The story caught the attention of Atlantic City city officials. They honored Mr. Miller in a ceremony. He received a plaque and was publically thanked for his courage to not just stand by but to intervene and act—a choice that changed the ending to what could have easily been a sad story instead. It was a risky choice to make. According to Mr. Miller, it was the only right choice he had.
The impact of our choices something we learn a little about in the gospel story we just heard.
It’s another parable from Jesus; the 6th one we’ve heard in worship this past month. The stories are so familiar they’re often known by titles alone: The Good Samaritan, The Fig Tree (that produces no figs); the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, the Prodigal Son. Today it’s the Rich Man and Lazarus.
There isn’t just one point to this story. Like the other parables, this one is complicated. There’s a lot going on. Parables are a communication device not meant to recall a particular event or to answer specific questions. Jesus tells these stories to move his listeners to think and act in new ways.
While there isn’t one point to parables, there are some common threads that run throughout the ones recorded in Luke’s gospel. Today, we pay attention to one: there are present and future consequences to the choices we make—not just for you and me individually, but also for the greater good—for all humanity.
Jesus sets the scene describing 2 characters who are opposite in every way: one is rich, one is poor, one wears fine linens the other is covered in sores; one has more than enough to eat, the other longs to satisfy his hunger from the scraps that fall from the table of the rich man’s feast. The Rich man is nameless; the poor man is named Lazarus which means God’s help.
According to the parable, both men have died. The stark contrasts continue in the afterlife: the Rich Man is in Hell. Lazarus is carried by angels to heaven. The Rich Man is tormented, in agony from fire; Lazarus rests comfortably at Abraham’s side.
The Rich Man calls out to Abraham asking for mercy but he doesn’t get what he wants. He suffers and gets no relief. His forever plight is something he never experienced in life.
The tables have turned. It’s the great reversal Luke writes about; a theme introduced in the very first chapter when Mary, after learning that God’s son has been conceived in her, sings to Elizabeth: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”
Father Abraham says to the rich man: “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony…between you and us a great chasm has been fixed.”
The rich man had his chance. Lazarus rested at the rich man’s front gate, his needs evident to all who passed by. But the rich man stepped over Lazarus every time. He failed to see the value of Lazarus as another human being. He didn’t intervene with the pain and suffering he saw; he distanced himself from the needs of others and from the very heart of God.
This is an awful story. Really. I’d rather listen to Jesus welcome the children, or heal the blind man or speak to the woman at the well. I’d just as soon skip this one altogether. Because I don’t know about you but I can’t help hearing it without feeling GUILTY.
How many times have I walked past someone in need? How many times have I failed to value another in the same way that I value me? I AM the RICH MAN. I have shelter, food, and clothing. I have access to health care and transportation and a retirement plan. I have an education, meaningful work, and a savings account. And if I fell on hard times I live with a network of family and friends. This kind of wealth affords me the privilege of choice. I hear this story and feel guilty.
Except there is no hint of guilt in the story. As far as I can tell the rich man doesn’t feel bad about anything other than his place in hell. Even in the afterlife, he fails to see Lazarus as a valued human being. He asks Abraham to enlist Lazarus to serve him. Nothing has changed for the rich man. The chasm is fixed.
But that’s not true for me or you. Jesus tells the story for us after all, for those alive in the world. Which means that this parable challenges us to see ourselves not as the rich man but as the living siblings instead. This parable isn’t about being destined for heaven or hell. It’s a wake-up call to a particular way of being in the world right now. The purpose of the parable is to move us to think and act in new ways. And the best part about this story—the hope of the story is that the ending isn’t written yet.
What if the rich man had been open to a different way of being in the world, so that, instead of stepping over Lazarus he sat down beside him? Or instead of being careless with table scraps, he invited Lazarus to the table to share a meal with him? It would have felt risky for sure, but also right as the story would have changed from being so sad to a story about lives changed for good.
Like the story of the apple engineer using his own ingenuity to make a difference in the lives of Santa Cruz’s homeless. Ron Powers spends his evenings and weekends driving around in his mobile Laundromat, a van that he outfitted with two washers and dryers, offering to do strangers’ laundry for free. For many people on the streets, Powers “loads of Love” initiative is a blessing. People who are homeless often throw away socks and other clothes when they get dirty because they can’t afford to pay for laundry and buy food. “I want to restore dignity to people,” says Powers. “I want to improve health”. His compassion has changed the story for many, including himself.
God’s vision is that the world be healed. We know this because of Moses and the prophets and because of Jesus, who’s been raised from the dead to convince us of this truth. This is God’s salvation project and it includes you. Opportunities to participate will be missed now and then but the invitation stands. See the ones whom God puts in your path as gifts from God. Pay attention to their needs. Show compassion to these fellow pilgrims who, like you, are worthy of mercy and love.
And every time you do—every time you speak kindly, extend mercy, practice generosity, pursue peace, know that it is God’s vision is working through you to bring heaven to earth. Amen.