One of those devices in movies that just never gets old is the one in which you think that it’s telling a lot of different stories, but actually everyone is connected. I can think of two movies, both about ten years old now, that did that trick right around the same time. Babel, which was a Brad Pitt movie, was critically-loved and not as much by audiences. Crash won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Crash was this movie in which a bunch of different characters are reacting to their life situations, only you find out that they’re all connected. For example, a policewoman and her partner, whose brother is a carjacker, who (along with his partner) rob the district attorney, who hires a locksmith, whose daughter is nearly killed by the shopowner, whose shop is constantly broken into so he looks for help from the police, one of whom assaults the wife of a Hollywood director, who’s later pulled over by the first cop’s partner. Actually, I’m pretty sure that every character in the movie is connected to every other character in two or more ways, so I’m not going to try to re-hash all the connections, but you get the idea. This device is one of those things that audiences love – seeing that these stories, which have been separate in the beginning, suddenly piece together to form a coherent whole.
*Crash is a lot more about the complex racial realities of 21st century America than it is about how people’s lives are connected, but the way people connect to one another in spite of differences is a theme, if a secondary one, of the movie. I just want to make sure that we talk about the movie as it’s meant to be discussed!
In Crash, the characters are all different races, socio-economic backgrounds, genders, and ages. What binds them together is living in Los Angeles, and a 36-hour confluence of events that makes them “crash” together. Today’s parable from Luke is a little bit like that, except that it uses only two characters, and is therefore much more manageable!
Jesus tells this parable: there’s a rich man who wears only the finest clothing. Right outside his gate lies a poor, diseased man name Lazarus. Both of them die, but the rich man only receives a proper burial. We’re not told what happens to the poor man’s body – maybe it’s just left to rot, rather than the nice burial the rich man gets – but we do hear that his soul is taken up to heaven. The rich man descends to Hades – that’s the Greek term, which just means a generic “land of the dead.” While there, he is in flames and burns, but can see Lazarus sitting next to Abraham, the great prophet. The rich man asks Abraham for a drink of water, but Abraham tells him “no” – this rich man and Lazarus are far apart, both in life and in death. And just as the rich man never helped Lazarus, so, too, can Lazarus never help the rich man.
Then, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his family, so that they can be warned about the consequences of their actions. Again, Abraham denies the rich man. The rich man insists that his family would listen, if such news came from someone returning from the dead. Yet, Abraham is steadfast: he points out that there have been many prophets who have written the word of God, and they are all dead. If the rich man’s family wants to listen to someone from the dead, they should listen to what they already have.
So, to recap, our story’s two characters are the Rich Man and Lazarus. Interestingly, in all of Jesus’ parables, only one character ever receives a name – and that’s Lazarus in this parable. The Rich Man, therefore, remains unnamed. And that’s just the start of the differences between these two characters.
Obviously, one is rich, and one has nothing. The rich man is dressed in the finest of clothes, Lazarus is dressed only in sores. The rich man eats the finest food; Lazarus eats nothing, and in fact what little he has – his own skin – is licked up by the dogs. They are both at the same gate, yet one man can walk freely through that gate, and the other lies there, hoping desperately for someone to have mercy on him. Of course, death comes to both – perhaps the one thing they have in common, besides that gate where all the action happens. Yet even after death, the differences between these two men in the parable do not end.
Their eternal fates are different, too. Before I go on about that, by the way, I just want to point out that a lot of sermons have been given, assuming that Jesus is accurately describing the afterlife. The truth is, though, that there’s really no reason to believe that. He is telling a parable, which is a made-up story with made-up rules to help make the story good. I’m fairly certain that, whatever the next phase looks like for us, you don’t have a window between two different worlds, and Abraham isn’t there shouting at people across a canyon.
So anyway, these two men have these different fates. The rich man is in Hades, where his body is licked with flames – much as Lazarus’ skin was licked by dogs during life. Here, it’s Lazarus who has what the rich man wants. Lazarus is by a pool. And now it’s he who keeps the finest of company. While Lazarus’ life would have been a lonely one and the rich man’s full of parties, in death the rich man seems unable to find help, while Lazarus has the ear of God’s first great servant all to himself.
Of course, the very fact that their final destinations are included in this story at all is another duality in the text – there are two worlds, the physical and the metaphysical, and these men (like all of us) are connected in both. In spite of their differences, these two men are eternally linked in Jesus’ parable. And that’s something we should consider.
It’s easy to see these two men as completely different, because they’re separated by one issue: poverty. At the center of much of Jesus’ preaching is care for the poor and less fortunate. He constantly goads wealthier followers into helping those who have less. Frankly, it’s probably part of why Jesus was so popular with the poor, the crippled, the widows, the orphans, children in general: those were the people with no rights, and Jesus was sticking up for them.
So this story is impossible to talk about satisfactorily without talking about poverty. In fact, some commentators on this text have mentioned verse 26, which includes the words, “between you and us a great chasm has been fixed,” and debated whether this “great chasm” was the very concept of poverty. But I would venture to say that this text is not just about poverty of goods, but rather that it’s about poverty’s companion: poverty of goodness.
This reading comes right on the heels of last Sunday’s reading (that I didn’t preach on), which you probably don’t remember. But whether you do or not, that reading ended with, “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” This is a powerful, fundamentally Christian message, the message that was, in some way or another, the heart of much of Jesus’ preaching, and, perhaps, the most difficult, counter-cultural message for an American Christian today.
Jesus has to be clear about money, because it is far too tempting for us to trust in it, rather than God. But Jesus wants us to know one thing for certain: MONEY CAN’T SAVE US! Either can politicians, media, convenience, ease, technology, or anything else. Only Jesus saves! Yet, over and over again, we put our faith in things of this world, which inevitably let us down. We have all been to a place where we’ve scrimped and saved and worked for one material thing or another – a specific thing, or perhaps just a cushion in the bank account.
But the fact of the matter is this: when we receive that thing, we’re happy for a little while, but then find ourselves wanting more. If you want a thousand in the savings account, soon you want two. Then five. Then ten, and fifteen and twenty. Then fifty and a hundred. It’s never enough, and wealth keeps us pursuing it. It is a force unto itself, and we blindly follow after it. And though we may not be in poverty of goods, we can easily find ourselves in a poverty of goodness.
But Jesus forces us, in this passage, to confront an ugly truth about ourselves. Not just that we have this insatiable desire for more wealth, but that we seek after it at the expense of our own goodness, and in fact at the expense of our own humanity. This rich man in the passage had no compassion for Lazarus in life. But then, interestingly, he does show an ounce of compassion in the hereafter. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his family about the consequences of his actions.
Frankly, there’s a whole sermon in the very idea of a man burning in hell still thinking that he can boss around a guy in paradise, just because he used to be more important. But I’m not going to focus on that today, fun though that would be. Instead, I want us to think about the request he makes, and why Abraham denies it.
When the Rich Man wants Abraham to warn his family about the consequences he faces, Abraham denies him, saying that if people haven’t listened to God’s word by now, what’s someone returning from the dead going to do? And that’s where, as Christian listeners to this story, our ears should perk up. Coming back from the dead… why, we know all about someone who did that! So that’s where we’re reminded that it’s Jesus telling us this story. He’s telling us an important clue here about his own Resurrection that’s key to us understanding his life, mission and message.
Jesus is saying that his Resurrection, in and of itself, is probably not going to convince anyone of his message if you didn’t already buy it. That’s a fascinating thing for him to be predicting, isn’t it? He hasn’t yet died and returned at the point in Luke at which he’s telling this story, and yet he already knows how people will react, because Jesus gets human nature. Still, he tells us this story, because wants us to know the importance of what we do with our lives, with our time, and with our riches. Jesus is the one guy who’s actually been all the way there, and come all the way back. If you don’t listen to him, you wouldn’t listen to anyone. And what he calls us to is to remember that we don’t have to live with a poverty of goodness.
Regardless of our financial realities, we can live with an abundance of goodness, and we can share from those riches with everyone we meet. Whether we have a little or a lot, there’s something we can share. We don’t have to just sit back and feel doomed to our fates. Instead, we’re given dominion over our own lives and actions, so that we can help build a better world, in tune with God’s own desires.
We’re given the messenger from the dead. It’s not a guy who used to lie in front of the gate of our house. Instead, it’s the Savior of the world, God incarnate, Jesus Christ – coming to tell us that we’re able to live abundantly, giving freely to others. We need to be generous, not because we’re being threatened with the flames of hell if we don’t do it – remember, it’s just a story (though I do acknowledge that as a possible reading). Rather, I think Jesus is compelling us to something more. We’re being asked to give because the opportunity only presents itself in this life. In the next, we either have everything we need, or we don’t. No amount of begging and pleading is going to change what we have. But our earthly lives present an opportunity to make a difference, so we’re asked to embrace that.
Don’t let yourself be poor in goodness. Let yourself feel free to become the kind of person who chases after Jesus – someone so in love with God that he followed what was right, even giving up his own life out of love. May we be courageous enough to give a little bit of ourselves in his honor, so that we might help every Lazarus we meet. Amen.