Will They Ever Learn?
By Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey
October 3, 2021
Micah 6:6-8, Psalm 133-134, Romans 10:5-9, Luke 16:19-31
Our gospel lesson could have been ripped out of the pages of Dante’s Paradise Lost. There are no passages more lurid in details of the afterlife than these, outside the pages of the Book of Revelation. While what grabs our attention are the details of everlasting torment in the flames of Hades, we would miss the point of the story if we fixated on the gothic horror. Moreover, we may draw a secret and perverse comfort in seeing the giant reversal where the dog-licked Lazarus now rests in Abraham’s bosom and the foppish rich man goes mad with thirst. Yet, that is cheap comfort which we cannot afford to take because it will mis-direct us from the point of the story that ought to disturb us the most.
Let us be clear; this is a mythological story that had been around in one form or another long before Jesus. Jesus is not afraid of using any kind of story if it is effective in getting across his message. In our story, Jesus has used a folk tale embellished with lurid details as a bait to grab his audience’s attention. Then when he has you in his cross-hairs, he slips in the real zinger which brings to a screeching halt the ways in which you have been taught to think and spins you around in a new direction. Jesus is taking a risk when he uses this folktale. Jesus is banking on you to put on your thinking caps and to see that the truth you need to take as literal is not the lurid details. No. The truth you need to take as literal, as foundational, as life determining is right here, he says, right here on the printed page. Right here where you can read it in black and white, and you can’t say you didn’t know it.
What was the rich man’s fatal fault? His fault was not that he was rich or foppish, or even that he was uncaring. His fault was that he could not “read.” And by that, I mean he could not “read” Lazarus. Look, the dogs who licked Lazarus’ sores could not read Moses or the prophets, but they had the ability to “read” Lazarus, they had the instinct, the compulsion, to empathize with him, to notice him, to be his witness and companions.
If the rich man “read” Lazarus at all, he only saw him as an errand boy to be commanded to do his bidding. “Bring me some water.” Please observe that while in his life the rich man did not notice Lazarus, he now demands that Lazarus take notice of him. But Abraham is not buying this asymmetry. How could someone who rests in Abraham’s bosom be an errand boy?
An aside. It is sobering to reflect that this I-don’t-have-to-but-you-do kind of thinking is so similar to those today who want their freedom not to choose to be vaccinated but when they fall ill, insist that we have no choice but to care for them.
Finally, the rich man begins to think about someone other than himself. He begins to think about all his family, his rich friends who “read” people like he does, who think and evaluate like he does. Someone needs to warn them. If the errand boy cannot be my water boy, maybe he could be my messenger boy.
But, Abraham firmly reminds him, the message is already in Moses and the prophets. You can read it in black and white script for yourself. You heard it read today: What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. Is that not clear enough? What don’t you understand? What more could someone say?
“No, no, you don’t understand my friends and family,” the rich man objects, taking his accustomed role of always being the one who is right because—well—he’s rich. “That’s so ‘over,’ That’s so passé. That’s so un-cool. You need a jumbotron, not a book. You need a celebrity, not a local preacher. My people understand a rags to riches story. That’s what Lazarus is. My people understand a survivor story. You need that kind of a splash to make them say, ‘Wow.’ Bring somebody back from the dead to scare the pants off them. Even Lazarus will do.”
Now, I agree, this would be a spectacular spiritual event. But how does that square with Moses and the prophets: loving mercy, doing justice and walking humbly with your God? The rich man intends this event to be an exclusive tool for the self-preservation of a narrow group of people, his family and friends. He wants to use a spectacular spiritual event to benefit a particular cultural group. Abraham says No. Treating Lazarus as a freak will not convert the rich man’s friends to loving mercy, doing justice and walking humbly with your God.
Can you imagine what impact would be made on anti-vaxxers for someone who was unvaccinated and as a result died of COVID came back from the dead and told you to get your jab? But Abraham will not allow that kind of event to take the place of reading Moses and the prophets. In the fight we are in to live against this virus, read the text, and let the text frame what you are supposed to do. Nothing more can be done for you beyond that. Will you learn that?
Look, my friends, the church the world over only has three things in common. This book, the Bible, and these two sacraments, the Lord’s Supper, which we are enacting today in communion with churches the world over, and the Baptismal font where you become sealed into Christ. These are very modest things—water, bread. wine and text, spoken and sung. They are almost unremarkable things because they all point to an unremarkable, almost comical Lord and Savior. And who is that Lord and Savior? He is a mangled man risen from the grave. The eyes of the world do not want to look at a living crucified, mangled man as their Lord and Savior. They want a celebrity-Lazarus—all patched up and freshly scrubbed—to give them an inside tip on how to protect themselves. It’s not going to happen.
We have only very modest, almost comical, things—water, bread. wine and text—where saving news may be found. For those who can hear, these things bring comforting news that even with our wounds we can be filled with joy and fruitfulness. This place is the place where scales are lifted away from our eyes, and we are able to see a resurrected-crucified man as Lord and Savior and we are able to see people as they truly are and to care for them. Just read the text. Listen to the message. Sing the songs; feel the water; taste the bread and cup. God is humble, just and merciful, and those who rest in the bosom of Abraham have been shaped to be humble, to practice justice and show mercy.