September 29, 2013 - Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
I bet there’s rich
folks eating in a fancy dining car,
They’re prob’bly drinkin’ coffee and smoking big cigars,
But I know I had it coming, I know I can’t be free,
But those people keep a movin’ and that’s what tortures me.
Johnny Cash in “Folsom
Prison Blues” sings the tortured thoughts of a poor man in jail, as wealthy
people ride by on a train he can only hear passing. He goes on:
Well, if they freed me
from this prison, if that railroad train was mine,
I bet I’d move it on a little farther down the line.
Far from Folsom prison, that’s where I want to stay.
And I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away.
If only we could
change places, if only the situations were reversed. They would be here, and I would
be there. That theme drives not only Johnny’s song, but Jesus’ parable of the
rich man and Lazarus. In the end, the rich man who enjoyed himself so hugely in
this life finds himself in misery, while the poor man who endured hunger and
torment in this world is carried off to the joys of heaven.
It’s an old, old joke.
You’ve probably heard the one about Bill Gates arriving at the pearly gates
where St. Peter is unsure what to do with him. So Bill is given the chance to
view both heaven and hell. First he visits heaven, where he finds angels
playing harps, fluffy clouds, and not much else going on.
Then Peter takes Bill
to hell, where he finds sun shining on a beautiful white sandy beach with warm
clear water. There are beautiful women in bikinis and waiters serving frosty
margaritas. Bill takes it all in and says, “This is great! I’ll take hell.”
Two weeks later, Peter
drops in to visit Bill in hell. He finds him shackled to a wall, tortured by
intense flames burning all around him in a dark cave. “How’s it going?” asks
“What happened?” Bill
replies. “Where’s the beach and the women and the margaritas? I thought hell
had some wonderful features.”
“Ah,” says Peter,
“that was just the demo version.”
We like that kind of
cosmic, comic justice. The rich man, the person who caused so much misery in
this life, gets what he deserves. The tables are turned and things come out
where they should be.
Joking aside, we like
the idea of justice, of an afterlife where those who do evil get what’s coming
to them and good poor folk are rewarded. Immanuel Kant believed the need for
justice proves the existence of another world. There has to be a life
after this life just to set the books straight, to even things up. Morality,
goodness and innocent suffering only make sense if there will be a day when
justice is balanced out.
People liked stories
of cosmic justice even in Jesus’ time. There’s an Egyptian tale about a rich
man who died and had a lavish funeral, while a poor man dies and is simply
buried. But then we see the afterlife where the rich man is in torment and the
poor man enjoys luxury. There’s a Jewish story with a rich tax collector and a
poor scholar. After death the poor scholar enjoys paradise beside gentle flowing
streams, while the tax collector stands on a steep river bank where he can
never reach the water. Jesus and His audience knew those stories. His listeners
would have thought He was telling an old joke.
Yet Jesus elaborated
the story. He lets us in on the rich man’s character. Verse 19 shows us the
rich man’s way of life. He wore purple clothing, the most expensive color of
all. He even wore fine linen underwear. He “feasted sumptuously every day.” In
our terms, he partied every day. This was a hedonist, a man devoted to
his own pleasure.
This is the only
parable that names a character, but just the poor man is named, Lazarus. Christian
tradition named the rich man “Dives.” Dives just means “rich” in Latin.
Dives was a total party animal, and he completely ignored others. Verse
20 tells us Lazarus the poor man lay at his gate (Dives’ house was big enough
to have a gate), and wished for a few crumbs. To add to his misery, dogs came
along and licked his sores. Dives pays no attention, doesn’t lift a finger,
doesn’t share any food, or even call off the dogs.
So in verses 22 and 23
we get the classic punch line. Lazarus is carried up to “Abraham’s bosom,” to
heaven, in the tender care of angels. Dives lands in Hades to be tormented. But
then Jesus takes the old joke and spins it further.
The second part of
verse 23 tells just how spiritually blind Dives truly is. He looks up to see
Lazarus there with Abraham and all he can do is express his own selfish desire.
“Send Lazarus,” he asks Abraham, to quench his thirst with a few drops of
water. Dives doesn’t apologize for his treatment of the poor man, doesn’t
regret his sinful selfishness. Just “Send Lazarus.” He still thinks people like
Lazarus are there for his own needs and wants, people meant to be his servants,
waiting on him, arriving at his beck and call.
Beth and I watched the
film “Margin Call” a couple weeks ago. It’s about financial people in a
fictional “bank” making decisions which caused the financial crisis and
recession in 2008. They discover their model for risk management is way off and
that their stock of mortgage portfolios is about to become worthless. So they
plan a huge sell off the next day before anyone can find out.
There’s a scene in
that film which exactly fits what Jesus is showing us here about Dives, the
rich man. Characters played by Simon Baker and Demi Moore enter an elevator.
They are finely dressed, beautiful people, executives talking about who is
going to be the scapegoat for what’s about to happen. They stand on either side
of a little cleaning lady with her cart, and they totally ignore her. No nod,
no greeting, they just talk over her head as if she’s not there at all. The
decisions they are making will probably cost that woman her job and maybe her
retirement savings in their bank, but to them, she doesn’t even exist.
Jesus is telling this
old joke to warn us against being like the rich man, against being like those
executives who only worry about their own portfolios and never consider all the
lives their selfish actions affect. It’s easy to get the point. What’s harder
to remember is what Albert Schweitzer answered when asked why he left his
professorship, his music, to go to Africa as a missionary doctor. “We are
Dives… Out there in the colonies, however, sits wretched Lazarus.” My friend
Klyne Snodgrass writes, “The situation has not changed… For much of the Western
world we are still Dives living luxuriously.”
Dives didn’t get the
joke, Abraham explained it to him in verse 25, “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.” Dives was in the
hot seat, while Lazarus got the easy chair. Then verse 26 adds a key fact about
the situation, “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.”
I’d like to pause here
and remind us that this is a parable, just a story Jesus told it to make a point
about wealth and selfishness and our attitudes toward God and others. It’s
fiction conveying spiritual truth. So it’s not really a lesson in the geography
of the afterlife. Where exactly is Hades? Where is “Abraham’s bosom?” Can those
in hell really look over and see those in heaven? This parable doesn’t answer
those questions. It’s not about those things. It’s about how you and I are
supposed to live and treat others in this life right now.
Don’t get me wrong. There
really is a heaven and a hell. And we should be worried about which one is our
destiny. Jesus’ parable is a dire warning for anyone who is thoughtless about
how he or she is living. We’re not told all the details, but the chasm between
heaven and hell is deep and wide. No human being is able to cross it. The path
you set yourself on in this world will lead you to one side or to the other
That gap is huge even
in this world. You and I cannot cross it on our own. Jesus is not teaching
salvation by works, not just asking us to be kind and generous. It’s not about
just avoiding selfishness and doing more good deeds. It is a warning about what
you and I believe, about where we place our trust. Look at the conversation
between the rich man and Abraham in the next few verses.
Dives just doesn’t get
it. In verses 27and 28, he still wants Lazarus for a lackey, for his errand
boy. He begs Abraham to “send him to my father’s house—for I have five
brothers—that he may warn them…” But Abraham won’t buy it. They have plenty of
warning, verse 29 says, in the Scriptures, in Moses and the prophets.
No, says Dives in
verse 30, that’s not enough. They need more, “if someone goes to them from the
dead, they will repent.” He got that last bit right. What the parable is all
about, what we all need, is to repent. Not just good deeds. Not just helping
out poor folks like Lazarus. Not just a favor from an insider like Abraham.
Nothing is going to get us over the chasm between heaven and hell except the
grace of God which He grants to those who repent and are sorry for their sins.
Only then will heart and attitude be changed so that we care not only for
ourselves, but for others.
Because Dives is
spiritually blind, he can’t see the spiritual blindness of his whole family.
His brothers would refuse to believe no matter what. The great irony, the
biggest punch line of all in this parable is the last word from Abraham in
verse 31. “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they
be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
The joke, the wonderful,
blessed joke is that despite the words He put into the mouth of Abraham, Jesus did
exactly what Dives wanted. Jesus gave the world what should have been the
utterly convincing miracle. He rose from the dead. He died on the Cross
and then walked out of His grave a couple days later, living proof of our need
to repent and trust in Him in order to be saved from eternal torment.
many people it did absolutely no good. Hundreds, then thousands, then millions
of people believed in Jesus and His rising from the dead. But others refused,
and many still refuse, to be convinced. Yet there it is. The great chasm, the
impassable gulf, the hopeless gap has been bridged. No human being could cross
it, but God reached across in the form of a Man who rose from the dead to carry
home anyone willing to believe it.
This parable is
largely bad news, but the good news is there. It’s not too late, not too late
for any of us. One day the chasm will yawn open and those who ignore Jesus
Christ and the people around them will land in the hot seat of torment and
despair. But right now, right now God has made the way across. He has sent us
the One who rose from the dead.
In Nebraska the big Missouri River was our border. One day I drove to a small town in Iowa. I passed over the Missouri on the Interstate. Coming back, I tried a shortcut. But I forgot the Missouri. I drove a road along the river looking for a bridge back to Nebraska. I drove for
miles, a little desperate. I finally came upon a rickety little toll bridge run
by the county. If it hadn’t been there I would have driven a hundred miles more
to get across.
But in his journal
Meriwether Lewis tells how he and Clark journeyed up the Missouri River until
he found what he believed was its source, a little creek high in what is now Lemhi Pass on the border of Idaho and Montana. Lewis was able to step over, even to stand
astride that little trickle and bridge its waters with his own legs. At that
point, a man could cross even the mighty Missouri.
The grace of Jesus
Christ takes you back to the source, back to God, where even the great chasm
between heaven and hell is crossable. Put your faith in Jesus and you can step
over to the other side. You can avoid the disaster of a life wasted on
meaningless pleasures which disappear when the day of reckoning arrives. Instead,
your heart can be changed toward God and others and you can step over into the
hope of paradise. Trust Jesus, not yourself. It’s a little step, an easy step,
but it makes a huge difference for the future.
And it’s not just
about the future. You may suppose Jesus means for you to be miserable now so
you can be happy someday. But that’s not what Jesus meant when He asked us to
consider Lazarus and the rich man and choose where we will end up. When you
trust in Jesus, you are already on the other side of that chasm. You are
already on the Lord’s side, already on the side of those who love God and
notice and care for the people around them.
I like the “Knight’s
Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It tells of two soldiers, Arcite
and Palamon. They are caught and imprisoned by Duke Theseus of Athens. One day the Duke’s beautiful sister-in-law Emilie passes by the prison and both men
see her through the window. Each of them falls helplessly, hopelessly in love
with her. So now they live and hope only for the chance to see her pass by
A friend of Arcite arranges
his release, on the condition that he is forever banned from Athens. Each
prisoner believed the other was more fortunate, Arcite because he is free and
might perhaps raise an army to return, Palamon because though he is in prison
he still gets to see Emilie. Chaucer invites us to consider who we think is
You lovers, now I ask
you this question:
Who has the worse, Arcite or Palamon?
The one may see his lady day by day,
But yet in prison must he dwell for aye.
The other, where he wishes, he may go,
But never see his lady more, ah no.
I’ll let you find out how
Chaucer’s story works out for yourself, but I will tell you that I believe
Palamon was better off, in prison yes, but able at least to catch glimpses of
his love, to be near the one whom he adored.
You and I will
sometimes find this life full of pain and struggle. We may even be poor. It
might seem we live in a kind of prison. Yet trust in Jesus Christ, and treat
others with His love, and you have stepped over the chasm. He is with you. You
are beside Him. You may just have glimpses of His presence, but He’s here. Others
might seem to have more freedom, more of all sorts of stuff, but you are better
off. You are better off now because you see Jesus, and better off forever
because you are and will be on His side, by His side, in that great place of
joy which He has prepared for you. If you haven’t yet, I invite you to accept
the grace of Jesus and learn to show it others. Take the step. Amen.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj