Listening on the Way
This sermon, given by Geoff Pound at ABC on 25 September 2016, is the tenth and final sermon in a series entitled, ‘People of the Way’. Check out the introduction to this series and Study 10 for personal and group study that accompanies this sermon.
Scripture Reading: Luke 16:19-31
16:19 "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.
16:20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,
16:21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.
16:22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.
16:23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.
16:24 He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.'
16:25 But Abraham said, '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.
16:26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.'
16:27 He said, 'Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house—
16:28 for I have five brothers--that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.'
16:29 Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.'
16:30 He said, 'No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.'
16:31 He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'"
Earlier this year we were doing some mountain training up and down the 1,000 Steps in Ferntree Gully. A couple with their two teenagers passed us on the descent and, looking at the packs on our backs, the guy asked, “Are you training for a Camino?”
We said ‘Yes’ and he said that their family had walked across the top of Spain a year earlier. They’re an Aussie family now based in the south of Spain but they were back for the launch of their 14 year old daughter’s debut novel at the Readings Bookshop in Carlton. A 14 year old writer! Stay tuned for this budding author, Rėka Kaponay.
I’ve stayed in touch since that hillside conversation. This family sees travel as a big part of their education. In 2012 they sold everything—their house, cars, and furniture and since then they’ve visited 30 countries in six continents.
Recently they visited England. They toured Hever Castle in Kent, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn. As Rėka walks over the drawbridge and courtyard she thinks of those people who walked centuries before around the castle. As she writes she’s suddenly transported back 500 years in time. She looks down and sees that she’s wearing the traditional dress of the Tudor period. She writes of her encounters with Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. For a 15 year old it’s magnificent imaginative writing.
Our Scripture today is also an expression of time travel. Jesus contrasts two men:
A rich man is clothed in expensive purple and fine linen while the poor man is clothed in sores.
The rich man is feasting sumptuously every day while the poor man at his gate is pleading for crumbs from the rich man’s table.
Then Jesus transports them, not to Hever Castle or Narnia but to the afterlife.
The poor man is transported by angels to be with Abraham the father of the nation.
The rich man is buried but he’s found in that other place—Hades, the place of the dead.
What a complete reversal!
The rich man goes from feasting sumptuously to unquenchable thirst,
From absolute comfort to agonizing torment.
From his home, now to be distanced by a great chasm.
The poor man, whose only friends were the dogs, now receives an angelic escort.
The poor man now is called by his name, ‘Lazarus’, while the rich man remains nameless.
From outside the gate, through the ‘pearly gates’, he’s at the side of none other than Abraham.
The Authorised Version of the Bible says:
“The rich man seeth Abraham afar off and Lazarus in his bosom.”
So this is where we get the inspiration for that Afro-American song: ‘Rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham’.
Did those audiences in the ‘60s really understand the meaning when they sang along with Peter, Paul and Mary, “Rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham…O rock my soul…So high can’t get over it”, and so on?
In the first century custom they reclined at the table as they did at the Last Supper (John 13:23) and it’s the mark of honour to lean next to the master of the feast. Pride of place. Position of intimacy. So the tables are turned.
In contrast the rich man is far away—at the gate and in agony but he tries to pull rank with his Jewish blood and lineage: ‘Father Abraham’ (24) but this proves ineffective.
While he calls out like a beggar, “Have mercy on me” (24) he’s still barking orders as he commands Abraham to send Lazarus the water boy. Oh, so he does know the man who used to lie at his gate!
How to secure eternal comfort might be comforting but this isn’t the main point of Christ’s parable.
Nor is this a treatise on the furniture of heaven and the temperature of hell.
The rich man’s sin was not that he was rich but that during his earthly life he didn’t ‘see’ the needy man at his gate. He passed by Lazarus every day and never really saw him. Now for the first time, here in the afterlife, the rich man sees the one he formerly ignored.
Vision! Seeing is the point of this parable!
The different destinies are linked to Abraham’s statement,
“Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things…” (25)
This is the nub of the parable:
Do we truly see the person at our gate?
Is our heart turned to compassion for the needy one?
Who are we identifying with as this story unfolds? With Lazarus or the rich man?
Maybe with both because there are times when we’ve failed to see the person in need but there’ve been times when we’ve been hurting and we’ve known the agony of not being seen.
In view of this unbridgeable chasm, the rich man finally thinks of others. He thinks of his five brothers and he humbly asks Abraham:
'Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them…” (27-28)
They don’t need anything more Abraham says:
'They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' He said, 'No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'" (29-31)
Maybe it’s with one of the five brothers that we’re identifying with today.
This parable pulls back the curtain to prompt us to see the poor and the needy and so be moved to close the chasm before it’s too late.
This parable links agony or comfort after death with how we treat the less fortunate around us, much like Matthew in his Gospel links eternal life and punishment with how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick, and those in prison (25:31-46).
This is a wakeup call to listen via all the ways that God is speaking—through Moses, the prophets, through Jesus, his words, his death and resurrection.
As we think of this gulf between the rich and the poor, the racial divides and the many other gaps that are separating people in this life, the good news of this parable is that we have everything that we need.
Abraham said: “They don’t need anything more.”
There’s no point in wallowing in despair. We’ve been given everything we need. No need to send messengers who can perform special signs.
No need for religious miracles to convince the faithless.
We have everything that we need.
Finally, this is the only parable of Jesus in which a person is named. Seeing and sharing our goods with the poor means getting beyond these group labels and calling people by name: ‘Lazarus’.
This week, Lazarus may be at our gate. He might be clothed in rags and covered with lesions yet we’re called to see Lazarus as unique, as an equal and loved by God.
If we retreat behind our locked gates and feast alone without sharing our welcome and food,
God of mercy, forgive us.
If fine clothes adorn us and we are blind to those clothed in sickness
God of mercy, save us.
If many possessions throttle our compassion,
God of mercy, turn us around.
Help us remember and realize the emptiness of worship without compassion.
Soften our callous hearts.
Stop us at the gate to get to know the person behind the label.
Let our dull eyes widen to their pain.
Open our ears to the untameable cry of your prophets and the wisdom of Moses, who taught us not to pervert the justice due to the stranger, the fatherless and the needy.
Open our hands wide to our sister and brother in need.
We pray this in the name of the One who was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, that by his poverty we might become rich,
 Only later in history was he named and called ‘Dives’, which means rich in Latin.
 Earlier in Luke (3:8) we hear the message from John the Baptist that claiming a religious heritage cannot gain our salvation.