19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He 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.’ 25But 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. 26Besides 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.’ 27He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He 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.’”
(Luke 16:19-31 NRSV)
Preached at Prince of Peace, Wasaga Beach, and St. Luke’s, Creemore, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 25 September, 2022.
Readings for this Sunday (YrC): Jer 32:1-3a, 6-15; Ps 91:1-6, 14-16; 1 Tim 6:6-19; Lk 16:19-31
Those of you with long memories and experience of the church will recall one of the verses from the old hymn, “All Things Bright and Beautiful” composed by Cecil Frances Alexander and first published in 1848. The third verse went like this:
“The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God hath made them, high or lowly, and ordered their estate”.
In Victorian Britain, this verse made sense to people who were accustomed to a class system and to an inequitable distribution of wealth. It probably reflected the world as Alexander herself saw it, since her father managed great estates of the Anglo-Irish Protestant gentry and she herself composed the hymn in the middle of the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1845-49.
Some have argued in Alexander’s defence that she was expressing the view that the rich and poor are all God’s children. However, the verse no longer appears in Anglican hymn books, and not just because of some recent woke censorship. When the cleric Percy Dearmer published his Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1904, he cut this third verse and questioned whether Alexander had thought enough about the parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus in St. Luke, which just happens to be our gospel reading today.
Whereas the third verse of Alexander’s hymn does not say anything about the relationship between the two men (for all we know, she envisioned the rich man as being charitable to the poor man), Jesus in his parable leaves us in no doubt that the rich man doesn’t care a whit for poor Lazarus and does absolutely nothing to help him. We’re told that the rich man doesn’t just eat, he feasts, “sumptuously” and “daily” (Lk 16.19), while the poor man can only dream of eating the scraps that fall from the rich man’s table (Lk 16.21).
Those who heard Jesus tell this parable would have understood the unjustness of the situation. In the ancient world, it was expected that the wealthy would give charity, or alms, to the poor, at least on special social occasions such as a feast. Some of the wealthy houses excavated at Pompeii, for example, have benches outside the gates where the poor would wait on certain days for alms to be distributed. The fact that the rich man here blatantly ignores Lazarus daily would have been a red flag for Jesus’ listeners.
Since the basic thrust of the story is easy to understand, let me take a few moments to suggest how we shouldn’t understand it. First, let’s not make the mistake of thinking that Jesus’ point is to condemn the rich, nor should we think that it celebrates poverty as some kind of virtue. The point of the conversation between the rich man and Abraham is to drive home the point that God has expectations of those who have been blessed by wealth.
When Abraham tells the rich man in torment that his brothers still living have “Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them”, he is speaking to a very clear theme of Jewish law and teaching. As just one example, the prophet Amos warns the wealthy that if they you that “trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land” (Am 8.4), then they will face God’s anger and punishment. Abraham’s message is thus vey clear: it is the will of God that those blessed with much care for their neighbours with less, and when Jesus preached that we should love our neighbour as we love ourselves, he wasn’t saying anything new, he was merely clarifying Jewish teaching. The point then is not that wealth is bad or poverty is good, rather, the point as always in our faith is that wealth is part of God’s good’s creation, and to those that much is given, much is expected by the creator.
The second point I would make is that the point of the story is not to make us afraid that God’ might punish us in the afterlife if we’re not good. I think the gospel is always about grace, and is never about scaring us into obedience. C.S. Lewis once famously wrote that if the doors of hell have locks, then they are on the inside. The rich man’s tragedy is that he cut himself off from God and from his fellow man. His tragedy is made even worse because he sees the error of his ways, but too late. His care for his brothers, his desire that they avoid his fate, is commendable, but comes too late, because his repentance came too late.
Elsewhere in Luke’s gospel, Jesus says, “unless you repent surely you will perish” (Lk 13.5). Repentance is one of the big themes in Luke/Acts. Recently in church, as we’ve been working our way through Luke’s gospel, we heard the parables of lost and found sheep (15:3-7), a lost and found coin (15:8-10), which along with the lost and found son (15:11-32) always show God’s desire to reclaim the lost and single. The most famous last minute repentance in Luke is of course the thief dying beside Jesus on the cross who is, as is sometimes noted, the first that Jesus admits to paradise (Luke 23.39-43).
In many ways, today’s gospel and Charles Dicken’s Christmas Carol are not unalike. Both are stories of rich men who cut themselves off from the poor (although Scrooge was too miserly to feast daily) and both experience conversions as they see the error of their ways. The only difference is that only one repents in time, so whereas Dickens’ story is a comedy in that it has a happy ending, Luke’s story is a tragedy.
The gospel’s hope always is that our lives will have a happy ending if we give them to God and to our neighbour. The gospel’s warning is that if we don’t govern our lives in accordance with the will of God, then we are the ones cut ourselves off from God and others by locking ourselves into our prison cells.
The temptation to think that our wealth can save us is always there. The temptation to put ourselves before others is constantly amplified by some politics and advertising. The temptation to imprison ourselves is always there. The mission of the church, perhaps now more than ever, is to preach that the will of God is always there. Unless we give our lives over to the will of God and to the needs of our neighbours, then our lives will be blighted and denied the fullness and joy that God wants for us.