9.25.22 homily on Luke 16:19-31 by Pastor Galen
In recent years there have been a spate of TV shows that imagine or reimagine life after death. One such show, entitled Upload, is a science fiction comedy-drama which imagines a sort of dystopian future where the family members of people who pass away can pay to upload their deceased relative’s consciousness into a digital afterlife.
The show centers around 27-year-old computer programmer Nathan Brown, who is mortally wounded and subsequently uploaded after his self-driving car malfunctions and crashes. Nathan Brown wasn’t necessarily the most morally upstanding person on earth, but his girlfriend was quite well off, and so she was able to pay to upload his consciousness into one of the more luxurious digital afterlifes, the Lakeview Resort.
One of the many problems with the virtual afterlife depicted in Upload is that the quality of someone’s virtual life after death is dependent on how much money or resources they or their family members have on earth. Every amenity at the Lakeview Resort comes at an additional charge, and so friends and family members still living on earth are frequently asked to pay extra to give their deceased family members additional levels of enjoyment. On the other hand, if the family members residing on earth forget or neglect to pay the monthly charges, then their relatives at Lakeview may find themselves downgraded and living in much less luxurious circumstances, or even frozen in a “limbo” state until more money is added to their account.
Fortunately Upload is fictional, and merely a figment of the writers’ imaginations, because this does not sound like the sort of eternity any of us would hope for. And yet the writers of Upload have not been the first to imagine that people who are wealthy or powerful or famous in this life will probably be treated better in the world to come. Even in Jesus’s day, there was a misconception that those who are wealthy in this world are more blessed or favored by God, and so it would follow that they would hold a more prominent place in heaven.
Jesus’s parable in Luke 16:19-31 about the rich man and Lazarus counters this common misperception – illustrating that it is not how much money or wealth or power or prestige we have in this life that will matter in eternity, but rather it is our priorities on this earth that matter – where we place our faith and trust and hope, and what we do with the resources we have been given in this life that will make a difference in eternity.
The Nature of Parables
So let’s dig into this parable – as difficult as it may be for us to sift through – and see what lessons we might draw from it. But before we do, we must remember that the purpose of parables was often to convey a singular truth. Not every detail in every parable was intended to accurately describe the way things are or will be. I don’t believe, for example, that the people who are eternally separated from God will be able to look across a chasm and see those who are resting eternally in God’s presence. But Jesus often used storylines and tropes that were common in his day as a way to connect with his audience.
And so, as we analyze this parable, we should be looking for the one or two key takeaways – the main points – rather than seeing this as a detailed or comprehensive description of the afterlife.
The Rich Man and Lazarus
And so the curtain opens, as it were, on a wealthy man who is depicted as wearing expensive garments and feasting lavishly every day. The term “conspicuous consumption” comes to mind. Meanwhile, right outside the walls of his gated compound lived a poor and sickly man by the name of Lazarus, a name that means “God will help.”
The wealthy man must have been aware of Lazarus’s presence, and even knew him by name, as we find out later in the parable. It’s not difficult to imagine that the wealthy man was even annoyed by Lazarus’s presence, since he must have had to step over him every time he went in and out of his gate. But he refused to help Lazarus – refusing even to allow Lazarus to gather the crumbs that fell from his table. I imagine the wealthy man muttering under his breath every time he went out of his gate and passed by Lazarus, shaking his head and saying – “Lazarus – ‘God will help.’ Humph! God helps those who help themselves.”
I’m sure that the wealthy man found many ways to justify his own refusal to help Lazarus. Perhaps he believed that if Lazarus had simply worked as hard as he had, or if he had only made better choices earlier in his life, then surely he wouldn’t have ended up in this predicament. Just as wealthy people were often thought to be highly favored by God in those days, so too it was often believed that the poor were to blame for their own impoverished states.
Interestingly enough, both Lazarus and the rich man died. Lazarus, who had been destitute in this life, was “carried away by angels” (Luke 16:22) and taken to heaven, where he enjoyed the company of Abraham and all the righteous who had gone before. The wealthy man, on the other hand, who had lived a life of luxury and ease on earth – finds himself in a place of torment – so miserable that he begged Abraham to send Lazarus to him with a drop of cold water to quench his thirst.
Abraham pointed out that there was a great chasm between Lazarus and the wealthy man, and there was no way that he could receive mercy at the hand of Lazarus – or from Abraham for that matter. The time for giving and receiving mercy had ended. The wealthy man, who had refused to show mercy to Lazarus when he had the chance, could not be shown mercy now. It was too late, and there was nothing that could be done about it.
The wealthy man suggested, then, that perhaps Lazarus could go back and warn the wealthy man’s five brothers – who were most likely living a life of luxury and ease and withholding their gifts to the poor as well. But Abraham counters that the man’s five brothers had been warned by the words of Moses and the prophets all throughout Scripture. If they refused to heed the warnings of the prophets, just as the wealthy man himself had done, then surely they would refuse to change their ways even if someone rose from the dead and told them to repent.
Jesus Crossed the Great Divide
Jesus’s parable about the rich man and Lazarus does many things. One of which is to counter the notion that those with wealth and power and resources in this life will automatically be given a prominent position in heaven. The original hearers of this parable, who believed that wealth was tangible proof that God had smiled upon someone, would have been surprised to hear of a wealthy man who didn’t even make it into heaven.
Just as surprising, perhaps, would have been the notion that someone like Lazarus, who had no doubt been passed by and disregarded by many people (not just the wealthy man in this story), is given a name, and a place of honor in this story, and that in the parable he is rewarded with heavenly riches.
This parable is a reminder that this life is not all there is. That even if we do not have much in this life, if we put our faith and trust in Christ, we will be blessed to be in God’s presence for all eternity, and we will have wealth and riches untold. On the other hand, this parable should be taken as a warning, a cautionary tale that our ultimate goal is this life should not be to gain or maintain wealth or status or prestige or power on this earth, but rather to be good stewards of what we have been given – using what we have for the good of God’s kingdom, and sharing freely with those who are in need.
This does not mean, of course, that we can do enough good works to enter heaven on our own merit, any more than we can buy our way into heaven with money or wealth. Rather, it is only through placing our faith and trust in the mercy of Christ that we can be saved. Christ’s death on the cross bridged the chasm separating us from God. The cross formed a bridge, making it possible for us to cross over into eternal life with God – no matter our station in this life, no matter how many times we’ve failed or fallen short.
Through his death and resurrection Jesus defeated the power of sin and death and hell and the grave, freeing us from the power of sin, opening the door for us to have eternal life with God through Christ Jesus.
As recipients of so great a mercy, we are called to extend that same mercy to others, and to use the resources we have been given to point others to the love and grace of mercy of God, extended freely to all.
How Should We Then Live?
This week as I’ve been mulling over the implications of this parable for my own life and for the life of our church and community, I couldn’t ignore the reality that here in our own community there are people who lack the basic necessities of life, and that across the street from our church there are people living in tents. Frequently people even camp out on the porch of our church to escape the wind and rain and elements.
This begs the question – especially for those of us who identify more with the rich man in this story than with Lazarus in that we have our basic needs met and more to spare – how should we then live? Are we called to help each and every one person we encounter who asks us for money or who seems to be in need?
Last week I pointed out that giving our tithes and offerings to the church is one way that we collectively respond to the needs around us. None of us individually can meet each and every need of every person in our surrounding community, but as we pool our resources together, giving of our time, our talents, and our treasures, and as we make decisions together as a community about how to respond to the needs around us, we work together to fulfill the Great Commission and the mandate we have been given to help those in need.
But I believe this parable also challenges those of us who relate to the rich man in this story that there are times when we have the opportunity and resources to help someone in need, and in those situations we can and should do so. Now, as a caveat, I don’t think we always have to give someone exactly what they ask for. Sometimes it does. If someone is dying of thirst and they ask you for a drink of water then absolutely, if you have within your power to give them water, you should.
But there are other times when someone asks for money, but what they really need is a job or opportunity. In my own life, as I’ve gotten to know people who are struggling with various addictions or needs that were far beyond my control, I’ve at the very least offered to help try and connect them with someone who can help them get access to the help or resources they need. For example, I’ve frequently offered to drive someone to Helping Up Mission if they are interested in enrolling in the program there. I’ve also reached out on behalf of our church to the Mayor’s office and connected with their department of homeless outreach to try to gain services for the people living in the park across the street. And although I personally have made it a habit not to wake someone from their sleep when they are sleeping peacefully on our church’s porch (unless we have an event that is about to start), I have usually tried to connect with them after they wake up to see what sorts of help or medical attention they might need.
I realize, of course, that we all have different amounts of time, and resources, and opportunities, and we’re not all called to minister to others in the same way. But it is important to recognize that so often we are more like the rich man in this story than we care to admit, and that what we do or don’t do with the resources we have been given in this life does matter – not only in this world, but in the world to come.
I for one am grateful that our eternal destiny does not depend on the wealth or power or even the level of good works that we’ve achieved in this life, but solely on the mercy and grace of God. Let us give God praise for the mercy God has bestowed upon us, and let us steward the resources we have been given in ways that extend God’s mercy and love to those around us.