SERMON 9-29-19 Pentecost 16C Proper 21 St. Monica’s
Dives and Lazarus/Heaven and Hell
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus told a parable about a rich man and poor man whose paths in this life never crossed, but they should have. The poor man Lazarus lived outside the opulent mansion of Dives and daily begged for the basics of life; the scraps from the rich man’s table. Dives lived comfortably, worked hard with all his needs met, but was blind and deaf to the condition of the child of God who suffered just outside his gates.
After they both died Dives lived eternity tortured by his earthly indifference to others and his disconnection from the plight of others. Lazarus lived eternity finally comforted from his sores, relieved of his hunger, and set free from his oppression caused by the disconnection from the abundance of others. A great chasm of indifference and self-fulfillment separated Dives from Lazarus in the earthly life, and that same chasm remained in the after life. The idea of heaven and hades is something with which many of us struggle.
Some may think in this parable Jesus is teaching us about God’s justice in the afterlife. We think he is explaining that we may face punishment for our bad deeds, and reward for our good deeds, but I am not sure that is what he is teaching us. It is comforting to believe in a harmonious promise of pearly gates, streets of gold, and mansions in the next life, but we are quick to dismiss even the possibility of ongoing sanctification and remorse in that same realm. We ask, “How could a loving God of grace punish his creatures?” Like Dives, is there a future condition in our progress toward sanctification, where we deal with our failures and poor choices, where remorse and regret exist. Scripture alludes to such a place, but I think Jesus is talking more about how we should live in this life, without the fear of the future.
Jesus was not dangling over us the promise of bliss for our good deeds and the pain of eternal suffering for the bad deeds we do. He is not enticing us like a puppy with a treat for the good tricks or with the discipline of a newspaper for the bad, all in order to make us live our lives as he lives, love as he loves, or to care for the least and lonely. Jesus is reminding us that as sisters and brothers under the grace of God, we are supposed to break down the chasms of indifference that separate us in this life. Jesus calls us to bring the reality of the Kingdom of God (where equality and justice exist) into this life right here and right now.
Harris wrote, “The rich man doesn’t get it: it is not that he screwed up by not helping Lazarus while they were both alive; rather it is that he could not hear, or did not listen to, Moses and the prophets, who had a lot to say about justice, the poor and those in need.” (2) All around us there are people suffering everyday and some of our neighbors do not have the basics of life, and some lack the opportunities for a better life. Some of us have a better life and yet, we struggle with depression, loneliness, fear, and uncertainty. In our own self-focus, we may find ourselves just like Dives with eyes that are blind to other’s plight, and ears that are deaf to their cries.
“According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 46.2 million Americans are considered impoverished, with 16.4 million American children younger than eighteen years old and 28 million people 65 and older living in poverty every day. Geography can exasperate poverty. For instance, the cost of housing, food, and other basics is much higher in Naples than in Arcadia, Labelle, or Immokalee, so right here in our own backyards there are people working, struggling, and trying to eek out a living, and they struggle to meet the basics needs of life.
On the cover of your bulletin is a modern depiction of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, which we hear about in today’s gospel reading. In the picture, people are busied in their daily lives working, moving about, and feasting and yet, they are oblivious to the plight of the poor woman who is begging for the scraps they have left. The kneeling woman in the picture could be the homeless man at the corner of I-75 and Immokalee whom we see each day. She could be the maintenance tech in our community working 40+ hours each week in the hot sun but barely makes enough to buy shoes for her daughter for school. She also may be the Christian sister or brother sitting beside you right now, whom you may never think is suffering in poverty, a scarcity of life that takes many forms. Some of us have never known economic poverty, but some of us suffer from another kind of poverty, a poverty of the soul, from which we all need to be saved.
Poverty of the soul exists when the work for our needs (not our wants) and the grace to relieve the suffering of others is disproportional. For some neighbors who cannot satisfy the basics of life, they become so pre-occupied with survival that they cannot attend to their own spiritual or higher needs. Alternatively, for some neighbors who abundantly satisfy their own basic needs of life, the abundance becomes the preoccupation and they too become distracted from their own spiritual needs. Poverty of the soul happens when God and other is left by the roadside, for the pursuit of the material needs of life. Now how would we treat one another if those basic needs were satisfied, and we all were able to attend to the higher needs of: belonging, esteem, self-actualization, and transcendence. Scholars call this concept “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” Jesus calls it loving our neighbor as ourselves.
Poverty and the Soul
The Prophet Amos shows how the poverty of soul pervades society. He wrote, Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, feel secure on Mount Samaria, lie on beds of ivory, lounge on their couches, eat lambs from the flock calves from the stall; sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, improvise on instruments of music; drink wine from bowls, anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Joseph was a righteous servant of God, but he experienced ruin and destruction at the hands of his indifferent brothers who turned their backs on him in his time of need.
The prophet reminds us that we must not only open our eyes to the poverty around us, but we must allow God to change hearts, so we might work to bring justice and grace to the plight of those around us, to change their circumstances, to bring mercy in the midst of scarcity, love in the midst of pain, and grace into the midst of loss. We are called to close the chasm between us.
The tragic flaw in (the gospel story today) is not the rich man’s wealth, but the fact that “he suffers from a deep spiritual deafness, an inability to hear and listen to the call for mercy and justice, or even the practical plea for just plain bread and some salve for the sores the dogs lick. His heart is hardened.” (2)
If we are we listening, why are we not responding?
Dives lived in torment of the poverty of the soul both in his earthly life and in the next. Theologian Frank Honeycutt writes, Dives “was indifferent to the needs of the poor, and that in it becomes a certain sort of hell for those who drown in their own possessions.”(4) In other words, our storehouses often become the idols that place a chasm between us and God, and between each other.
So, when our heart are free to share the abundance God has given us to manage for a time, then as Frank Honeycutt asserts, “We open wide our hands once closed in fear, mistrust, and perhaps indifference—a hellish way to live. And perhaps, for the first time, we see a sister or brother, Lazarus at our gate. Or, as a certain prophet once put it: Jesus at our gate.” (4)
Resurrection from Poverty
Whether we live with economic or spiritual poverty, we all need to be saved from the destitution of our isolated humanity, and we have hope that God is the God of abundance and not scarcity because we are a resurrection people. We believe that this life is not the end and so, we must believe the circumstances of scarcity and injustice are not the end. Mark Harris writes, “Too often we think the resurrection is proof that we Christians are on the right track—that believing in the resurrection is going to make everything come out all right. But don’t be too sure. If our hearts are closed to hearing the cry for justice, mercy and bread, the words of the resurrected One will not be convincing, but convicting. (2)
Paul convicts his young apprentice Timothy to teach believers a new way of life. He wrote, “Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.”
The reality of “True Life” Sisters and brothers is found we realize we need one another, when we realize what it means to be human. Dives “needed Lazarus as much as Lazarus needed (him). The need of Lazarus was for food and clothing and medicine; he needed to be treated as a human being in a human way. The need of (Dives) was not for anything that money could buy; he also needed to know what it means to be human.”(5) Being human means we commit to follow not the cliché or suggestion, but the law Christ commands us to live, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
(2) Harris, Mark. “No Way Out.” The Christian Century, vol. 118, no. 25, Sept. 2001, p. 18.
(3) Luti, J.Mary. “Send Lazarus.” The Christian Century, vol. 115, no. 24, Sept. 1998, p. 819
(4) Honeycutt, Frank G. “Hellish Indifference.” Journal for Preachers, vol. 28, no. 4, Pentecost 2005, pp. 40–42.
(5) Huie, Wade P. “Poverty Of Abundance.” Interpretation 22.4 (1968): 403-420.