Sermon – September 30, 2001 – Lazarus and the Rich Man

September 30, 2001

Lazarus and the Rich Man

Luke 16:19-31

Do you recall what a shell game is? It is a ruse to relieve you of your
money. Someone with some sleight of hand skills will bet you that he can
hide some of your money under one of three or four shells before him, and
that you cannot guess which shell he has used. As he moves the shells
around you try to follow, but usually you cannot keep track and lose your
money. I say that because, if you were an outsider in the 1st century
Palestine religious community, there was a bit of a shell game going on.
You see, if you were rich and had status, you bore the evidence of God’s
favor and blessing, but if you were poor, like Lazarus, you bore the
evidence of God’s disfavor. And the problem was, those who had the money
and the power and the authority, made the rules . . . it was a bit like
guessing which shell held your redemption. . . this one, “nope, too poor”,
this one “nope, to ignorant”. There was not way out.

So, having said that, then, it would not of occurred to the people of that
time to ask, “where is God ins Lazarus’ life? Where was God in the life of
this poor and broken and dying man?” The answer was already a foregone
conclusion. God was elsewhere taking care of the blessed rich. It is a
legitimate question to ask where God was in Lazarus’ life. Is that the only
hope for the poor? That they are to suffer in this life and get their
reward in heaven? Is this the only hope that God’s creation offers for
those who are not blessed as are most of us in this country?

Jesus says, “this is no shell game. God is all around and works through the
blessings of creation.” He was telling the people then that this rich
man’s blessings were to be used as tools in the kingdom of God. Maybe an
extension of God’s goodness . . . and that the man had failed to do that.

The rich man’s problem in our story today is not that he was rich, but that
he was distracted. He had not made space in his life for compassion, for
solidarity. So, he was so blinded by his own indulgence, by his own riches
that the sight of a pathetic creature collapsed at his gate, covered by
sores, being treated by dogs, . . . .so preoccupied was the rich man with
his own bounty, that he could not recognize the tragedy of that, the
injustice of that, the evil of that, the wrong of that. He was distracted
by his gifts, his good fortune. So that even a dog on the street had more
compassion that he. What a precarious place.

We don’t know anything about Lazarus. We don’t know who he was. We don’t
know what terrible circumstances must have befallen him, that he would end
up a beggar at the gate. We don’t know that he was a holy man. It
doesn’t matter. The only thing we know about Lazarus besides his need was
that he was a child of Abraham, a child of the covenant, a child of the
promise, a child of God. The only thing we know about Lazarus besides his
pathetic state was that he was a child of God. And Jesus tells us that’s
enough. That’s enough for him. It oughta be enough for us. It wasn’t
enough for the rich man.

So insidious is wealth, so blinding, that Jesus makes the point, that even
as this man found himself in torment, he plead for Lazarus to come serve
him, he still didn’t get it. He bore into his own torment the prerogatives
of his wealth. And he still had the gall to ask, get the beggar to get me
some water. So blinded, so consumed by the trappings of his wealth, that
even in his own torment he tried to exercises the privileges his money, his
linen, his purple robes had afforded him in life. Even then he couldn’t
see that Lazarus was a child of God. That is the danger we are warned of.

Now, it’s too easy to make this story one to beat up the rich. I heard on
the news one day that in America, the richest country in the world, only
about one percent are considered really rich. Now I know that is relative,
but by that scale, only one percent of the people in America are rich.
That means 99 percent of the rest of us don’t fall into that category.
Wouldn’t it be fun if we could just dump all the sins and ills of the world
on that one percent. That would be fun, but wrong, because this is really a
story about be blinded by abundance, by comfort, by the gifts that God has
given us, that we don’t recognize or accept or care about the suffering
around us and the possibilities for relief our gifts hold.

In some way, God has given each of us some gift. It may be a unique and
single and solitary thing. I always envy good musicians, or artists or
craftsmen . . . those who do one thing well. It may be a general ability.
It may even be the gift of second fiddle. Someone once asked Leonard
Bernstein what positions were most difficult to fill in the orchestra . . .
and he said second fiddle, and second flute and second French horn . . .
lots of folks want first chair, but unless you have a second fiddle that
plays well and with enthusiasm, then you don’t have harmony. It may be our
gift as second fiddlers to bring harmony, it may be your gift . . . and you
may have the ability to follow. Whatever it is, God has given each of us
gifts and in their consideration, we may recognize our abundance.

When Martin Luther talks about living out your Christianity in your
vocation, he means that what we do, we do to the glory of God, in
thankfulness and in all ways that we can, to benefit our neighbor. That
the work you do is a gift to others. That God’s grace would be expressed in
whatever we do. That’s compassionate living.

We have a danger of being blinded by our riches, by our security, by our
comforts. That’s not news. But we need to be reminded there is never a
time in this world where suffering is not. And there is never a time when
that suffering for the most part could not be alleviated if resources and
compassionate energy are marshaled. There is no moment in the world where
there is not hunger, or pain, or fear or despair, where there’s not a need
of some sort that can’t be met by the riches of God’s kingdom, with our
voices and our means and our talents and our community.

Lazarus, of course, is all around us. In our churches, in our
neighborhoods, in our schools, on our streets. And the hunger that he
feels in our time is a hunger for healing, for healing and sustaining food
of body and spirit that will bring him strength and wholeness. It is a
sustenance he has a need for and a right to. We don’t know Lazarus,
really, if he is holy, if he contributed to his own condition. But all we
need to know, Jesus said, is that each person is a child of God, a child of
the promise, a target of grace. We claim as baptized Christians that we
share in a feast now that is a foretaste of the feast to come, of worship,
and fellowship, the knowledge of forgiveness and hope. That is a table
laid with the greatest gifts God has to offer. And we are called to share
the feast with our words and deeds, not just the scraps, but from the whole
menu.

Now, I know that smacks a bit of . We holy people sitting at the full
table of the grace of God. And to leave it at that would be to ignore the
fact that we, too, are Lazarus. We too at times are filled with the
gnawing hunger, the hollowing hunger for companionship when we are lonely, a
hunger for forgiveness when our hearts and minds are wracked with guilt, a
hunger for fellowship when we are left out, a hunger for understanding when
we are confused or frightened, a hunger for peace when peace seems so far
away. We, too, are beggars at God’s table, sometimes so weakened by our
circumstance that we can barely get on our feet or get on our knees. But
Jesus says I will lift you up. It’s enough that you are my child. That is
the promise through which we are sustained.

The bad news is that Lazarus is all around us, that we, in fact, are Lazarus
at times. The good news is that the one to whom we come begging spares us
nothing for our renewal and our healing and the satisfaction for our hunger.
Jesus came to serve, to share, to redeem to restore. If Jesus had been
the rich man, he would ignore our hopeless condition in favor of his exalted
position as the Son of God. That’s why when we speak of our Lord, we never
speak of him without the cross. If Christ is without the cross, where do we
fit in? If Jesus had been the rich man, the Christ without the cross, he
would ignore our hopeless condition in favor of power. The authorities
knew this when they challenged him at the tribunal, “are you a king?” Jesus
said if I wanted to do that, I’d do it. But I have a different agenda.
The tempter knew this when he promised Jesus all the trappings of worldly
power in the desert. Were he the rich man, then Lazarus and each of us
would die at the gate, never to be joined to the promise.

Through his gift of the riches of his grace, through the sacrifice of his
life, Christ has guaranteed that we would be fed in our hunger, whether it
be loneliness, or pain, or despair or fear of death. That is the
compassion the world so desperately needs. The gift of grace is that no
matter how broken down we become, the host awaits us, invites us to the
feast to restore us.

Jesus says, “this is no shell game. It is enough that you are a child of
God for me to love you and lift you up.” He says, “it is enough that they
are children of God, so use your gifts and means and talents to lift them
up.”

We are children of God. That’s enough. Jesus says it’s enough. Thank God
it’s enough.

Amen.

Copyright (c) 2001 by Pastor Robert J. Rasmus