Alastair Sim in Scrooge, 1951 – Photo: YouTube
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 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.’ 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. 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.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 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.’”
For the past several weeks, the Lectionary has focused on this section of Luke’s gospel, which is a series of Jesus’ teachings that deal directly or indirectly with wealth and possessions – how to prioritize them, and how to use them. This theme starts in the 11th chapter of Luke, but it really ramps up in chapters 15 and 16, where we’ve heard about risking what we have safely in hand to do the good of saving something that’s lost, in the stories of the shepherd’s lost sheep and the widow’s lost coin; and even though we skipped over it, immediately after that in the gospel is the parable of the prodigal son; then comes the parable of the dishonest manager, which we heard last week; and now this parable of Lazarus and the rich man, and the rich man’s torment in the afterlife because of the way he kept his wealth to himself and ignored the suffering of Lazarus. Apparently in an attempt to drive his point even further home, Jesus names the suffering man in this story – actually the only time he gives a character in his parables any name at all – Lazarus, which literally mean “God helps.”
This whole extended section of Luke can be troubling for Western Christians in general, and us American Christians in particular, because it offers some harsh assessments and warnings for affluent people, and we all recognize that even the least financially secure among us are actually wealthy by global standards.
And this particular story can also be a bit troubling for most of us Protestants in traditions that originated in the Protestant Reformation, who profess that we’re saved by grace through faith, and faith alone, and not by works – but the only two times that Jesus offers any detail about what the final judgment would be like – in Matthew 25 and here – what we do in this life seems to be a major factor, if not the only factor, in that calculus.
Taken together, these stories remind us that while we should all strive for a reasonable amount of comfort and financial stability, each increasing level of that that we attain comes with increasing moral expectations, and an increasing potential for us to develop skewed priorities. We all know the old saying, the more you have, the more you want. We strive to achieve some level of wealth and possessions that we think will make us happy, and if we’re fortunate enough to achieve that goal, we immediately reset the goalposts and think that if we only reached that *new* goal, then we’d be really happy. And at every level that we achieve, we become more concerned about protecting and preserving what we have, and not necessarily using it to help others – and there is the real risk that Jesus hones in on in this parable. The rich man saw Lazarus, and his suffering, every single day, and he had the means to do something about it, but didn’t. He was too interested in using his wealth strictly for himself and his own priorities.
This gradual ratcheting up of working to preserve our wealth, our stuff, isn’t any real surprise to us. In fact, we’ve all experienced it in our own lives, in one way and at one time or another. Still, it is worth reflecting on, and examining ourselves from time to time, and asking ourselves if that attitude of overvaluing our wealth, and our comfort, and our stuff, over the lives and well-being of others has crept into our mindsets.
In this parable, Jesus frames the issue in terms of judgment and eternity. But eternity dwells in the present, too, and that judgment that Jesus refers to deals not only with whether you treated others well in this life, but whether you treated yourself well, too – and by that, I don’t mean in terms of material comfort and enjoyment, but rather, if you lived a life of spiritual wellness and shalom that God designed you for, and intended for you to enjoy and be grateful for.
It doesn’t matter if you believe that God has laid out a specific, detailed path for your life, or if you believe that God gives us a bit more agency than that, but then guides us and helps us after we’ve decided on our path. In either of those options, it seems pretty clear that God wants us to live that path, whatever it is, in a certain way, a way that’s best for others and is best and most fulfilling for ourselves, too. Just as racism, or any other -ism, hurts both the oppressed and the oppressor, living life in a way that’s best for others ends up being best for ourselves, too.
In 2002, Adam Sandler starred in the movie “Deeds,” a remake of the old Gary Cooper film “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.” Sandler plays a simple, good-hearted small-town guy who suddenly inherits a controlling interest in a huge multinational corporation, and he’s forced to swim in those unfamiliar, shark-infested waters. It was a silly, lightweight movie, some feel-good cotton candy for the brain, and while it had its funny moments, it wasn’t nearly as good as the original. But in one scene near the end of the movie, Sandler’s character is speaking to a roomful of rich, powerful, and cynical stockholders at the corporation’s annual meeting, and he asks them to think about their lives and how they’d turned out. He asked them to think about what they’d always wanted to be when they were a kid – what they wanted to do with their lives, before they’d allowed themselves to become consumed by just making a lot of money. One by one, they shared their real life’s dreams, of what they wanted to be, how they wanted to do something good and meaningful and constructive in the world, independent of the money they might earn from it. Of course, it was just a sappy movie, so everyone had a change of heart and they all voted the way Sandler wanted them to.
Well, Jesus’ words in this parable are a warning, but they’re an invitation, too – an invitation to look at our own lives, no matter what stage of life we’re in and no matter what level of wealth we have, and to ask if our current priorities are the ones that we believe would please God – priorities where we love God, show compassion to others, and proper stewardship of creation – and that, in the process, will lead us into that life of shalom for ourselves. And if the answer that we arrive at is that no, we don’t have the priorities that we should, we can have hope, because with God’s help, we can fix that. The script of our lives isn’t finalized yet. Borrowing from the storyline of a much better known story than Sandler’s movie, our lives are like Ebenezer Scrooge learning that the images that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come showed him aren’t images of what will happen, but what *could* happen if things didn’t change. Maybe call it the Gospel according to Scrooge – things weren’t cast in stone; he could rewrite them. And so can we.
So sometime, maybe today, maybe later this week, I invite you to do that exercise. Think about your life. Have you allowed the pursuit of wealth, of security, of comfort, of stuff, to cloud your vision, your sense of purpose, your understanding of what a truly fulfilling life would be?
If you conclude that it has, don’t worry. God has promised to help you; you can make the changes you might need to make to have that fulfillment in life. In some cases, it might not be easy. In some cases, it might take courage. But don’t be afraid to try to make that change, because Christ himself has promised to help guide you through that, to give you the strength and courage you need to pursue that life of fulfillment, contentment, shalom, both in the here and now, and in the life hereafter.
Thanks be to God.