We’ve been hearing Jesus teach with parables for the past few weeks. Today we hear the last of five stories that make up chapters 15 and 16 in Luke’s gospel. They all have something to do with wealth, in one way or another. And they all have something to do with repentance.
The story of the Prodigal Son stands right in the middle of these five parables, holding them all together. The first two described wealth that had been lost, and is now found, as cause for rejoicing here on earth, just as one sinner’s repentance is cause for rejoicing in heaven. The next two parables tell of wealth that has been squandered, and the resulting crisis creates an opportunity for hearts and minds to change. That’s what repentance is, Jesus says. It’s a change of heart, and a change of mind.
Today we hear the last of these parables on wealth and repentance. But this one is a little different than all the others. In this one, we learn the cost of non-repentance, the price you pay when you just won’t change.
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.
The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 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.’
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. 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.’
He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’
Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’
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.’”
This is the second week in a row Jesus starts off by saying, “there was a rich man, …” But it’s the only time in any parable that Jesus gives one of the main characters a real name. And instead of naming the rich man who begins the story, it’s the poor man who gets the honor. He is called Lazarus, a shortened form of Eliezar, which means “God helps.”
The set-up of the story puts a gate between the rich man and Lazarus, but it’s more of a barrier than a way to connect them. While the rich man wears expensive clothes, Lazarus only wears sores. The rich man ignores naked and hungry Lazarus as he passes through the gate everyday, on his way to a great feast. Naked, sick, and hungry, Lazarus is invisible to the rich man.
And this is the problem.
Both men die, and suddenly their situations are reversed. Now Lazarus is sitting in Abraham’s lap, being cared for by angels, and the rich man is tormented in Hades. But he can see Lazarus, … at last. Too bad he never noticed him before.
Seeing is an important theme in Luke’s gospel. David Lose writes, “Before you can have compassion for people, you have to see them, acknowledging their presence, needs, and gifts and above all their status” as valuable in God’s eyes.
The rich man knew who Lazarus was. He knew his name. But he didn’t value Lazarus as a beloved child of God. And even when he is in torment, he still doesn’t see Lazarus. He only sees that he is in Abraham’s arms.
The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to give him some relief from the flames that torment him. Nope, says Abraham, that’s not how it works. When you were alive, you had good things and Lazarus had nothing. You never helped him, so why should he help you now?
‘Well, at least let him go warn my brothers, so they can repent before it’s too late for them,’ the rich man begs.
Nope again, says Abraham. They have had plenty of warning from Moses and the prophets. If they won’t listen to that warning, someone rising from the dead isn’t going to convince them, either.
Notice that Lazarus never says anything? He doesn’t need to. His presence at the rich man’s gate all those years spoke volumes. Every day the rich man walked past poor Lazarus without seeing him, without caring about his condition, without doing anything to help him. The rich man had plenty of opportunities to reach out, plenty of chances to help, and he ignored every one of them.
Now, we could leave it right here and make this parable be a simple morality tale about caring for the poor. That is certainly a good thing to do. Jesus himself said, “the poor you will always have with you” (John 12:8).
And if you remember way back in Luke 4, when Jesus was just beginning his ministry, he preached to his hometown church in Nazareth from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
Jesus is all about bringing good news to the poor and freeing the oppressed. It’s in his mission statement. It should be in ours, as followers of Jesus. But this parable is not about giving handouts to the poor. And it is not even a story about what heaven and hell are like, or what happens to us after we die. Like the four parables that came before it, this parable is about repentance, and what we do with our wealth. Or rather, what our wealth does to us, because wealth can blind us to the fact that we are actually poor.
Remember that the Pharisees, who have been listening to all these parables right along with us, had a value problem. They valued money more than they valued people. Wealth meant more to them than the salvation of souls. Jesus saw right through their righteous posturing, into their empty hearts. Their wealth had blinded them to their own spiritual poverty.
The gap isn’t between heaven and hell, after all. The gap is between what God asks of us, and what we actually do with what we have. The gap is the one we create between others and ourselves whenever we think they are worth less than we think we are worth. And giving handouts to the poor is just one example of the way we increase the size of this gap, even when we think we are doing what Jesus wants us to do.
Because every time we dole out our leftovers, our hand-me-downs, our excess, we are reinforcing in our own minds the idea that the people who receive these goods are less valuable than we are. It’s why I really don’t like the term “less fortunate.” It implies less valuable, less worthy of respect, … less than me.
And Jesus says that’s wrong. We need a change of heart, a change of mind, before it’s too late. The rich man didn’t repent. He was still treating Lazarus as less than, even after he had experienced the torment of hell’s flames. He wouldn’t even speak directly to Lazarus. “Make him dip his finger in water to cool my tongue,” he ordered Abraham. “Make him go to my brothers who are still living.” Even in his tortured state, he couldn’t bring himself to see Lazarus as an equal partner in God’s grace.
You see, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus isn’t about what happens to us after we die. It’s a parable about repenting of the notion that someone who is poor is less important to God than someone who is rich. In God’s view, every one of us has value. Every one of us is a beloved child who needs to come home.
A pastor mentioned the other day that someone had come into the pastor’s study and put a letter on the pastor’s desk. It was a formal withdrawal from membership in the church. The person said, “This church no longer fits with my values. I can’t be a member here any longer.” The pastor said, “That’s funny. I don’t remember reading anywhere in the Bible that the church should align with your values. Jesus is all about getting you aligned with God’s values. That’s what church is for.”
Jesus isn’t interested in fitting into your value system. Jesus wants you to be aligned with God’s value system, where every single person is worthy and loved.
So let me recap for you these past four weeks, each one centered on a parable that is closely connected to the parable of the Prodigal Son.
- Heaven rejoices whenever the lost are found.
- Heaven rejoices whenever a sinner repents.
- God welcomes his children home when they repent.
- God values people over wealth, and wants us to do the same.
- And God knows some of us will never get it.
Even in death, the rich man was still focused on himself and his own comfort. He’s the picture of what it looks like to not repent. And the price he paid for his non-repentance was not just the flaming torment he had to endure. He also had to endure seeing Lazarus being comforted by Abraham on the other side of a deep chasm.
That chasm, that gap, was one he had created. He made it wider and deeper every time he walked by Lazarus and did nothing to help him. It grew every time he feasted while Lazarus starved. Even if the rich man had brushed a few crumbs toward Lazarus, the gap would have grown larger, because the gap came from the rich man’s assumption that Lazarus was worth less, when in fact, Lazarus was every bit as valuable as any other beloved child of God. Even the rich man.
So how are we to mind the gap? How do we close that chasm that separates us from people we’ve come to see as somehow less valuable, less lovable?
There is only one bridge that can connect us to people on the other side of the chasm. That bridge is Jesus Christ. When we fall at the foot of Christ’s cross, we see that we are no better than anyone else, and no one else’s sins are worse than our own. When we place Jesus at the very center of our lives, Christ stands in the gap between us and our misplaced values, and helps us see that sharing resources among all God’s children looks a lot different than giving away our excess to the ‘less fortunate.’
Because we all stand in need of grace. None of us deserves it. And every one of us is a beloved child of God.