Inviting Lazarus to the Table
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.
20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.
The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He 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.’ 25 But 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. 26 Besides 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.’
27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He 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.’”
Every Christmas my family would watch Muppets Christmas Carol together. As a kid there was one scene that honestly scared me. On Christmas Eve, Ebenezer Scrooge comes home late at night to a big, empty, cold and dark house. He warms a fire, puts on a robe, and makes a quick meal. And then the lamps go out. And then the fire goes out. And then the doorbell begins to ring and ring and ring. Sitting in the darkness, he hears footsteps coming up the stairs. And then finally, right when Scrooge thinks this is going to be the end of him, and we think we are going to see some horrible monster…we get instead the Old Men in the Balcony, Statler and Waldorf, singing and dancing as Scrooge’s old partners, Marley and Marley.
These two men have come not to hurt Scrooge, but to warn him. Because of their greed and hard heartedness during their lives, they are locked in chains and lockboxes for all time. And they have come with a message to tell Scrooge to change his ways so that the same fate won’t come to him. Give, share, be kind, don’t be miserable, don’t be greedy, don’t live as you are living now. That’s their message to him. And over the course of the movie that message is given again and again and again to Scrooge. Love is better than money. Generosity is better than greed. Until finally his life is changed forever.
This idea of the dead coming back to warn family and friends is not something Charles Dickens or Gonzo or Jim Henson invented. It’s been used in storytelling for thousands of years. Even in Jesus’ time, it was used quite often.
This parable Jesus has for us today, the parable of a rich man and a poor man whose fortunes are reversed after death, was a common story in Jesus’ day. And in most versions, the story ends with the rich man being like Marley and Marley, coming back to earth to warn his friends to be generous and live better.
But Jesus’ version doesn’t end that way. While this story is not original to Jesus, he ends up making it his own, by making one big change. As the rich man, now suffering and thirsty, asks if he can go back and warn his brothers, Abraham says to him, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” In Jesus’ version the man is not allowed to go back and warn and be like Statler and Waldorf.
Why does Jesus make this story end so much more harshly? What is Jesus trying to tell us by changing this folktale, and getting rid of the happy ending?
The reason Jesus doesn’t have the rich man come back with a message for his family and friends is that the message is already here. The reason Jesus leaves out the Marley character from this story is that the news is something we should already know. Be generous. Care for the poor. Live justly. These aren’t new messages.
God has already spoken this message, and God has spoken it time and time again. Our scriptures are full of God telling us to care for the widow, protect the orphan, welcome the immigrant and refugee. God has told us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give water to the thirsty. God has spoken about lifting up the poor and visiting the sick and proclaiming freedom for the oppressed.
And God has done it through every way possible. God has given us direction through the laws of Moses. God has spoken throughout the centuries through prophets. God has given us songs and canticles and proverbs so we can sing out this message. God has shown it through the stories of kings and beggars, saints and Samaritans. God has even taken on our very flesh to show us how to live, teaching us in sermons and parables, at tables and on mountains, through miracles, through sacrifice, and through life being resurrected.
All around us is evidence of God calling us to generosity, to hospitality, to love and compassion. The problem is not that the message isn’t being told. We don’t need the rich man to come back to earth and tell us. The problem is that we are not listening to God. The problem, as the prophet Isaiah puts it, is that we have blocked our ears and closed our eyes (Isaiah 6:10).
For a lot of us reading this parable, we want to distance ourselves from the rich man. And so, a lot of commentaries and retelling make him worse than he is in this tale, turning him into someone who became rich through cheating or stealing, or someone who attacks Lazarus, by spitting on him or kicking him. But none of that is here in this parable. The rich man’s sin isn’t in what he does. He probably hasn’t done anything worse than anyone of us.
The rich man’s sin is in what he fails to do. He fails to see his fellow human being. He fails to live into generosity and hospitality. He fails to share in the abundance he has been given. And so, do we. And so, do I.
For almost all of us here in this room today, we are the rich man in this story. I don’t often think of myself as a rich man. But if I look across the world, that is exactly what I am. The median income per person around the world is only $1,225 a year. Anyone who makes over $35,000 a year is in the top 1% of richest people in our world. As much as I may not want to admit it, globally I am a 1 percenter. I sleep in a great, air-conditioned home with clean water, carpet, and a million things to watch on tv. Every week I go to the grocery store and can buy any food I would ever want to eat. I have clothes for every season. I have a car to take me wherever I want to go. I have support from family and friends, and always know where my next meal will come from. There is a lot that I have been given. And far too often I walk right past the Lazarus’ of our day. I forget them, even as I feast at my table each and every evening.
So, this week I found Jesus’ story quite challenging for me personally. As I sleep and eat and live each day, how are other Christians all over the world eating and sleeping and living? And how are people who are non-Christian sleeping and eating and living too? Because the gospel message calls me to love and care for neighbors of all religions and faiths. In the parable, there is an image of a great chasm between rich and poor, the 1 percenters and those struggling to survive. And I wonder if I have helped to bridge that chasm, or if I have simply made it even wider.
So, this week, I have felt called to live into God’s generosity and hospitality. Not to leave Lazarus out there on his own, to step on by him or ignore him, but to welcome him in, to share in what I have been given, to remember that he too is a child of God.
When I was a teenager, my family sponsored a youth through WorldVision. It was a young person living in another country. The money would go to medicine and school supplies and help with continuing on to learn and dream. We would get letters of updates and pictures. And I remember as a teenager I saw this and thought, when I get older I want to help support a bunch of people around the world. I want to use all my money for this. But as I grew up, I kept saying, “Well, when I’m out of college.” Or, “Well, when I’m out of seminary.” Or “Well, when I have more money.” Or, “Well, when I don’t have as many bills to pay. And I’ve pushed it off. And I’ve pushed it off.
This week, I have felt called to not push it off any longer. It’s going to take sacrifice. It’s going to take commitment. But this is a message God has speaking in the world, and God has speaking to me for a long time. That is my challenge.
And I would like to challenge you all as well. I want to challenge you to give up something that costs you about $10 a week. That’s how much it is to sponsor a child. $10 a week means giving up two drinks at Starbucks. Or giving up one lunch out. Or giving up one less new pair of jeans each month. Somewhere, I believe you can find $10 a week. And I encourage you to ask God to guide you in how to use that resource. It may be local, or like me, you may be feeling called to give it globally. If you don’t know where to begin, there are three organizations I highly recommend. One is Presbyterian Mission, which is run by our church denomination and is working all over the US and all over the world. The second is Church World Service, which works with a bunch of denominations together caring for hunger, development, and refugees. And the third is WorldVision, where you can directly support a young person and get updates on how this is affecting and helping their lives.
And if you have questions or thoughts, I would love to meet with any one of you to listen, talk, and help discern.
There is another possible ending to our parable today. Another ending I believe we are called to imagine. Imagine that the rich stops one day at his gate, and instead of rushing on by, he sees Lazarus sitting there. And instead of turning his gaze or looking away, he kneels down, and says to him “Lazarus, would you like to join me at my table? I’ve been given so much. There is a rich feast. And I want to share it with you.” Imagine Lazarus and the rich man, not separated by a wide chasm, but sitting together at the table of abundance, at the table of grace and generosity.
That is what God’s kingdom will look like. That’s what the prophets have been preaching for centuries. That’s what the law guides us to do. That’s how Jesus lived each and every day. And that is how Christ’s body, the church, can be, when we open our ears, and hear God’s message for us today. Amen.