"Story Time: The Other Lazarus"

LUKE 16:19-31

Jun 8, 2014

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            What parable would make a man with three doctoral degrees (one in medicine, one in theology, one in philosophy) leave civilization with all of its culture and amenities and depart for the jungles of Africa?  What parable could induce a man, who was recognized as one of the best concert organists in all of Europe, to go to a place where there were no organs to play? What parable would so motivate a man that he would give up a teaching position in Vienna, Austria to go and deal with people who were living in the superstitions of the dark ages?  Who was the man?  Dr. Albert Schweitzer.  Born in Germany in 1875 Schweitzer lived to the age of 90.  He was a theologian, an organist, a philosopher, physician, and medical missionary in Africa.  He established and sustained the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in west central Africa.  He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952.   And according to his own words, the parable that so radically altered his life, is our parable for this morning, commonly called the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

            The biblical commentator William Barclay says of this parable, "This is a parable constructed with such masterly skill that not one phrase is wasted."[1]  Please follow along as I read it.  Luke 16:19-31

 

            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 mans 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 fathers 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.

 

            As we unpack this parable, let's begin with the two characters in the parable.  First, there is the rich man.  Every phrase adds something to the luxury in which he lived.  He was clothed in purple and fine linen.  Think of it as the Armani suit of the day, costing a significant sum of money.  He feasted in luxury every day.  Every day.  He didn't just eat, he feasted every day.  In a country where the common person was fortunate if he or she ate meat once a week, the rich man was a figure of gastronomical self-indulgence.  Finally, he lived in a gated community.  Lazarus, who we will turn to now, positioned himself outside the rich man's gate.

            Second, there was Lazarus, not the Lazarus that Jesus raised from the dead in John's Gospel the brother of Martha and Mary, but rather another Lazarus.  Strangely enough in all of Jesus' parables Lazarus is the only character given a name.  The name means "God is my help."  Lazarus waited daily at the rich man's gate for crumbs from the rich man's table.  In the time of Jesus there were neither knives nor forks nor napkins.  Food was eaten with one's hands and, in very wealthy houses, the hands were cleansed by wiping them on hunks of bread, and then the bread was thrown away.  These were the crumbs for which Lazarus was waiting.  The bread on which the rich man had wiped his hands after eating.

            So here's Lazarus.  He is beggar.  Ulcerated sores covered his body.  So helpless was he that he could not even ward off the unclean animals, the street dogs, who pestered him.  Whereas the rich man was the picture of opulence Lazarus was the picture of helpless and abject poverty.

            Then the tables turn.  Both men die and suddenly Lazarus is living in the comfort of heaven and the rich man in the torment of Hades.  What a shock to the rich man!   We hear a lot in the news today  about the evils of entitlements.  "Entitlements are bankrupting our economy," some say.  Social security.  Medicare.  Welfare.  Farm subsidies.  "These things are sending our nation to hell in a hand basket," so their argument goes.  But we seem to live in a time where the majority of us are entitled.  In the 1970's, McDonald's in selling their hamburgers proclaimed, "You deserve a break today," and most of America took that to heart.  Too many of us believe that if we are poor, we deserve welfare.  If we are rich, we deserve a tax break.  If we are a minority, we deserve special considerations.  If we old we deserve senior citizen discounts.  Well, the rich man would have gotten along very well in our age of entitlements.  Even though he was in Hades with no air conditioning and the water turned off, he still believed he was entitled to have people at this beckon call.  Interesting isn't it?  The rich man is in Hades.  Lazarus is in heaven, and the rich man still thinks of Lazarus as no more than his errand boy.  He says to Abraham, "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."

            Abraham responds by saying, that the rich man's days of entitlement are over.  Verse 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.  Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from her to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us."

 

            Three things we might want to take away from this parable among parables.[2]  Number one, not doing something can be as bad as doing something.  Note the sin of the rich man.  He did not remove Lazarus from his gate.  He did not object to Lazarus receiving the bread that was flung way from his table.  He did not kick Lazarus in passing.  He was not deliberately cruel to Lazarus.  No, the sin of the rich man was he looked on Lazarus hunger and pain and did nothing about it. 

            I think of Garfield the Cat.  One cold winter night Garfield looks out the window and sees Odie the Dog peering through the window.  Garfield thinks to himself, "This is horrible.  Here I am in the comfort of a warm house, well fed, and there is Odie outside begging to get in, cold and hungry.  I cant stand it anymore.  I just cant stand it."  So he goes over to the window and closes the curtains!

            The rich man closed the curtains.  He did not reach out to Lazarus.

            There is a story about when David Rockefeller of Chase Manhattan Bank was traveling through South America.  A group of bank officials of the government of Uruguay invited him for lunch, hoping for a sizable loan.  The affair was held at a club that was famous locally for its magnificent cold appetizer buffet.  Rockefeller passed through the line first and, thinking this to be the entire meal, served himself generously.  Once seated, he noticed that others had taken skimpier portions. "I have so much," he said to the president of Banco Central, "and you have so little...."

            "I m glad you mentioned that Mr. Rockefeller," interrupted his host, "because that s exactly what we want to talk to you about!"*

            You and I are not Rockefellers, but we, too, have so much.  Others have so little.  Seven billion people live on planet earth today, and the chances are very, very high that the majority of children born today will live all their lives poorly clothed, poorly housed, poorly fed.  That is because most of the babies born today are in third world countries where poverty is the rule and not the exception.

            This parable motivated Albert Schweitzer to move to Africa to deal with the poverty there.  At the time he believed Africa was the poor beggar at the gate of Europe.  I'm not suggesting we move to Africa.  I'm just glad we provide meals for the down and out like we did yesterday.  Let's make sure we keep doing things like that.

            The number two take from this parable:  judgment is a very real fact in this world and the world to come.  I don't like to talk about this.  For one thing, recent surveys indicate that most Americans do not believe in a literal hell any more.  Secondly, it is almost impossible to speak from the pulpit about judgment without sounding moralistic.  It's no fun to talk about in worship, except perhaps in humor.

            In that regard, I heard about a man who had a very difficult mother, but he felt obligated to take care of her.  He had a basement apartment built in his home.  A friend of his was visiting. They were chatting in the living room.  "I remember," said his friend, "what a difficult time your mother gave you.  Where is the old girl now?"  Fearing that the conversation would be overheard, the poor man simply pointed downward in the direction of the basement apartment. "Oh, I m sorry," said his friend, "I didn't even know she had died."

            Scholars tell us that Jesus probably did not mean for us to take the story of the rich and Lazarus as a definitive statement of the nature of life after death, but rather to take this parable as a warning that we will be judged on our treatment of the poor. 

            Remember Jesus' parable of the Last Judgment when the sheep and the goats are to be divided?  What was to be the decisive factor between heaven and hell?  "I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat ... I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink ... I was naked and you did not clothe me ..."  We are not advocating a theology of works, but we are advocating that caring about the down-and-out is very important spiritual business.

            Our nation may have learned that lesson the hard way.  Germany lay devastated after World War I.  Poverty and unemployment provided fertile ground for the terrible weeds of Nazi dogma to grow and prosper.  It took a second World War to show us that it is a mistake to leave your enemy desolate and forsaken. Thus after World War II we sought to rebuild our former adversaries, and today Germany and Japan are among our finest allies.  Judgment is a very real fact in this world and the next. 

            Then, finally, take number three:  there is a world beyond this world; God rules both worlds; and God makes the rules.

            Christian recording artist Stephen Curtis Chapman wrote a song titled Who Makes the Rules?" and in the song he asks this question:

 

 

            Who makes the rules for me and you?

            When its wrong or right, is it black and white?

            Who makes the rules for me and you?

            Its our life at stake so we better know who makes the rules

            Yeah, who makes the rules?

 

            Did you notice that the rich man did not like the rules?  He didn't like the fact that there was a Hades and he didn't like the fact that he couldn't send someone to warn his brothers about our life in this world affecting our status in the next world, but then the rich man didn't make the rules.  God makes the rules.

            There is a sign series on the West Virginia Turnpike that says, "Driving while drowsy can put you to sleep - permanently."  Likewise drowsy, uncaring living can put us to sleep - permanently - as well.  Those are the rules.  We don't get a second chance after we die.  There is a huge chasm between heaven and hell.  That's what the rich man wanted to tell his brothers.  Unfortunately, he never got to do that, but he did get to tell us.  Those are the rules.  Amen.



[1] William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke: The Daily Study Bible Series, Westminster Press: Philadelphia 1956, p. 221.

[2] Take aways borrowed from two sermons ... "A Mission, If You Will Accept It," by King Duncan and "The Man Who Didn't Care," by Carveth Mitchell.