16 Pentecost C; September 25, 2022
Last week we read the hardest parable in the Gospels. This week we read the easiest one. The main point of this parable is clear. How I treat my neighbor in need matters to Jesus. How I treat my neighbor in need matters to Jesus now and forever. If I follow Jesus, then how I treat my neighbor in need must matter to me.
The story is simple. A rich man spends all his wealth eating, drinking, and partying. He’s rich enough to do that every day. Outside his front gate lies Lazarus. Lazarus is desperately poor, chronically ill, and painfully hungry. Every day the rich man celebrates. Every day Lazarus suffers. Nothing changes.
Both men die. Then everything changes. Lazarus arrives at “the bosom of Abraham.” The bosom of Abraham is the best seat at the paradise party. The rich man arrives in the fiery depths of Hades. Lazarus celebrates. The rich man suffers. Nothing changes.
So, that’s it, right? If I don’t take care of poor people, I burn in hell. It seems pretty clear, doesn’t it? I could argue that I’m no Warren Buffett or Bill Gates. That’s certainly true. But I know I’m richer than most other people on the planet. I know I’m richer than millions of my American neighbors. I know I’m richer than thousands of my neighbors in the city where I live.
Pleading my poverty relative to the super-rich won’t work. How I treat my neighbor in need matters to Jesus now and forever. That takes some of the fun out of that used camper we bought last week.
Is that the purpose of the parable? Does Jesus try to literally scare the hell out of me, so I’ll part with some of my moldy money? I think that is the purpose.
But why does that matter to Jesus? Does Jesus hate rich people? I don’t think so. Jesus wants the best for me. Jesus comes to make me the person God created me to be. That’s what it means in this life to be saved. Jesus tells this story to make me better, not to scare me to death.
Last week, I invited you to compare a parable to a Bugs Bunny cartoon. This week I want to compare this parable to Charles Dickens’ story, A Christmas Carol. I think that will help us understand a bit better.
Ebenezer Scrooge loved money. No, that’s not quite right. Ebenezer Scrooge hated generosity. He hated giving of any kind. He hated sharing himself or his stuff with others. He hated Christmas giving. He hated giving to the poor.
Scrooge hated anything that connected him to the needs of another person. Dickens described Scrooge as “Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out a generous fire; secret and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” Even the rich man in our parable sounds good compared to old Ebenezer, at least for the moment.
On Christmas Eve, Scrooge gets a ghostly visit from Jacob Marley – Scrooge’s business partner, dead seven years that night. Marley tells Scrooge that three spirits will visit the old miser. Those spirits will bring Scrooge the chance and hope to be a different person. We travel with Scrooge on the journey through Christmas Past, Present, and Future.
This journey connects Scrooge with other human beings. Each spirit hammers on the hard shell of that man who was “secret and self-contained, as solitary as an oyster.” We meet Scrooge’s beloved sister, Fan. We party with dear old Fezziwig. Scrooge falls in love and out of love. As his fiancé ends their engagement, she says, “Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you, [Ebenezer] in the time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.”
The “idol” Scrooge’s fiancé mentioned was his love of money. That great love of his life tolerated no rivals. Scrooge was left alone, just as he wished.
Only human connection, compassion, and community could save the old skinflint. The spirits bring him to the stool of Tiny Tim. In spite of himself, Scrooge begins to care for the boy. Without help and support, Tiny Tim will soon die. Suddenly Scrooge has an unfamiliar feeling.
“Spirit,” he says, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.” Unlikely, the Spirit says, if nothing changes. “What then?” the Spirit proclaims, “If he be like to die, he had better do it and decrease the surplus population.” Scrooge, to his shame, had spoken those very words just a few hours before.
We come to Christmas Future. Scrooge witnesses the aftermath of his own death. He has died neither missed nor mourned. Some of his wealth enriches the poor whether he likes it or not. Tiny Tim has also died, but his memory is cherished.
As Scrooge faces the open mouth of his own grave, he shouts his repentance. “Spirit!” he cries, “hear me! I am not the man that I was. I will not be that man I must have been except for this intercourse. Why show me this,” Scrooge demands, “if I am past all hope!”
Now we come back to our parable. Lord Jesus, why show me all this, if I am past all hope! The most important character in the parable isn’t the rich man. The most important character isn’t Abraham or even Lazarus. The most important characters are those five brothers, still alive, still able to repent.
I am the sixth brother in the story. Why show me all this if I am past all hope!
Scrooge’s story has a happy ending, unlike the story of the rich man. After his Christmas Eve travels, Scrooge is still alive. But he gets more than a reprieve. Scrooge really is not the man that he was. He gets a new life. That new life means connection, compassion, and community. He finds family with Fred, his nephew. He finds friendship with Tiny Tim, who did not die after all. He finds the joy of giving as he pays for the relief of the poor.
As Dickens puts it, Scrooge “became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the old city knew…” Scrooge became the person he was made to be. And he was truly happy.
How I treat my neighbor in need matters to Jesus. How I treat my neighbor in need matters to Jesus now and forever. Jesus loves my neighbor in need and wants the best for my neighbor. Jesus also loves me and wants the best for me. Jesus longs for me to become as good a person as the good old city knew. Jesus wants that for you too.
We cannot follow Jesus and hide from the poor. Greed hides us from the poor. Generosity connects us. Money is a wonderful tool but a terrible lord.
In using wealth as a tool for God, we can “take hold of the life that really is life,” as we read in our second lesson. That’s what is at stake in our parable. The rich man had his hands full of a life that really is not life. At the end, his hands were empty, his humanity drained away. Jesus wants better for us. Jesus wants us to have the life that really is life. Will we accept that gift and do the giving?