Parable of the Rich Man

This parable is troubling! A rich man lived in luxury, and Lazarus lived in poverty at the rich man’s doorstep. Both men died and went to Hades, where they experienced a great reversal. The rich man found himself living in torment, but Lazarus, the former beggar, ended up living in great comfort. Just as Lazarus had once hoped for scraps from the rich man’s table, the rich man now found himself hoping for a drop of water from the tip of Lazarus’ finger to cool the rich man’s burning tongue.

Note that Jesus does NOT say that they are in heaven and hell, but in Hades. Jews thought of Hades or Sheol as the abode of the dead: In early Jewish thought, Hades was a gloomy pit where the dead suffered a shadowy existence. Then they began to believe in the resurrection, and thought of Hades as the place where the dead awaited resurrection.

Gradually, they began to believe that the wicked would be separated from the righteous even as they awaited the resurrection. That’s what Jesus is picturing here. For Lazarus, the beggar, Hades is paradise. But the rich man finds himself in a hellish place––burning hot––miserable––hopeless.

It’s interesting to note that the rich man did not do anything terrible to Lazarus. Jesus does not say that the rich man had driven Lazarus from his doorstep. He does not say that the rich man had denied Lazarus scraps from his table. He does not suggest that the rich man has been abusive to Lazarus in any way. Why then was the rich man being punished? Was it such a terrible sin to be rich?

That’s an important question for us. Some of us think of ourselves as poor. The rest of us think of ourselves as middle-class. Very few of us think of ourselves as rich. But let’s look at this rich man. What was it that made him rich? First, he dressed in expensive clothing. Second, he lived in luxury. He had plenty to eat––more than enough. Most people in that day were fortunate to eat meat once a week, but this man could afford to have meat every night.

By these standards, most of us are doing pretty well. Most of us have clothes in our closets that we never wear. We don’t miss many meals. Most of us eat too much. We feast sumptuously every day. We own cars––and television sets––and stereos––and computers—cell phones. This winter, when it’s time to heat our homes, we won’t spend our days scavenging for wood; we’ll just turn up the thermostat. Very few people in the world live as well as we do.

the point is this: If the rich man’s only sin was being rich, we are in trouble. We are among the most comfortable people on this planet––and among the most comfortable people who ever lived. If being rich condemns us, we are condemned indeed.

But the rich man’s sin was not being rich. The rich man’s sin was that he never noticed Lazarus. The rich man’s sin was that he could tolerate great suffering at his doorstep without feeling compassion. The rich man’s sin was not caring. If the rich man had cared, even a little, Lazarus would not have longed to satisfy his hunger with the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.

But if the rich man’s sin was not seeing and not caring about the suffering of his neighbor, we are in danger on that score too. Who is the Lazarus in our lives? Who is the Lazarus in your life?

Our Lazarus might be the elderly widow who lives next door––or who sits near us in these pews. Our Lazarus might be the person who would enjoy a friendly word or an invitation to dinner––but who lives in solitude because no one sees her.

Our Lazarus might be the person with whom we work who recently went through a divorce––and is feeling terrible––and is withdrawn and depressed and not much fun to be around––and perhaps not doing his or her job very well.

Our Lazarus might be the homeless people whom we see on our streets––or an abused woman or child––or a welfare mother––or a dad who only gets to see his children one weekend a month.

Our Lazarus might be prisoners in the local jail or the state penitentiary. I have the opportunity to visit prisoners in jails and fire camps, and it’s a sobering experience. I certainly don’t believe that we ought to open all the locks and release all the prisoners––but neither do I believe that we should harden our hearts to the human suffering that goes on in jails and prisons. Some of these prisoners just blew it on one event and of course there are others who kept on blowing it.

The point of Jesus’ parable is simply that there are people like Lazarus in our community––in your neighborhood––in this congregation––and we need to take them seriously. We need to SEE them. We need to HELP.

While preparing this sermon, I came across a couple of stories about Albert Schweitzer that I believe are on point here. Allow me to share them with you.

Schweitzer, as you might remember, was a wonderfully talented man who lived first in Germany and then in France. He was a concert organist. He was a theologian. He had a wonderful life.

But being a Christian––a deacon––a man of serious faith––Schweitzer felt called to pursue a degree in medicine so that he would be able to spread the Gospel by taking the healing arts to people who had no medical care. Although he was a theologian, he felt called to be a healer instead of a preacher. He wanted to allow his good works to point people toward Christ––the Christ who had inspired him.

So Schweitzer went to a place called (Lambar-en-ney) in West Africa, and started a jungle hospital. He spent the rest of his life at Lambarene––serving as a physician in the service of the Great Physician, Jesus––caring for the Lazarus at Europe’s doorstep. He died in Lambarene at the age of ninety, and was buried in a simple grave near the hospital that he had founded. His grave is marked with a simple cross that he made himself. The hospital which he founded is still in service––still providing health care to tens of thousands of Africans.

Do you know what inspired Schweitzer to leave it all behind and go to Africa? He did so because of this Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. This parable was the spark that touched off the revolution in his life. If he had stayed in France, he would have enjoyed a comfortable life. He would have made life a little nicer for people who were already living nice lives. But because of this parable, Schweitzer became a towering inspiration to many of us who never even met him. Because of this parable, Schweitzer’s name is etched forever among the great heroes and servants of this world––because he decided to SEE––and he decided to CARE.

In 1950, Schweitzer paid a visit to America. In Chicago, a group of prominent citizens lined up at the railroad station to greet him. When Schweitzer stepped off the train, they surrounded him with a gushing welcome. He responded warmly. But then something caught Schweitzer’s eye, and he excused himself and dashed across the platform. Diving into the crowd, he stopped beside an elderly woman who was staggering under her load of heavy suitcases. With his strong hands, he grabbed the suitcases and beckoned her to follow him. He threaded his way through the crowd, and led the woman to her coach. He lifted her suitcases into the overhead rack, and wished her a good journey. Then he rushed back to the people who had come to greet him––and apologized for keeping them waiting. Somewhat sheepishly he said, “I guess I was just having my daily fun!” Schweitzer found both fun and his greatness in stooping to help other people––wherever he found them––whatever their need.

That’s what this parable calls us to do. It calls us to strip the scales from our EYES so that we might see––to strip the scales from our HEARTS so that we might care––and to strip the weights from our FEET so that we might go. The potential payoff is huge. Not only will we help other people, but we will also discover a new quality in our own lives––fullness where there used to be emptiness–– happy colors where there used to be only shades of gray.

I have one last Schweitzer story for you. It has to do with Marion Preminger, the wife of the famous motion picture director Otto Preminger. Marion was born in Hungary in 1913. She was raised in a palace, surrounded by maids, tutors, butlers, and chauffeurs.

Her parents sent her to school in Vienna, where she met a handsome doctor. They fell in love and got married. But that marriage lasted only a year, so she looked for a job as an actress. That’s how she happened to meet Otto, the brilliant young director. They fell in love, got married, and moved to America so Otto could pursue a Hollywood career. Unfortunately, Hollywood turned out to be a poor place for a young marriage––and for two young, self-absorbed people. They got caught up in the glamour and the lights, and fell into a sordid and empty lifestyle.

Then, while visiting Europe, Marion encountered Schweitzer, who was also visiting there. She heard him play the organ in a village church, and the Schweitzers invited her to join them for dinner. As a result, Marion ended up going to Africa with the Schweitzers -to the hospital in Lambarene, where she changed bandages, bathed babies, fed lepers––and in the process discovered the happiness that had always eluded her. Jesus blessed her for SEEING the Lazarus at her doorstep––for CARING––and for taking the time to SERVE.

Let me close with a question. Think about it this week. Pray about it. Ask God for guidance. The question is this: Who is the Lazarus at our doorsteps? Amen?