September 25, 2022

The Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost - September 25, 2022

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15, Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31
From St. Paul’s first Letter to Timothy, “… be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share … so
that (you) may take hold of the life that really is life.” I speak to you in the name of God: Father,
Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


Our gospel readings these past few weeks have featured some of the most difficult sayings of
Jesus. From his statement that unless we hate father, mother, family, and friends, we cannot be his
disciples, to that of praising the shrewd or dishonest manager in last week’s gospel reading. And
today, Jesus goes even further with a parable about a rich man and a poor man – a parable that
tends to leave us scratching our heads in confusion wondering where we might fit in this story. The
truth is, I don’t like this parable of “The Rich Man and Lazarus.” I don’t like it because on the
surface, it seems absent of God’s grace with no last chance for redemption. And I am not alone.
For two millennia now, theologians have argued as to the real intent of this story. For some, it is a
vision of the last judgment while, for others, a condemnation of wealth. Some interpret this story as
a statement against a misperception of how 1 st century Palestinians treated the poor. A perception
that has fostered incredible anti-Semitism that blames wealthy Jews as the source of society’s ills.
For others, it is a statement of God’s preferential treatment of and for the poor and the promise
that while you might live in squalor today, hang in there because in heaven you’ll be happy. While
each of these theories and interpretations warrant reflection, I don’t buy them. There is something
very simple and yet, at the same time, very deep about this parable. Something that spoke to the
hearts and minds of its hearers then, just as it should speak even more deeply and urgently to us
today.
See, while Bible commentaries and theologians offer all sorts of theories as to what Jesus is
talking about here, it cannot be understood outside the context of Hebrew tradition and teaching.
For example, in Hebrew tradition, any time a story begins “a certain man had two sons” the hearers
know that the younger son will be the hero: someone to be emulated and celebrated. So it is with
the biblical stories of Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, Ishmael and Isaac, the Prodigal Son, and so
on. Similarly, when a story begins, “There was a rich man …” every good Jew knows that fellow is
no hero and certainly no role model. And so it is with today’s parable. You see, there is a tendency
to think that those who first heard this story identified with the rich man. Nothing could be further
from the truth. Jesus’ description of this man clearly encourages disdain. He is attired in the most
expensive fabric known to the world at that time. If that isn’t enough, he also wears linen - a type
of linen reserved for priests alone and worn only when serving in the temple. But this guy wears it
to dinner.
In addition, he doesn’t just eat, but rather, he feasts every day. The Hebrew and Greek words used
for feast here are the same words used to describe the kind of vast meals set out to celebrate
major holy days. In other words, this guy sat down, not to a bowl of Mac & Cheese, but rather, a
Thanksgiving Day feast every single night while a man at his gate starved to death. Jesus’
description of this rich man suggests he is the epitome of consumerism: an endless indulgence
without regard for his neighbor. And that is why everyone hearing Jesus tell this story would be
absolutely appalled at his conduct. He is violating everything the Torah says about responsible
wealth, and about loving God and neighbor. This story purposely begins with an extreme: a man so
vile no one can identify with him.
Enter the poor man into the story. His poverty is also beyond comprehension. Picture it: dogs lick
his sores every night. While some theologians have argued that because dog saliva has healing
properties this was actually a good thing – again, I don’t buy it - his body is feeding dogs while his
own body starves. This is an unimaginable situation. New Testament Scholar Amy-Jill Levine
cautions us to realize that these two men are simply caricatures in the extreme, “We are neither the
rich man nor Lazarus.” [1] And that is important to our understanding. Otherwise, we get caught up
trying to justify one character over another or debating how much wealth is enough and so on,
when that is not Jesus’ intent.
Our Lord’s intent begins to unfold through the fact that the only name offered in this story is
that of Lazarus. Because the rich man knew his name means he was not a stranger to him and,
therefore, he had no excuse for not helping him. But there’s even more to that name. The rich man
pleads for Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his brothers. He believes that seeing someone
from the dead will convince them to amend their lives. Well, in the gospel according to John (Jn.
11) a fellow also named Lazarus was raised from the dead, appeared to many and yet, not all
believed. Abraham says, your brothers already know right from wrong. They have heard and read
the words of the prophets and the teaching of the sages, and yet they do not believe, nor do they
follow the Torah. The rich man’s desire to warn only his brothers suggests to me that he still doesn’t
understand what he did wrong to deserve such punishment. And that further reveals Jesus’ point.
You see, the rich man’s sin is not about wealth nor decadent lifestyles. His sin is simply that he
failed to truly see the poor man at his gate. And I would offer this morning that many today tend to
do the same. We might say we are listening to music on the radio while driving and yet, really don’t
hear the depth of that music. And so it is with seeing. We can walk through a crowded room and
get to the other side and realize we’ve not really seen who was present. Oh, we might have noticed
some, but not everyone and certainly not everyone’s need.
Again, Scholar Levine, says “the concern in Jewish scripture … is not what we have, but what we
do.” And that’s the point here. She says, “If we cannot see the poor person at our gate – you know,
on the street, in the commercials that come into our homes, in the appeals made in sermons, in the
newspapers – then we are lost.” Friends, “ironically, what the rich man asked Lazarus to do (that is)
to warn his brothers … this parable does for (us) and asks, will (those) who hear the Torah’s
insistence that they ‘love their neighbor’ and ‘love the stranger’, really listen?” [2] Better yet, will we?
I thought a lot about this parable this week. It spoke to me that much more deeply with the
news that rather than see and try to meet the need of 50 Venezuelan asylum seekers – legal
seekers – authorities chose to fly them to Martha’s Vineyard and elsewhere just to make a political
point about immigration issues and, in effect, chose to ignore the poor man at our nation’s gate.
Regardless of where one stands on issues of immigration and borders and walls and so on, I bristled
when I heard about this because as a Christian and especially, as an Episcopalian, I have been
taught to believe in, affirm, and uphold the dignity of every human being – to see the needy at our
gate and not use them as pawns. Yet, our gospel lesson goes even deeper as it suggests that
because the poor man lived at the gates, the rich man most likely chose to step over him or around
him every time he left or returned to his home. And again, that hits me hard because poverty and
need has become such a norm in our society that it is easy to send it away, step over it, choose to
ignore it and go on our way. Jesus calls us to not only see but hear the Lazarus around us, and, as
people of the Holy Cross find a way forward to meet their needs and uphold their dignity, and
welcome them into our lives as equal members of the human family. The human family for whom
Christ died.
The marvelous thing about the parables of Jesus is that they always affirm who God is and God’s
desire for God’s people, desire for the whole world. The good news in today’s parable and all the
parables is that God is always ready to forgive – even when we have ignored our neighbor. That is
the concluding message of the rest of our reading from Jeremiah. When people repent and commit
to live differently, they are always restored, and so shall it be in us and our communities if we, too,
will commit to truly follow Jesus and embody God’s unchanging, magnificent, redeeming, dignifying,
and welcoming love.
St. Paul urged the church, “be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share … so that (you)
may take hold of the life that really is life” – a life where every person is valued. May our gracious
and patient God direct us in how to respond to the Lazarus among us today, the Lazarus in our
communities, our State and nation, and be God’s reconciling, healing, and redemptive presence to
them today and always. O God, let this be true for us, and in us, and especially through us. Amen.

[1] Levine, Amy-Jill, Short Stories by Jesus: New York, NY: HarperOne, 2014, p 255

[2] Ibid, p. 270, 273