Jesus told the story of two men. There was a rich man and there was a beggar named Lazarus. The rich man lived clothed in purple and fine linen and he lived in luxury.
Lazarus lay at the rich man’s gate, “full of sores, and desiring to be fed with the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.” Dogs came and licked Lazarus’ wounds. Was Jesus saying that the only comfort Lazarus received was from dogs licking his wounds? Maybe he just illustrating another dimension of Lazarus’ misery. I suspect it was the latter. Most of us wouldn’t be comforted by dogs licking our wounds.
Lazarus the beggar died, and was carried by angels to Abraham’s bosom. That’s another way of saying that Lazarus died and went to heaven with an escort of angels- ushered by angels. He had a tough life, but it ended well. He had a lot of misery in his life, but he is now set up for eternity.
We aren’t surprised that Lazarus died. All of us know that we will die someday, and a poor man who doesn’t have enough to eat or a warm place to sleep can expect to die sooner than most.
But then Jesus says that the rich man also died. Rich people eat better and they have better medical care. Their houses have heat and air conditioning. Their life expectancy is longer. They still die.
I stumbled on an article from the New York Times about differences in life expectancy for men today as a function of median income. Men in Fairfax County Virginia have a life expectancy of 82 years, and men in McDowell, West Virginia have a life expectancy of 64. This is 18 years for those of you not good with mental math. Eighteen years is a really long time for groups of men who are practically neighbors. These communities are about 350 miles apart. The median income in Fairfax is almost five times the median income in McDowell.
Poverty is a tough one on a lot of levels. Longevity is one of them. Money might not buy happiness, but it can make it possible to live longer.
So the rich man dies just like Lazarus. He most likely had a will, and he might even have told his family what he wanted for a funeral. He was not prepared to prepare himself to stand before God’s throne. He was not prepared for eternity.
So Jesus said that the rich man died and was buried. You have noticed that Lazarus died and was accompanied by angels to heaven. The rich man died and was buried. He did not get the angels.
He also did not get the heaven either. Jesus gave us a glimpse of the rich man in Hades. He was thirsty and miserable. The rich man called on Abraham to have Lazarus dip his finger in water and to visit the rich man, so Lazarus could cool the rich man’s tongue, at least for a moment.
But Abraham reminded the rich man that he had enjoyed every comfort in life, and Lazarus had suffered every misery. You might think at this point that Abraham is going to say that being happy in this life promises you misery in the next. He does not go there though.
The rich man’s problem wasn’t that he was rich. He was selfish and uncaring. If he had helped Lazarus, Jesus’ story would have ended differently.
Abraham told the rich man that he couldn’t send Lazarus to help him, because a great gulf separated the heavenly place where Lazarus lived from the place where the rich man was going to spend eternal life. No one could cross from one place to the other. The rich man was doomed to eternal misery.
What does that story mean for us? I’m sure that we understand that the rich man would have been better off if he had shown Lazarus an occasional kindness. He would have been better off if he had instructed his servants to tend to Lazarus’ sores. He would have been better off if he had arranged for someone to provide food and water for Lazarus.
He did not do any of these things. The rich man passed by Lazarus every time he left home and every time he returned. He did not see Lazarus. Lazarus was off his radar and not his problem.
I suggested last week that in some cultures beggars are seen as a blessing because they offer us opportunities for charity. The rich man ignored Lazarus for years and missed some opportunities to be blessed.
We probably also understand that we would be better off if we would show some kindnesses toward people like Lazarus. It does not take a Bible scholar to figure that out.
But I would like to close with another story – also a Jesus story – a story that fleshes out what Jesus meant in his Lazarus story. This second story is found in the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.
Jesus starts by saying, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory…then he will sit on the throne of his glory.” Then Jesus said that he will separate people into two groups, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. Then Jesus will say to the sheep:
“Come, blessed of my Father,
inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;
for I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat.
I was thirsty, and you gave me drink.
I was a stranger, and you took me in.
I was naked, and you clothed me.
I was sick, and you visited me.
I was in prison, and you came to me.”.
And the sheep will say, “When did we do all those things?” And Jesus will answer, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
And then Jesus will turn to the goats and say, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels.”
They did not care for the poor and the vulnerable in their midst, and they didn’t seek and serve Christ in their neighbors.
The name Lazarus means “God heals” or “God helps.” By reaching out to Lazarus we not only heal and help him, but we may very well be healing and helping ourselves through God’s grace.
I have some questions for us today.
First – What is the gate for us? What are we unwilling to do to step outside our comfort zone?
Second – Who is the Lazarus outside our gate? Who is it that we are called to help?
I have said these words in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Sermon preached by Fr. Tom Haynes at St. Thomas Episcopal – Plymouth
September 25, 2016; Nineteenth Sunday of Pentecost – Proper 21
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
1 Timothy 6:6-19