September 29, 2019

Brief synopsis of the readings: The prophet Amos starts us again this week and continues to rail against those who live well at the expense of the poor. Those who lie on ivory beds, eat stall-fattened veal, drink wine by the bowlful and anoint themselves with the finest oil will be the first to be exiled. In Luke’s Gospel he tells us a parable about a wealthy man who lived well. But there was a poor man, Lazarus, who lived at his gate. Lazarus got nothing from the rich man, and even had sores that dogs licked. Eventually Lazarus died and was carried to the bosom of Abraham. But when the rich man died he was carried to torment in Hades. Seeing Lazarus and Abraham he begged Abraham to have Lazarus dip his finger in water to cool his tongue. But Abraham responded that the gulf between them was too great. Finally the rich man asked that Lazarus be sent to warn the rich man’s brothers not to suffer the same fate. Abraham answered him by saying this: “If they will not listen either to Moses or to the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.”

Is anyone beyond redemption? From Adam and Eve we’ve learned that when we do good things God will reward us and if we do bad things God will punish us.

But a central tenet of Christianity tells us that when we do bad things, it’s not the end of the story. Jesus didn’t die for us to make us smarter, or better looking, or happier. Jesus died to forgive our sins. Again and again we see in Scripture (and our own lives) that when Jesus offers us forgiveness we need to accept it. Perhaps the best example comes from the reading two weeks ago with the parable of the Prodigal Son. The Prodigal Son presumably accepted his father’s forgiveness with gratitude and they all lived happily ever after.

I don’t think God gives up on anyone, but today’s Gospel speaks to the possibility of someone who chooses greed and exclusivity to the point where he gives up on God, believing that he has enough wealth to ensure the good life, not only for this live, but forever.

I find it interesting that the only person in this parable who isn’t named is the rich man. Normally we know the name of those above us, and not necessarily those below us. Those of us in corporations know the name of the CEO but not the name of the person who cleans our office.

And more to the point, it’s clear that the CEO in this parable didn’t know Lazarus’ name; in fact there’s no reason to believe that he even knew there was a beggar at his gate. Both of these people are living realities that they expected to last forever.

But we have a God who continues to upend our assumptions and shows no respect for our hierarchies. Because no matter how rich or popular we are, no matter what we’ve done, or no matter how lucky we’ve been, we all one day face death. Perhaps this rich man didn’t think he wouldn’t die, but I doubt that. I think he expected to see Abraham at the end of his journey.

This was pointed out to me several years ago: even in his torment the rich man couldn’t bring himself to speak directly to Lazarus. Instead he treats Lazarus as a servant, asking Abraham to direct Lazarus to dip his finger into water.

So what does it take for him to wake up and recognize his part in what happened to him? Well, we can’t tell from this parable. He then asks Abraham to warn his family who he fears will suffer the same fate. Even then he can’t bring himself to address Lazarus directly.

I find it interesting that Abraham refuses this also, saying that if his family haven’t paid attention to Moses or the prophets they won’t pay attention to anyone. And he has a point: Lazarus goes through this Gospel essentially invisible.

And the warnings of the prophets are well taken. Our first reading from Amos takes direct hit on those who sleep well, eat well, and drink well. Amos’ anger comes not from the beds or the food or the drink but from the fact that their lifestyle makes it easy to see the poor as invisible.

Many this weekend will see these readings in terms of beds, food, and drink but it’s really about relationships. I find it telling that even when the rich man asked Abraham to direct Lazarus to dip his finger, even then, even then he didn’t want to be in the same place as Lazarus.

We can read this against our common understanding of Heaven and Hell, but that is (let’s face it) more a reflection of Dante’s Divine Comedy than the Gospels. And in that understanding we can see that the rich man recognizes that Heaven is beyond his reach (after all, nobody in Dante’s Inferno ever escaped) and asked only for momentary relief.

Or, the rich man’s torment lies in the recognition that he’s chosen exclusiveness all his life and it’s finally come back to bite him. He has finally recognized the emptiness of solitude and yet still won’t ask for community.

Speaking only for myself, the truly hellish times in my life were not experiences of physical pain, but of loneliness; of those times when I felt I didn’t belong anywhere and with anyone.

As for Lazarus all we know is that he is in the “bosom of Abraham” but we can imagine his experience. He is healed of his sores that the dogs licked. We can also assume he is with all those who have accepted healing and community.

If it is true that after all his torment this anonymous rich man still refuses to open the gate to be with Lazarus, then maybe it means God has given us free will even to the point of us refusing salvation.

I pray none of us do the same.