The good news here, hidden between the pack of dogs and the flames of Hades, is that the word of God may come to us, surprise us, from anywhere and anyone.
19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He 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.’ 25But 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. 26Besides 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.’ 27He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He 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.’”
Still Falls the Rain
Sometimes the good news of the Gospel is buried beneath a pile of ugly.
Certainly, that’s the case in this story of Lazarus and the rich man—to find the good news, we have to dig through the agony of Lazarus in life; poor, starving, ignored, and covered in open sores; and, the rich man in the afterlife—in the agony of the flames of Hades begging for a drop of water.
On its surface, this first appears as a morality tale, though Jesus doesn’t tell us anything about the moral character of Lazarus before death, just that he is poor and miserable.
The rich man fails to share his food with the poor man on at his gate, but we really see the character of the rich man after death, when Lazarus lies in the bosom of Abraham and the rich man suffers in agony in the flames of Hades.
He stands as a parody of the Pharisees in that, even as he suffers in Hades, he looks upon Lazarus as his servant: “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue,” and later, “Send [Lazarus] to my father’s house” to warn my brothers.
It’s part of Jesus’ under-appreciated rapier wit that he portrays the Pharisee figure saying, instead of Isaiah’s “Here am I, send me,” “There’s Lazarus, send him!”
The rich man, even in the agony of Hades, speaks to Abraham as if Lazarus is not there.
If we pull this story out of its context, we have a hard time finding Good News in it; it seems simply to say that rich is bad and poor is good.
Luke as a whole does not make that argument: salvation comes to both rich and poor, Lazarus and Zacchaeus.
Disciples go out on the missionary journey with nothing, but it is the wealthy hosts who support them; in Acts, both a poor slave girl and Lydia the successful business woman become part of the community of disciples. The consistency of the Gospel is that salvation comes to people, rich or poor, highly respected or greatly despised, Jew or Gentile, always as a surprise.
Not only that, but the proclamation of the Gospel comes quite often from the least expected source. Perhaps it was not just the rich man’s failure to share food and shelter with Lazarus that was his downfall, but his failure to engage with him, his failure to listen to one at his own doorstep because he saw himself as righteous and Lazarus as a wicked sinner.
My friend Shannon Webster served as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in downtown Birmingham, Alabama until his retirement last year. He told me this story that, like the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, is full of one reversal after another.
In the summer of 2010, First Presbyterian of Birmingham hosted a large group of young people from three different Presbyterian congregations in Philadelphia. There were over 50 youth and their sponsors, on what was named a “Racial Reconciliation Tour,” one large predominantly white congregation and two smaller predominantly black congregations from tougher areas. They were bound for historic civil rights sites in Memphis, Birmingham, Montgomery and Mississippi. First Presbyterian of Birmingham gets periodic visiting groups following the Civil Rights Trail. They arrived on a Sunday night.
One of the lay leaders and Shannon met the group, and Shannon gave them a tour of the facility. They sat in the sanctuary, and, Shannon shared what he knew . . . of the events of 1963, at First Presbyterian, Birmingham and of things that happened after then-pastor Ed Ramage was one of the 8 Birmingham clergy to receive Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from the Birmingham jail. He told the story of what happened in the congregation, with Ramage’s apparent change of heart, the movement to welcome people of color, and how that happened and First Presbyterian, Birmingham became a racially diverse congregation. But it also happened that Ramage moved to Houston and died of a heart attack. At the end of Shannon’s talk, an adult sponsor found him to thank him for the story. He was young, smart, professional, African-American, and he said he had carried both those letters (to and from Dr. King) in his briefcase for years, and read them often.
He said, “I’ve seen that name – Ed Ramage – and the others so many times. And you just think, ‘those guys were jerks.’ But they weren’t, were they? It never occurred to me to ask what ever happened to Ed Ramage? Or to wonder what it cost him. Or the others. You’ve broadened my map of the world,” he said.
“We got the youth groups settled,” Shannon continued, “and I went home to bed. The phone rang in my kitchen at 7am. It was the pastor in overall charge of the group, telling me there had been “a situation.” The males, at least, had not slept much. They were camped on the floor in the Sunday School wing, upstairs, and in the middle of the night a few of the boys got into the supply closet and found some paint. Looking out the window, they saw a homeless man asleep next to the wall of the church beneath the Sr. High room. Evidently they thought it would be funny to pour the paint on the homeless man, so they did. He jumped up hollering, and everyone was awake after that. The adult sponsors were furious, and debating whether that would be the end of the trip, turn around and go home.
The homeless man was Chaffin Miller (a man known to many members of the congregation Shannon serves.) He comes to worship often, comes to Men’s Breakfast, and sleeps near the church at night. Shannon had been working with him on transportation, getting job training, etc. and he had just returned to work the previous Wednesday.
Chaffin left an angry message on Shannon’s office phone: “Those rich white kids you have staying in your church poured paint on me, and disrespected me and had no right to do that. And they got paint all over the window sill and the sidewalk.” (Chaffin was very protective of the property.)
Shannon says, “I was angry and defensive of Chaffin. That’s when I realized that for months he had been a project to me, but somewhere along the line he became a friend. We all met in a big circle in Matthews Hall, and leader of the visiting group said, “We’ve had a long night, and we have to talk before we can decide whether we go on from here or not. But first I’m going to ask Mr. Miller to say a few words.” Shannon thought, “Oh no. Chaffin has never said only a few words.” But first Chaffin asked Shannon to pray – no one had done that yet.
Then he said, “My name is Chaffin Miller, and I’m homeless. I’m an ex-con and I’ve been looking for work. I come here, and these people have helped me, and fed me, and taught me to be more like Jesus. This is my church. Last night someone poured paint on me, and no one has the right to treat someone else that way. I don’t know who did it, I didn’t see you, but I didn’t deserve to be treated like that. There was a time I would have cussed you down, maybe hurt you, for that. But I’m trying to be more like Jesus, and these people here have helped me. So I know that instead I have to forgive you, because if I don’t, God can’t forgive me, and I really need it. I just know Jesus wouldn’t have poured paint out that window. He would probably have thrown bread out the window, and blessed it on the way down.”
Shannon says, “I wasn’t the only one who sat there stunned, because we heard the Gospel that morning.
Their pastor waited for someone else to speak, and one young man finally confessed and apologized. But it wasn’t one of the “rich white kids,” as Chaffin had put it, but a black youth from one of the smaller congregations. Shannon said, “I saw the surprise on Chaffin’s face. Although I will say we’ve progressed this much. There were a few others involved, both white and black, so it was at least an integrated hazing!
“Then the group began to talk, apologizing to Mr. Miller and working their way toward a revelation – which was this: one person finally said, “It could have been anyone under the window – white or black. Maybe our reconciliation tour needs to be about more than race. Maybe it needs to be about homeless folks, too, and others.” When we heard that, we all knew it for truth.
“The paint cleaned right up with water,” Shannon said. “We’re not dumb enough to give anything but tempera to second graders on a Sunday morning. In the end our guests decided they could go on, and left on their bus for Montgomery, but not before one of them observed this: ‘When you think about why we came, there’s no museum we can go into or person we will meet, where we will learn more than we’ve learned the last twelve hours in Birmingham.’”
Did you hear all the reversals that happened in those twelve hours? God surprises us. As Psalm 91 says, God is a home for those who believe, “who live in the shelter of the Most High.” The psalmist, in a series of phrases, promises that God will deliver, protect, answer, be with, rescue, honor, satisfy, and show. Any good thing we have is gift.
The rich man in the parable had 5 brothers he wanted warned. Something that has always bugged me about the parable is that it seems like there’s no second chance. Abraham shrugs off the plight of the rich man’s five brothers, “They have the Moses and the prophets. They should listen to them.”
As we talked about this passage last week, one of my friends pointed out, “the second chance is for us. We get to hear this parable.”
Another colleague said, “They are us, those five.” That’s where we are in that parable.
The good news here, hidden between the pack of dogs and the flames of Hades, is that the word of God may come to us, surprise us, from anywhere and anyone; when we are willing to extend grace to one another, to listen to those we just know have nothing worth hearing; through grace alone to extend respect to a brother or sister for whom we have lost respect; in short, to be as generous to others with grace as Jesus has been to us; then, a new world opens up before us, a world in which the kingdom of God is visible, at least in glimpses.
Thanks be to God. Amen.