Our Gospel lesson today comes once again through a challenge parable. Today we are challenged to rethink what it means to live out our faith in a world that keeps pulling us this way and that, at a time when there is so much uncertainty and drama that it is hard for us to keep our minds focused on what God is calling us to be and do, and especially that part of our baptismal covenant where we promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP, 305).
It’s a challenging Gospel, but there is good news in it, good news we need to hear. And that is this. There’s still time. It’s not too late. There will come a time we won’t be able to turn the clock back. But right now, it’s not too late. Hold on to that thought. It’s not too late.
Today’s parable carries forward a theme we hear throughout Luke’s Gospel—the theme of the Great Reversal. The Great Reversal is found in many of Jesus’ teachings. But we also hear it from his mother, when she visits her cousin Elizabeth. Mary and Elizabeth are exulting over what God was doing with them. A whole new day was coming, and they knew it. God was bringing forth a Great Reversal, not just for them, but for the world, and not just the world as they knew it, but for a future where God’s justice and mercy would prevail. Mary announces the coming of the Great Reversal in the Magnificat, when she sings about how God will lift up the poor and topple the mighty from their thrones, and how God will give the hungry good food to eat and turn the rich away, hungry.
The parable of Lazarus and the rich man serves as a kind of bookend for the Magnificat. Here the Great Reversal is seen not from the perspective of a poor woman who is pregnant with God’s mercy and justice come to earth, but from the perspective of a rich man who has died. And it raises a question.
What happens to God’s promise of mercy and justice when people die? It’s a question the parable doesn’t completely answer.
Jesus is trying to provoke and engage his listeners, to get them to imagine a scene in which the Great Reversal is played out when characters from both ends of the social and economic ladder meet again on the other side of life. If you can imagine Jesus telling this story not in a minute or two, but for a whole hour or more, you can imagine how much fun he may have had telling the story. He doesn’t even name the rich man, and you know why that is? Rich men always get their name in stories, but the poor never do. So Jesus names the poor man Lazarus. It’s no coincidence that the name of Lazarus translates as “one God helps.” The way Jesus describes Lazarus dramatizes how in God’s scheme the fortunes of the most unfortunate—and could there be anyone less fortunate than Lazarus?—will be reversed.
So if you are a Lazarus, this parable has a message of hope for you.
If you’ve been neglected or ignored when you were in need; if you’ve been shut out of schools and jobs and health care programs because you couldn’t afford them; if you’ve been shunned by friends and relatives and maybe even the church you used to attend because you got sick or had an accident that left you disfigured and maybe disabled and all alone, this parable is saying: God sees, God understands, and God will make things right for you.
If you are a Lazarus, or know one, this is the parable that helps you hold on to your faith in the face of all that humanity can do in the way of evil, including those everyday slights you experience with those who don’t even realize how their neglect of you--or their condescension toward you—hurts you. This is the parable that upholds you when you wonder how God’s mercy gets worked out with those who have allowed—and benefitted from—unjust practices they think are part of the natural order of things.
The Great Reversal of the rich man’s fortunes, which this parable portrays as permanent and irreversible, strikes me more as a teaching device than a literal statement of how God’s judgment works itself out after we die. There are things we won’t know until we die, and this is one of them. But even so, it seems clear that Jesus wants his listeners to walk away from this story knowing two things.
The first thing that Jesus wants them to know is that God’s mercy is just. In the end, it’s what God says we should do—and not what we convince ourselves is the right thing to do—that matters.
There’s a scene in Jane Austin’s novel, Sense and Sensibility, which was beautifully portrayed in a film that came out a number of years ago. The patriarch of a rich family is on his deathbed. Before he dies, he makes his son promise to take care of his step-mother and step-sisters, who were prevented by law from any portion of the man’s inheritance. The son promises, but before the man is buried, he and his wife talk themselves into giving them only a pittance, rationalizing all the time that they could turn the women out of their home and deprive the daughters their future and still honor the promise the son made to his father. And that’s exactly what they do.
In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus is saying, no excuses, no denials, no waking up one day and saying, “if ONLY we had known.” A promise is a promise, and the promise we make in our baptismal covenant is a promise made to God. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man teaches us how easy it is to think our ways are God’s ways.
The second thing the parable teaches is that time is short. We can’t postpone our obligation to care for the needy or leave it to someone else to take care of. We can’t postpone our obligation to seek justice for the poor or the planet until the right policy or program is adopted or the right people are in office.
Our parable today invites us to see God’s justice extending to the way we care for God’s creation. Imagine Lazarus not as the poor man, but the planet Earth. We can’t postpone caring for the creation until everyone agrees on the science that is warning us about climate change. We can’t claim, when our time comes, that we didn’t know, or that everyone was saying something different, so we couldn’t do anything to stop the harm that is disproportionately affecting the world’s poorest countries—harm that is disproportionately caused the greed and consumption of first-world economies such as our own. There won’t be a chance, once the last birds and butterflies disappear, to ask the Lord to send someone back from the dead to tell us to notice, and to act, before it’s too late.
But the good news is that it’s not too late. There is still time. We are still here. There are still things we can do. It’s not too late to take a look, a real look, at the people we pass every day who are hurting, people we think are beyond help, people whose sores seem to have nothing to do with the choices we make, whose hunger and neglect seem not to be our problem. It’s not too late to look at how much energy and water we use. It’s not too late to work on lowering our carbon footprint.
There is still time, maybe not to understand everything, maybe not to get everyone to agree, maybe not to get the perfect solution, but to do the one thing we can do, the one thing God is putting on each of our hearts today, the one thing we can do to bring about peace, the one thing we can do to bring about justice, the one thing we can do to uphold one another in our common life, because it’s the one thing we can do, today, to keep our promise to God, whose faithfulness is everlasting.
In Jesus’ name, we pray.