God forgive us for our indifference. God awaken us to the plight
of your children. God give us eyes to see and a heart to feel the
sufferings of those around us. God give us willing hands to do
your work in the world. God give us grace that our lives may
not disappoint you. Amen.
I despise what I call “fear Christianity.” You know – the preachers who get into the pulpit and threaten the faithful with the prospect of hell and damnation if they don’t toe the line. The preachers, the religious leaders, who think they have to instill fear in order to build faithfulness; I can’t stand that kind of Christianity. While I agree with the proverb that says, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” I don’t believe that ultimately what God wants from us is our fearful obedience. Rather I think God wants our loving faithfulness. God doesn’t want us to fear him, God wants us to love him.
Having said that, if there is one gospel reading that ought to make us afraid it is this one. Jesus is speaking directly to me and to you and we stand convicted this morning. If you make more than $800 a year, if you own more than 1/10 of a car, if you sleep in a house with more than one room, you’re convicted by this morning’s passage. There’s no easy escape, saying: “we’re not so well off compared to the outrageously rich.” No, compared to the vast majority of the rest of the world we, all of us, are a part of the very ‘well to do.’ We are the rich man dressed in purple and fine linen, feasting on our sumptuous meals. We are the ones enjoying the majority of the world’s resources, the cheap labor, and the comfort and safety . . . while so much of the world faces starvation, AIDS, war and poverty. If this lesson doesn’t make you squirm, if it doesn’t make you think twice about the long term well being of your soul – well, you aren’t paying attention.
“Dives,” is the traditional name of the rich man in our parable, spelled “d-i-v-e-s” but pronounced “dee-vays.” It comes from the Latin word for rich. Let’s be clear, Dives was not the bad man while Lazarus was the good man. This parable is not that simple. It is not a parable trying to say the wealthy are evil and the poor are good. No, this is a parable about mercy. Lazarus goes to the bosom of Abraham when he dies because of the mercy of God. Dives, when he dies, goes to hell because he failed to show any mercy at all. He failed to show any mercy to the poor man who begged right outside his front door.
It is a powerful story. Dives lives in comfort. He wears good clothes, owns a nice house and he eats well. Lazarus has nothing. He lives on the street and hangs out around Dives’ trash cans hoping to find some leftovers. Not only is Lazarus poor and hungry but he is also repulsive – he is covered in sores so pungent that they attract the attention of stray dogs. I can only imagine how it ruined Dives morning to come outside everyday and see such a person living so close to his front door. I am sure that Dives only wish was that Lazarus would go away and find some other piece of street to live on. He wasn’t a mean man he just didn’t feed Lazarus because he didn’t want to encourage him, instead Dives ignored Lazarus hoping he would get the message and go away. But it is this rich man who gets the message in the long run, for after death he finds himself confined to the torments of hell while Lazarus was sent to spend eternity with father Abraham. Dives had done nothing to soften the living hell that Lazarus had known all his life and so he was destined to discover his own hell after death. It is a powerful story.
In fact, this parable changed Albert Schweitzer’s life. It convicted this famous philosopher, theologian and musicologist of his need to care for the poor and as a result he spent much of his career in Africa as a medical missionary providing medical care for thousands of the world’s poorest. Schweitzer won the Nobel Prize in 1952. This parable also deeply affected Charles Dickens whose character Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol, echoes the plea of Dives to warn his brothers when Marley comes back from the grave to warn Scrooge. “Charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business,” he tells a trembling Scrooge. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.”
The question for all of us is – will these stinging words of Jesus change our lives in even the smallest ways? Do we realize that charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence are the real business of our lives, while medicine, law, banking and the priesthood are only our trades? Jesus wants us to know that if in this lifetime we allow apathy and numbing indifference to build a chasm between ourselves and the enormous suffering in this world then in the next lifetime we may find a great fixed chasm between ourselves and God.
Barbara Brown Taylor in her wonderful book, Bread of Angels, writes, “When we succeed in cutting ourselves off from each other, when we learn how to live with the misery of other people by convincing ourselves that they deserve it, when we defend our own good fortune as God’s blessing and decline to see how our lives are quilted together with all other lives, then we are the losers. Not because of what God will do to us, but because of what we have done to ourselves. Who do we think fixed the chasm in the story? Was it God or the rich man? Sometimes I think the worst things we ever have to fear is that God will give us exactly what we want.”
What do we want? Dives wanted Lazarus to go away and so he did when Lazarus went to heaven and Dives found himself confined to the torments of hell. How many of us would like for our Lazaruses to go away as well? How many of us secretly say – thank God I don’t have to deal with the homeless in my neighborhood? How many of us would be perfectly happy never to have to hear again about those dying of AIDS in Uganda or the starving people of the Sudan ? Dealing with the poor, the sick, the homeless is not easy – there are few easy answers. But our faith tells us that if we are going to follow Christ then we are forbidden to indulge ourselves behind closed doors. Because if we close the doors of our hearts now, then one day we may find the doors of our souls closed forever. It may not be easy or simple but mercy is our business, our only business as disciples of Christ. For as C.S. Lewis once said: “There are only two kinds of people in the end; those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in hell chose it.” Amen. The Rev. Peter Wiley.  James Howell.  H. King Oehmig.  George W. Rutler.  Cowley, 1997, p. 112.