Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 25, 2022
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Whenever I come across the story of the rich man and Lazarus, I can’t help by think about “A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens. I’m sure most of you know the story well, but to refresh your memory, it is about Ebenezer Scrooge, a cold-hearted banker who spends his life hoarding his wealth and exploiting the poor. He hates Christmas and snarls at Christmas carolers. When he is approached about making a charitable donation to help the poor he cruelly suggests that they would be better off dead so that they might “decrease the surplus population.”
Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three spirits. The ghost of Christmas past painfully shows him how his love of money led him away from his lovely finance, Belle. The ghost of Christmas present takes him on a visit to his employee Bob Cratchit’s house, where he learns that if Bob’s son, Tiny Tim, doesn’t get some help, he is going to die. When Scrooge expresses empathy, the spirit throws his own words back at him about “decreasing the surplus population.” The ghost of Christmas future shows him his own grave, with a date on the tombstone just one year later. It shows him his debtors, who are glad he is gone. It shows him his colleagues, who joke about only being at the funeral for the free lunch. It shows him that Tiny Tim had indeed died, because his father couldn’t afford to get him the care he needed on his small salary.
The visits from these ghosts result in a profound change in Scrooge, and when he wakes up the next morning, he repents! He wakes up on Christmas morning ecstatic to know there is still time to change his ways. He makes a generous donation to the poor. He gives Bob Cratchit a raise. He befriends Tiny Tim and sees to his well-being. He starts to live a life not unlike that which Paul encourages in his letter to Timothy from our second reading for this morning, being “rich in good works, generous, and ready to share…taking hold of the life that is really life.”
Scrooge had a mirror lifted up to him by these three spirits, and this mirror caused him to repent. They helped him to change his heart, and then his ways. But Dickens wasn’t just holding up a mirror to his character. He was also holding up a mirror to his readers as well. Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” during the Industrial Age in Victorian England, a time when an enormous gap had opened up between the rich and the poor. It was a time when children were not protected by labor laws and often worked dangerous jobs in factories. Wealthy industrialists got rich off the backs of the working poor and their children. Dickens told this story in order to hold a mirror up to society and change the hearts of his readers. And it did! It isn’t an exaggeration to say that this little story by Dickens eventually led to changed hearts and then to changed laws which protected workers and especially children.
You can probably already begin to see the similarities between “A Christmas Carol” and the story we hear our Lord Jesus tell today.
Jesus’ story begins with a rich man in expensive clothes who “feasts sumptuously every day.” At this rich man’s gate, just outside his home, lies Lazarus. Lazarus is poor and hungry. Lazarus would be satisfied even with just the scraps that fell from this man’s table. Lazarus is covered in sores, which dogs came to lick. Jesus describes Lazarus as a man in desperate circumstances, lying outside the gate like garbage in an alley, while the wealthy man on the other side of the fence lounges on couches, has his fill of lamb and beef, and drinks wine from bowls.
As the story unfolds, both the rich man and Lazarus die, and in the afterlife their roles are reversed! Now the rich man is being tormented, while Lazarus is being comforted and cared for in the bosom of Abraham. The name “Lazarus” means “God helps me,” and that’s exactly what happens now. Lazarus is carried away by the angels and delivered into the strong and safe arms of Father Abraham. The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to bring him some water to cool his tongue, but Abraham says, “Sorry, you already had your good things! Now it is Lazarus’ turn! Besides, there is a chasm here that no one may cross.”
The rich man then begs Abraham to send a warning to his five brothers back home. But Abraham says, “Nope, sorry. They have Moses and the prophets to warn them.” “But Father Abraham,” the rich man pleads, “if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!” And Abraham says to him: “If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they listen even if someone is raised from the dead.”
Jesus tells this story to the Pharisees, who are described just a few verses prior as lovers of money. Last week, just a little bit earlier in the same chapter in Luke’s gospel, we heard Jesus say, “You cannot serve both God and wealth.” Well, the Pharisees scoffed at Jesus for saying this. Luke explains their reaction by telling us that they were lovers of money.
So we shouldn’t over-interpret what Jesus says here in this story. We need to be mindful of what prompted it. Jesus isn’t necessarily giving us a detailed theological description of heaven and hell and who are in which place. Jesus isn’t saying that the rich will burn in hell while the poor get an express ticket to heaven. Father Abraham himself is described in the Bible as wealthy, and he’s there in heaven! So, it is more complicated than that. Jesus is telling a story to a specific group of people in order to expose them. He is telling a story which holds a mirror up to the hearts of the Pharisees, who were lovers of money and haters of Jesus.
But just as Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” continues to resonate meaningfully far beyond the limited context of the Industrial Age of Victorian England, this story from Jesus is not just for the Pharisees of two thousand years ago. As the living word of God, this is a story that holds a mirror up to us too. It is a story God uses to expose us and diagnose us, to help us see things about ourselves so that we might ultimately repent, so that we might be changed.
This story, powerfully paired with our other two readings for today, are like Scrooge’s three spirits, each bringing us a warning about being so caught up in material things and creature comforts that we lose sight of God and our neighbors in need.
We live at a time when there are plenty of people like Lazarus lying at our gates, often literally. There is a crisis of homelessness driven largely by mental health problems and drug addiction which are plaguing American cities large and small. We see the crisis even here in Oak Harbor. There are no easy answers about how to solve this crisis. Christians in good faith can disagree about specific policies or strategies. We should be wise as serpents in how we go about addressing it, to be sure, and not naïve or enabling. But what we cannot do as Christians is ignore the fact that there are people in need. Our three spirits won’t let us do that today, that’s for sure!
The prophet Amos warns those of us who enjoy couches or steaks or bowls of wine, or some combination of the three, those who are at ease, who are financially comfortable and are not grieved over the ruin of our brothers and sisters in need, that such attitudes and lifestyles can lead us into exile, into separation from God.
St. Paul warns us that the desire to be rich, to keep all our money for ourselves, plunges people into ruin and destruction. The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, the Apostle says, and in their eagerness to be rich, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.
In the gospel reading, it appears that there is no hope for those who condemn themselves through the love of money. The rich man is doomed to an eternity in the flames, and when he begs Father Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers, who are apparently headed the same direction, Father Abraham says, “No. They have Moses and the prophets to warn them. The rich man insists that if they get a message from the dead, from beyond the grave, they will surely listen. But Abraham replies saying, “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
Jesus hides an Easter egg here at the end of his story. He points to the fact that even after the resurrection, the Pharisees still won’t believe in Jesus. They will still scoff at him and reject him They will still be lovers of money and haters of Jesus. As St. Luke wrote these words down, he would have known that this is exactly what happened.
But what is true of the Pharisees is not true for us. You see, a dead man really did rise from the dead. Jesus Christ our Lord died and rose again so that he might bridge that great chasm between God and sinners. And as we put our faith in him, as we trust him, as we listen to him, he leads us into a new life. He gives us a new heart. We get Easter and Christmas wrapped up together as we are delivered out of sin and death and rise to a new morning with our brother, Ebenezer. We wake up after this visit from these three spirits to a new morning with fresh possibilities made possible by the forgiveness Christ has won for us. We wake up to live for something more than the acquisition of more and more stuff. We wake up ready to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share. We wake up with hearts changed, so that we might take hold of the life that is really life.
God bless us, every one!
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church