Sunday, September 29, 2013


A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 29, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 16: 19-31

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He 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.’ 25 But 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. 26 Besides 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.’ 27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He 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.’ ” [1] 

I've been thinking about this passage all week, as I typically do, and I've been trying to look beyond the surface as I typically do, but this one seems to be pretty straight forward, especially, if you are looking for a moral or lesson about how we are to live. It's pretty simple, in this story there is a role reversal. The poor man Lazarus, who faced trials during this life was raised with Abraham, but the rich man, blessed in this life, with riches of plenty, but not a generous heart, ignoring poor Lazarus' need, finds himself in eternal torment, with no hope. The basic message of this parable jumps right out at us. We are to care for those around us, close the gap between us, reach out to raise up others, lest we find ourselves in much greater eternal need, and find ourselves with a huge chasm between ourselves and relief from our suffering. I do think that this is the basic message, but there are many more subtle poetic pieces that make this parable all that much more illuminating. I'd like to take a look at those, they do not necessarily change the basic message, but they can give us a little more insight into the beauty and depth of this all so seemingly simple parable.
First let's look at the rich man and exactly what it says about him. First off, obviously he was rich, but he was adorned in purple and fine linen, the clothes of royalty. The word here translated as "linen" is actually Byssus, which is fine fabric made from Egyptian flax, so linen doesn't quite cut it. This is no thread count top sheet. It was known for being very light, white and yellow in color, and ultra costly. So this guy has obvious wealth and political status, probably some earthly power as well, and he uses his wealth for his self, feasting sumptuously every day. He also has a gate. This is important because what is a gate for. It's an opening for a fence. . . and what is a fence for. . . to keep people out. There must be some division between him and the rest of the world. Now at this gate "lay a poor man covered in sores." What I find interesting here is not what I find, but what I don't find. Look at it, there is no further connection between these two men. The parable is silent on their encounters. Does Lazarus beg from the rich man? Does the rich man constantly ignore him, every time he goes by? Do they have any one on one encounter? Does the rich man have his men rough up Lazarus for loitering and laying around? Or is there just no connection? I like this last one, no connection, it seems to make the parable so much more hard hitting, because the rich man is completely oblivious of Lazarus. Here he is wasting away, and the rich man doesn't even know, let alone care. Lazarus is outside of his purview and not on his radar. His wealth has rendered the poor man to a different world. His walls keep him safe from any connection, between that outside world and the one inside the walls, safely isolated to eat those sumptuous meals each day.
Now let's look at the description of Lazarus. He's covered with sores is the first description. It's a cool Greek word there for the sores, "Helkos" you can even hear the hell in it, even if only in English. He's is also poor, destitute, without the means of sustaining his existence, both in wealth and in resources. He longed to satisfy his hunger with the crumbs from the rich man's table. Those are some pointed words as well. . .  Longed to satisfy. . . Not he did satisfy, but he longed to, he dreamed about the possibility, the Greek word even suggests lust, desire, and coveting, and not of dining sumptuously on what the rich man had on the table, but on merely satisfying his hunger, with the crumbs that fell to the floor. When your desire is set that low, that is hungry. Thankfully I've never been that hungry, I've lusted over someone else's dinner, but never have I lusted over the crumbs from that dinner. That is hungry. The falling from the table is another interesting word. It has the connotation of more than just innocently falling from the table, but also lying prostrate, in subjugation, as if penance for having done evil. Pretty vivid, and now for the dogs, the dogs who you'd expect to be lusting after the crumbs from the table, aren't, they actually pity the man. They lick his sores. Now I think there are two ways to take this. I have a dog, dogs are great but they can be gross, they can be sweet as can be and love you forever, but they also can be gross. Now in this case, the licking of the sores, is it the dogs being gross, or them being sweet as can be and pitying the man. Are they strangely attracted to the man's decaying flesh, or are they trying to dress and clean his wounds. I've seen dogs do both and either. I'm not sure, but either way it again is vivid. Either strange dogs are pitying him, making him lower than them, even a further step down than just waiting for the falling crumbs, or a rotten carcass, decomposing for their scavenging sensibilities. All those Hemingway stories about gangrenous wounds come to mind, like "Snows of Kiliamanjaro" where a man is slowly decomposing, even before death. To put it bluntly Lazarus has it pretty bad. There are some parallels to Job. . .and like Job, you can't even say, well at least he's got. . . yeah nothing, no bright side, just alive and that is all.
So here is the twist of fate. They both die, and their roles are reversed. Lazarus is resting in the bosom of Abraham, and the rich man finds himself in Hades. That in itself is interesting. Abraham, the Jewish Patriarch, on the one hand, and Hades, the Greek pagan God of the Underworld, whose name has also come to represent the place where Hades dwells. It is an interesting cultural anomaly there. And there may be something to it, especially when you take it in the context of the rest of this chapter of Luke, including the parable we looked at last week, where we were wondering what eternal homes Jesus was talking about that the dishonest wealth granted access. Is this another jab at the idolatry of paganism, the worship of gods crafted in the image of humans and not the other way around. Perhaps. . . again most of Jesus' teachings about money have an idolatrous bent to them.

But any way, the roles are reversed, the rich man is where he is, and Jesus describes his torment. Agony of flames, burning, and his tongue is also burning, dry, seeking anything that could cool and wet his anguish. It's described as tormenting, and the word is one used for torture, or the process of testing the purity of silver or gold. . . isn't that another interesting image, especially for the fires of Hades. And if that weren't enough physical anguish, he can also see Lazarus and Abraham. He can see the alternative, but he asks out for them to help, and Abraham says that there is a great chasm between them. Another cool image, isn't that exactly what the rich man had built around himself, with those walls and the gate. . . literally and figuratively, he made himself separate, and now he is completely separate. While Lazarus is resting, having been brought by angels to rest in the bosom of Abraham, whose name means father of many nations. Eternal communion, instead of eternal isolation. My favorite poem about the realities of death is parting by Emily Dickinson, it parallels this anguish. She writes:

MY LIFE closed twice before its close;
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me

So huge, so hopeless to conceive,
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell

All we need of hell, do you see it? The isolation, the parting, the leaving behind the things that are really important, relationships with others, with God, that is all we need of Hell. Again Jesus' imagery is powerful. There is a chasm that now separates him. A chasm.
The words describing the difference between the situation for both men is also interesting. Abraham says to the rich man, during your life you got your good things, "good things" here is the word Agathos. . . blessed, related to the Greek word, Hagia, which means Holy. . . and then the bad, which he gets now, is kaka, great image in any language. . . kaka. But then it says that Lazarus on the other hand is comforted, and the comforted word is parakleitos. . .  sound familiar, yes paraklete is the word Jesus uses to describe the Holy Spirit, the great comforter. There is such great poetry in this parable.
The end is probably my favorite part though. It rings so true. Now the rich man finally has some empathy for others, and he wants his family and friends to learn their lesson before it is too late. He wants Lazarus to go to them and warn them, tell them the hell that they face, but Abraham says no. He says, they have Moses and the Prophets, if that isn't enough then even sending the dead to them as a messenger will do no good, they will not listen. If they don't listen to Moses and the Prophets, even raising the dead won't make them listen. Wow. He wants to send Jacob Marley, he wants to send the Ghost Riders in the sky, he wants to warn his people, but Jesus says it will do no good. I'm reminded of the good Friday sermon I did the year before last, the idea that Jesus is on trial, and no matter what, he is convicted every time. Because we just won't listen, we have to be shown, and even then we miss it.
Why Moses and the Prophets though? Is the Old Testament that important? Isn't the New Testament the real crux, no pun intended, of the story? Maybe, but the Old Testament, Moses and the Prophets, puts things in perspective for us, puts Jesus in perspective, allows us to see his message in the correct light. In Sunday School we've been studying the Old Testament, and now this week we finally get into the new testament. For the last three months we have journeyed through the Prophets, looking at the unique messages that they send. Yes many of them point to Jesus, they predict a messiah, who he will be, where he will come from, and what he will do, but they also do so much more. They are the story of a people wrestling with the issues of where and who God is, does God care, is God in charge, sovereign, in control? Are these bad things proof that God is not in control, or are they proof that God is? There are many different perspectives of the people, but the prophets repeat a message. . . yes God is real, yes God is just, and there just is no substitute for following the laws of Moses, believing in God, and serving him, following his commandments. Laws for living in the community, something that requires our eyes to be open to those living in community around us, not putting up walls that divide, not putting a safe chasm around us, but embracing in love those around us. . . Loving because God is in control, is just, and loves. This is a vivid multilayered parable with a very simple message. It's that of Psalm 1

1     Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
2     but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
3     They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
4     The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5     Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6     for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish. [2]

Happiness is not always measured in things of this world. But that wind that drives away leaves a chasm in its place. Let us instead be planted by those streams of water, rooted in love, yielding that very fruit.








[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 16:19-31). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ps 1:1-6). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.