich man, you see, wasn’t thrown into hell because he didn’t believe. No, he found himself after death in a place of torment because of the way he treated others, specifically Lazarus. God, however, wasn’t the one locking the rich man away. The rich man locked himself away; he chose to go there. Even when there seemed to be an opportunity to repent and change his ways, he didn’t. The lock on the prison door, just like the gate was on the inside. The man refused to come out. He would rather suffer in torment than play the role of a servant in God’s kingdom.
No, the rich man doesn’t call out for mercy, to be saved from his current circumstances. What does he do? He pleads with Abraham for Lazarus, whose name he knows, to be sent to Hades so that he can dip the end of his finger in water and cool his tongue. Yes, even in hell, the rich man felt privileged and that the beggar was below him.
Jesus ends his story with a rather sad statement, but one that will prove true. Even if someone were to be raised from the dead and provide a warning, the living who believe that God’s creation is for them alone, would still not be convinced to change their ways. Jesus will die and be raised from the dead, but for some, still, that won’t be enough.
So what are we to learn from this parable? You need only read the unfolding story of the charges brought against the 45 men and women in the Feeding our Future program. Throughout the gospel of St. Luke, Jesus teaches his followers that they can be both rich towards God and generous to their neighbors. Wealth is good and enables an ease and fullness in life. But Jesus warns as well, that the love of money and the longing for greater wealth can perpetuate illness and hunger by those who do not care. The caricature of the rich man which the parable portrays, reminds us that wealth obscures moral vision and destroys moral character. Money can plummet one into a moral quagmire, where one ‘dishonest’ deed follows another as you try desperately to preserve your life and lifestyle In the parable, Jesus cautions that, wealth is fleeting. The rich man’s wealth disappeared at death. He spent his money in life on himself, and had stored up no everlasting treasure in heaven. Money is not trustworthy and it is always fleeting. And finally, in the parable Jesus reminds us that wealth does create chasms between people. The rich man knew Lazarus by name, but he looked past him day after day.
My friends, as Christians, we live with the joy and promise that we have been saved by God’s grace in Jesus Christ alone, and we have received his unmerited love. That is our certainty and our trust. But we also live with the tension that God has expectations for us and for our lives in serving and building up his kingdom, and that includes using the gifts of wealth to please him. How do we live out the greatest commandment that we are love God with all our heart, and soul, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself? The rich man only wanted to serve himself and even in death he expected that others should him. That was his torment.
Now you may be wondering? So Pastor Haug, where is the good news in this parable for those who long for change in their life? Is it too late? Simply said, the good news is this, you do have eyes to see and ears to hear, and hands to touch, and heal and give. The Holy Spirit is moving through our midst, even now and there is only a gate between you and those who need you- if you dare to open it. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.