A number of golfers meet at the first tee. They don’t know each other, but on this busy Saturday they are grouped into a foursome by the club. They have an enjoyable round and afterward are changing in the crowded locker room. A cellphone lying on a bench begins to ring and one of the four picks it up and answers. “I’m fine dear, how are you”, he says? “You are shopping. Well, isn’t that wonderful!” “You want to buy a $5,000 dress, with $2,500 matching shoes and a $1,500 coordinating pocketbook? I think that is a marvelous idea.” “You found a new style for decorating your SheShed and it’ll cost $50,000? You certainly are worth it.” “And what was that sports car you have been dreaming about? Right, the Alpha Romeo Spider convertible. There will never be a better day than today to stop by the dealership and pick out one.” “Sure, I think you should drive it off the lot.” The other three golfers overhearing all of this are amazed. How much money must a guy have to happily encourage his wife to spend so much so freely? The man finishes the call and lays the device back down on the bench. He looks at his stunned associates and says, “Any of you guys have an idea whose phone this is?”
Last Sunday we heard Jesus’ story of the Shrewd Manager, which we said was perhaps his most difficult parable to understand. Nothing in its odd details seems to have any semblance of a redeeming message. This morning we hear the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. Unlike last week’s, this one is about as straight forward as it can be. The details are crisp and clear and we don’t have to puzzle much about its message and meaning. The two share at least one thing in common: each puts us on the defensive. “It is not talking about me, is it?”
As a literary genre, parables have their place, but are not necessarily the best basis on which to build a foundation of doctrinal truths, which is to say, it would be unwise to use this story to construct a comprehensive understanding of the afterlife. Still, it suggests a couple of themes worth pondering.
The first is judgment. I don’t know what it will look like, but our lives and how we lived them will be assessed. The bible uses human imagery in an attempt to approximate what this might look like: a manager giving an accounting, appearing before a judge, a fire consuming dross while purifying gold, standing before St. Peter, facing a day of reckoning. Whatever this experience will be like, human imagery provides only a shadowy sense of what is to come. Clearly, in Jesus’ story, the rich man is judged for being unaware and/or inattentive to Lazarus’ need and suffering.
A second theme is reversal. It is one of Jesus’ favorite motifs: the first shall be last and the last shall be first in the kingdom of God. Did you notice this detail in the story: In our world, everyone knows the names of the well-to-do (we even have TV shows about them… Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous), while the poor remain anonymous. In Jesus’ parable, the poor man has a name, while the other person is known only by his financial status. The conditions each experiences are reversed: the one who suffers is comforted and the one with comfort suffers.
Again the parable raises in me the response, “Oh my, is this going to be my fate?”
As Jesus tells his story he creates a vivid contrast between the two lives. It seems to me there is one word in the narrative describing the Rich Man’s life that hones in on the difference. It is the Greek word lampros, which at its root means “splendid”. Here is how a few different bible versions translate it:
· The Wycliffe Bible (one of the oldest translations): [The Rich man] ate every day shiningly.
· The Message (one of the most recent): wasting his days in conspicuous consumption.
· The American Standard Version: living in mirth and splendor every day.
· The New International Version: lived in luxury every day
· God’s Word Translation: Every day was like a party to him
The King James Version appears to be the first to translate lampros as “sumptuous”: he fared sumptuously every day. The New Revised Standard Version, which most Episcopal Churches read from every Sunday, follows suit: He feasted sumptuously every day.
Sumptuous seems to imply more than well-off. The Marrian-Webster Dictionary defines it as “extremely costly, rich, luxurious, or magnificent.” Synonyms include extravagant, grandiose, ostentatious, pretentious, and showy Take a long, critical look at yourself. Be exceedingly harsh and then, as I suggested with last week’s parable, ask yourself, “Does this sound like me?”
Here is something I notice about the Rich Man as Jesus presents him: Throughout his life he neither looks up nor looks around. He does not engage God and he is oblivious of the people nearby, especially Lazarus.
When we look up we discover a God who loves us and blesses us. We meet a Creator who has filled the world delight. Rather than receiving it from God in due course and good measure, the Rich Man wallows in pleasure day and night. Rather than sharing it in the joy of family, the fellowship of community, or the supply of those in need, he is myopic; seeing only the delectables, but never people.
As Jesus tells his story, he describes two chasms. The first is in this world. It is the divide between the Rich Man and Lazarus. Why does it exist? Common sense and experience tells us people are separated by social status, religious affiliation, racial origin, and host of any other factors. It just seems to be the way the world is. A part of the Christian mission is to help people create bridges across the things which divide us. In Jesus’ parable, the only way to bridge the divide across the chasm between the Rich Man and Lazarus is if the Rich Man builds it. He doesn’t and the chasm remains uncrossed.
The second chasm in Jesus’ parable is in the life to come. There is no explanation for why it is exists, but (from how Jesus tells the story) this much is certain… there is no way to bridge it from either side. The divide is permanently uncrossable. At last the Rich Man looks up and he looks around, but the time for this to matter has passed.
My own theology of the life to come is unfinished at best, but I like something C.S. Lewis says his book The Great Divorce. Just as we have the opportunity in this life to move towards God, so too we will have the opportunity in the next. The dispositions we create and cultivate in this life influence who we will be and what we will desire in the next. Just as in this life, the next life will have a path that ends in God. The chasm between us and God has been bridged by Jesus Christ. If you do not want to take a single step on it in this life, why would you you think you will want to walk it in the next?
As I pondered today’s reading throughout the week, I kept remembering something I witnessed many years ago. I was visiting with the rector of an Episcopal Church in downtown Lancaster, PA, who impressed me very a priest and person. The time came for lunch and he suggested we walk around the corner to a local favorite (imagine Baron’s Pub!). Out on the street we encountered a man whose apppearance suggested he relied on the charity of others to make it in life. The rector greeted him by name and they began to engage in a warm, friendly, and familiar conversation. Honestly, it was the first time I ever witnessed two people bridge the chasm created by such econimic disparity. The memory has stayed with me all these years and it is no wonder it kept coming back to me this week.
Like many of you, I find myself living a life now a little bit like the life of the Lancaster priest. I greet a variety people as they stroll past my house, as I walk down the street, and as I traverse the aisles of Wal-Mart. I know them through our Food Pantry and other ministries here at St. Paul’s. It gives me great joy to think I am living now something like what I saw in those two people some thirty years ago.
Of all the bible’s images of judgment, the one I warm to the most is the consuming fire (no pun intended). I’d like to think everything about my life will be tested and that what is good and worthy and of God will remain while all that is not and all that holds me back will melt away. One thing I am confident will endure are the joyful interactions I have with the various and varied people of our community.
Jesus said, “There was rich man who feasted sumptuously every day.” He neither looked up nor looked around and then one day it was too late.