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Poor Lazarus

A Homily from Luke 16:19-31

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

September 30, 2001 (26th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Our text for today is not a summary of the whole gospel of Luke, but it very neatly summarizes Luke’s chief concern: wealth. Like a grand finale, it follows story after story where Luke has reminded us of Jesus’ teachings on money and value and stewardship. Finally, Luke tells us of Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees, who (we are reminded) are “lovers of money.”

Does this mean that they were some sort of religious con artists, using their power and influence to bilk people out of their hard-earned savings? Perhaps. More likely, though, they were preaching what we call today “the prosperity gospel.” In Deuteronomy 28, we are told that if we only obey the LORD our God, we will be blessed beyond measure. All wealth and power will be ours.

The good church-goin’ folk of Jesus’ time had really taken that to heart, and the Pharisees in particular taught that wealth and prosperity were a sign that a person’s life was right with God. It’s an easy trap to fall into. A child who grows up in church learns the lingo pretty quickly, and it doesn’t take them long to understand that – when something good happens – they are supposed to say, “I’ve been blessed.” If we’re really pious, we learn to say “I’ve been blessed” no matter what is going on in our lives.

The point of phrasing it that way is to remind ourselves (and others) that God is in control, and that we’re grateful for the luxuries that we enjoy. This is a good and appropriate sentiment, but it can lead to some dangerous theological conclusions. To say, “I’ve been blessed with this new BMW” implies something about the person who doesn’t have one. Is the Christian with the BMW a better prayer? A better tither? Do they read their Bible more often? Maybe they’re just a better driver?

Why doesn’t God giver every believer a BMW? Maybe because God knows that the parts and labor would kill some of us? The fact is that we don’t know. Some of us are able to lead lives of privilege and luxury, and others struggle from paycheck to paycheck – and there is no rhyme or reason for it. Wealth is, truly, the material world’s reward for material triumphs, and it’s distribution has very little to do with the nature of God or the Body of Christ.

“Not so!” cry the Pharisees. Having apparently read the Prayer of Jabez and highlighted the juicy parts, they claim that earthly success must be a product of divine sanction. For surely God would not be so capricious as to let such power and luxury go to someone who did not deserve it.

Jesus, as he often does, responds with a story. This is one of his most vivid, and the only one in which one of the characters is known by name. The other major figure, however, is nameless.

That doesn’t mean that his neighbors didn’t know his name; I’m sure that they all did. You see, ole nameless was not just rich, he was filthy stinkin’ light-your-cigarette with 100-dollar-bills rich. Texas oil-money rich. Jesus even goes to the trouble to tell us that he wore the finest of clothing, and that he wore fancy foreign underpants too. (That’s in verse 20, if you’re curious, although the NRSV just tells us it was fine linen. You have to read Fred Craddock if you want to find out that the phrase means Egyptian underwear.)

Every day for old nameless was like Thanksgiving, and he served a lavish, extravagant feast just because he could. In our family, on Thanksgiving every flat surface in one end of the house is used to hold food. In fact, small children who stand in one place too long might find themselves holding a bowl of one casserole or another, dishing it out onto plates that are already filled to capacity with other delicious foods.

That’s how ole nameless ate every day of the week. There was no need for it, but since he had no unmet needs he couldn’t think of a reason not to.

Of course, if he had only looked out his window, just past his sturdy iron gate, he might have found a use for some of that extra food. Another man, created likewise in the image of God and just as loved by God, was slowly dying from hunger, just within earshot of the daily parties that ole nameless threw. The starving man’s name was Lazarus, and we’re told that even the things that nameless threw away would have been enough to fill the constant gnawing in his stomach.

Unlike nameless, Lazarus did not have any fine clothing to drape his gaunt frame. His body was instead covered with open, oozing sores. Jesus tells us that he was too weak even to keep the filthy, half-starved mongrel dogs from coming and licking his blisters – their scalding tongues a hot reminder – according to the Pharisees’ way of thinking – that God had chosen not to bless Lazarus.

It turns out that one thing Lazarus and ole nameless had in common is that – as for us – everything has an end. They died. Of course, our wealthy friend couldn’t even do that without appropriate ceremony. Undoubtedly, at nameless’ funeral, the Pharisees waxed poetic about the great man that nameless was – as evidenced by all of the blessings he had received from God. They probably prayed great prayers, commending nameless to God’s eternal care.

Nameless might have even heard those prayers on his way to the afterlife. Imagine his surprise, then, when he found himself in – of all places – the Greek afterlife of torment and toil. Yup, turns out all of those “blessings” that nameless had received in this world were all the blessings he was going to get. He’s in “H, E, double-toothpick land,” and it’s not fun. Rather than the tongues of dogs, he is licked by the tongues of flame that scorch his flesh; and he looks up in a cry of agony…

And sees someone he has never seen before. It’s our friend Lazarus. He didn’t get any more ceremony in death than he did in life, but he is now in paradise, reclining in the company of Abraham himself.

I wonder, sometimes, who and what our own “blessings” keep us from seeing. Certainly, nameless’ kept him from seeing Lazarus and the others like him; but they also kept him from seeing himself. His health, his security, and even his safety behind that big metal gate allowed him to delude himself into thinking he was doing the will of God.

That’s a dangerous road, because all sorts of odd behaviors get rewarded in this life. On our way back into town last night, Brigit and I drove by a sign celebrating God’s “blessings” on a religious institution which – well, to be honest – I don’t think deserves to be called Christian. Nevertheless, they were proud of their growth and their large endowment, and considered it a sign of God’s approval.

Of course, any movie studio in Hollywood probably moves more cash in a day than this place sees in a year, so God must love Hollywood even more. Oh, and lets not forget Osama bin Laden, whose wealth he certainly credits to God’s endorsement of his causes.

Luxury and contentment are dangerous in many ways, but perhaps their greatest danger is that they can act like an anesthetic, numbing our sense of obligation to the God who created us. Why should we do more, when we are obviously already doing enough – otherwise why would God be blessing us so?

Sadly, nameless figured that out a little too late. The powerful master of so many feasts begs Abraham to allow Lazarus to place even a single drop of water on his tongue. The heat and misery are so great that even that tiny taste of refreshment would taste better than a gallon of the finest wine.

What nameless really wants to taste is mercy – even just a drop. But Abraham says that it is not to be. You see, nameless used up all of his blessings while in this empty shell of a body that we will all someday throw away. He will get no more mercy than he gave to the man he never even saw; sadly, perhaps the man he was unable to see. The only blessings waiting for nameless in the afterlife are the blessings which he shared with others – none.

I wonder if Abraham was maybe just a little snippy about it. Something like, “Well, for every drop of water you gave to Lazarus, he can bring you one. Surely, with the thousands of gallons that you spilled and wasted in your life, you at least gave him – what – a cupful? Oh, sorry, I see. Not a drop. Oh well.”

My guess is that Abraham would not have been so cruel, however it might have been justified. I hope he wasn’t, because I have a feeling some day I will hear a similar question; and it will hurt enough without the sarcasm.

Sarcastic or not, Abraham says no. Even if he wanted to, the worlds of Lazarus and nameless are as separate in death as they were in life. The irony is that, while alive, nameless thought he was really living. He thought that he was getting to experience everything life had to offer; all with the blessing of God.

Turns out, he was really just dying slowly, and all of his wealth just numbed the pain. The real life, it seems, is found only in death; and it goes to one whom nameless (and the Pharisees) thought never lived. In fact, because of the contact with the dogs, our friend Lazarus was ritually unclean, so he was never even considered worthy to participate in the worship of the God who later rewarded him so richly.

There are lots of ways to label a person “unclean,” and every church has it’s own personal Levitical code that we use to keep people outside. Turns out though the one man who wasn’t allowed in church is the only person who gets into Heaven in our reading today. I wonder what that says about where the real church is.

We find out, by the way, that nameless isn’t all bad. When he realizes that it’s over for him and that his self-centered arrogance has doomed him for all eternity, he at least thinks of his family. Nameless explains to Abraham that he has five brothers still alive, and that one visit from Lazarus will be enough to convince all of them to repent and change their ways.

Abraham’s reply is interesting. He doesn’t say “no.” He says that the living (and presumably that means us to) have all the warning we need in the Bible. Nameless pleads again, and Abraham says that if we will not believe the Bible, than even sending someone back from the dead won’t convince us.

I want to believe Abraham is wrong, but if anything I think he’s understating the case. As a species, we just don’t remember very well. Oh, sure, if we had a coffin in here and someone rose out of it and starting preaching; we’d listen and we’d probably do whatever he said…for a while. Then we’d fall back into our old habits. It’s just how we are. If we aren’t reminded constantly, daily, sometimes hourly: “Don’t do that, do this” we’ll forget.

So Abraham says turn to the Bible to remember. Yippee, great! There’s a solution. One problem, the Bible is what the Pharisees were using to show that people like old nameless were blessed by God. It’s right there in Deuteronomy.

In that way, the Bible seems as dangerous as wealth. Like money, we can use the Bible pretty much any way we want to, so just trying to follow in it isn’t likely enough to keep us from joining nameless in a place where there is no ice tea. Of course, there may be the unsweetened variety there, but that would only prove it was Hell.

So what do we do? Do we do anything? Lazarus didn’t, and he made it to Heaven. Maybe the secret is to give it all away, and make ourselves as miserable as possible, so that we can be happy in the great beyond. There are some monastic orders who do just that, and I can’t say they’re wrong.

I’m not sure that’s the only answer though, and I doubt that there is one single answer that will apply to all of us. Nameless’ big mistake wasn’t so much what he did or didn’t do – although there was certainly room for improvement in that department. Is fatal error was what he allowed himself to believe: that he was OK and that everything was right with God.

We’re not and it’s not. We are not doing all that God has asked us to do. Blessed or persecuted, wealthy or poor, there is more that God expects from us, there is more to do.

Don’t hear me as questioning your salvation. The forgiveness of God is there for the asking. Every week we serve each other the shattered body of our Savior as a reminder that no matter where we come from or who we are we are always welcomed and forgiven by the merciful love of God. God loves us and forgives us.

That doesn’t mean that God is always happy with us, or that God doesn’t expect us to do more. What exactly “more” is, I have no idea. It’s different for each of us. But if we’re honest, we know it’s there. Poor nameless, his name is forgotten, but we don’t have to forget the message he asked poor Lazarus to bring.

It’s the same message that was inscribed on a ring that, according to Sufi legend, was worn my a middle eastern sultan. He had gathered all of his wise men together, and asked them to give him something that – when he was happy – would make him sad; but when he was sad – would make him happy.

They gave him this ring, and inside it was written a simple phrase, one that Lazarus would perhaps have carried to those five brothers if given the chance. The phrase? “This too shall pass.”