Pastor Joe Skogmo
St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Lowry, MN
Pentecost 16 | 09.29.2019 | Luke 16:19-31
Well, Jesus is at it again. If you’re sick of hearing about misuse of wealth and/or our disregard for the poor, you can blame Jesus. He spends most of his time addressing these things. He’s done so for the last seven chapters of Luke and there is no relenting today.
In this parable Jesus tells of a poor man named Lazarus who was in major medical need and hungry. He sat outside the property gate of a rich man who never came out to care for him. Eventually Lazarus and the rich man died.
Lazarus was carried away to heaven and the rich man was sent to Hades where he was tormented. While in torment it was explained to the rich man: “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things, and Lazarus in a like manner evil things…now he is comforted…and here you are in agony” (Luke 16:25). There ends the parable.
Before we go any further, some explanations should be offered:
- It should be noted that the rich man is not condemned because he is wealthy; wealth is not his sin. But make no mistake, his unwillingness to care for Lazarus was sinful. One scholar affirms, “Wealth, by itself, is not evil”, but misusing it through neglect or abuse is.
- Jesus’ agenda in this parable is not to solve “issues about afterlife.” Multiple scholars agree that this is NEITHER a parable about getting to heaven or hell, NOR is it a parable literally describing heaven and hell. Yes, heaven and Hades language is present, but this imagery is used to make a different point – a point about the neglected poor and where Jesus stands on their being neglected.
Jesus often does this with his parables. And this isn’t a foreign concept for us, but a very familiar one. Think of most children’s stories or fables – Goldilocks and the Three Bears is not literally about how to cook porridge correctly. Rather, it is a fable that uses that imagery to illustrate a lesson on respecting what is not ours. Likewise, Jesus is not teaching literally about heaven and hell but is shedding light on how he feels about the poor and those who ignore them.
So that line in v. 25—“Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things, and Lazarus in a like manner evil things…now he is comforted…and here you are in agony”—is not so much a descriptor of what literally happens in heaven and hell as much as it is a descriptor of the nature of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ ministry did indeed comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Most of his time here gave particular attention to the suffering and particular critique of those who don’t care about the suffering. And his critique here is HARSH.
And let me say quickly – it’s harsh only depending on with whom you identify here. I think many of us probably identify with the rich man, maybe not because we’re rich but because most of us are not Lazarus!—most of us are not homeless and begging on a street corner with zero access to healthcare.
Moreover, most of us, if we’re honest, have neglected the poor in some form or another. And, yeah, if we’re identifying with the rich man this parable sounds pretty harsh. But, what if we viewed this parable from the perspective of the extreme poor, of the people who identify with Lazarus?
One group that probably did identify with Lazarus, for instance, was the original audience of Jesus. It is written that the original hearers of this parable “would not have felt sorry for [the rich] man”; for them, the rich man was representative of Roman colonizers who were “known to drive” landowners off their farms and making them “their servants,” pushing people like Lazarus into poverty.
Imagine, we’re invaded by Russia, they take over all of our land and drive each of us into poverty, to beg at the entrances of our own driveways. From that perspective Jesus’ words are not scary, but championing! It’d be interesting to hear how a Native American person would hear these words. Nevertheless, for a poor Palestinian Jew of ancient times this harshness was refreshing!
This is all to say – this parable is about revealing God’s intense compassion for the poor, and intense disgust when people create and neglect the poor. And that disgust could probably be directed at most of us, because at best we might not chastise the poor, we might even give a little sometimes, but for most of us, we don’t give near the amount of time, empathy, money, resources, or even eye contact that we could.
In our world, it’s still far too “socially permissible” to do what the rich man did in this parable—disregard the poor as people we can ignore. We “condition” ourselves to stop seeing the ‘Lazaruses’ of the world, and Jesus isn’t having any of it. He’s calling us out and challenging us. In that same vein, “Martin Luther once said, ‘You can’t feed every beggar in the world, but you can feed the one at your gate.’” Jesus is demanding that we start seeing the ones begging at our gates.
Now that we feel nice and condemned and perhaps a little startled… here is the good news:
Know that no matter with whom you identify in today’s story, the “final push of the parable is to the promise of the resurrection” – in v. 31 we are ultimately pointed to that merciful and eternal promise.
Called out and condemned, our eyes are still directed to the cross and the resurrection, to the empowering comfort that ultimately Jesus didn’t come and string us all up for our failures and violence, but let us string him up in mercy, and he rose again claiming victory for mercy, love, and our salvation.
In other words, if the parable really worries you, know a) that’s what Jesus was trying to do to evoke more compassion in each of us, and b) know that this parable is not the end of Jesus’ ministry. In the end, we know that forgiveness and mercy is to be proclaimed with death and resurrection (cf. Luke 24:47). Jesus means business in this parable, but he didn’t end his earthly life with condemnation, but with salvation.
It’s like when my dad would scold me after one of my not-so-great teenage behaviors by saying: “Joe, you’re grounded until you’re 40!” Well, I’m thirty-two now and I am not still grounded, and my dad still loves me. I still needed to shape up, his harsh words were serious!—and they were not the entirety of his fatherhood. Likewise, with regard to the poor, we need to shape up, and this parable is serious!—and this parable is not the entirety of Jesus’ Godhood.
We worship a God who takes seriously and calls out what we do wrong to one another, and we worship a God whose mercy and love is equally serious. Scolded and strengthened by God’s grace perhaps we can more faithfully remember the ones begging at our gates. Amen.
 Matthew Skinner, “Podcast #502 – Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost,” Sermon Brainwave, Workingpreacher.org, https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=795.
 Karl Jacobson, “Commentary: Luke 16:19-31,” Gospel Reading, Workingpreacher.org, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1658.
 David Lose, “Pentecost 19 C: Eternal Life Now,” In the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2016/09/pentecost-19-c-eternal-life-now/.
 Jacobson, “Commentary,” https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1658.