I recently damaged the side mirror on my car, and was lamenting the need to go to the dealer for a replacement. Sad previous experience had taught me that this would be very expensive. “Don’t do that,” one of our church custodians told me, “there’s a much cheaper way to do it.” He told me about a tiny part I could buy at the auto supply store that would solve the whole problem, with wisdom developed from his experience of living on less money, and more ingenuity.
His suggestion made me wonder what the rich man could have learned from Lazarus, if he had invited him in for dinner, or even some cool water and some bread.
Read the scripture here.
Find the Working Preacher commentary here.
Most of Jesus’ parables are set right in the world around him – lost coins and lost sheep, dishonest people, and rebellious sons are all familiar to the people listening to Jesus. This one, however, starts in the familiar world and travels to the afterlife. It’s based on a folktale, and it reflects the belief at that time that the righteous and the wicked could see each other after death. Rabbis told several versions of this story in Jesus’ time, so the people listening to Jesus would have known this was a familiar story. Of course, Jesus has his own spin on the story.
The story piles on the details about how wealthy the rich man is. A feast every day, fine linen, the very expensive purple cloth – we’re meant to understand that this is huge wealth.
Lazarus, on the other hand, is thrown down at the gate – “unceremoniously dumped” is another way to translate it. Perhaps someone has placed him there, believing that the rich man will do something to help him. But other than the dogs, no one comes. He can see the bustle of the servants going to the markets, and coming back. He can see carts of food and jars of wine going into the house. He can smell the food cooking for all of these feasts. But no one comes out to him.
After the rich man’s death, their roles are reversed – but the rich man still has some demands. He wants Lazarus to be his errand boy, and bring him water…and then run to his family with a message. The Cotton Patch Gospel renders the rich man’s request as “Water boy – send the water boy to me.”
People like the rich man and Lazarus are all around us, too. The income gap between the rich and poor in America is now the greatest it’s been since the 1920’s. Forbes Magazine says there are now 2043 billionaires in the world, a record number. Their combined net worth is up a trillion dollars from just last year.
At the other end of the spectrum, millions of people in our country have landed on a different list – they live in households without enough food. In 2015, 42.2 million people lived in “food insecure” households, meaning they could not count on regular access to enough nutritious food. Children are especially hard hit, with 14.5 million (19.7 percent) children under the age of 18 living in poverty.
The divide in our lives is huge, and yet Jesus is reminding us that our lives are more joined together than we know. His story calls us into a deeper way of seeing each other.
The sermon might explore:
- Do we see ourselves as wealthy or poor? All of us look like Lazarus to the billionaires on the Forbes list, and all of us look the like the rich man to people around the world who lack food, water and shelter. What wisdom can we learn from people at other economic levels? How do our stories connect – or divide – us?
- Who do we not see in our lives? For each of us, there are people we pass by – people who are homeless, people who are immigrants, people who do service work, LGBTQ+ young people, people with different political views…who are we not seeing?
- There are systems of economic oppression that keep people poor, underemployed, and chronically in debt. For the Lazarus-like people around us, getting out of poverty involves much more than just working hard and saving money to find a place to live. The sermon might look at the powers and principalities that work to keep people poor.
Where are your thoughts taking you this week? We would love to hear your ideas in the comments section below.
Mary Austin is the pastor of Westminster Church of Detroit, a diverse Presbyterian church. Her greatest spiritual lessons come from being the parent of a teenager. She blogs from time to time at Stained Glass in the City. The image above is from the Vanderbilt Library of Art in the Christian Tradition and is part of the Jesus MAFA series from Cameroon.
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