Loving the Wrong Things: The Rich Man and Lazarus

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 26), September 29, 2013

Amos 6:1, 4-7, Psalm 146, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen

Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

A few years ago, a pastor friend of mine went on a mission service trip to Mexico.  They spent a lot of time working with poor people—helping to build homes and schools and things.  One of the women in particular caught my friend’s attention.  This woman had been poor before her husband died, but now she and her children were destitute.  They lived in a shack near a dump, and much of their income came from salvaging things from the dump to recycle and sell.  They often went hungry.  My friend asked this woman what a typical day was like for her.  “Oh,” the woman said, “In the morning we get up, and we say our prayers and thank God for our blessings, like anyone else,” she said.  “Then, if there is food, we eat.”

We thank God for our blessings.  Then, if there is food, we eat.  That kind of profound faith is often reported among desperately poor people.  How many of us, in the same situation, would do the same?  Would put our trust in God, and thank God for what God has given us, even when it seems to be so little?  That’s the kind of deep faith and trust you rarely find in prosperous communities, among people who are well off.  Not because poor people are inherently better, or because rich people are inherently worse, but simply because rich people don’t need it.  Rich people don’t need to trust God—or at least, think they don’t—because they have so many other resources to turn to in times of trouble, resources that are a lot more predictable and controllable than God’s grace.  Rich people have money, power, influence, the best of everything.  Why put your trust in God when you can buy what you need?  And money doesn’t just separate people from God, it tends to separate people from one another, too.  In just about every country on earth, poor people are more generous than rich people.  On average, poor people are a lot more likely to help out others than rich people are.  Some of that is because rich people are a lot less likely to need help themselves, and some of it is because they’re able to insulate themselves from other peoples’ needs.  If you live and work in a nice part of town and all your friends do too, how often do you see people who are in real need?  And even if you do see them, it’s easy to tell yourself it’s not your problem, and go on your way.

I wonder if that was the difference between the rich man and Lazarus.  Note that we aren’t told much about either of them; we’re not told how often they prayed or whether they were faithful worship regularly.  We aren’t told whether they were good or bad.  For all we know, Lazarus could have been an alcoholic who wasted every good thing he ever got and hurt everyone he ever loved.  For all we know, the rich man could have been a good family man who gave big checks to all the right charities.  Or, Lazarus might have been a good honest man with severe disabilities and the rich man could have been mean and vindictive and stingy.  We don’t know.  Jesus doesn’t tell us in this parable.  All we are told is that Lazarus starved and suffered while the rich man feasted, and at the end Lazarus ended up in the bosom of Abraham, and the rich man ended up in Hades.  One up, the other down.  The one who suffered is healed, and the one who ignored the suffering is condemned.

Chances are, the rich man would have fit in well with the rich people of Amos’ day in our first lesson.  The prophet Amos was an outsider, a farmer called by God to speak unpleasant truths to the rich and powerful both in the religious community and the secular community.  Our reading is one of the core passages of Amos.  The prophet denounces the rich who live in lavish homes and eat rich foods and ignore the suffering of those in need around them.  Alas for those who … lounge on their couches, who eat veal and rich foods and drink and pamper themselves and enjoy great entertainment, and don’t care about the suffering of God’s people.  Alas for those people who focus on their own good while others suffer.  They’ve been trapped and tempted by their desires, they’ve put their trust in their possessions instead of in God, and they’ve ignored the reason God gave them those riches in the first place.  They’ve wandered away from the life God wants for them, a life blessed in relationships with God and with all human kind, and worst of all, they don’t even see it.  They don’t even realize how far off they are from God.  They think they’re doing just fine.  Their wealth and power have insulated them from the reality of the world, and from the reality of God’s call.  It’s insulated them from the needs of their neighbors.  But no insulation lasts forever.

We never do get told much about Lazarus, but we learn more about the rich man through his own words.  The rich man, who ignored Lazarus in life and let him live in some pretty terrible conditions, finds things reversed.  And he doesn’t say “Wow, I was so selfish never to notice what life was like for you, Lazarus, I’m sorry, I had no idea.”  He doesn’t say anything to Lazarus directly.  He calls to Abraham, and asks him to send Lazarus like a servant.  In life, he had everything he could ever want, and he could order anyone to fix any problems he had.  Well, now things are different.  The rich man still thinks he can control things; he wants help, but he doesn’t want to beg.  He doesn’t want to ask forgiveness—and he may not even know what he’s done that would need forgiving.  Even at the end, he won’t humble himself, to God or to the one whose suffering he ignored in life.  His years of wealth and power, his years of self-sufficiency and control, have left him without the slightest clue about how to deal with failure and proof of his own sins.  It’s not just that he completely ignored God’s call to love God and his neighbors when he was alive; after he dies he is still so stuck in that mindset that even Hades itself can’t break through to him.

As people who live in one of the richest nations on Earth, we should pay close attention to the rich man and his fate.  We may not feel rich.  We see the super-rich on TV and the internet, people like the Kardashians and Bill and Melinda Gates, and it’s easy to feel poor.  But if your household earns more than $34,000 a year, you are in the top 1% of the world’s income.  And yes, part of that gets eaten up by the fact that it’s a lot more expensive to live in the US than it is in most parts of the world.  But 3.4 million people die from problems caused by a lack of clean water every year; somebody once calculated the amount of money it would take to get access to clean water from everybody in the world.  It sounded really expensive … until they pointed out that people in the US spend more than that on ice cream every year.  We are a lot closer to being the rich man of the parable than we’d like to admit.  I don’t think that we need to feel guilty about how much we have, for the most part; but we have to be careful not to be like the rich many in the parable.  It is so easy to fall into that trap, to depend on our resources and focus on our own wants and foolish desires.

So why does God give us wealth, if it’s so dangerous?  Why does God give riches, if they can lead us astray?  The rich man illustrates the pitfalls of wealth, but it isn’t the wealth itself that caused the problem—it’s what he did with it.  Or rather, didn’t do.  Money is not, by itself, the root of all evil.  It’s the love of money that’s the root of evil.  And although it’s generally easier for rich people to fall into the trap of loving money more than God and their fellow human beings, poor people sometimes fall prey to it, too.  The problem is not how much money you do or don’t have, it’s what you do with what you’ve got—or what you do to get more.  God gives us material blessings so that we may bless the world; we are not called to be hoarders, but sharers.  God gives us gifts so that we may share God’s love with those around us.  Do you focus on your own needs, and ignore others?  Do you put your relationship with God on the back-burner because you think all the things that fill your daily life are more important?  Do you think of others mainly for what they can do for you?  Then you’ve got a problem, and money is at the root of it, no matter how rich or poor you are.  Are you generous with what God has given you?  Do you give thanks to God always, and trust God to guide you?  Do you work to build loving and healthy relationships with everyone?  Then no matter how rich or poor you are in material goods, you are rich in spirit.

The rich man and his brothers had the word of God, as taught by Moses and the prophets, to teach them the right way to live and the right thing to do with all the blessings they had received.  But they didn’t listen.  They allowed their wealth to make them deaf to God’s call.  We, too, have been blessed by God with many things.  We, too, have the word of God to guide us, to teach us how to love God and to love one another, and to share the blessings God has given us with the world.  May we listen and learn.

Amen.

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