However the church arrived at the vision of the Christ as gentle Jesus, meek and mild, I will never know. There is nothing meek and mild about the Jesus of today s gospel. Instead we find a fearful clarity about God s expectations of our relationships with each other and our relationship with God.
It happens that on this occasion Jesus is addressing his remarks to the Pharisees, those bastions of the religious establishment of Jesus day. Pharisees were devout Jews who prided themselves on their faithful observance of the Law of Moses. They were the kind of people who, if you had a question about your religion, would be able to tell what your question meant and its answer. And you were sure to get the right answer. Yet many of Jesus most harsh confrontations were with the Pharisees, the truly religious people of Israel. If Jesus, a Jew himself and keeper of the Law of Moses, had declared that not one jot of the Law was to be left unfulfilled, why was he always in conflict with this group who took their faith so very seriously? Surely they should have been the best of friends. Simply put, Jesus believed they didn t understand what they were talking about. And what was more, he said so. The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus ripped up the Pharisaic map of reality and exposed it for what it was.
In Jesus day prosperity was popularly interpreted as a sign of God s blessing, a kind of divine reward for good behavior. Crudely expressed: if you were good then good things happened. Poverty or suffering on the other hand was blamed on the victims. God s punishment, if you like, for bad behavior. Therefore poor and suffering people should not receive assistance because we shouldn t interfere with the judgment of God.
Lest you are tempted to laugh at such a view of life, we need to remember that this argument is still used by Christians today. We are very quick on pronouncing misfortune as a punishment from God. If you doubt me just think of what some Christians have said about the victims of the AIDS epidemic. Its echoes are heard in the daily life, in the margins and shadows of our own conversations: They didn t deserve it or I deserve better or I ve worked hard so I deserve it and so on.
Accumulation of wealth then came to be understood as a sign of God s grace, as indeed it is, but the flaw lay in the understanding that the wealthy had done something to earn it, that their virtue had been rewarded. Never mind that it was a complete editing and manipulation of the Law, the same Law which stated, You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor. (Deut. 15:7-11) And it wasn t a request. Under the Law sharing was mandated, as was the forgiveness of debt and the care of widows and orphans. Clearly this was a better deal if you were rich than if you were poor. It is not surprising that Job, a rich man reduced to poverty, refused to accept his suffering as punishment. He knew in his heart that he had led a decent life. Once it happens to you begin to see the argument for what it really is: a terrible lie and a terrible blasphemy about God s love and mercy. Nevertheless, it was a very convenient argument and a tempting one. We can t see God but we can enjoy our lovely possessions right now. After all, whoever dies with the most toys wins. Right?
And then we have this story. In fact, this story is a variation on a very ancient story from Egypt. It seems as though this problem has been around for a long time. Let s take a closer look.
A rich man sits at table dressed sumptuously and eating lavishly. At his gate, his door, lies a poor man. It s rather embarrassing really. Nice house, nice driveway, good neighborhood, and there s this smelly bunch of rags messing it up. Who knows what the children may catch. Let s ignore him. After all, if he had an ounce of self respect he would get up and do something about his condition. Just don t speak to him dear; once you start he ll just keep coming back. To the rich man Lazarus isn t a person, not even an inconvenience, certainly not a problem. He is simply invisible. To the rich man Lazarus doesn t even exist. But there is a snag here. Lazarus is a person to God. And God is just. And it is not the God of humanly defined justice that the Pharisees expected. This God seems to believe Lazarus got a bum deal.
We find Lazarus (whose name, incidentally, means God has helped ) after his death nestled in the bosom of great father Abraham. While Mr. Indifference, our wealthy friend of the purple robe, is in a state of shock in Hades; our self-absorbed pillar of the establishment is in torment.
And you know, the rich man still doesn t get it. He s still a user. Here he is stuck in Hades and there s the man he ignored during life finally receiving some relief. And all the rich man can do is to ask to have Lazarus bring him some water: no expression of regret, no sudden insight into his failure to glorify God in his lifetime, no hint of compassion or glimpse of mercy.
Abraham has to spell out the problem. Rich man: you had it all. Right? Poor man: you had nothing. Right? God is just. Right? God expects you to share. Right? Well, what did you expect would happen when you didn t?
The chasm to which Abraham refers is real. It is a chasm not created by God or by Abraham. It is the chasm brought into being by the rich man himself. The chasm of blind selfishness. And in case we still haven t got it yet the story teller continues with how, even now, the rich man can think only of his ends: his family, his brothers. Lazarus is still seen just as an object to be used for the rich man s ends. Send Lazarus to my brothers to warn them, he says. Abraham reminds him that they already have all they need, the Law and the prophets. No, says the rich man. If someone returns from the dead, that they will believe. Abraham points out that if they are not open to the word of God not even a resurrection will speak to them. How true that turned out to be.
This is a terrifying story if you happen to believe in God and your name isn t Lazarus. The word that Jesus speaks is the word of God. It is the word of a God who refuses to divide love from justice. More, our acts of doing justice are the way we are given to know God. God has set us to the task of eliminating the injuries of those around us, be they relationships broken because of prejudice, hatred, self-absorption, abuse, contempt, or indifference. We have been called as Christians to address the products of our human sin, racism, poverty, the fracturing of families, loneliness, hunger, and all manner of suffering.
Scripture and the early Church were both very clear about this issue. Being a Christian and speaking of the God of love was not to be separated from being a Christian and speaking of the God of justice. To be a Christian was to do justice. They were clear that everything we have every breath we take comes to us only by the grace of God. Ambrose of Milan, a fourth century leader of the church wrote, You are not making a gift of your possessions to a poor person. You are handing him what is his.
God expects us to pay attention to each other. To become open to the needs and gifts of other human beings. To share. The work of justice is simply the work of restoring things to wholeness, of establishing right relationships in God s creation. This is why Jesus died. We call it redemption and God wants it to be real and wants it to be now.
In the end the rich man s tragedy was not his wealth but his inability to look beyond his own selfishness. And, in his selfishness, to be blind and deaf to the power of the transforming word of God in his own life. His wealth was not the problem. It was his complete indifference to the world. Just as the tragedy of the Pharisees was the substituting the keeping of the Law for the worship of a free God who exercises mercy and demands justice. And so today Jesus tells us this story again. Can you hear it?