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.’ (Luke 16:24-26, NRSV)
This week’s gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary defies cuddly interpretations. To use a phrase from the coach of my favorite NFL team, this parable bowls you over like a rolling ball of butcher knives.
I cannot escape that verse that we might call the anti-prosperity gospel: You got your good stuff in life. Now, you get agony.
Here Luke forces on us the sharp-edged version of the beatitudes. In Matthew, we are told the poor in spirit are blessed, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Luke is having none of that spiritualization:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God … But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. (Luke 6: 20b, 24)
The rich man in the parable has been given riches and now is in agony because he did not use them the way God wanted them used. His heart was captured by things God finds an abomination (Luke 16:15), instead of being captured by love for his neighbor. While he feasted in luxury, Lazarus starved on his doorstep. And now, the rich man gets fire and agony.
Unable to save himself, the rich man thinks he might help his family. When I read these words, Marley’s ghost from the Christmas Carol materializes before my eyes. This is the same story. The damned Marley seeks to warn his old partner Ebeneezer before it is too late. And it takes not one but three ghosts — four if you count Marley — to get the point across.
The parable says such ghosts will not do the job. Not even the resurrected Lazarus will do it. No, instead, the rich man’s brothers should read their Torah and Prophets more closely and take them to heart.
‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ (Luke 16:29, NRSV)
The first book I ever read on preaching — and in many ways the one I still lean on the most — instructs us to always look for the word of grace in the text. It asks, for whom is this text good news? My answer: For the poor and hungry and wounded in the streets; for those who thought they needed ghosts and miracles and did not realize that Moses and the prophets were enough.
This week as this text is read in church, do we hear with the ears of the rich man or with Lazarus? Do we hear the parable at all? Or are we like those who will not repent even if a man were to rise from the dead to send us the message?
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.’ (Luke 16:31, NRSV)