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…a great chasm… | A Sermon on Lazarus and the Rich Man from Luke 16:19-31

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Marley was dead, to begin with. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.

These are the opening lines to what classic story? A Christmas Carol.

My favorite version of this story is the audio book, read by Patrick Stewart. It’s fabulous.

We all know the story. Jacob Marley was business partners to Ebeneezer Scrooge; a miserly man who loved money for than life itself. He believed that the poor were the surplus population.

Marley died and was condemned to live in eternal torment because of the way he viewed money and treated people. He didn’t want Scrooge to suffer his fate, so he came back from the dead to warn him to change his ways.

Scrooge had the opportunity to see the world through another perspective, and it changed his life for good.

In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus tells the story of man who wished he could be Jacob Marley. He was a rich man who mistreated the poor and found himself in torment after he died. He wanted someone to go back from the dead and warn his brothers to change their ways, but he was denied the opportunity.

The parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is a freaky story.

You may be thinking, “Oh great, here we go again. Another sermon that beats up on wealthy people and makes us feel shame for having all the things we have while so many people in the world go without.” It seems like Jesus hates wealthy people and only loves poor people.

Well, I think there is something deeper going on here.

The story starts in Luke 16:19. I invite you to take out your Bibles and turn there.

But, the only way that I can really understand the purpose of this parable is to start back in verse 13.

Remember, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He set his face toward Jerusalem in chapter 9, and there is no turning back. He is a man on a mission.

He has been teaching some

Jesus is almost half way along his journey to Jerusalem. He has been delivering harsh and controversial teachings along the way.

He encounters the Pharisees again. They had overheard what Jesus had been saying to his disciples regarding wealth.

The Greek word translated “lovers of money” is one word that literally means lover-of-shiny-things. I think that’s funny.

We can’t fool God. We can put on religious airs to fool others, and, maybe even fool ourself. But, God knows our hearts. That is the whole point of Jesus’ teaching. A good heart bears good fruit, a bad heart bears bad fruit, no matter how shiny it looks on the outside.

Luke 16:16-17 may seem like a non sequitor. What is Jesus talking about? I think Jesus is emphasizing to the Pharisees that the Law of Moses has always taught to take care of the poor and the foreigner, and to treat them with dignity and respect.

It is interesting to note that the “second greatest commandment” comes from Leviticus 19:18. It occurs in the context of verses that discuss how to treat the poor and foreigner with respect. The Law of Moses calls us to love our neighbor (including the alien) as we love ourselves.

Luke 16:18 is truly puzzling and seems to come from left field. Why is Jesus suddenly talking about divorce? I think he is using this as a metaphor and an accusation to the Pharisees. The fact that they have so distorted the Law of Moses to believe that it is OK to love money and neglect/discount the poor is like committing adultery against God and divorcing God. Ouch!

Then, without any narrative interruption, Jesus tells a parable.

Remember, this is a parable, not a history.

We have two men. One is named Lazarus. The name Lazarus means “God helps.”

The unnamed man is wealthy.

There is a great separation between them. Lazarus is outside of the Rich Man’s gate…and attention.

I think Jesus is playing into a commonly held belief. It was (is) common to think that there are two kinds of people in the world:

  1. Those who are blessed by God and considered good.
  2. Those who are cursed by God and considered evil.

The sign of God’s blessing is wealth and power. The Rich Man has both.

The sign of God’s curse is poverty and/or sickness. Lazarus has both.

Then the great reversal happens.

There are two important things to keep in mind regarding this story:

First, the Great Reversal is one of the most dominant themes in the Gospel of Luke. We have seen it over and over. Here we see it again.

WARNING! This is not Jesus’ teaching about the afterlife! Jesus is borrowing from Greek mythology and folk religion to make a point about wealth and social classes.

Notice what happens when the man is now on the other side of the equation:

Our Hindu friends call this karma. Some rabbinical teaching called this the Retribution Principle.

Our society likes it when stories end like this…as long as we’re not the bad guy.

There is a great chasm that NO ONE can DO ANYTHING about. Too late. Too bad.

Again, this is the true heart of The Law of Moses and the heart of God.

He wants a Jacob Marley to visit Ebeneezer Scrooge.

Mic drop. End of story.

This is a foreshadowing of what is coming in Luke 18:23-25,

23 But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. 24 Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

This leaves me asking the same thing the disciples asked Jesus in Luke 18:26, “Who then can be saved?”

Here is why I think Luke intentionally hints at the resurrection of Jesus. What if Jesus is really talking about the great chasm.

The Sin of the world has created relational chasms all over the place. There is a chasm:

  • between us and God,
  • between us and them,
  • between us and our self,
  • between us and creation.

This is Hell. This is the darkness from which we ALL need to be saved.

This is why Jesus is traveling to Jerusalem to give up all his own “wealth and power” and lay down his own life for the sake of the world.

So that he CAN rise from the dead and destroy the chasm, to reverse the darkness, to set the captives free.

This is the Gospel.

And this promise is for everyone, whether we are wealthy or poor. Everything is a gift from God and we are all called to love God and love our neighbor for the sake of the world.

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