Sermon: The Rich Man and Lazarus

Text: Luke 16:19-31

I felt very blessed when asked to preach. I consider it a great honor and a blessing to be entrusted with bringing the Word to you, brothers and sisters. And in that spirit of blessing, I turned to the lectionary and saw that this passage was set for this morning, and I said “Hoo, boy.”

This is why we have a lectionary. To make sure we look at those passages in Scripture we don’t always want to.

My father and grandfather were Methodist ministers. I have spent my life in Methodist churches. But the doctrine of hell is not part of my experience of Methodist Christianity. My father and grandfather were Universalists, those who believe, to put it generally, that everyone is going to heaven. They did not preach on damnation. In forty-six years, from sixteen pastors, I have never, not once, heard a hellfire sermon.

But, beloved brethren, we’re going to have a hellfire sermon today.

Our Lord tells us a story. We have a rich man, who is nameless, and a poor man, named Lazarus. It’s important not to confuse this Lazarus with Lazarus of Bethany from John’s gospel. There’s no connection. The gospels give us more than one John, more than one Mary, more than one James. We can certainly have more than one Lazarus.

The rich man and Lazarus both die, and are taken to Hades, which is the word the Greek-speaking author of Luke uses for Sheol, the Hebrew land of the dead. In Sheol, according to the ideas of the afterlife that were forming up at the time, especially among the Pharisees, there was a place of blessedness, called the Bosom of Abraham. There the blessed would feast with Abraham, in joy, forever. And there was in Sheol another place. A place Jesus describes as a lake of fire.

We hear that the rich man is put in the lake of fire and the poor man is brought to the Bosom of Abraham. Not because of their obedience to the Law. Not because of any adherence to religious ritual or belief. But for the simple matter that Lazarus was poor, and the rich man knew Lazarus was poor and did nothing. That’s it.

In this story, who are the beloved of God? Who are those whom God will reward? Those who suffer. The poor. The oppressed. The sick. The alien. It’s that simple. There is no need for elaborate theories of salvation and justification. Throw the theologians on the trash heap. The truth, as Jesus preaches it here, is that the rich will be sent away empty and the poor will be filled with good things. Those who are in agony in this world will find comfort in the next. Those who are in comfort in this world will be find agony in the next.

There’s an ethical philosopher, an atheist, named Peter Singer. Dr. Singer has proposed that as long any human being is in want, as long as any one of our fellow human beings is starving or exposed or desperate, none of us have any right to luxury. We have no right to spend any money on ourselves until everyone is taken care of. Jesus’s teaching in this passage fits right in with that.

And everyone in this room this morning believes a version of that idea. If a starving person—belly bloated, hair falling out, ribs protruding—walked through the door of this sanctuary right now, would any of us hesitate to do whatever was necessary to help that person? But there are people starving like that, right this moment. We just can’t see them. They’re not in this sanctuary. We hide behind the fact we can’t see them. Like the rich man in this story, we’re careful not to look.

This world, the world you and I live in, is fallen. It is not how God originally created it, how God intended it to be. It is corrupt. It is rotten. That’s why we have Jeffery Epstein. That’s why we have Donald Trump. That’s why we have Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffet and Bill Gates and the Koch Brothers. But they don’t work alone. There are many who cooperate with evil by doing nothing to oppose it. By fulfilling its needs. By feeding off it. Those who prosper in this world are collaborators. By their cooperation with corruption they show they are themselves corrupt.

What will their fate be? What will the fate of the comfortable be? When they stand before God for judgment, God will not look on them. He will turn his face away from them just as they turned their faces away from the afflicted. God will turn away in disgust so he doesn’t have to see them. And the names of the comfortable will not be found in the Book of Life. And they shall be cast down. It won’t matter if they claim to be good people. It won’t matter if they believe themselves to be Christians. Our Lord has made it clear that at judgment, there will be many who cry “Lord, Lord, did we not do mighty works in your name?” and Jesus shall reply “I never knew you.” And the comfortable shall be annihilated. Their flesh, the skin and muscle and bone, shall be burnt up, flicker and burn like grass placed in a oven. They will be thrown into the outer darkness. The darkness will swallow them. And they shall scream, and their screams shall not be heard.

There’s an old joke that nobody ever preached about hell who thought they might end up there. But I can tell you this morning, that’s not the case. This story, the story of the rich man and Lazarus, frightens me. In the division between the comfortable and the afflicted, I have no illusions which end I’m on. I don’t know about each of you. It’s for everyone to answer in their own soul. But I am frightened.

But I did not come here today to give you a word of fear. That’s not what a Gospel preacher is supposed to do. A Gospel preacher, a Good News preacher, is supposed to give a good word, a word of hope. I am not here to abandon the Universalist tradition I was given by my parents and grandparents. I affirm the Universalist hope, the idea that Jesus Christ did not die and rise just to forfeit the major portion of humanity to destruction. I say Jesus came to save us, not to condemn us.

It’s not that simple, that the comfortable will be damned and the afflicted will be blessed. The rich can get sick. The poor can be cruel. It’s more complicated. Otherwise there’d be no need for the rest of the Gospel of Luke. Jesus says here that it would make no difference even if someone were to rise from the dead. But he did rise from the dead. There’s more to it.

So why then did Jesus preach the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus?

The purpose of this story is to tell us, in the starkest possible terms, that God’s values are not the world’s values. Those whom this world honors are not those whom God would honor. There is a great crevasse between the two. Our God is a God of justice. He hears the cries of Lazarus. He demands we hear them as well. The church must contain Lazarus, and if we are not Lazarus, we must make sure we are on the side of Lazarus. It is said God has a preferential option for the poor. That’s an abstract way of saying what Jesus puts viscerally in this story.

So, having given us this moment of stark clarity, what is God calling us to do? We must see Lazarus. We must not walk by. Lazarus is all around us. Lazarus is right here in our town. Where I work, at a historic church in downtown Boston, Lazarus sometimes comes up and knocks on the door. Across the world, Lazarus is everywhere. Let us see Lazarus.

Here at our church, we have our minimissions. We have our support of UMCOR. We have what we give individually. We don’t pass by. Let us keep doing it. Let us remember that when we open our hands, we’re not just being nice. We’re not doing anybody a favor. We’re doing what God demands of us.

This is the hope. This is the hope of Luke’s gospel, the hope of Jesus Christ. The hope that we can stand by Lazarus. The hope that no one will be abandoned. The hope that all people can be together in fellowship.

Let us keep our eyes keenly open and our hands active. Let us not side with the rich man. Let us see Lazarus. Amen.

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