Moving Forward: The Rich Man and Lazarus

Earlier today, we had our first presentation on the canvass. And if you are uninitiated, the canvass is part of our annual stewardship effort. It’s a time when we talk about how to show up and support St. Mark’s, all this community does, and all it makes possible. So wow, what a Gospel text. We hear this from Luke: a wealthy man who did not share his gifts sits in Hades, surrounded by flames and in agony. So don’t be like that rich guy. Share what you have because you can’t take it with you. Stewardship sermon preached, job done.

Except, and there’s always an exception, right? Except, what if that is not all that is going on here? Before I go too far afield, I want to say that I think it’s important to talk candidly about the significance of financial support. Faith, and the practice of faith, is not a denial of the world as it is, but it’s an aspiration about what the world can and will become guided by God’s in-breaking love, sustained by grace, and, importantly, assisted by our labors.

Here at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, we are part of a faith that passes down beautiful, sacred spaces and objects with the trust that they will be maintained and stewarded. And if you’re not sure, look around at the beauty surrounding us. We also belong to a denomination that relies on professional clergy to minister Word and Sacrament. And we expect them to understand our rich theology, complete field placements and hospital chaplaincy, and strive to meet the needs of the people they serve. We’re also members of a church, St. Mark’s, that has committed to our ministries with paid staff, guiding music, family, and youth ministry and offering financial support to social justice efforts and Christian education. And finally, we are part of a community that believes that our building should be available and accessible to arts programs and educational programs that would otherwise have a very difficult time finding appropriate venues in this neighborhood. All of that costs money. And if any of it is important to you, then I invite you to join the canvassing effort.

With that said, let’s turn back to today’s Gospel. Wealth and poverty are clearly important elements of this parable. The unnamed rich man is dressed in purple and fine linen, a color and a fabric so expensive that it is associated with royalty. He feasts sumptuously every day and lives in a large and comfortable house, as evidenced by the fact of him having a gate where the poor come to beg. At that gate lies a poor man named Lazarus, which means “God is my help,” or the “one whom God helps.” He is covered with sores and longs to satiate his hunger with what falls from the rich man’s table. Both the rich man and Lazarus die. Lazarus is carried away by angels, and the rich man is buried. In death, the rich man is tormented, surrounded by flames and agony, while Lazarus sits with Abraham by his side.

The rich man calls out for mercy: “Father Abraham, 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 refuses to comfort him, saying, “Child, during your lifetime, you received your good things and Lazarus in like manner evil things…between you and us, a great chasm has been fixed.” The rich man persists, begging Abraham to send Lazarus again to his father’s house to warn his five brothers so that they will not also come to this place of torment. And Abraham, again, declines to help: “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them. And if they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced, even if someone rises from the dead.”

This is an uncompromising and not very empathetic response. It echoes what we hear earlier in Luke: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Bless it are you who weep now, for you will laugh. But woe to you who are rich, for you, have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.” So, as a result, we might think that the rich man’s wealth lands him in this predicament.

Yet, Lazarus is sitting with Abraham, who we’re told in Genesis is exceedingly rich “in livestock, in silver, and in gold.” So there is something else at work here in this parable. It’s important to note that this is a parable. It’s not prescriptive. Parables are tools that can illustrate and illuminate; they can make us see things in new ways. But they often don’t tell a full and complete story by themselves. They invite us into the intricacy of a point. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote: “It is unwise to claim any knowledge of either the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell.” That notion of us being certain about what is going on is here.

But I will say the absence of mercy and grace in this parable is striking. And before we run down our mental list of other times when God has not acted with mercy, it’s important not to flatten our experience and our understanding of God. The immutable and unchanging nature of God is different from the constantly evolving relationship of God with creation. What I mean here is throughout scripture, God enters into covenants with us, fundamentally changing and reframing God’s relationship with creation. The first major covenant is with Noah, and God covenants with Noah that never again will creation be wiped from the face of the earth. This covenant is sealed with a rainbow. And it’s followed by other covenants; with Moses, with the giving of the law and a promise, a promise of a future. It’s reaffirmed and expanded in a covenant with David and, subsequently, in the New Covenant, the sending of God’s only son to draw us closer, to draw God closer to creation.

Recalling all that, knowing that the relationship with God is ever evolving, ever-deepening, there’s one unyielding thing: the passage of time. Earlier in Luke, Jesus says: “No one having put his hand to the plow and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God.” It is an unrelenting focus on the present and the future that marks our faith. Early Christianity was called “The Way” by its adherents. It’s not “the meander.” It is not “the look backwards.” Even when we remember, as we do, every time we celebrate the Eucharist, it is to anchor our present and to guide our future. We’re not trying to go back in time; through worship and through faith, we are acting in the present to shape our future. Lazarus does not get a do-over. And neither do we.

This darkness of the story seeks to hammer that home. Some of you may be familiar with a corporate confession in the Episcopal liturgy. I’ll read the confession, and then I’ll share what I believe is the most important part. It says, “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart, and we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves. We are truly sorry, and we humbly repent.” That confession is always followed by an absolution. And that is the key. “The Almighty and Merciful God grant you absolution and remission of your sins, true repentance, and amendment of life.”

The phrase that is meaningful to me is “amendment of life.” What has come before is not erased, no matter how much we may wish it could be. Yet moving forward, it is changed; we are transformed. It doesn’t promise a do-over of the past but an opportunity to do differently in the future. Today’s Gospel invites us to recognize what we have looked at and not seen, to give where we see need instead of simply walking by. Today as we think about this gospel, as we think about Lazarus and the rich man, it’s important to remember that at the beginning of the story, they are separated only by a gate, yet by the end, they are separated by a fixed chasm. I invite us to consider and strive to open our eyes to our neighbors, to think about how we can care for others, and, importantly, how we can live into an amendment of life. Amen.

The sermon can be viewed here.