A couple hundred years ago, Charles Dickens was a young boy growing up in England during the Industrial Revolution. He was the second of eight children. In many ways, his childhood was idyllic. He came from a respectable family, and he had the freedom to roam around outside, he loved to read, and he went to school. But when he was 11 or 12, things took a turn for the worse. The family fell on hard times when household spending outpaced his father’s earnings. His father was sent to debtor’s prison, and his mother and the younger children went with him. Charles was eventually forced to give up school, and he began to work ten hour days in a warehouse.
Years later, Dickens was moved by the hard conditions endured by working-class children. He read a parliamentary report on the effects of industrialization on children and was horrified by it. He set out to publish an informal pamphlet called, “An Appeal to the People of England on Behalf of the Poor Man’s Child,” but then he came up with a Plan B. He decided to write a story instead, thinking it would have broader appeal. In six weeks’ time, he wrote a cautionary tale called, ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Indeed it did have broad and lasting appeal! Nearly 175 years later, it is still performed regularly, including 42 seasons at The Guthrie Theatre.
Ebenezer Scrooge is a miserly businessman whose partner, Jacob Marley, died seven years earlier. On Christmas Eve, Scrooge is visited by his nephew and two gentlemen seeking funds for the poor. He dismisses both, then begrudgingly consents to his one employee, Mr. Cratchit, having Christmas Day off with pay since those are the social standards.
That night, Scrooge is visited by his business partner’s ghost. Marley shows up wearing chains and cash boxes forged by a lifetime of greed. He comes with a warning: Change your ways, Ebenezer, or you, too, will roam the earth burdened by these chains. That night, three more ghosts come to visit him: the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. He is taken on a visionary trip down memory lane and visits Christmas scenes from his past, is moved by the present circumstances of Tiny Tim Cratchit, and then he’s given a glimpse of his own future, or rather the future that might be. In a Shirley MacLaine-like-character, Scrooge asks to see someone who will feel some kind of emotion upon his death. He is shown only a poor couple who is indebted to him; they are relieved by his death.
A curtain is pulled back on his life, and he sees that it could be so much more. He sees the chasm that has developed between himself and other people, and he wants to reconnect. Scrooge is transformed by the visitation of the ghosts. He gets another chance. We, the audience, are impacted by the vision he has seen, and we, too, might think about our priorities
Jesus also knew the power of storytelling; Jesus was a master storyteller and employed it often. Jesus challenged the system and announced that the kingdom of God was different. In the kingdom of God, the captives were released, the eyes of the blind were opened, and the poor were given good news. In the kingdom of God, there was a great reversal: the last would be first and the first would be last. Those on the outside would be brought into the circle of community and well-being, and those with power might well be left outside. Jesus told stories or parables to give a glimpse of God’s kingdom. They were not fully developed theologies but often surprising or jarring signs of God’s kingdom logic. Today’s is such a parable.
Like the story of Scrooge, today’s reading is an apocalyptic story. Not an end times story of catastrophe, as we might imagine, but a visionary journey that reveals a deeper truth. The word “apocalypse” means “unveiling”. Apocalyptic stories “pull back a curtain to unveil or reveal some deep truth about the world.” In fact, apocalypse is the first word in the Book of Revelations. This form of story was common in the ancient world, and its hearers understood its structure. They waited to hear what truth might be revealed.
Today’s reading is a story told in three acts. It begins abruptly without an introduction, and it concludes with a cliffhanger. But first, an important disclaimer: it is not a literal description of heaven and hell.
We see a tableau. On the one side is a wealthy man who wears purple, which means he lives like a king. He wears soft linen underwear, and he eats sumptuous feasts every day. We imagine him surrounded by opulent, gold-plated things, and served by chefs and butlers, porters and hosts. When he throws a party, the guests arrive in limos and designer ware. The estate is surrounded by a wall to keep the out the riff raff, and all the comings and goings are monitored by tight security.
Outside his magnificent estate, live the regular people. One in particular lies at his gate – a poor man named Lazarus. (Lazarus, by the way, is the only character in any of Jesus’ parables who has a name. His name means, “helped by God.”) Thrown away by society, Lazarus was homeless and sick. His body was covered not with clothing but with sores. His hunger led him to the rich man’s dumpster, to vie with the dogs for leftovers. And to add insult to injury, the dogs licked his sores.
It happened that Lazarus died. Unnoticed and uncared for, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham.
The rich man died, too, and he was given a proper burial. A eulogy was read, flowers adorned the casket, and loved ones cried at his funeral.
In Hades – the place of the dead – the rich man found himself in dramatically overturned circumstances. His accoutrements of comfort were gone, he no longer had power, and he found himself in distress.
He looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. And so he called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me. Send that boy, Lazarus, to bring me some water; it’s so hot here….”
But Abraham said, “No….Remember, in your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted, and you are in agony. Besides, now that you are dead, there is a chasm – a huge gap – that is between you and us, and there’s no way to pass between here and there.”
Like all apocalypses, the story includes at least one terrifying scene – this one – which is meant to inspire change.
The man realizes his fateful misstep and begs, “Father Abraham, it’s too late for me, but PLEASE send Lazarus to my five brothers and sisters. Let him warn them so they can change before they find themselves in this terrible predicament.”
The curtain is pulled back, and a deep truth is revealed. “No,” Abraham says, “Your siblings have all that they need to make wise choices. They, too, have Moses and the prophets to help them navigate this life. They should listen to them. They won’t be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
Can we imagine a different end to the rich man’s story? Can we see it as a wake-up call that shows us there’s still hope?
Over and over again, we see in the Bible that God cares for the poor – truly cares for the poor. Of course, God cares for all God’s people, but there is preferential treatment for the poor, the widow and the stranger or refugee, because, you see, the rest of the world seems not to care.
Jesus challenges the system, and he speaks often about money. “Don’t store up things for yourselves in barns,” he says. And, “It’s harder for a rich man to enter heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.” Wealth and material things are not bad in and of themselves; it’s how we use them, how our money and our possession so often create a chasm between us and those who have so little.
We bring our offerings and our tithes to this place, and we give back a portion of what we’ve been given. But what about the rest of our money? Do we take care with how we use it? Does it somehow support the well-being of society?
Our story today invites us to look at the tableaus of our own time. Where do we see affluence that cares little for the least of us? Where do we see power that is not wielded on behalf of those who have none? And who are the Lazaruses of our day? Who is there right in front of us but easy to overlook? This story even invites us to ask, where do we see power that has diminished, agency that is no more?
The chasm in our lives is huge. And yet Jesus reminds us that our lives are more intertwined than we know. Jesus’ story calls us into a deeper way of seeing each other.
We are the five siblings, and we get the wake-up call. We have another chance. We get to part of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom.
As you might know, we have spent the last three months in a sermon series called, “The Salvation Project.” We’re reading the Gospel of Luke, and “salvation” is the heart of the Gospel.
Salvation is not just a word that refers to what happens when we die (although it is used for that, as well). The Hebrew word yasha or salvation implies space and breath. It’s the opposite of being constricted, as Lazarus found himself.
Barbara Brown Taylor describes it this way: “Salvation is…the divine spaciousness that comes to human beings in all the tight places where their lives are at risk, regardless of how they got there or whether they know God’s name. Sometimes it comes as an extended human hand and sometimes as a bolt from the blue, but either way, it opens a door in what looked for all the world like a wall. This is the way of life, and God alone knows how it works.” God invites us to be part of God’s salvation project and extend a human hand.
God doesn’t give up easily on the lost, even those of us who have a hard time hearing Moses and the prophets and believing it really does mean that we should care for those people, the ones who are hard to love. We have seen a man raised from the dead, and in his name, we are both able and called to share water, love and good news with all those in need.
God give us the vision and the courage to do so in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Wikipedia.org. “Charles Dickens” and “A Christmas Carol.”
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.
Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed.
Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church.