Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Rich Man, Lazarus, and Us

Proper 21 – Year C (Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost)
Amos 6:1-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:11-19; Luke 16:19-31
Sunday, September 30, 2007 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

One day a certain old, rich man of a miserable disposition visited a rabbi, who took the rich man by the hand and led him to a window. “Look out there,” he said. The rich man looked into the street. “What do you see?” asked the rabbi. “I see men, women, and children,” answered the rich man. Again the rabbi took him by the hand and this time led him to a mirror. “Now what do you see?” “Now I see myself,” the rich man replied.

Then the rabbi said, “Behold, in the window there is glass, and in the mirror there is glass. But the glass of the mirror is covered with a little silver, and no sooner is the silver added than you cease to see others, but you see only yourself” (“Window & Mirror”).

This poignant anecdote aptly illustrates today’s Gospel lesson where Jesus tells the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The Rich Man in the Gospel has much in common with the rich man and with the mirror in the anecdote. As the rabbi notes, once a piece of glass is covered with a little silver, a person cannot see through the glass, but only sees oneself. Once the man received a covering of silver, of wealth, he could no longer see others, but only himself, his own desires for pleasure and fulfillment. His covering of silver prevented him from seeing other men, women, and children.

So it was with the Rich Man in the Gospel lesson. The lesson paints a vivid portrait of this man’s life of decadence and indulgence – clothed in purple linen, a cloth reserved for the wealthiest Roman citizens; indulging in sumptuous feasts every day. Meanwhile, just outside the gate of his manse lay Lazarus, a poor man suffering from illness and from hunger. Lazarus was so hungry, he would have been ecstatic to eat the scraps that fell from the Rich Man’s table. This is particularly telling, because in that society at that time, the scraps that fell from the table were pieces of bread which were used to wipe ones greasy hands during the meal and then thrown on the floor, usually to be disposed of by the household dogs. In our modern times, that would be like being so hungry that you would be willing to lick the grease and tiny bits of food off a dirty napkin. Not very appetizing, nor very nutritious.

Presumably, based on what follows, the Rich Man had seen Lazarus lying by his gate. He had probably walked by him or ridden by him on horseback or in a chariot numerous times. But not once did he bother to stop to help Lazarus, to give him money, to offer him a bite to eat, to provide medical attention for his sores. No, the Rich Man was so wrapped up in himself and his own concerns, needs, and desires that he saw Lazarus, but did not really see him, certainly not as a fellow human being.

The lesson continues to describe what happens after both men die. Lazarus is taken by an angel to rest in the bosom of Abraham, where he would receive the comfort, care, and consolation that he never had in life. The Rich Man, on the other hand, is relegated to the fiery torment of Hades. But even in death, the Rich Man just doesn’t get it. He still thinks he is a man of wealth and great power, able to order people around to do his bidding, to meet his every need and desire. He has the nerve to ask Abraham if Lazarus might come and dip his finger in water to cool the Rich Man’s tongue. When that is not a viable option, due to the chasm that separates the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Rich Man has the audacity to suggest that Lazarus serve as a messenger boy to warn the Rich Man’s five brothers that if they don’t change their ways, they risk the same fate as their brother. Sorry, not an option. Well, at least, for once, the Rich Man was thinking of someone besides himself. But, nonetheless, it was too little, too late.

Before we continue on, I’d like to pause and consider the meaning of this story up to this point. Probably the most commonly held interpretation is what one of our parishioners termed the compensatory nature of the hereafter – that when we die, we are rewarded or punished for how we lived our life. As Abraham says to the Rich Man, “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.” Those who lived the good life, with plenty of wealth and power, with no real cares or burdens to speak of, are destined to, shall we say, a less than pleasurable afterlife. On the other hand, those who, like Lazarus, had an absolutely miserable existence are destined to spend the hereafter in comfort, presumably enjoying the pleasures they were denied in life. A variation of this interpretation is one we have heard several times in the Gospel lessons in previous weeks, most succinctly stated in last week’s Gospel, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Proper 20, Luke 16:13). And if you opt for serving wealth over God, you will be sorry in the hereafter. But I would like to offer a different interpretation – one based on relationship – the relationship between the Rich Man and Lazarus, and the relationship between God and humanity.

Remember the similarities between the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus and the anecdote about the window and the mirror? In both cases, the rich men were so wrapped up in themselves, in their wealth and power, in their lives of decadence and self-indulgence, that they could see no one but themselves. They were only concerned with their own goals and desires, to the exclusion of all else, to the exclusion of everyone else. This is beautifully illustrated in a story about Catherine Booth, wife of William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army:

"Wherever Catherine Booth went,” said G. Campbell Morgan, “humanity went to hear her. Princes and peeresses merged with paupers and prostitutes.” One night, Morgan shared in a meeting with Mrs. Booth; and a great crowd of “publicans and sinners” was there. Her message brought many to Christ. After the meeting, Morgan and Mrs. Booth went to be entertained at a fine home; and the lady of the manor said, “My dear Mrs. Booth, that meeting was dreadful.”

“What do you mean, dearie?” asked Mrs. Booth.

“Oh, when you were speaking, I was looking at those people opposite to me. Their faces were so terrible, many of them. I don’t think I shall sleep tonight!”

“Why, dearie, don’t you know them?” Mrs. Booth asked; and the hostess replied, “Certainly not!”

“Well, that is interesting,” Mrs. Booth said. “I did not bring them with me from London; they are your neighbors!” (“Catherine Booth”).

One of the two great commandments that Jesus gave us is “you shall love your neighbor has yourself.” The Rich Man failed to live according to this commandment. He not only failed to live that commandment, he was so absorbed with his own desires that he failed to even recognize that he had any neighbors. Maybe that’s a little unfair. But at the very least, if he did know that he had neighbors, he certainly failed to recognize that his neighbors included all his fellow human beings, even one such as Lazarus. I think this is the sin of the Rich Man, the reason he was condemned to spend all eternity in fiery torment. Not because he was rich, but because he failed to recognize who his neighbors were and thereby failed to treat them with any semblance of compassion, let alone love them.

By being so self-absorbed, by failing to recognize and care for his neighbor, the Rich Man not only separated himself from his fellow human beings – which, frankly, because of his self-absorption and sense of self-worth and even self-aggrandizement, he was probably glad to do. By separating himself from and lacking concern for his neighbor, the Rich Man effectively succeeded in separating himself from God. In the Scriptures, we hear time and again that God loves justice and mercy, that God favors the poor, the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the prisoner. One way that we love God is to care about what God cares about. One way that we love God is to care for those whom God cares for. To do otherwise separates us from God. And that’s just what the Rich Man did throughout his lifetime.

This relational separation from God is vividly illustrated in the Gospel lesson in the very physical separation of the chasm. The spiritual and relational separation experienced in life is translated into a physical, geographical separation in the hereafter. In the case of the Rich Man, this separation, this chasm, is so great, so vast, that it cannot be traversed.

Now what does all of this mean for us? When I ponder such questions in light of Scripture, I find it helpful to try to identify with the characters in the particular story. Then, based on which character I can most identify with, I am able to begin understanding what the story is saying to me. So, in this story, who do you most identify with? The Rich Man or Lazarus? Not an easy choice, is it? In all honesty, very few of us can really identify with Lazarus. Very few of us have experienced the type of suffering and ostracism that Lazarus did. If we are brutally honest with ourselves, particularly in our contemporary culture, I would venture that most of us come closer to identifying with the Rich Man. Certainly we are not as extreme as the Rich Man. But along the spectrum between the Rich Man and Lazarus, most of us we are probably closer to the Rich Man’s end of the scale.

But I don’t necessarily believe that in this case we are meant to try to identify with either the Rich Man or Lazarus. I tend to think that we are meant to identify more with the Rich Man’s brothers. The Rich Man wants Lazarus to go and warn his brothers, a proposal which Abraham soundly rejects. After all, the brothers have Moses and the prophets, the teachings of Scripture to guide them. It is their choice whether they decide to follow the teachings of Scripture or not. Even a magical appearance by a dead person such as Lazarus would not be sufficient proof to one who chooses not to follow what is written. They are either going to be inclined to follow Scripture on their own volition, or they aren’t. Nothing is going to change that.

We have the same choice as the Rich Man’s brothers. We have the same opportunity for redemption that they had. They had the Law and the Prophets, the words of Scripture to guide them, as do we. But we have one thing they didn’t have. We have proof of God’s love and of God’s mercy, provided through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This appearance of a dead man was not meant as a sign that we should do what God wants, but a gift from God, providing a sign that no matter who we are, be we Rich Men or be we Lazaruses, we are loved, we are forgiven, we are saved. But we still have to play our part. We can choose to look into the mirror and see only ourselves, thereby missing the gift God offers us. Or we can look through the window, and see men, women, and children, our neighbors, be they rich or poor, powerful or weak, who reflect back to us the image of the Risen Christ, who reflect back to us the image and likeness of God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


“Window & Mirror.” FunnySermons: Sermon Illustrations and Anecdotes. []. (27 September 2007).

“Catherine Booth.” NETBible, Sermon Illustrations, Topic: Neighbor. []. (27 September 2007).

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Things They Don't Teach You in Seminary

There are some things they just don’t teach you in seminary. One of them is how to put out fires – real fires, not the figurative type (which they do try to teach you). This afternoon I was at the church for a meeting of the Canterbury Westwood Foundation Board. Right before the meeting started, I was on my way to my office to try calling a board member who was not there but whom I knew to be on campus. As I walked down the hall, I looked out the door at the end of the hall, which leads out into the parking lot. I saw that there at the end of the parking lot, our trash dumpster was in flames. Apparently, some painters who were doing work in the building put some trash in the dumpster. According to a passer-by, someone then walked by and tossed a cigarette in the dumpster, lighting the paint soaked papers on fire. I went into the work room and got the fire extinguisher and went out to try to put the fire out. I tried several times, but every time I thought the flames were out, the fire would come back. After exhausting the contents of the extinguisher, the painters got the hose out and did a bucket brigade carrying water to put on the fire. After a couple of minutes, the fire department showed up and used their equipment and water tanks to put the fire out for good (apparently someone in the neighborhood saw the flames and called them). All turned out well and we got it in time before the fire spread to the adjacent bushes, which could have been disastrous for both the church and the surrounding houses.

Just another quiet day at your local Episcopal parish. But I suppose I need to call the Dean at Seabury and have him revise the curriculum to include Firefighting 101 in the course offerings.


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Sunday, September 09, 2007

Jesus' Legal Fine Print

Proper 18 – Year C
(Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost)

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-20; Luke 14:25-33
Sunday, September 9, 2007 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

In our litigation-happy society, we are inundated with legal fine print. It pervades virtually every aspect of our lives, notifying us of what we are entitled to and what we are not entitled to, and making us aware of our responsibilities. You can find such fine print in legal documents for such major purchases as a house or a car. When you go to the doctor’s office, you are required to read and sign legal documents that acknowledge your rights and responsibilities, while waiving other rights. Now a days, even things we don’t necessarily think of as legal documents contain fine print. Next time you go to the grocery store and use a coupon for 25 cents off the price of a can of tuna, take a look at the coupon. There is fine print that says the coupon has no inherent cash value, that it can only be used on the specified brand and size of the product, and that you only get the savings if you use it by a particular date. Many products that you purchase even have legal fine print. Because of the increase among people who have allergic reactions to nuts, you often find a statement on many product labels that the product was processed using equipment that was also used to manufacture foods containing peanuts or other tree nuts. Some of the legal fine print we encounter may even seem a little over the top, stating the obvious. A number of years ago, a woman successfully sued MacDonald’s when she was burned by a cup of coffee. Now, cups of coffee purchased at MacDonald’s contain a statement that the cup contains hot liquid – Duh!

Yes, legal fine print is nearly everywhere. You might, therefore, not be surprised that the Church is no exception. When you’re baptized, you agree to the Baptismal Covenant which outlines your rights and responsibilities as a member of the Body of Christ. If you’re married, you took certain vows that define what is expected of you and what your responsibilities are in relating to your spouse. There are parts of Scripture that are, for all intents and purposes, entirely legal fine print, such as the Ten Commandments, not to mention such Old Testament books as Leviticus and Deuteronomy, which contain much of the Jewish Law. These are all sort of obvious. But what many people don’t realize is that Jesus imparted his own legal fine print on would-be followers. And that’s what we hear in today’s Gospel lesson from Luke – the legal fine print that Jesus says we must agree to in order to be his followers.

Let’s take a look. In this passage, Jesus lays out three explicit requirements for would-be followers. The first is that “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (v. 26). This is a pretty harsh requirement, particularly coming from a man often referred to as the Prince of Peace, a man who preached a message of love. Jesus’ ethic of love makes it unthinkable that anyone should hate his or her own family. So how, then, can Jesus require such a thing? Biblical scholar Alan Culpepper gives us a little bit of a reprieve on this one, although not much. Culpepper notes that this appears to be a case of “Semitic hyperbole that exaggerates a contrast so that it can be seen more clearly. [The term translated as] ‘Hate’ does not mean anger or hostility. [Rather] it indicates that if there is a conflict, one’s response to the demands of discipleship must take precedence over even the most sacred of human relationships” (Culpepper, 292). This interpretation is corroborated by examining the comparable passage in Matthew (10:37), where Jesus speaks of loving him more than one’s family. While this interpretation does soften the tone a bit, Jesus’ message is undeniable. There is no greater duty than commitment to Jesus and to being one of his followers. Commitment to following Jesus trumps one’s sense of obligation to one’s own family, even one’s own sense of self-preservation. This does not mean that you have to give up your family. But if you chose to follow Jesus, and if a situation requires that you choose between family or Jesus, Jesus wins out. Are we willing to make that kind of commitment?

The second condition Jesus places on would-be followers is that “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (v. 27). In everyday life, use of the term “taking up your cross” or someone having “a cross to bear” generally means having some sort of personal burden or private suffering – one that generally is carried and endured against one’s will, but also which is generally done privately, silently, without complaint. In the context of Jesus’ legal fine print, bearing a cross has nothing to do with illness, physical condition, economic hardship, etc. It is rather what we voluntarily do as a consequence of our commitment to Christ – deliberate sacrifice, exposure to risk. Placed in the context of Jesus life, this section of Scripture occurs as Jesus has already set his face toward Jerusalem, to his death on the cross. Put quite bluntly, this condition means that the would-be follower of Jesus must be willing to suffer the same fate as he did. Now a days, not too many people are put to death because of their faith. But there are certainly still times and places in our society where a crucifixion of sorts does occur. People are still belittled, jeered at, mocked, even physically attacked, because of their faith. Even in the absence of such conditions, taking up one’s cross means living as Jesus lived – bearing the pain and suffering of the world, and doing what one can to alleviate that pain and suffering. Namely, this takes the form of acts of charity, working to house the homeless, clothe the naked, free the prisoner, and working for justice and mercy among those who are downtrodden by our society. Are we willing to endure potential injury and insult, or at least a little inconvenience by going out of our way to help the other, so that we might be able to call ourselves Jesus’ followers?

The third condition Jesus places on would-be followers is that “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (v. 33). Now that’s a biggy! Sure, being willing to giving up your family and being willing to take up your cross to follow Jesus are massive requirements. But as we’ve just established, the first two conditions are not 100 percent certain. What Jesus appears to have been saying is that you don’t have to give up family or take up the cross right off the bat, but rather need to be prepared to do those things if push comes to shove, if your discipleship comes into conflict with other obligations or with the ways of the world. But giving up all your possessions?

That is certainly not an easy requirement to live with. But I don’t think Jesus was asking us to live in a state of poverty, either. I think this piece of legal fine print has some wiggle room in it, just like the other two conditions. According to Biblical scholar Gail O’Day, what Jesus is really saying is that “one must be willing to say farewell to everything that stands as an obstacle to full and faithful discipleship” (O’Day, 43). The reality is that in our contemporary society, it is very hard to get along without any possessions – not impossible, but certainly not easy. Based on the intent of the first two conditions, I would tend to agree with O’Day’s interpretation. We must be willing to set aside those things, no matter what they are, that interfere with our carrying out our calling to be faithful disciples. If you can do it while retaining your possessions, more power to you. But when the care and maintenance of possessions takes priority over the work that Jesus has called us to, then all bets are off. At that point, maybe it’s time to revisit the provisions of the third condition. Are we willing, even able, to set aside our concern for material stuff, the stuff that gives us great comfort, to engage in the often messy, uncomfortable work that Jesus asks of us?

Inserted between the second and third conditions of Jesus’ legal fine print are two parables – one about making preparations to build a tower, and the other about a king preparing for battle against another king with a larger army. Both of these parables examine the wisdom of mature decision-making. Both lead to the conclusion that a reasonable person would not undertake a task without being sure that it could be finished. O’Day notes that these parables, “framed by Jesus’ words on discipleship, counsel that the decision for discipleship must be a highly intentional matter” (O’Day, 44). Given the conditions, the legal fine print Jesus lays out, one should not enter into the decision to follow Jesus lightly. After all, if we do, we may be faced with tough situations. We may be forced to, and, by accepting the call to discipleship, need to be willing to give up anything that stands in the way of that calling – family, possessions, dignity, our very lives. As Alan Culpepper notes, “God has not entered into a redemptive process without being prepared to complete it, and Jesus did not set us face for Jerusalem without being prepared to face the sacrifice that would be required of him there. Thus no one should step forward as a disciple without being prepared to forsake everything for the sake of following Jesus” (Culpepper, 292).

This section of scripture demonstrates absolute transparency in what Jesus is trying to do. In these words, we can rest assured that Jesus is not trying to lure unsuspecting people to discipleship. He warns us in advance that the way of discipleship will not be easy. His “intent is to urge persons who are seeking to be disciples to consider first the demands of discipleship” (Culpepper, 292). The decision is ours. And then, if we still are willing to sign on, he will accept us with open arms.

The good news in all of this legal fine print is not so much what is written, but rather what is not specifically written, what is implied. While the legal fine print discusses what is expected of the would-be follower of Jesus, nowhere does it say that success is required. Jesus is not asking for an absolute guarantee from us that we will be able to follow through with what he asks, for our promise that we will be able to get it right. In fact, he knows that we will not get it right. All Jesus asks is that we try. What he is asking for is a commitment – a fully-informed commitment, a commitment fully made. That commitment is not to a way of life filled with loneliness and poverty, or a commitment to a seemingly hopeless or impossible goal. Rather, it is a commitment to a person – to Jesus. Jesus calls us to be his disciples. A disciple does not follow a cause or a goal. A disciple follows another person and learns a new way of life (Culpepper, 293). That is what Jesus promises us. By committing to follow him, Jesus promises to lead us to a new way of life, to eternal life. As today’s passage, the fine print, reveals, the way may not be easy. Jesus never promised that it would be. In fact, he is quite up front about what may be required. All he asks is that we enter into our commitment to him fully are of what we may be getting ourselves into, that we do so whole-heartedly, and that we try our best. But he also promises that, in the end, the journey will be worth it.

In closing, I leave you with one final thought by Alan Culpepper that sums up today’s lesson. “The cost of discipleship is paid in many different kinds of currency. For some persons a redirection of time and energy is required, for others a change in personal relationships, a change in vocation, or a commitment of financial resources; but for each person the call to discipleship is all consuming. A complete change in priorities is required of all would-be disciples. No part time disciples are needed. No partial commitments are accepted” (Culpepper, 294).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Culpepper, R. Alan. “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection.” In Vol. IX of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Edited by Leander E. Keck, et al. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.

O’Day, Gail R. Proclamation 4: Aids for Interpreting the Lessons of the Church Year: Series B Pentecost 2. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989.

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