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A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va.

Luke 16:19-31

(Luk 16:19-31 NIV)  19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.  20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores  21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.  22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.  23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.  24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’  25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.  26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’  27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family,  28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’  29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’  30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’  31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”

Have you ever wondered about whether you can send a message to your friends and loved ones after you die?  This week, I discovered that there’s an app created last year called “If I Die,” that allows users to record videos and compose messages to be sent to select Facebook friends immediately after their physical (and digital) death, or according to a schedule of their choosing.

So far, more than 250,000 subscribers worldwide have signed up for this new service.  One subscriber is 26-year-old Jamie Cuthbertson, who always had a fear of being eaten by insects — spiders especially.  She signed up for the service and recorded her last digital will and testament using the If I Die app.  The resulting three-minute video shows Jamie smiling into her webcam, her long bangs framing her dark brown eyes, and giving instructions for her burial. “A bug-proof coffin is totally worth it,” she says. “You can also throw in some of my favourite things and photos of the people and animals I loved.”  In her video, Jamie also had this simple, uplifting message: “I have no regrets with the way that I lived my life, except I would have hugged and kissed all of you and smiled more.”[1]

In this morning’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells a parable about a rich man who had regrets with the way he lived his life.  Jesus didn’t give him a name, but in the Christian tradition he is known as “Dives,” because that’s the Latin adjective for “rich.”  Now, he didn’t have any regrets while he was alive on earth, for he was very wealthy and lived in a gated community, enjoying the finest luxuries that the world had to offer.  On the other side of the gate, however, laid a poor beggar named Lazarus.  At this gate, Jesus painted a portrait of contrasts.  On one side of the gate was the rich man dressed in fine linen and purple (the color of royalty).  On the other side of the gate laid the poor man covered with sores.  On one side was a man well-fed; on the other, a man who couldn’t even access what fell from the rich man’s table.  On one side was a man whom society deemed as blessed by God because some people linked prosperity with God’s favor.  On the other side lived a man whose poverty was seen as a punishment by God, and whose sores made him ceremonially unclean.  Two radically different realities, seemingly separated by one gate.  However, for all practical purposes, the rich man and Lazarus might as well have been living half a world apart.  During their time on earth, it is as if the rich man never saw Lazarus at the gate.  That gate between them never opened and the gap between their two worlds—that of the “haves” and “have nots”—remain unbridged. 

One day, both Lazarus and the rich man died.  Lazarus was never afforded a proper funeral; he just disappeared, as if carried away by the angels.  The rich man was given the proper burial rites reserved for the respectable in society.  Finally joined together if only by death, these two men’s fates became reversed.   Lazarus was brought to Father Abraham’s side, literally wrapped around Abraham’s bosom, an image implying that he was now healed, clothed, fed, safe and warm.  The rich man, however, descended to Hades in torment. 

At this point in the story, many modern listeners may have images of hellfire and brimstone in their minds as they picture the rich man in the flames of torment.  Before I go on, I want to clarify that this is a parable, a story that Jesus told to make a point, and not to give a teaching on how judgment after death will take place.  According to New Testament scholar Klyne Snodgrass, who has spent most of his career studying the parables of Jesus, this parable was not intended to give a literal description of life after death.  In the text, the Greek word hades, translated as “hell” in some Bibles, initially represented not so much a place of punishment, but a place where people were detained until judgment day.  In later usage, as in this parable, it was understood to be a place where punishment is already taking place.  The New Testament used hades infrequently and mostly without description to signify the place of the dead.[2]  We assume that Lazarus is in paradise, but the text does not explicitly say.  Some scholars suggest that both the rich man and Lazarus were in hades; the former was in torment while the latter was safe and comfortable in Abraham’s care. 

Regardless of what you think where the rich man was in relation to Lazarus, it was in hades that the rich man finally had the eyes to see the poor man, now far above him by Abraham’s side.  But there was a great chasm separating them both.  While on earth, the rich man had little interest in bridging the gap that separated him and Lazarus.  However, now that he’s in hades and seeing how the fortunes between Lazarus and him have been reversed, the rich man was now keen to have someone bridge that gap.  “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire,” pleads the rich man. 

It is telling that the rich man still didn’t see Lazarus as a fellow human being; he never addressed Lazarus directly.  Instead, he sees Lazarus as a servant whose only purpose is to do the bidding of a master.  It reminds some scholars of Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch version of this parable, which goes like this, “Oh Father Abraham, send me my water boy.  Water boy!  Quick!  I’m just about to perish down here.  I need a drink of water.’  That old rich guy had always hollered for his water boy: ‘Boy, bring me water!  Boy, bring me this!  Boy, bring me that!  Get away, boy!  Come here, boy!” [3]

Preacher and professor Barbara Brown Taylor describes the scene in this way.  “Even from the far side of the grave the rich man does not recognize the poor man as a fellow human being.  He still sees him as something less.  He thinks Lazarus is Father Abraham’s gofer, someone to fetch water and take messages, but Father Abraham sets him straight.  Cradling old bony Lazarus in his bosom, he says, no, no, no.  The rich man’s days of getting other people to do his bidding are over.  Furthermore, there will be no special messages brought back from the dead for his brothers.  They have Moses and the prophets just as everyone else does, and if that is not enough to get their attention, then no ghost is going to get it either.  The end.”

People have often wondered why Albert Schweitzer, a world-renown New Testament scholar, a doctor and a concert organist, left his position as a professor, gave up his organ-playing, and went to Africa as a missionary doctor.  He answered this question directly by pointing to this parable.  In his mind the parable seemed spoken directly to Europeans: “We are Dives . . . Out there in the colonies [in places of poverty], however, sits wretched Lazarus.”[4] 

This is a hard and challenging parable for me to preach this morning, because I think in many ways, here in America, many of us are still Dives living luxuriously, while the gap between the rich and the poor grows larger by the day.   I must confess that I don’t really see the Lazaruses at my gate as I walk down West Main Street.  I’m pretty comfortable keeping my distance and not getting involved in the messiness and the open sores of the people I pass by every day.  When I do give, as in a state or global missions offering, I must confess that I don’t give sacrificially; I merely give out of my abundance.  I’ve come to realize that perhaps I love money more than relationships, and I’m no better than the money-loving Pharisees who sneered at Jesus when he said in Luke 16:13: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

I don’t feel qualified to preach this parable.  Therefore, I shall end by using the words of Barbara Brown Taylor in her sermon on this parable.  May her words speak truth and grace, to you and to me.  She writes:

I told you it was an awful story.   But remember: this story is for us, not against us.  Jesus may have enjoyed snatching knots in the tails of his money-loving listeners, but I would be surprised if that were all he wanted.  Even when he got angry he got angry for a reason, usually because he could not stand the way people loved the things they could get for themselves better than they loved the things God wanted to give them.  They were satisfied with linen suits and sumptuous feasts when God wanted to give them the kingdom.  They were content to live in the world with beggars and “boys” when God wanted to give them brothers and sisters.  They were happy to get by with the parts of the Bible that backed up their own ways of life when God wanted to give them a new life altogether. 

What they did not seem to know—what we still do not seem to know—is that we are the victims of our own way of life.  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 you think fixed that chasm in the story?  Was it God or the rich man?  Sometimes I think the worst thing we ever have to fear is that God will give us exactly what we want. 

The best thing about this story is that it is not over yet.  For the rich man, yes, but not for us, because we are the five brothers.  Even though Father Abraham would not let Lazarus come back from the dead to tell us this story, Jesus has sneaked it out for us.  Now we have that as well as Moses and the prophets and someone who has risen from the dead to convince us it is true.  All that remains to be seen is what we will do about it.[5] 

Amen.

When I say, “Grant this, O God,” please respond with Lord, Hear our prayer.

Gracious Holy One, All majesty, honor and praise belongs to you.  Thank you for this beautiful morning, in which we can come and worship you.  We acknowledge and celebrate that everything that we have comes from you

We thank you for your Son whom you have sent to be our Lord and Savior

We thank you for your intimate love that inspires us to know and love you in return

We thank you for your living word and the strength to obey it

We thank you for the gift of eternal life that you have given us right here, right now

As we pray, open our eyes to see the world around us and its needs. 

We pray for those whose eyes are tired and have seen too much of the world’s pain. May they find images of beauty and hope. . .

Grant this, O God.   Lord, Hear our prayer.

We pray for those who have experienced deep loss.  May they find the comfort of your caring presence to fill the void in their lives. . .

Grant this, O God.  Lord, Hear our prayer.

We pray for those traumatized by violence and injustice. May they experience justice and healing that will lead them down the road of wholeness. . .

Grant this, O God.  Lord, Hear our prayer.

We pray for those whose health is failing. May healing turn them towards wholeness and vitality, both physically and spiritually. . .

Grant this, O God.  Lord, Hear our prayer.

We pray for those lacking the necessities of life.  May they find necessary provisions through your abundance and our sharing. . .

Grant this, O God.  Lord, Hear our prayer.

We pray for those whose hearts have closed down, unable to receive or give love. May they open themselves to your unconditional love. . .

Grant this, O God.  Lord, Hear our prayer.

As we open our eyes to these things, help us now to open our minds, our hearts and our hands to be a channel of your blessing in these situations.  Through your strength and power, may we be an answer to our prayers.  We pray in the name of Christ our Lord.  Amen. 

[1] http://thetyee.ca/Life/2013/06/14/Digital-Death-Industry/

[2] Kyle Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, p. 431. 

[3] Clarence Jordan and Bill Lane Doulos, Cotton Patch Parables of Liberation (Scottdale, Penn.: Herald Press, 1976), 67.

[4] On the Edge of the Primeval Forest (trans. C. T. Campion; New York: Macmillan, 1931), p. 1.

[5] Barbara Brown Taylor, “A Fixed Chasm” in Bread of Angels (Lanham: Cowley Publications: 1997), pp. 115-116.

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