Out at the county fair, while the bread makers were toiling away and all I needed to do was wait for them, I did some reading for preparing a sermon for today. I ran across a sermon from almost 30 years ago. It had a title – “Choices and Excuses.” In our homiletics class Tom Holbrook told us not to title our sermons, but then Tom wasn’t this writer’s mentor. The author of the sermon is The Rev. Dr. Robert K. Massie, Jr. from the Harvard Divinity School. I really liked it. So here it is, only slightly edited.
Luke says, “Remember that in your lifetime you received good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.” We could add “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”
The story of the rich man and Lazarus is one of the most alarming in Scripture because it’s so clearly intended by Jesus as a warning. Listening to it, we inevitably wonder to whom Jesus is speaking. At first it might seem that Jesus is warning bad people about the punishment that awaits them in the afterlife. This isn’t too worrisome, because most of us think we’re not really all that bad. Moreover, each week in worship we sing and speak of the promise of God’s forgiveness, so it’s tempting to think that Jesus tells the story to frighten the real sinners and crooks in our world.
But that isn’t true. The story isn’t about a thief or a murderer who gets punished for his misdeeds – it‘s about a wealthy, law-abiding citizen. And Jesus does not tell the story to Mary Magdalene the prostitute, or to Matthew the tax collector, to the kind of people who had made mistakes and feared divine retribution. He tells it to the Pharisees, to the religious “churchgoers” of their day, to the people who thought they had less to fear than anyone else.
So what is the story about? Is the rich man being punished simply because he’s rich? There’s a really disturbing idea. Even though we can all think of someone who has more money than we do, we can also think of many who have less. In other places in Scripture, Jesus criticizes the way in which money and possessions can hypnotize us and prevent us from seeing the true contours of God’s community on earth. St. Paul tells his close friend Timothy that he should tell the rich in his community “not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches, but on God . . .. They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds. . . so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed.” The wealth of the man and the poverty of Lazarus are clearly important parts of the story, but is Jesus telling us that all material wealth is evil?
If we look closely, we’ll see that the real message of the story has to do with the choices the rich man made and the excuses he uses later to deny his own responsibility.
The rich man had chosen not to help poor Lazarus who was suffering on his front doorstep. The rich man chose to spend his money on fancy clothes and on “feasting sumptuously every day.” And when he dies and finds out that God disapproves of his choices, he feels that his punishment is unjust. He even wants Lazarus to come help him, even though he had never lifted a finger to help Lazarus.
We have only an abbreviated version of the parable, but we can bet that Jesus embellished it when he told it. Certainly each of us can imagine hundreds of seemingly legitimate excuses we might give to Abraham to persuade him that we were not responsible for what happened to Lazarus.
Let’s imagine a dialogue between the two of them. (Two from the congregation read this dialogue.)
Father Abraham, this is unfair! I didn’t know the man. If he had been a member of my family or of my wife’s family, or of my cousin’s family, or the friend of a friend, I would have given him my home. But I did not know him. He was just a simple beggar whom I never even noticed.
How can you say that you never noticed a man lying on your own doorstep, a man even your dogs knew? You had eyes, but you did not see. To you he was no one, but to God he was a beloved child. In your world you were famous, and he was unknown; now in this world his name is known, and yours is forgotten.
But Father Abraham, I only seemed rich. In truth I had little money or time to spare. I had many obligations, a growing business, a large family to support. I gave abundantly to my house of worship. What more could I have done?
If I had been lying on your doorstep, you would have invited me inside and made me the guest of honor at one of your feasts! You could at least have given Lazarus, who was starving to death, the scraps from your table.
All right, all right, but I didn’t really know what to do for him. I’m not a doctor who knows how to bandage sores, or a nutritionist who knows how to feed such a sick man. I might have hurt him if I had tried to help him.
You certainly seemed to be able to help the members of your family when they fell ill, or to find someone who could.
But if I had done it for him, I would have had to do it for everyone! I would have had to turn my home into a hospital! I would have ended up with every beggar in the city eating my food and destroying my home.
And why do you suppose God gives you the food and home in the first place? Can you really enjoy your abundance when you know that others have nothing?
But it was not my responsibility! I paid my tithe and my taxes religiously. We had professionals who handled this sort of thing – you know, social workers, paramedics, welfare officers, clergy. It wasn’t my job to help him.
Perhaps that is what I should say to you. It’s not my job -- or Lazarus’ job – to bring you water or ease your anguish.
But I didn’t know what God wanted. It was never clear.
How can you say that, when every Sabbath you stepped over Lazarus’ body on your doorstep to walk to your house of worship? Every Sabbath you listened to the words of prophets like Amos, who warned you that woe would come to those who believe more in opulence and consumption than in justice and mercy. And on the way home, you and your friends stepped over his body again on your way to another feast. How can you say that you did not know?
I may be lost, but you must prevent that from happening to others! You must send an emissary from God someone who will be filled with grace and power, someone who will seal the message by rising from the dead. Then the eyes of the people like me will be opened, and they will see the Lazaruses at their gates. They will not make the same mistake I did.
God will send God’s son to do what you have suggested, but I fear that in two thousand or so years we will still hear the same excuses that I have heard from you.
Jesus intends the story of the rich man and Lazarus to reach us, in our century, in our homes and churches, so that we will be forced to look at our own choices and excuses. Jesus tells other stories for the same purpose.
When a lawyer asks Jesus whether the command to love our neighbor applies to everyone, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. In this parable the two people who should have helped the beaten and robbed man lying by the side of the road didn’t help him because they were too busy. The person who had the best excuse was the Samaritan, because the Samaritans and Jews did not speak to each other. Yet the Samaritan stops to help an enemy.
There are many other stories in Scripture – the Workers in the Vineyard and the Prodigal Son for example – which Jesus tells to get us to look closely at the reasons we give for our choices.
You might think that after listening to Jesus’ stories week after week, after hearing the warning from Abraham, we would be much better at examining our own choices and excuses. Unfortunately for many of us, it all goes in one ear and out the other.
This is even true of people studying for the ministry. [I’ve heard this story before – maybe you have too.] Over thirty years ago some social psychologists decided to test a group of seminarians. Each student, upon arriving for the experiment, was told he was to deliver a lecture from prepared notes on one of two topics: the parable of the Good Samaritan, or the job opportunities open to seminary graduates. Half of those assigned to each of the lectures were told that they would have to hurry to be on time, while the other half were informed that they had more than ample time.
On the way across campus each student came upon a person in distress (well, an actor “in distress”) who sat slumped in a doorway, coughing and groaning, just like Lazarus or like the man beaten by the side of the road. The experimenters’ question as simple: how would the seminarians respond, confronted with the opportunity to be Good Samaritans themselves?
Of the forty subjects, only sixteen stopped to help the man in distress. Most of those who helped were from the group told that they had plenty of time to get to their lecture. Most surprising was the finding that seminarians about to give a lecture on the Good Samaritan were no more likely to help than those prepared to give a lecture on job opportunities. The experimenters were amazed. “Indeed, on several occasions,” they wrote, “a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way.”
Should we be surprised by this? Every one of us, as some time or another, has stepped over the body of a Lazarus while we were on our way to some place in a hurry. I still think about one very rainy night in the 60’s on my way home from the university not stopping to hold an umbrella for a man who was changing a tire by the side of the road.
Every one of us could die and find ourselves like the rich man, firing off flimsy excuses and pleading for help from one of the people we had ignored in this life. It’s a sobering thought to realize that Jesus isn’t talking about other peoples’ choices and excuses but about ours, which is exactly why Jesus tells the story.
Jesus doesn’t want us to crumble in fear of making a mistake. His life, death, and resurrection tell us that he came not to reward the “perfect people” (as if there were any) but to save sinners, people who have fallen short, people like us. The story of the rich man and Lazarus is designed to help us choose justice and to recognize that in the end, it is not our excuses or our choices or even our merits that will save us, but the grace of Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen