09/25/22 – A Parable of a Man who Didn’t “Get It”

A Parable of a Man Who Didn’t “Get It”

September 25, 2022
16th Sunday after Pentecost
Jer. 32: 1-3a, 6-15; Ps. 91, 1 Tim:6:6-19; Lk. 16:19-31
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

If you keep trying to keep up with the news, you may be confused about the state of our economy. Don’t be embarrassed, economists are too. By some measures this country is doing very well: the jobless rate is down, and wages are up. Child poverty is down as is the national debt, but by other measures, we are teetering on the brink of a recession. There are so many factors at play, some of which we have some control over, but many we do not. Supply chain issues during the height of the pandemic have been corrected. Yet, high prices for goods have not abated. If people pay the high prices, why not continue to charge them and increase the corporation’s profit margin while reducing the number of goods they must produce to sell? The shadow of corporate greed hangs over economic recovery.

First, the Covid pandemic and more recently, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have affected the economy in every country. Russia’s attack on Ukraine, known as the breadbasket of the world, has put developing nations, already suffering from drought and conflict, further into crisis. I heard one head of an international organization, which helps poverty-stricken areas say: “We are now taking food from the hungry to feed the starving.” There are far more people in the world in Lazarus’ position than the Rich Man, but the ‘rich men and women of this world have control of most of the wealth and many do whatever they can to keep and increase their portion.

We might think of Vladimir Putin as a modern model for the rich man in Jesus’ parable. He’s a one percenter of the one percent. He didn’t get to that level of wealth as a mid-level KGB agent. Yes, he’s the perfect villain for a parable like the one Jesus told. He doesn’t seem to care that his actions have led to many deaths – Ukrainians, his own country’s soldiers, or hardship and even starvation in other countries. And, he has many friends sitting down at his table to feast every day, while millions are hungry, homeless, and in dire need of healthcare. And, like the rich man in Jesus’ parable, he does not appear to feel joy or peace. His popularity is waning in his own country where thousands are protesting in the streets and racing to cross the border into neighboring countries to avoid being drafted to fight in “Putin’s War.” Even among his former allies are shying away from supporting him, so he’s probably not feeling very loved either. Yes, Putin would make a great villain in a parable of good and evil.

Yet, let us remember, Jesus didn’t tell this parable of the rich man and Lazarus to the Roman Emperor or even the Provincial governor of Judea, he was talking to the Pharisees, fellow Jews. These were supposed to be the good guys. The Pharisees saw their role as bringing people back to the foundation of their faith, The Law. God gave the Laws of Moses as a blessing to the people, but the intent behind The Law had become secondary to the letter of The Law for some of the Pharisees — and that created their conflict with Jesus. The Pharisees had become too focused on the details and lost sight of the big picture. They had become blind to the faces of the poor people at the city gates, desperate to be welcomed inside.

Jesus told a parable whose primary features were found in similar parables throughout the Ancient Middle East. One could find similar stories in Medieval morality plays. Charles Dickens seems to have lifted this parable and placed it in Victorian England in his novel, “A Christmas Carol,” with the “rich man” being Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge is shown his bleak future by three spirits from the afterlife. He is shown what his legacy will be, created by the consequences of his own self-serving, miserly decisions. But, unlike other variations of this folk tale, in Jesus’ parable, the rich man doesn’t get the chance to change his future. In Jesus’ parable, there is no happy ending for a repentant wrongdoer. There is no last-minute reprieve for the rich man who wants to save his brothers from his fate of eternal suffering in Hades, the Greek word for Sheol, the land of the dead in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Jesus added his own touch to the familiar ancient parable — the insertion of Abraham, the father of Judaism, whose descendants were the first recipients of God’s covenant with humanity. With the presence of Abraham, Jesus puts his parable firmly in the context of faith. Unlike other parables Jesus told, the poor man is given a name – Lazarus. The audience would have understood that Jesus was making a statement about Lazarus’ humanity. The unique feature of this parable is that it is the only one Jesus told in which there is a named character. In all his other parables people are only identified by descriptions – the rich man, the young ruler, the master, the father, a woman. Lazarus alone, the most pitiful character in all the gospel parables, is given a name. In the anthem the choir will sing later, the rich man has a name, Dives. This was the name given to the Rich Man in the late 4th century when the Greek Bible, the Septuagint, was translated into Latin.

The rich man is a stunning caricature – he wears purple clothing, which only royalty or the wealthy elite could afford. He consumes a feast, not just on special occasions, but every day. Lazarus, on the other hand, has nothing – not even his health. Lazarus is not even offered the crumbs from the rich man’s table but is forced to live outside the gate of the rich man’s property, hoping for a handout. Like supply-side economics, the crumbs from the Rich Man’s table never dropped down to Lazarus.

There are other ways of keeping people out beside a physical barrier. We have created the great chasm that separated Lazarus from the Rich Man through social, political, economic and legal means. Everyone knows who is being protected from whom, who is welcome, and who is not, without signs posted or actual walls built. It is important to note that Jesus’ parable does not say the Rich Man refused to share food with Lazarus – he never encountered Lazarus. Cocooned in his palatial home, his McMansion in the suburbs, the Rich Man would not have seen Lazarus. Out of sight, out of mind.

But Jesus makes it clear the rich man is not off the hook. Like the religious leaders who crossed on the other side of the road from the man beaten and robbed, leaving the Samaritan Man to act with true compassion, the rich man chose to keep Lazarus out of his sight. But the rich man knew Lazarus was there – he called him by name from Hades. Jesus told the Pharisees the rich man was on the wrong side and Lazarus was on the right side of the gate in the Kingdom of God.

Even in the torment of Hades, the rich man still sees Lazarus as less valuable and worthy of compassion than he. He has the audacity, born of privilege, to ask God to send Lazarus as a servant to tend to his parched throat with some cool water! My mentor’s highest praise was to describe someone as one “who gets it.” The rich man obviously does not “get it.” Father Abraham in heaven reminds the rich man has not heeded the Word of God who sent down laws to ensure the protection of people like Lazarus. Nor has he listened to the warnings of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures of the punishment Israel had to suffer for neglecting the poor and marginalized while pursuing power and wealth. Jesus demonstrates how completely the rich man and his brothers had squandered their future by cutting off all hope: “’If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead,” an obvious illusion to Jesus’ resurrection.

Non-Christians aside, how many Christians live as if the resurrection was a once-and-done event that has nothing to do with our living “resurrected lives.” The rich man had insulated himself from his community with his wealth. His own comfort blinded him to the needs of others. Sure, he wanted to repent once he knew his punishment, but God does not want us to love our neighbors out of fear. Love is essential or our charity is shallow and non-transformative. We cannot separate our lives into the realm of faith and the realm of the world. God is the ruler of all of our lives daily, whether it be inside the voting booth, managing our wealth, choosing where to be on Sunday morning, or how we care for God’s created world.

Jesus’ version of this well-known story parable would have shocked his audience, made them uncomfortable and triggered their own self-assessments. In other words, Jesus was being Jesus, the one who never backed down or watered down his prophetic message. From Jesus’ Greatest Commandment, ‘to love our neighbors as we do ourselves,’ we hear him echo the central theme of our Judeo-Christian faith, repeatedly expressed through the voices of Moses and the prophets and continued by the church. We have God’s Word: tend to the suffering, support the weak, share with those in need. This is love in action. We are to go and do what Jesus has asked of his disciples. We also need the hope, born of trust in God, to invest in a new future where the present seems hopeless, as when God instructed Jeremiah to invest in property in his war-torn, occupied hometown. We cannot do so unless we open our eyes to see the needy and the oppressed plight; our ears to hear their cries for justice and mercy, and our minds to give up our assumptions and judgment to cross the chasms we have created to separate us from those in need.  And. The parable tells us, when we create a chasm between ourselves and our neighbors in need, we create a chasm between ourselves and God. We have been blessed to be a blessing, given grace to bestow grace upon others.

Amen. May it be so!



© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2022, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Ave. | Peoria, Illinois 61606
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