Are You Listening?

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 16:19-31

 There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus…

 In the fifteenth chapter of Luke there are three parables: one about a lost sheep, one about a lost coin, and one about a lost son, but in the sixteenth chapter there are only two parables, and each one begins with the announcement that, “There was a rich man.”

The first rich man serves as a kind of bridge between these two chapters, because even though the father in chapter 15 has lost something—a son—he is also, obviously, a rich man.  He can afford to give the younger son his share of the inheritance, and, even after he squanders it all, his happy father can welcome him home and throw him a lavish party.

My friend Michael Renninger has pointed out that that parable and the one that follows it (the one about the Dishonest Steward; the one that our guest preacher decided not to preach last week because in that story a manager cheats his master out of a lot of money and his master commends him for his shrewdness; after which Jesus says, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone they may welcome you into the eternal homes!” [Luke 16:9].  That parable [which may be the hardest one of all, and which I don’t blame our guest preacher for not preaching] and the one that precedes it) have a lot in common.[i]  In each there is a master of the household who is wealthy, a member of the household who squanders the master’s wealth, and a response from the master that is surprising: in the first he welcomes the Prodigal home, in the second he commends his manager’s shrewdness.  But notice that these parables are not about the Prodigal Son or the Dishonest Steward: they are about the master of the household.  Michael Renninger says, “Parables are always about God and God’s Kingdom.”[ii]  And in both of these parables, Jesus focuses on God’s surprising (yes, even amazing) grace.

But if grace is the link between chapters 15 and 16, then perhaps wealth is the link between the two parables that follow, because in them there was a rich man who showed surprising mercy, and there was a rich man who did not.  Today our focus is on that second rich man, and the fact that the first one showed mercy teaches us that wealth is not the problem.  Remember, it’s not money that is “the root of all evil”; it is the love of money (1 Timothy 6:10).  In his comments on the parable of the Dishonest Steward Jesus says, “No man can serve two masters; for he will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and Money” (Luke 16:13).  In the very next verse Luke tells us that “the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him” (Luke 16:14).  So, Jesus tells this parable for them.  And, just as a reminder, it’s always important to identify the audience of these parables.  In the parable of the Prodigal Son Jesus was talking to the scribes and Pharisees who were complaining because he welcomed sinners.  In this parable he’s talking to the Pharisees, who loved money more than they loved people.

What does he say?

“There was a Rich Man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.  And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the Rich Man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.”  Did you hear that?  In roughly two sentences Jesus has perfectly illustrated the gap between the rich and the poor, what some people these days refer to as “wealth inequality.”[iii]  The Rich Man dressed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day, Jesus says.  It’s as if you can see through the windows of his house, see him in there rubbing his hands together as he chooses what to wear each morning, and watch him smacking his lips in the evening as he slurps fine wine and gorges himself with food.  But you can also see Lazarus, lying at the Rich Man’s gate, slowly starving to death as the dogs come and lick his sores, showing him more pity than the Rich Man ever has.

There is a huge gap between these two, but at this point in the story it not uncrossable.  The Rich Man could do something for Lazarus.  He could have him taken to a hospital or a nursing home.  But he doesn’t.  He ignores Lazarus.  It’s not that he doesn’t see him (I mean, seriously, Lazarus is lying right there at his gate!); it’s that he takes great pains not to see him, just as we do when someone is holding a cardboard sign at an intersection.  He doesn’t stop to ask himself, “What if that were me?”  No, he turns his head, he looks away, perhaps even thanking God that he is not in that place.

But then, suddenly, he is.

“The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The Rich Man also died and was buried.”  Do you notice the difference in those two descriptions, the directional difference?  The poor man was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.  He went up!  But the Rich Man (who also died, as we all will) was buried.  He went down.  And in Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.  Only in Greek Lazarus is not at Abraham’s “side” (his lapara, from which we get laparoscopic surgery), he is in Abraham’s “bosom,” his kolpos, from which we get no words in English but a very precise meaning in Greek.

To be in someone’s “bosom,” at a formal dinner party, was to be in the place of honor.  For example, listen to the way Fred Craddock explains the seating arrangements at the Last Supper in John 13.  He writes: “Jesus and his disciples are pictured as reclining, Roman style, around the central table like the spokes of a wheel.  Diners reclined on the left hand and used the right hand for eating, so the Beloved Disciple was on Jesus’ right, the place of honor.  The phrase ‘in his bosom’ reflects the closest communion; the same Greek word is used in John 1:18 to describe Christ’s relationship to God as the one who remains “in the bosom of the Father.”[iv]  So, what does it mean to say that Lazarus was in Abraham’s “bosom”?  It means that he was the guest of honor at the heavenly banquet, enjoying the closest possible communion with Father Abraham, the Patriarch of Israel!  The Rich Man, on the other hand, is in torment.

When he looks up who does he see but Lazarus, and the fact that he recognizes him is all the proof I need that he has seen him before, maybe even asked his name, but has chosen not to do anything for him.  But God has.  God has bestowed his highest honor on the lowliest of human beings.  He has put Lazarus next to Father Abraham, in his very bosom.[v]  Does this remind you at all of Jesus’ advice in chapter 14 about taking one’s place at a banquet, where he says, “Take the lowest place so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, come up higher!’ and then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you” (Luke 14:10)?  Whether or not Lazarus took it, he was in the lowest place on earth, and in heaven God said, “Friend, come up higher!”

The Rich Man, meanwhile, has ended up in a place below the earth: he’s in the depths of Hades, the pits of Hell.  And in those wretched circumstances he calls out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.”  Do you see how, now that he needs him, he sees Lazarus?  How, now that he needs him, he remembers his name?  How often have we done the same thing: completely ignored the person serving our meal at a restaurant until we needed a refill on our iced tea?  We don’t often see these people.  The Rich Man didn’t see Lazarus until he needed him, and then it was, “Oh, Father Abraham!  Please ask my good friend Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in some cool water and come and touch my tongue!  I’m in agony in these flames!”  But what does Abraham say?

Nothing doing.

He says, “You’ve had your party.  You used to dress in purple and fine linen and feast sumptuously every day while poor Lazarus lay at your gate in misery.  But now the tables have been turned, the last have become first.  Here he is feasting at the heavenly banquet and there you are roasting in the flames of hell!”  From Abraham’s Old Testament perspective it makes perfect sense.  It’s justice!  It’s as reasonable as asking children to take turns when they want to play with the same toy.  “Besides,” Abraham says, “Lazarus couldn’t do it if he wanted to.  There’s this huge, uncrossable chasm between us so that he can’t go there and you can’t come here.”  And that’s an important point.  What Jesus seems to be saying is that the gap between the rich and the poor is not uncrossable now (you hear about it sometimes, about poor people climbing up out of poverty, or rich people stooping down to help, or government leaders working to make things more equitable) but there will come a time when it is: when the opportunities we have in this life are no longer available to us.  And then what?

You’re stuck where you are.

So the Rich Man, realizing he’s stuck, makes one last plea: “If Lazarus can’t come to me,” he says, “then send him to my father’s house.”  Because he has five brothers (just like me), but apparently his brothers are just like him, indifferent to the suffering of others.  “Send Lazarus to warn them,” he begs, “so they won’t end up where I did.”  But Abraham says, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them” (and of course he’s talking about the Bible; Moses and the prophets were all the Scripture they had in those days).  “They should read the Bible,” Abraham says, essentially.  But the Rich Man replies, “No, Father Abraham; they won’t do that.  But if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”  And Abraham says, “No they won’t.  If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they wouldn’t listen even if someone came back from the dead.”

And there’s Jesus looking the Pharisees in the eye and telling them that if they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets they wouldn’t listen even if someone should rise from the dead.  He’s talking about himself, isn’t he?  That’s bold!  But what did Moses and the prophets say?  What did Jesus want these “lovers of money” to hear?  That there is something more important than money, and how I wish we could learn that lesson!

Do you know how much time we spend thinking about money, talking about money, worrying about money, trying to make money, trying to make more money, spending the money we have, wanting the money we don’t have, wondering what we would do with money if we had it, wondering what we would do if we didn’t have money?  If I could put a pie chart on the wall that showed the percentage of time we spend obsessing over money I think we would all be shocked.

I think Jesus was shocked.

He could see what kind of hold it had on the people of his day, and not only the Pharisees.  Maybe it’s no coincidence that this parable comes after all those parables about lostness; maybe Jesus knew that this is one of the ways we get lost—by loving money more than we love God or neighbor.  And maybe it’s no coincidence that Jesus talked about money more than almost anything else except the Kingdom.  In many cases it is our love for money that keeps us from entering the Kingdom.  We’re like those monkeys who get their hands stuck in a jar because they won’t let go of the piece of fruit that’s at the bottom.  There we are, trapped, holding on to our love of money so tightly we can’t get free, or at least not free enough to enter the Kingdom.  What’s the answer?  “Listen to Moses and the prophets.”  What do they say?  That the most important thing in the world is not money—it’s love:

If my friend Michael Renninger is right, and parables are always about God and God’s kingdom, then this parable may be telling us that you can’t buy your way into the Kingdom; you can only love your way into it.  If the Rich Man had done that; if he had gone out there and bandaged Lazarus’s wounds, having poured oil and wine on them; if he had carried him into his own house and put him into his own bed; if he had fed him and cared for him until he was healthy and whole again; he would not have ended up in hell.  How do I know?  Because of a parable Jesus tells in Luke, chapter 10: the one where a certain lawyer asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life and Jesus says, “What is written in the law?  What do you read there?”  The lawyer says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  And Jesus says, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:25-28).

It’s right there in the Bible.  It’s been there all along.  The only question is this:

Are you listening?

—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] Michael Renninger, A Sermon for Every Sunday, September 18, 2022 (https://asermonforeverysunday.com/sermons/c43-the-fifteenth-sunday-after-pentecost-year-c-2022/).

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] See a humorous, helpful illustration of wealth inequality in the US by clicking HERE.

[iv] Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), p. 334.

[v] In my notes on this passage I wrote, “This may be a clue that Jesus is having some fun with this story, rather than offering us a literal description of either heaven or hell.”