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Trading Places

"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..." (Luke 16:19-21a, NRSVue)

I love Luke's gospel; however, preaching from it always gets me in trouble. Luke's depiction of Jesus emphasizes him as someone who stands up for justice for the marginalized and oppressed, often to the detriment of influential and well-off people. Since most of us fall into the latter sector of society, Luke's gospel doesn't feel like "good news," which is the literal definition of gospel. Luke singles out the wealthy for judgment while giving the less fortunate a free pass.

In the first chapter of his gospel, Luke sets the tone for Jesus' ministry in Mary's Magnificat, or "Hymn of Magnification," highlighting Jesus' purpose for being born into our world:

"He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty." (Luke 1:52-53, NRSVue)

So, in his parable about the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus challenges those with access to vast resources to notice poor people and care for them in their need. In response to this parable, we prepare a litany of all the times we've helped while simultaneously listing reasons why this might be a bad idea, especially if we don't want to enable laziness and dependency. Jesus doesn't tell us why the named character in this parable, Lazarus, is poor. Jesus indicates that sores cover Lazarus' body, but we don't know if he suffers from leprosy or if these are the natural scrapes and scratches from walking on rocky terrain.

The unnamed character in Jesus' parable is referred to only as a "rich man," in a reversal of conventional wisdom where the wealthy are known, and the poor remain anonymous. Every day Lazarus lays at the rich man's gate, hoping to get the uneaten scraps of food from his banquet table. He likely gets some food occasionally, or he wouldn't show up every day.

Lazarus dies and is ushered into Abraham's presence by a band of angels, while the rich man is buried after he, too, dies. Somehow, the rich man ends up in torment in Hades. He can see Lazarus in the arms of Abraham, so he asks Abraham to send Lazarus down with some water. Luke reports,

"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 16:25-26, NRSVue)

It's important to remind ourselves that this is a parable, a story not to be taken literally but one that is instructive because it points to a truth, nonetheless. Poor people aren't treated better in heaven than wealthy people are because God treats all people equally. Jesus' point is that if we want to bring heaven to earth (a.k.a., the Kingdom of God), we must respond with love for each other here and now. The chasm that divides us is not God's creation; it is our own. If we lack empathy, we'll never understand the actual needs of others.

Even in death, the rich man saw Lazarus as nothing more than a servant who could bring him some water or, later, return to earth as a messenger to convince the rich man's five brothers that they needed to change so they won't end up with him in Hades. If he saw Lazarus as his brother and cared for him as such, he wouldn't be in this situation. Again, it's a parable, but for those with ears to hear, let us hear. And please, don't shoot the messenger! — Senior Pastor Dale Cohen

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