Treasure in Heaven
September 25, 2022 – Peace
Rev. Michael Swartz
Luke 16: 19-31
The Rich Man and Lazarus
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.” ’
Both last week’s parable and this week’s are about contentious teaching by Jesus. Last week is was the Pharisees and nit picking observation of the law, today it is the Saducees and self indulgent privilege. “There was a rich man…” begins today’s teaching. Public discussion of rich and poor is a long-lived human activity. And Jesus was clearly interested in poor people – that’s all over the Gospel. Your remember the Beatitude “Blessed are the poor…”
Jesus repeats a folk tale that was in use by other rabbis. The story is about a rich man who is a looser on two counts. First off, he does not believe in the afterlife. That would mark him as a Sadducee, since he and his five brothers profess to believe in the Torah and the prophets. And so he spends all his money in this life on his own pleasure and does not attend to the needs of the poor man who lies in rags at his doorstep. Typical piety would call upon the rich to look after the needs of the poor at least to some degree so they could receive reward in the afterlife. The rich man bought luxury goods – imported purple dye for his garments; Roman emperors wore purple too. He feasted. The rich man could have used his wealth to build up merit in the afterlife, but did not do so at all. Giving to the poor was regarded as making a deposit in one’s account in heaven. Especially if one could do it without receiving thanks or recognition – if you get rewarded in this life then there is less reward in the account for giving out in the next life.
By contrast, Lazarus, the poor man with a handicapping condition is now at a banquet in the afterlife and seated in the place of honor, right next to Abraham – in the bosom of Abraham. The name Lazarus (from the Hebrew: אלעזר, Elʿāzār, Eleazer – “God is my help. And God was his help. God was his only hope.”
The story could make us feel sorry for the rich man except that the rich man continues his self-centered arrogance of entitlement and takes it with him even to hell! Well, the rich man, we’ll call him Dives, looks up and recognizes Lazarus, the same guy who had begged the scraps under his table without success. So Dives looks up and sees Lazarus and asks Abraham to send Lazarus on an errand to benefit Dives! “Dip your finger in the water, come to cool my tongue, cause I’m tormented in the flames!
Abraham reminds Dives that he had his chance when he was alive and now in the afterlife the balance is being reversed. (You remember Jesus said, “The last will be first and the first will be last.”) “You, Dives, are getting your just reward and Lazarus is getting his benefit that he missed in life.” And besides, there is a great gulf, and Lazarus cannot cross it even if he wanted to. I’ve always wondered if Lazarus wanted to dip his finger in the water, or if he wanted to make another gesture with his finger that did not include water. I guess I’ll never know.
Dives persists in thinking Lazarus should be his servant for him and run errands. “Then send Lazarus to my father’s house to warn my brothers.” It is at this moment that Jesus takes what is a familiar folk story and gives it his own twist. “No,” says Abraham, “they have Moses and the prophets to tell them what is right.” Dives argues, “but if they had someone (they know) come from the dead then they would believe.” Abraham responds, “They would not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.”
And we all know that the religious leaders failed to be convinced even when Jesus rose from the grave. So the writer of the Gospel of Luke is making a dig at those who do not believe even after Easter.
How we relate to this story is different depending on our situation, where we are in life.
“You have five years to live.” This statement has a significantly different impact on you if you are 100 years old or 40 years old. In one setting it is pretty good news; in the other bad news indeed.
“This coupon is worth $10.” If that is on a product that costs $20 it is quite a deal; if it is on a new car it is not much of a motivation to choose that seller before another.
So the meaning changes depending on where we are, what our life circumstances are. How we hear Jesus story of Lazarus and Dives may depend on how much wealth we have.
Well off folks may hear these words as a reminder to use their wealth in good and generous ways, as stewards. There was a time in American culture when the general notion was “Noblis Oblige.” One has a duty to do what one has the capacity to do for others. This has not been so popular recently.
Or the rich may hear these words of Jesus and decide that Jesus is a populist demagogue, call him a “divider” rather than a “uniter.” We have heard a lot in recent years about those who foment class warfare. I am sure some have accused Jesus of being a subversive or something of that sort. Some rich folks prefer churches where these sorts of words of Jesus are not mentioned.
The poor hear may hear these words in a different way. Black slaves in America emphasized these particular words of Jesus.
- Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.
- Poor Man Lazarus
- “See that woman all dressed up fine? Ain’t got Jesus on her mind.”
The poor may chuckle inside with the notion that the rich are “gonna get theirs.” This was part of the Marxist critique of religion. The Marxists believed that the Judeo-Christian religions were defective because they preached “pie in the sky by and by.” This was why religion was the “opiate of the people.” That the notion that the rich would go to hell and burn while poor folks would be elevated and given a special good place in the afterlife was thought to be a palliative that prevented the poor from taking immediate action to demand that wealth be re-distributed.
It is remarkable that these words from Jesus can anger both advocates for the rich and advocates for the poor some 2000 years later.
This preaching of Jesus has meaning for both the rich and the poor and the rest of us in between.
- There is an ultimate accounting for what we do in this life. Whether it is called “Heaven and Hell,” karma, “the love you take is equal to the love you make,” “whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, that you do unto me,” or what. This is an idea common to all world religions. Yes, this is in part just how the human mind works, yes, it is wish fulfillment. But maybe the mind works that way because it is crafted by a God of Justice who wants to guide us so much that God hard wired it into our brain, along with the capacity for language and a special ability to recognize faces. Is our brain hard wired for justice? We are called to action for good in the here and now. We are called to “earn our wings every day.” While it sounds like the parable is about the afterlife, it is actually about the present.
- Dives is arrogant even in hell. Reminds me of Carly Simon’s 1972 hit, “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.” This is part of the secret for why we have no sympathy when we read of the plight of Dives. He is clueless because he assumes that the universe exists for his benefit and that he can direct others to run errands even from the flames of hell. Dives is sort of the prime example of entitlement – folks who just assume that everything exists for their benefit alone, people who have no recognition that their wealth, power, influence, education, health, social status – all of these have come to them as gifts from God and that they should, we should, be humble as we use these gifts. Gifted people are far more likable when they are appreciative of what they have. Shoot, all of us are more likable when we think about others and their plight. A little humility goes a long way.
While how we read the scripture and how we hear Jesus is affected by our social location, Jesus main point is that each in our own circumstance are called to live this life justly, and all can share generously with those in need, particularly the poor. In this Jesus is a “uniter.” We are all called to “lay up treasure in heaven.” All of us have a responsibility to use what resources we have not only for ourselves but also for the good of others. No one is either so poor that they have nothing to give to others in need, and no one is too rich to help. I think this is the genius of proportionate giving. What we give is based on how we have been blessed by God. God never asks us to do what we cannot do; God never asks us to give more than we can give.
Amen and amen.