Lazarus, Dives, and Us

I love this parable from Jesus. It’s one of my favorites. A rich man, Dives, ignores his poor brother Lazarus for years, “feasting sumptuously” every day while Lazarus starves. And Dives, that rich man, gets what’s coming to him: swift, certain, non-negotiable judgment. Everyone love a good comeuppance story, and this parable has it in spades. When I was a choir director in North Carolina, I couldn’t wait for this parable to come up in our worship schedule, so the choir could sing,

Rich man, Dives, he lived so well,

And when he died, he went straight to hell!

I used to tell the choir to give that “hell” everything they had. It felt good to sing that in church, and it feels good to hear that, at least once, someone who had it coming got it.

But things aren’t really so simple for Dives. Sure, he’s been punished, but he hasn’t been reformed or redeemed. He suffers in hell as he lived in life: with a stubborn self-centeredness that turns him so in upon himself that I think it’s fair to say that Dives is the most hopeless character in the entire Bible. He was blind in life; he cannot see any more in death.

For years, maybe, a man named Lazarus has been lying at the gate of this rich man Dives. Lazarus has nothing—nothing but sorrows, that is. He’s poor, he’s hungry, and he’s in such bad shape that even the dogs have pity on him and lick his sores. Lazarus has lived his life with no future, no tomorrow: only an unending, unbearable present of suffering. He’s so bad off, Lazarus doesn’t even want the good stuff anymore. He’ll take the crumbs from the rich man’s table, the scraps. But he never even gets that much from anyone, certainly not from Dives. When death comes for Lazarus, who doesn’t even get a proper burial, it’s almost a relief, and the angels of God bear him away to the bosom of Abraham. The poor matter to God.

Dives, on the other hand, he wears expensive clothes and feasts on fine dining every night. Maybe he’s one of those who looked out on his barns and decided to build bigger barns. Maybe God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life shall be taken from you.” But we know that Dives was blind to the poor man at his gates.

Now, maybe that blindness started off innocently enough. At first, Dives was in too big a hurry to see Lazarus. He had to rush inside to finish an important business deal, maybe, or to meet the linen dealer from Greece to buy cloth for his new suit. He really didn’t see Lazarus. But over time, the longer Lazarus lay at his gates, the less innocent Dives’s blindness became. The next time coming home, Dives saw Lazarus, but shrugged it off. Then he saw him again, and started to find ways to ignore Lazarus: walk quickly, don’t make eye contact, pretend he’s not there. Maybe Lazarus cried out, tried to get the man’s attention. That took things too far. Then Dives started to resent Lazarus: why’d he have to pick Dives’s gates, of all places, to lie down? What’s wrong with him, anyway? Why can’t he go away? Eventually that resentment turned to hatred: Dives was blinded by rage at the man who wouldn’t go away: It’s his fault he’s poor, the lazy, shiftless bum! Maybe some of those sores showed up on Lazarus’s body after Dives gave him a good kick or two on his way home one day.

Whatever happened, Dives has become so stubborn in his blind hatred of Lazarus that even death itself can’t open his eyes. Lazarus is the bosom of Abraham, blessed for all eternity by the love of God, and Dives suffers in hell. Still, Dives is blind. He asks Abraham to order Lazarus to help him out. Can you believe that? Dives couldn’t lift a finger for Lazarus in this world, and now he wants Lazarus to be his servant of mercy, now that his wealth won’t do him any good. To Dives, Lazarus is still that sub-human, no-good, lowlife who’s been creeping at his gates, and Dives is still, in his own mind, the superior creature. So when Abraham won’t order Lazarus to help Dives, Dives asks Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his brothers. There’s no hope for this man Dives. He still, from the pits of hell, sees Lazarus as his servant, as his inferior. His stubborn blindness is irredeemable. Not even someone risen from the dead can help him, or anyone else like him. Whoa.

The parable of Lazarus and Dives messes with some of our safe ideas about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Dives isn’t in hell because he’s an atheist; he’s not in hell because he trusted in his own righteousness; he’s not in hell because he abandoned the faith; he’s not in hell because he refused to accept Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior. In fact, Abraham calls Dives Teknon, “child.” Dives is in hell because of his stubborn refusal to see and help the poor man Lazarus at his gates.

Friends, I am deeply concerned that today many white Christians find themselves in Dives’s shoes. Black women and men have been at the gates of justice for centuries in this country, waiting, demanding, imploring to be let in. All too often, white Christians have turned a blind eye to our brothers and sisters, because of their race. In some cases the blindness starts in genuine ignorance. We don’t know what it’s like to grow up black in this country, and we assume that what we experienced as whites growing up is basically the same for everyone. It’s not. We assume that if someone calls the police about us, it’s because we’re doing something that’s actually suspicious, and we think that’s true for everyone. It’s not. It might never occur to us that getting out of the car, or changing a tire on the side of the road, or our child playing with a toy gun in the toy section of a store might be suspicious behavior, but African Americans in this country know otherwise. If we have been blind out of ignorance, it’s time to repent of our ignorance and be healed of our blindness.

But that’s not what has me worried. Ignorance can be very dangerous, but God will honor a sincere desire to overcome ignorance. What has me worried is that, for too many white Christians, that ignorant blindness has turned into the same damnable stubbornness that sent Dives straight to hell. Some just don’t want to talk about race; they think it will magically go away, or at least stop bothering us, if they can shut up any talk about it. Others have started to resent people of any color who dare to speak up for black brothers and sisters at the gates of justice. And a few are so blinded by their own rage that they can’t even see how full they are of hate. Calling Black Lives Matters protesters racist, blaming racism on African Americans, dragging the names of victims and their families through the mud, allowing textbooks to call slaves “immigrants,” claiming that a black president is somehow to blame for white racists: this is Dives all over again, men and women falling into a stubborn blindness that will, eventually, become irredeemable. “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

I want to end this sermon on a more positive note; I want to leave us with some glimmer of hope at the close of things. But that’s not where Jesus leaves us this morning. His message is not, “Don’t worry, this will all work out in the end.” No. Jesus is much more direct than that: repent, and serve the neighbor at your gate. Repent, and serve the neighbor at your gate. Repent, and serve the neighbor at your gate. May we be graced with ears to hear, eyes to see, and hands to serve.

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