This sermon was first preached at an online service of Kindred+ on March 14, 2021.
Relevant lectionary texts can be found here.
If Jesus had a Twitter account, these verses might count as some of his spiciest subtweets.
In the midst of several parables and direct teachings regarding money, Jesus was getting major heat from the religious aristocracy overhearing his words and when they mocked him, Jesus retorted back to them, pointedly, “You cannot serve both God and wealth.”
A few sentences later, he launches into the story we read today.
This story is the only time that Jesus names a character in his parables. But in his typical power-inversion style, he doesn’t name the rich and powerful man in the story. He names the impoverished one, Lazarus. The fact that Lazarus is named here has made some scholars think that this story was based in part on a real and recognizable situation. Like maybe there really was a well-known rich man in the community who really had a beggar named Lazarus outside his gate. So Jesus was like, “There was a certain rich man * wink *.” And everyone there knew exactly who he was talking about.
Especially given the previous exchange, some of Jesus’ descriptors would make the leaders of the religious aristocracy think to themselves, “Wait a minute. Is he talking about me?”
Like if he said, “There was a certain rich man who was set to become the world’s first trillionaire, who became $75 billion dollars richer during a global pandemic when others lost their jobs and starved, who refused to let his workers unionize in response to their terrible working conditions and instead had robots follow them around to count the minutes they weren’t productive so that he could fire them if they rested too long on the job, whose workers were forced to wear diapers to avoid bathroom breaks and stay on the line.”
Just as an example.
Like, “I don’t know, hypothetically. There was this rich man who had a shiny, bald head. And he headed up a company that monopolized the market. And for the sake of the story we can call that company…oh…I don’t know…Schmamazon.”
It’s no wonder that the religious aristocracy wanted to shut Jesus up.
In this story, Lazarus is homeless and destitute, cast before the gates of the rich man like trash on the curb waiting to be picked up. Disposable. Lower than the dogs. Forced to beg for scraps from a man who feasted in luxury every day.
Lazarus’ poverty was related to his illness. Which isn’t surprising. In our own society in the midst of a global health crisis, the marginalized and impoverished are much more likely to catch the coronavirus. Particularly those who work minimum wage jobs, deemed essential enough to be forced to work when others stay home, but not quite essential enough to be paid a living wage.
So one day Lazarus dies. He dies before the rich man, which again, is unsurprising. According to a Houston/Harris County report from 2019, your zip code in Houston is more of an indicator of how long you will live than your genetic code. In some neighborhoods the life expectancy is a full decade shorter than in other, more affluent areas just across the city.
When Lazarus dies there’s no burial. There was probably no one in his life who could afford to pay for one. But Lazarus did not die alone. The angels scooped Lazarus up and brought him to the heart of his ancestors, to Abraham’s bosom, to the heavenly banquet full of the good things he had been denied all his life.
You might notice that the angels didn’t drug test Lazarus before seating him at the banquet. They didn’t check his immigration status. They didn’t ask how many jobs he applied to a week. They actually didn’t do anything – at all – to try to sort out if he deserved it or not.
The lies of capitalism tell us that people deserve what they get. That if someone is poor, it must be some kind of moral failure. That they didn’t work hard enough. That they were careless. We tell people who are struggling to survive that they can pull themselves out of endless, predatory debt if they would just stop drinking coffee or eating avocado toast. We assume that wealth on earth means God’s blessing and that poverty is the result of sin.
Poverty is the result of sin. But not the sin of the poor. Capitalism tells us that being unhoused, lacking insurance, lacking education, poverty, are individual moral failures. But the Gospel reminds us that we belong to one another. And if someone doesn’t have what they need, it is a failure of the community.
Poverty is a result of sin.
But not the sin of the poor.
Poverty is the result of the sin of the rich.
And other people, children created in the image of God, suffer as a result.
The rich man eventually dies. Because we all die. No amount of money can obscure that truth. And the rich man was buried. I’m sure it was a very nice ceremony.
The story tells us that the rich man was in torment. My guess is that no small part of that torment was because he was mourning the loss of his wealth and influence. But he still didn’t get it. This merciless man, a man who passed by Lazarus every day. A man who never gave him anything to eat, never tended to his wounds, never welcomed him in. This merciless man begged for mercy. And then in the same breath began to demand that Lazarus would serve him.
“Father Abraham, send Lazarus to provide me with comfort.”
Like a servant boy.
The rich man was so accustomed to his identity, his class, his wealth and power, that he really expected Lazarus to act as his servant even in the afterlife. And without any apology, without any attempt to repair the harm that he had caused, the rich man demanded mercy.
“Don’t cancel me!” He cried out. The rich man wanted to evade consequences without any accountability. But he was too late.
How does this story make you feel? Where do you notice it in your body? What might that response be saying to you?
Depending on who you are, this story can either sound like really good news or very very bad news. The Gospel is like that. There is that saying, that the Gospel is comforting to the afflicted, like Lazarus, and afflicts the comfortable. So for people who exploit their workers, for people who hoard wealth at the expense of others, this passage can seem terrifying. Even for those of us who aren’t exactly wealthy but maybe still hold on tightly to some of the false narratives regarding wealth, things like, “You can be anything you want if you just work hard enough,” and other versions of the so-called American dream, even for us, this story can still be incredibly uncomfortable.
But for those of us who are like Lazarus, who lie just outside the gates of society begging for relief from hunger and illness and oppression, this story is good news. This story is a story of God’s justice. This story tells people who freeze to death on our park benches, “You are not alone. The angels are there, with you.” This story tells people who are abused and tormented by someone considered a pillar in their community, “God recognizes the hearts of people. God knows what your abuser has done to you and God hates it.” This story tells people who suffer, “This misery is not how this story ends.” This story gives us an image of a God who sticks up for us, of a Jesus who speaks truth to power in order to protect vulnerable people, no matter what the cost.
But regardless of who we are in this story – whether we are Lazarus or the CEO of Schmamazon or somewhere inbetween – there is an important truth for us to hear.
Some of us grew up in churches that hyper-spiritualized the Gospel. We were taught that the story of Jesus Christ and our salvation was all about what happens to us when we die. We were told that our suffering here on earth didn’t matter, because “earth is not our home.” We were told to be patient because our reward was coming in Heaven. Pie in the sky and sweet by and by. Some people have even used this very story of the rich man and Lazarus that way; to tell people that no matter what their conditions are here on earth, what is actually important is what happens after we die.
That is not the message of this story.
The story of the rich man and Lazarus tells us the opposite. That our experiences here on earth matter. Our choices here and now in response to oppression have reverberations all throughout eternity. That our actions have consequences. This story reinforces something that Moses and the prophets also spoke to, an ethos demonstrated all throughout the Gospels; that the ministry of Jesus Christ has real implications for us, here and now, not just after we die. That God not only notices but cares deeply about the conditions of people while on earth. That the Gospel, in order to really be the Gospel, has to make a difference in people’s fleshy, material, earthly lives. That Jesus came to save us not only from existential threats, but also from oppression, poverty, disease – from white supremacy, the cis hetero patriarchy, and corporate greed.
Jesus’ salvation is all encompassing.
And that means salvation for broken bodies and liberation from broken systems.
Jesus is going to turn all of this completely upside down.
Thanks be to God.