An old friend of almost 50 years, Ben Bronstein, who likes to send me Jewish jokes and stories about mishaps between Christians and Jews, emailed the following tale:
Mrs. Yetta Rosenberg is on vacation. She gets off the plane and, as she’s tired after the flight, goes to the very first hotel she sees to get a room. She walks up to the desk and says to the clerk, “Hello, I’m Mrs. Yetta Rosenberg and I need a room for the night.”
The hotel clerk looks disdainfully at her and coldly says, “I’m sorry, madam, but our hotel is completely booked.” Just then, a man, his suitcase in hand, drops his key and a check at the desk and heads for the door.
“Oy, what luck,” says Mrs. Rosenberg. “I can take his room.”
“I’m sorry, madam,” says the clerk, “but I thought you understood my meaning. To be blunt, we do not cater to Jews.”
“Jews?” exclaims Mrs. Rosenberg. “So, who’s a Jew? I’m a Cat’lic.”
In obvious disbelief, the clerk asks her, “If you’re a Catholic, then answer this question: Who is the Son of God?”
“That’s easy,” says Mrs. Rosenberg, “Jesus Christ.”
The clerk, still not convinced, then asks, “Who were Jesus’ mother and father?”
“Mary and Joseph,” replies Mrs. Rosenberg, testily.
Then the clerk asks, “And where was Jesus born?”
“In a manger in a barn,” answers Mrs. Rosenberg, becoming agitated.
“And why was Jesus born in a manger in a barn?” asks the clerk.
Mrs. Rosenberg has had it. “Because a shmuck like you wouldn’t rent a room to Jews!”
The parable Jesus tells in today’s gospel is another illustration of Luke’s familiar theme of reversal, as we have read in the gospels of the last several weeks: Schmucks get taken down. The first will be last, and the last will be first. The humble will be exalted and the mighty will be brought low. The hungry will be filled and the rich sent away empty.
The theme of reversal is certainly present in this story about Lazarus and the rich man—and it isn’t comforting. The rich will indeed be sent away empty—worse than empty—the rich will be judged and the assets they accrued in life will be the weight that drags them to damnation. The great divide, the chasm that father Abraham points out to the rich man, doesn’t show up all by itself in the afterlife. The truth is that the rich man digs that chasm, makes that divide himself—every day of his life as he separates himself a little more from the poor man at his gate. He builds up the barrier, deepens the divide, and disconnects himself from the desperation that lies right in front of him.
“It has nothing to do with me,” he says, as he steps around Lazarus’ sore-riddled body and looks the other way. And the chasm gets wider and wider—and that’s while he’s still in this life.
Notice, too, that the poor man is the only one Jesus gives a real name. Lazarus’ name is a variant of Eleazer, which means “God heals or helps.” Jesus sets the reversal theme up early in his telling of the parable. However, the rich man is sometimes referred to as simply Dives, a term derived from Latin for “rich man.”
“You cannot serve God and wealth,” Jesus said at the end of last week’s gospel passage. “And the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this and they ridiculed him.” The Pharisees think it is ludicrous to talk about separating God and wealth. They believe, and base that belief on Scripture, that wealth is a sign of God’s favor and blessing. If you have a lot of money, it means you’ve been obedient and that God sees your strict observance of the law and showers you with wealth as a reward.
So to start the story with “There was a rich man dressed in purple and fine linen, who feasted sumptuously every day,” is to make the Pharisees expect that they are going to hear a story about what a good example the rich man is for everyone else. If he is so obviously wealthy, then surely God has a good opinion of him, and others should imitate him.
However, the Pharisees are not lovers of money for its own sake. They believe money is a sign that God favors them. If people are poor, it is because God is punishing them. The more you have, the Pharisees figure, the more God loves you or is pleased with you. The less you have, the less God loves you or is pleased with you. And if you think that just the self-righteous Pharisees of Jesus’ day feel that way, you’re wrong. Some in our culture make exactly the same equation between wealth and personal value, and the chasm keeps getting wider. The divide between the rich and the poor in our country isn’t a crack—it’s a gaping abyss, and it gets wider and deeper every time someone suggests that if people are poor, it is their own fault.
Lazarus’ lying at the rich man’s gate is no accident. Lazarus has come to the rich man’s house because it’s his only hope. Torah may say that wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, but Torah is also chock full of admonitions about the responsibility of the wealthy. “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor in the land.”
Lazarus comes to the rich man’s house because he hopes a man so obviously observant of the Law will fulfill his obligation to the poor. In the absence of a welfare system, in the absence of poor houses or hospices, Lazarus has nowhere else to go. He literally has no hope of survival unless a rich person feeds him table scraps. This is how the poor survived in Jesus’ day. They hung out near rich people’s homes, and the servants would toss the leftovers to them.
Well, Lazarus doesn’t survive. The rich man eventually dies, too, and the reversal theme at last appears. To exaggerate the meaning of the parable, Jesus has Lazarus cradled in the arms of Abraham, rocked in his bosom as the scripture reads, his wounds healed and his hunger satisfied at last.
The rich man is imprisoned in Hell, and to make his torment worse, he can see across the chasm, a chasm he still doesn’t recognize! He tells Abraham to send Lazarus over to cool his tongue. Here he is in Hell, and he thinks that everything is still the same, that his wealth and status entitle him to order Lazarus around. And he is even giving orders to Father Abraham who is in heaven!
With extraordinary gentleness, Jesus has Abraham explaining things to the rich man: The good things you enjoyed in life were just that—good things. They were not signs of God’s favor. They did not mean you were a great man. You just had a lot of stuff, which meant you were expected to share with those who did not. Lazarus had nothing—he had less than nothing—and now God has evened out the balance. You could have shared what you had, Rich Man. How very little would have made the difference between life and death for this poor man! The chasm between us is of your own making, and no one now can get across it.
One theologian I read recently called this a text of terror; its image of a wealthy man consigned to Hell because he didn’t share cuts too close to home for most of us. As we hear these words read, we know which side of the chasm we are on. We know we could possibly stand under the same indictment, and if that doesn’t make us squirm, it should.
Now, it’s tempting for me to want to preach this text as if we are under a different judgment because we are Christians. Someone HAS risen from the dead. And we believe in him and his saving power.
We are not going to suffer the rich man’s fate, because Jesus paid the price for us. We get second and third and fourth chances. God does not give up on us—no fires of Hell for us. But I do not think that it’s true to the text to treat Jesus like a “get out of jail free” card in a game of Monopoly.
If Christians are going to find Good News in this parable, we have to look at the chasm instead. Jesus doesn’t only suffer so that we won’t have to—instead Jesus breaks down all the chasms and divisions that human sin makes between people, races, classes, economic classes, and religions. Jesus brings reconciliation out of conflict, healing out of suffering, justice out of wrong.. And when we live as Jesus’ disciples, we should live as if the distinctions do not exist.
As Christians, we understand that Jesus has bridged the divide that human hardheartedness built, and we understand that loving our neighbor as ourselves is not just a pious sentiment, but rather a radical new morality that makes everyone our neighbor, including the poor! Or we are schmucks!
In Paul’s letter to Timothy he teaches about the temptations of wealth and material possessions. We brought nothing into the world, and we take nothing from it; but, how difficult we find living humbly if we have money. And how difficult we find putting God first in all things if we have money. We can be tempted to let our stewardship be “what’s left over and what doesn’t pinch my lifestyle.” And at such a moment, a chasm develops in our faithfulness, both in worship and in giving.
As Jesus’ followers, we are instructed by Paul to not “set (our) hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. (We) are to do good, be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for (ourselves)… the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that we may take hold of the life that really is life.”
If we follow Jesus, we need to live as if the Kingdom were already here. And that means living lives worthy of Jesus’ resurrection. This thought should give us the shivers. A dipstick we can use to know if we are on the right path is this question: “Am I living my life worthy of Jesus’ resurrection? In addition, am I brave enough to live into the Kingdom–now?”
- Synthesis, Proper 21, “Scripture,” September 30, 2007
- Sermon by Claire Fischer-Davies, Christ Episcopal Church, Blacksburg, VA.