In the Hands of a Few

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter
September 25, 2022
Luke 16:19–31

Perhaps you’ve experienced this: you’re at a party, and someone says something either obnoxious or problematic, and you’re caught off guard, and you don’t know what to say. So you say nothing. And then, in the car ride home, you think, Ah, that’s what I should have said! and you come up with the perfect rejoinder.

I don’t know if you’re like me: I have a lot of conversations with myself in the shower, reworking conversations that I wished I had had with someone else earlier. I should have said that, I should have done this, I should have … This is the phenomenon of realizing too late what you ought to have done in the moment. We all experience this and we see it in the story tonight that Jesus tells about a poor man, Lazarus, and a rich man.

This story is part of Luke’s gospel’s focus on questions of wealth and poverty. In it, we read of a rich man clothed in purple—the color of royalty and power. Purple dye was really expensive, and so the very fact that he is clothed in purple while the poor man is laying outside of the gate trying to feed himself off of scraps and is so ill-cared for that the dogs lick his sores for comfort demonstrates a tremendous gap between them. There is a tremendous disparity between the one who has something and the one who does not.

As the parable unfolds we find that Lazarus receives his reward in the afterlife where he is comforted at Abraham’s side, while the rich man is paying for his misdeeds by being tortured in Hades. Now, we can talk another time about what this story has to say about the afterlife—it actually has little to say about the afterlife it’s using these images as a metaphor for us to understand our obligations in the Here and Now.

Because it occurs to the rich man too late what he ought to have done. He asks for some remediation in the interim: can’t you just send Lazarus to dip his finger in the water and just give me a little taste because I am burning. When that does not work, when he learns that it’s impossible, he asks that Lazarus be sent to his family still still living to warn them of the consequences of not taking care of the poor. He’s told that this is not necessary, his brothers already have everything they need.

This is really where this parable comes to the fore. Think back to the situation I mentioned earlier where you come home from the party and you think to yourself too late That’s what I should have said. The reality is that we were equipped in that moment to say or do the right thing, and for whatever reason, we were unable to or unwilling to. Perhaps even more problematic.

It’s the situations when we actually do know the right thing to say and we don’t say it that cause the most trouble. For example, when you’re with a boss or a co-worker and somebody makes a joke that’s kind of racist, and you don’t say, “Hey, that’s kind of racist.” You know you should, but you don’t. Or those situations when you don’t call out behavior that’s objectionable or don’t intervene when you see someone being treated poorly. These are things we actually know we should do and we choose not to.

So the reality is the bigger problem: it’s not that we don’t know what’s right to do, it’s that we’re making choices every day not to do it.

This was Saint Augustine’s understanding of sin: it was not that he didn’t know what was wrong and what was right, it was that he knew what was wrong and he did it anyway. He felt almost powerless to do the right thing.

But Luke doesn’t seem to think that we are powerless to do the right thing. Luke’s presentation of the story of the poor man and Lazarus reminds us that we are already well-equipped. When the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to his family to warn them, Abraham replies that they already have Moses and the prophets; that is ,there’s the law—all the Commandments—and the prophets’ instruction. And what are those Commandments but to do justice those, to take care of the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. The Commandments are to ensure that there is equal access to the resources of society, to ensure that there is equal access to the levers of power.

The prophets spent their lives and their ministries calling people simply to do what the Covenant was telling them to do. So, it’s not even that the people in the prophets’ time didn’t know what to do; they had the Torah, they had the commandments; they knew it—they just weren’t doing it.

And this is where the rubber really hits the road in this story because there’s something about the way the story is told that allows us to miss where the story is really calling us to go. It’s the story of a rich man and a poor man, the story of one man who has nothing and one man who has everything. In the end, the wealthy man realizes he should have taken care of the poor man.

But this is the thing about so many of the Commandments and so many injunctions of the prophets: they weren’t talking to individuals—they weren’t talking to you as an individual saying you need to give more money to the poor—they were concerned with what the society as a whole did. They wanted to ensure that the society as a whole cared for the least of these.

It’s why the Torah was full of injunctions preventing you from farming the edges of your field because that was meant to be for the poor so they would have food. If fruit fell off the trees of your orchard, that was not fruit you were allowed to harvest; that fruit was for the poor. If while gathering grain, some grains should fall, that was not grain you were allowed to pick up; gleaners would come through, poor people who would pick up these leftover pieces of grain to have food to live on. These were rules in the law designed to ensure that the poorest had the basic necessities of life, the basic access to the resources of the entire society.

We’ve had Moses and the prophets now for at least 2,000, maybe 3,000 years—we’ve known this. So why aren’t we doing it? Why is it that the life expectancy of well-to-do Americans is lower than the life expectancy of poor people in other countries? Why is it that there are still people who have nowhere to live? Who go without lifesaving medical care?

We are the wealthiest nation on Earth, and the fact that anyone goes to bed hungry can only be described by one word: sin. it’s not the kind of individual sin we’re used to thinking of, you know, swearing, bad thoughts, you know, all of those things. This is the kind of sin that judges entire nations—the hoarding of wealth by a few.

This rich man is having a banquet while a poor man is sleeping on his front door, relying on stray dogs for his health care. This inequity in the afterlife is reflective of the chasm that’s there in life, between those who have and those who have not. The chasm in the afterlife is erased when we fill in the chasm in life, when we take care of the poor, when we ensure that no one has to worry about where their next meal is coming from, no one has to worry whether they’ll be able to afford life-giving treatment.

If we don’t do this, then we are complicit with a society embodied by that rich man, clothed in purple, feasting, and drinking while his neighbor suffers at his door.

These parables in Luke are meant to shock us out of our complacency. This Parable is to remind us that we have everything we need to do the right thing: we have the law, the prophets, Jesus’s teaching, and we have the resources—the food and the money—to do it.

I’m moved by Abraham’s statement that the rich man’s living relatives have everything they need, and if they’re not listening to that, then even if someone were to come back from the dead, it wouldn’t make a difference. This is a thinly veiled reference to the resurrection, to the idea that there are people who profess Jesus as risen, acknowledging that he’s come back from the dead, but who don’t see the implication for them of the things he taught us, the things he gave his life to defend: to proclaim justice, compassion, mercy, and righteousness. There are far too many of us who acknowledge the Risen Christ without doing what he told us to do.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will see the Kingdom of Heaven, but those who do the will of my Father.” It’s the ones who actually do what Jesus is saying to do—those are the folks who see the kingdom of heaven.

So, confess your faith all you want; just don’t stop there.

James, in his epistle, writes, “So you say that God is one; good for you! Even the demons know that and tremble.” What are you doing to distinguish yourself from them if you’re not actually doing the works of the law by exercising justice and having compassion for the poor? What good does it do to wish the poor well and say, “Peace be with you,” if you’re not actually meeting their daily needs?

See, we know what to do we’ve had Moses and the prophets, the Gospel, and the Epistles. We’ve had the Saints, we’ve had the great thinkers of the church, we’ve had the latter-day prophets, the Kings, the Romeros… we have everything we need.

So this is our call to take ourselves away from the banquet table not just as individuals but as a people, so that we might bring Lazarus into the banquet in this life and bring healing and restoration in the here and now.

The Text

Luke 16:19–31

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”