The Rich Man and Lazarus

29 09 2007

Text: Luke 16:19-31; Amos 6:1-7;

We have entered into another gilded age here in the United States. If you want proof of that, we only have to look as far as the Fortune 400 list which once again for the second year in a row shows that the wealthiest people in America are all billionaires. My current job as an executive assistant at an investment bank allows me to peek in to this world of the rich and powerful. Over the years, I have to come notice that the sense of noblesse-oblige is missing. Noblesse-oblige is a sense of duty of the upper class that instills within them an obligation to lift up not as fortunate (which today includes millionaires!) and grant the ordinary citizen with access to things they normally wouldn’t have (such as art, music, a fine education, and so on).

I know two of them men on this list personally. Both of them have amassed great wealth, travel in the stratosphere of social and political realms, but they could not be more different. One of them, who admittedly is 20 years the other’s senior and ranks considerably lower on the list says, “I now have more money than what I am able to do with, or what I can leave my children. So, I shall give it all away so that the rest of the world can reap from the benefit of my hard work.” The other man who ranks much higher says, “there is no such thing as too much money. I will take my company public and literally sell myself to gain a profit. Amassing more and more wealth and living in more and more luxury is what matters. I .. got … mine.” These two men, of similar stature in the eyes of the world, could not be more different in their outlook on life.

Today’s Gospel passage is a parable about two men whose lives are even more strikingly different. One of the men is unnamed, and he is very, very wealthy. If Palestine had a “Forbes 400” list, he most certainly would have been on it. He lived in luxury and excess. If he lived in the time of the prophet Amos, I am sure that Amos would have included him in his words preaching against the self indulgence of the wealthy. Such self-indulgence and conspicuous consumption can eventually lead to complacency. These type of folks live in a bubble where they become de-sensitized to the things that happen outside of their social sphere. This is evident in how he was able to ignore Lazarus, the beggar outside his gates, and the other main figure in the parable. It wasn’t as if the rich man didn’t want to help Lazarus, it was just as if he wasn’t worth the trouble. After all, he just would come back and ask for more, wouldn’t he?

The rich man lived in his bubble of self-indulgence, luxury and excess to the point where Lazarus (and probably anyone else who wasn’t in “proper society”) became almost a non-entity…not human…on par with the dogs. So like the rich in Amos’ day, this rich man goes on with life as if all were well and things couldn’t be better even though sickness and poverty and squalor was just on the outside of his bubble. The fact of the matter is, things couldn’t be further from the truth. Not more than a few verses into the parable, the two men who couldn’t be more different find that they do share a common experience after all.

Four verses into the parable, they both die.

Lazarus is carried by the angels to be with Abraham and the rich man is tormented. We hear about a great reversal between this life and the life to come with the poor being exalted and the rich brought low. But the important thing here is not the hand that your dealt in this life, but what you do with it, and how you play it. Lazarus didn’t have much of a hand to begin with, and when he lost his final card, he was brought to a place of comfort by Abraham’s side. When the rich man passed to his reward for his life of self-indulgence and poor stewardship, the most shocking thing is that he is still trying to treat Lazarus as if he were a servant! He was trying to play a card of status when he had nothing to play with! See how he talks to Abraham as if Lazarus wasn’t even there. “Send Lazarus to … cool my tongue.” “Send him to my father’s house … to warn them.” His heart was hardened even in death. He refused to admit he had lost it all, so there he stayed.

Abraham says something very very telling at the end of the parable which drives home the point and explains volumes about the rich man’s condition. “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone rises from the dead.” The assumption is that those living in his father’s house are just as morally blind as the rich man. They, too, are caught up in their own bubble and refuse to see anything outside of it. Miracles, signs and wonders, and explanations do not create faith or repentance. If you want further evidence of this, we only have to look at the Gospel of John, where we see that people wanted to kill a man that Jesus raised from the dead (coincidentally also named Lazarus) as soon as he started walking about! The failure of faith or repentance to take root comes from a hardened heart, which will carry over into death as we see in the case of a rich man.

This study in contrasts shows the biggest difference between the rich man and Lazarus is that Lazarus accepts he is lost and dead and in the end, gains eternal life. The point is not to show how it is better to be poor than it is to be rich, but it does tie in with themes from previous passages in Luke about how we only gain eternal life beginning with us owning up to the fact that we will eventually lose all of our cards at some point. One of the very rich men I spoke about earlier said, “I have it all, now I’m going to give it all away.” You see, we are all losers, we are all lost, we are all dead. It is only by admitting as such can we be found and we can we truly hope to live.

So, you see, it is not our success that saves us. It is not the hand we are dealt with, it is what we do with it. Material wealth, regardless of how it is earned, whether by inheritance or hard work, is at its heart a gift from God. It is how we use that gift which determines whether or not we are of Christ or of the world. In fact, the consistent measure of our success in living out our salvation throughout all of Scripture can be summed up in how we answer the following question: When we stand before God on the last day, how will we answer him when he asks us how we treated those we didn’t want anything to do with?

Amen.

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3 responses

30 09 2007
Doorman-Priest

I just delivered this sermon. Yours is better.
D.P.

30 09 2007
Reverend boy

Hey DP

Thanks for the compliment! My rector gave this sermon today as well, and his was even better! But then, he’s been “at it” much longer than we have.

I must say, I could have said a lot more, but it’s hard to get the gist of what you want to say in about 1200 – 1300 words.

Anyway, thanks again. Hope you have a great weekend.

Rb

30 09 2007
RFSJ

Hi Rb,

I’ve seen your comments around the blogosphere, first time on your site.

Good sermon. I didn’t preach today, and we use RCL at my parish, so I wouldn’t have been able to make the tie-in with the Amos passage, but nonetheless you hit on some of the same stuff I probably would have.

Blessings on your aspirancy, too. This is a tough place to be in, I know.

RFSJ+

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