A sermon on Luke 16:19-31: the parable of the rich man and Lazarus
The parable describes a way of life which starkly separates the rich man from the poor, the privileged from the dispossessed. It describes how these differences and divisions set up an exponentially greater divide in the life to come: “A great chasm has been fixed between you and us,” advises Father Abraham.
It is, more clearly than most of Jesus’ parables, a fantasy. I do not think that we are to read literally the illustrations of an afterlife; but I do think that we are to take seriously the warnings that the divisions between us in the lives that we lead today have much greater consequences than we can imagine.
I think, too, that the one telling the parable knows all about the chasms that are fixed between worlds; and I think that he knows the way to heal them, and that this is his purpose: not to condemn, but to plumb the depths of those chasms of sin and division that threaten to keep us forever apart, and to pull us up out of them, set us on solid ground before the throne of God.
Because if we are divided from one another, then we are divided from God. If we cannot love our neighbour as ourselves, we have already failed to love God with our whole imaginations, since we have failed to love God’s image set before us, ready for love, fixed in our sights daily.
If the story of Lazarus and the rich man is one of an exponentially expanding chasm, it’s possible to imagine a backstory in which they were, at one time, not quite so far apart.
Of course, there was always a division. The rich man was always a rich man, but once upon a time –
[this is not in the Bible, you understand, but in my imagination] –
once upon a time, perhaps, Lazarus worked for the rich man. He lived in employer-provided accommodation, out in the rich man’s fields. He was reasonably healthy and well fed. He even had a family – a wife and a son.
Every so often, the rich man would come out to visit the workers’ village, and everyone would stop what they were doing and stand still, out of respect, until he laughed and waved them on with their work.
The rich man’s son and Lazarus’ son used to play together when they were younger. As they grew, Lazarus and his wife worried about the association, and warned their son, but he was young.
No one knew exactly what happened in the town the night of the troubles. This was before the days of CCTV, and dashboard cameras, smart phones and body cams.
When the rich man’s son came home, he was shuffled straight back out to live with one of his uncles in the country.
Lazarus’ son never did come home. They say his wife died of a broken heart.
The next time the rich man came to visit his fields, Lazarus did not stop, and stand still. His back bent over, he carried on working. The rich man was outraged by the insult and what he called the sheer ingratitude. I think he was mostly embarrassed.
He had Lazarus fired, and put out of his employer-provided accommodation.
Lazarus didn’t go far. He set up his little shelter outside the rich man’s gates. Every time the rich man came and went from his house, his conscience was offended by Lazarus’ plight. He was sick of the sight of him. From time to time, he would let out the dogs, but they were house dogs and not much good at chasing people off.
By the time the two men died, the chasm between them had grown so large that they could barely see one another.
And then the rich man had the audacity to ask Lazarus to go and warn his brothers – the ones raising his son – about the dangers of digging ditches!
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.”
As though we could see and hear again from the dead: see Tamir playing in the park; hear Eric pleading to breathe; see Terence shot with his hands up.
By the time Jesus returned from the dead, he had bridged many chasms. Born as a brown-skinned child in a city ruled by the Roman Empire; taken as a refugee on a moonlight flit to Egypt; killed as a criminal on trumped-up charges, sacrificed as a scapegoat, condemned as a rabble-rouser.
He returned from the dead alright, and told us yet again about the love that God has for the least of God’s people, for the littlest piece of God’s image in the world, for the lives of the children of God.
He laid his cross across the chasm between life and death. He put the lie to Father Abraham’s claim that there is no way back, no way to reconciliation; but he didn’t take an easy path, and he never denied the divisions, the depth of the chasms that he had to plumb.
What he did was to proclaim that the kingdom of God entertains no such chasms or divides, but in the kingdom of God, we shall live on level ground. As the prophet writes,
Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people will see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 40:4-5)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.