the sin of the rich man

A sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 16:19-31

The Rich Man refuses to learn his lesson today. He has at his door a poor man in Lazarus, who begs for the slightest bit of mercy, even the dogs take pity on him, but the Rich Man does not see Lazarus, at least in terms of a value. Lazarus’ life holds no value to the Rich Man, so why would he exert energy, time, resources, to helping this man in any way. So, Lazarus dies. And, the Rich Man dies. Being tormented in Hades, the Rich Man looks up and sees Lazarus with Abraham. It is in this moment that the Rich Man shows that there is no hope for him, that when one’s only concern is on self that we drive a wedge between us and God.

The Rich Man, even down in Hades, facing torment, still feels that he enjoys a status, a privilege, to demand that Abraham order Lazarus to serve him, even here beyond the grave. The Rich Man’s refusal to see that it is this very attitude and approach, this lack of concern and mercy and recognition that Lazarus is equal in the eyes of God, is what has already damned him to eternal torment. Even with the knowledge that Abraham shares with the Rich Man today, his concern shifts to protecting his family, to securing their security. But, it’s not a shift in care or concern for Lazarus, it remains a self-serving concern, a self-serving request.

Abraham rebukes him. They have already received all that they need from Moses and the prophets, if they have not listened yet, they will not ever listen. The Rich Man counters, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” Abraham responds, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

A nice bit of foreshadowing here by Jesus in this parable. Of course, we know that Jesus himself will rise from the dead, that the lessons of love, of mercy, of kindness, of compassion, of care and concern, echo not only through Moses and the prophets but will continue to echo through the resurrected Christ, a man who will literally rise from the dead to not only further perpetuate his teachings, but cement them as the way, the truth, the life. So, if we know this, we must ask, are we listening? Or, are we following down the path of the Rich Man, when Lazarus sits at our doorstep, begging for mercy, begging for compassion?

Moses and the prophets and even the one who rises from the dead himself, have all come and gone. There is no one else left to come to us to share the message of God directly from the source, or at least it feels that way when we look past and discredit those prophetic voices of our current time, our current reality.

There has been an awakening in our society, not just in America but on a global scale, about what it means to exist in human community. This awakening has taken many forms, some more successful than others, but all ultimately centered around the hope that this world can be better if we simply work to make it so. And, the loudest, most impassioned, clearest voices, the prophetic voices of this moment, are the youth and young adults of today. In particular, we have seen youth finding a voice and making it heard around the issues of school shootings (and gun violence in general), and (as particularly seen in this last week’s news) the global climate crisis.

Our youth are no longer willing to be content with a lack of leadership from the head of the table. They have recognized that the Rich Man of our current world is not going to change course without a real intervention. They have seen that “those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” It is felt in real, tangible, ways that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” And, as these striving after riches fail to reach the unreachable goals they have set, they fall deeper and deeper into despair and pain, and further and further from being able to hear the prophets speaking to them, offering a different path towards light and life.

In her address to the UN Global Climate Summit, Greta Thunberg chastised the current leadership of the world for this very sin of the Rich Man:

“My message is that we’ll be watching you.

This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!

You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!

For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.

You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.”

But what does this have to do with church? How does preaching on global climate change, gun violence, systemic racism, systemic sexism and misogyny, bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to the forefront, inform our lives as Christian followers, help us to be better Christians?

It is clear today in the gospel that it is to our detriment to ignore the Lazarus’ of our time. This is both quite literal in terms of serving the homeless and hungry and sick among us, but also in terms of the power dynamics that exist between the Rich Man and Lazarus as played out in our society today. Lazarus is the body of a teenager riddled with bullet holes from the gun of a classmate. Lazarus is the poor and disenfranchised who have already been impacted by global climate change, experiencing loss of livelihood, even experiencing death from such climate events as the strongest and most frequently strong storms in our recorded history to name just one example. Lazarus is any person who is oppressed, put down, taken advantage of, made subservient to another solely on the basis of their skin color or gender identity or sexual orientation. Lazarus is with us every single day begging for mercy and compassion, and if we instead turn to the pursuit of so-called riches, we will miss every opportunity, every lesson, every message, every chance to hear the call of Moses and the prophets, to follow in the footsteps of the one who does rise from the grave, trampling death and sin on our behalf, an offer that extends to us if we’re willing to turn and accept what this radical sacrifice and salvation mean for us as we go through this life.

Walking in the way of love is a journey of self-discovery that calls us to turn the focus from self to the other. When we walk on this path, when we follow in the footsteps of Christ, we put aside the temptations of this world to be present with Christ, to experience the cool, clear water of salvation. If we forgo the message that is being made clear to us today by the prophets of our time (who are never those in power, not a single prophet was ever a person in power), we tempt the same fate that befell the Rich Man. We have a chance to learn now, because it is clear that if we don’t, we still won’t even when confronted with the reality of our lot.

The hope we have in this gospel, the hope we have in this life, is the promise that is on offer to us through God’s grace as evidenced in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the hope that sustains and drives us. This is the hope that calls and informs us. This is the hope that separates us from the secular world and calls us to something more than a self-serving life of righteousness. When we serve Lazarus, not for our own gain but rather for Lazarus’ benefit, we are serving Christ, we are walking in the way of love. We are called today then, to open our eyes to see Lazarus’s that are all around us.


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