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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