Year C Proper 21: The rich man and Lazarus

So we have reached the finale of the season of rich man parables.

You will remember that in these parables, the phrase “a rich man” is used to indicate not simply someone who has a lot of stuff, but someone who “stores up treasures for themselves, but is not rich towards God,” as Jesus says elsewhere. It is like the hymn which speaks of “our wanton, selfish gladness, rich in things and poor in soul.”[1]

This rich man’s crime is not to have wealth, nor even to wear purple and eat feasts, but his sin is the neglect of his neighbour, Lazarus who lives at his gate. The Law of Moses was very clear about the poor who live outside the gate, and the duties and responsibilities of those who were better off to care for them. It was a scandal and an outrage that this man, this rich man, should let Lazarus fester with the dogs. The outrage is compounded in the scenes after death, when the rich man still wants to treat Lazarus as a servant to do his bidding; even from Hades he is issuing orders! Yet when he was alive, he was not willing to feed him, or to let him live in the house, or to offer healthcare beyond the licking of his dogs. He was rich in things, but poor in soul.

God, rich in mercy, has sent the angels to sweep Lazarus up into the bosom of Abraham, a picture of paradise. In one of the many, funny little asymmetries of this parable, although Lazarus gets a name and the rich man doesn’t, the rich man gets a voice, but we never hear Lazarus speak, so we don’t know much about Lazarus except that he was poor; nothing about his moral character or religious beliefs or observance. We only know that God, rich in mercy, has seen fit to receive and comfort him.

We know a little more about the rich man, and the parable paints a picture of a journey that we would not want to follow. The rich man thinks about it, and realizes that he does not want his brothers to follow his same path either “Send Lazarus to warn them,” he says. Why doesn’t he ask to go himself? He has a voice! But we have never heard Lazarus speak.

Back in the days of the parable when Jesus described those who store up treasure but are not rich towards God, he was telling his dinner host to stop inviting his rich friends to fill up his house, and instead to invite the likes of Lazarus to gather around his table; partly to feed them, of course; Lazarus longed for the crumbs that fell; but also because around a table people gather to do more than eat. They talk. They tell stories. They listen. They learn about one another. They become neighbours; maybe, if they’re lucky, even friends.

The rich man was deficient in charity, but he was also deficient in his relationships. He neglected Lazarus, and he demeaned him by leaving him to the dogs. He also failed to see Lazarus’ inherent worth and value even when he was clasped to Abraham’s bosom! No wonder Abraham did not hold out great hopes for the rich man’s scheme to change his brothers’ hearts and minds. The tragedy of Lazarus’ life is not only his hunger and his sores, but his silence. That, too, the rich man could have remedied if he’d had just a moment to listen instead of giving out orders.

Another line of that great hymn goes, “Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.” We are not to be resigned to injustice; we are not to be silent about the plight of those who have no voice.

And yet there is hope. The rich man did want to warn his brothers. He had begun to think beyond himself, and repentance has a wonderful way of re-building bridges that sin has burned; perhaps, even, a bridge across that chasm that has opened up between himself and Lazarus, between Hades and the bosom of Abraham.

Repentance has a wonderful way of rebuilding bridges that sin has burned.

Jeremiah bought a field, defiantly proclaiming that justice, economic and otherwise, would return to his land. The writer of the letter to Timothy demanded that his hearers be rich in good works, to be generous and to share the blessings with which they have been abundantly blessed. There is so much joy to be had in the sharing good things. But repentance, of course, is not just about giving money.

This series of parables, the ones that revolve around a rich man, has reached its climax in the reversal of fortunes predicted at the beginning of Luke in the Magnificat – God has raised up the lowly, and sent the rich away empty. These stories have been about our relationships with money – how we use it, and whether we let it use us; and about our relationship with God – whether we truly consider God to be our core value, our centre and our goal, our foundation and our pinnacle, or whether we have allowed something else to edge God to the outskirts of our lives. We can’t have it both ways.

They are also about our relationships with one another. They are about restoring generosity, kindness, empathy and sharing as central values of our ethical lives. They are about sharing fellowship with those we are least likely to invite to dinner, and listening to them, laughing with them, learning them, loving them. They are about loving our neighbours as ourselves, something the cartoon character rich men had long forgotten how to do.

We had a wonderful first Euclid prayer walk yesterday – forty people at least gathered and walked and prayed, or stayed in the chapel and prayed. People came from different churches and we met our neighbours, we talked with one another, I heard so many stories of people’s lives. Today, as some of you know, is the feast day for St Michael and All Angels, and as one woman told me her story yesterday of angels in New York City on one dark September day some years ago, I got serious goose bumps.

There are stories we would never hear, people we would never know, blessings we would never apprehend if we never looked outside our own doors, outside our own circles, to invite people in.

In the end, there is hope, I think, for this rich man. Repentance can rebuild bridges that sin has burned, and he is beginning to turn. Our prayer walk vests yesterday included in their logo the slogan, “Love God, Love Your Neighbor, Change the World.”  Repentance changes the landscape; it rebuilds bridges where there had been dust and ashes, and reconnects us to one another and to God. It can change our world; it can change the world.

Here’s one practical way that some of you might be able to change someone’s world during October, to give a voice to one who has been silenced through violence and fear. During October, churches have been asked to speak out about domestic violence and abuse, so and we’re going to be collecting used cellphones for recycling by the Domestic Violence and Child Advocacy centre. If you have an old phone that you have replaced, which is still languishing at home doing nothing and doing you no good, it can literally give a voice to those who are crying out in silence.

And do join us next month for our Euclid prayer walk. It is a truly wonderful way to build bridges between neighbours.

Of course, God has been changing landscapes since Creation began, and Jesus of Nazareth, raised by a carpenter, knew plenty about building bridges and engineering solutions to the problems caused by the chasms that open up between us. Jesus teases us with these parables, because he knows that in the end, we are each of us as arrogant and haughty as the rich man, and each of us as needy and as pitiful as Lazarus, and repentance will heal the breach in our own souls, too. So he invites us to his table – sit, eat, drink – and serves us with that sumptuous feast, the bread of heaven, the cup of life everlasting, the true and eternal treasure.

And so, as the hymn draws to an end: “Let the gift of thy salvation be our glory, evermore.”

[1] God of grace and God of glory, Words by Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Hymnal 1982, According to the Use of the Episcopal Church #594/595

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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