One of the oldest sermon stories in the book involves a Baptist, an Episcopalian, and a Methodist meeting in hell. They begin to compare how each of them ended up in that fiery pit. “I once danced a jig at my daughter’s wedding,” said the Methodist. “I once drank a pint with my buddies,” admitted the Baptist.
The Episcopalian paused, and then confessed, “I once ate an entire meal with my salad fork.”
We Episcopalians do like our formalities and rituals! But Jesus’ parable today leaves no doubt what is truly important. Poor Lazarus and the rich man known as Dives – such a graphic story, so easy to picture in our mind’s eye: the purple robe of the rich man; the sumptuous food and drink arrayed on the dining table; the sores covering the skin of Lazarus, skinny and malnourished, lying at the back door. Not surprisingly, this parable is often depicted in art. In our sermon series on Practicing Love, I see this story as a teaching moment about practicing love with our wealth.
First, a question: Is the parable – and Jesus - saying that wealth is evil? No, in fact wealth can be very good, although it clearly presents us with challenges. God does not wish people to be poor! What this story is about is compassion – something the rich man sorely lacked.
This weekend, as a great new museum opens on the National Mall, I can well imagine Dives as a white man, dressed in the finest clothes, sitting in his grand house, feasting. I picture great white columns, like the plantation house at Twelve Oaks in Gone with the Wind. In my mind, Lazarus is a poor old black man, enslaved, dying, no longer useful to his master. As a slave, he was not permitted to share in the wealth of the land on which he toiled….
We know how the story goes. Both men died, death being an equalizing factor. Lazarus goes to heaven and rests, finally, in comfort in the bosom of Abraham … (hence the spiritual song, Rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham).
Dives goes to torment in hell…. burning up, tormented with thirst, in absolute agony. The whole scene is dreamlike, bizarre. Dives can look up and somehow see Lazarus with Abraham in heaven. Dives calls out to Abraham to send Lazarus down with a drop of water to cool his tongue. But Abraham says no: Dives and Lazarus are both receiving the just deserts of their lives on earth. Again, you may know the negro spiritual:
Cause I'm tormented in the flames! (by Brother Claude Ely)
Then something happens in the story. Dives prays for mercy for his brothers, that they will not share his fate. Presumably, they are living the life of wealth and ease that Dives lived, without any compassion for others. This is a positive sign for Dives: for the first time, he is thinking of others, not himself (even if they are just his brothers). Perhaps there is a germ of mercy and compassion in him after all.
Dives prays that someone be sent from the dead to warn them. Still, Abraham says no. If they didn’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not listen to someone who rises from the dead.
We should note the way this parable pulls together the entire biblical history: the patriarch Abraham, the great liberator Moses, who led the Hebrew slaves to freedom, and finally Jesus, the one who did rise from the dead. Wow! All these figures are central to the Christian faith of enslaved persons in our own American history. By telling these stories and singing their songs, slaves found hope :
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt's land;
tell old Pharaoh to let my people go.
I began speaking about wealth, and lest you think I’ve taken a strange turn to the history of slavery in America, slavery was all about wealth.
French economist Thomas Piketty has shown that the monetary value of enslaved human beings in the U.S. was greater than all its industrial capital in that era combined. Slavery was all about wealth: creating wealth, accumulating wealth, and concentrating wealth among a few white people. We’ve come a long way from those benighted times, but we have a long way to go.
One of the bright lights in our own day is the new Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened yesterday on the Mall. I’m told that the museum tells this story chronologically. Visitors begin on the lower concourses, experiencing forced African emigration to America, and the descent into enslavement. Later, the era of Jim Crow segregation and rampant economic oppression. One older black gentleman seeing the museum for the first time, was viewing black sharecroppers toiling in a field. He was heard to comment, “This is depressing…. revisiting those days….”
A museum leader responded: “Yes, it is very depressing. But imagine being able to tell that man, in that condition, that in 2016 a handsome museum in Washington D.C. was just opened by an African American president…that would bring him joy.”
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day. At his gate lay a poor man, Lazarus…” The inequity between rich and poor has dogged human civilization throughout history. The problem is not wealth; the problem is how we use wealth, and misuse wealth, and hoard wealth when God wants it to be shared. Nobody need be hungry or homeless in our land. Nobody need be enslaved and forced to labor solely for the enrichment of a master. Finally, thanks be to God, we are learning these lessons. And for us here today, who live comfortable lives, who may even dress in purple and fine linen sometimes! There are no better words to leave with than these from the first letter to Timothy:
“As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty…they are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share….” Amen to that.