“There was a rich man… and at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus.” As I began to think about this parable I got to feeling guilty. “Woe is me,” I thought, “for I ignore the poor man at my gate almost daily.” I sank deeper and deeper into this cycle of guilt as I found my favorite sermon research sites telling me over and over again that this passage tells us the rich will find themselves in hell while the poor will inherit the Kingdom of God. Ultimately, I came to the bottom of my pit of guilt when I went to the Global Rich List website and found that I am in the richest 1.4% of people in the world based on my annual income. “Woe is me! I am the nameless rich man! There is no hope for me!”
Maybe you feel the same way. When you hear a passage of scripture like this do you shut down? Did you turn off your ears before I got to the dogs licking Lazarus’ sores? Are you hoping that I will preach on the Lord’s Prayer today? Oh man, do I understand where you’re coming from. I sure feel guilty.
As if that wasn’t enough, Jesus goes on to talk about Hell. He doesn’t talk about Hell very often, so it piqued my interest and I quit feeling guilty long enough to pay attention for a little bit. “In Hell, where [Lazarus] was in torment…” Oh no, here it comes. Just as I got up and out of my pit of guilt, fear begins to overtake me. “I don’t want to find myself in torment, without a sip of water, in the midst of the burning fire.” And so again, for the second time in five verses I find myself turning it off, not wanting to hear anymore of this tough talk from Jesus. He’s supposed to be soft and cuddly. He’s supposed to be all about love; love for me, specifically, and how I choose to live my life.
And so I sit. I sit in my guilt. I sit in my fear. And I don’t do anything. I begin by saying “I can’t do what you’re asking me, God, but I do feel bad about it. Will you settle for that?” And then I move to a paralyzing fear that keeps me from hearing and more importantly, it keeps me from doing. I think I’ll dig myself a nice hole, or a chasm, if you will, and just sit.
But Jesus didn’t come to earth to make us feel guilty. He didn’t come to paralyze us with fear of doing something wrong and writing my own ticket to hell. Jesus came to give us a life of abundance. Jesus came to proclaim the truth that will set us free. Jesus came to tell us that the Kingdom of God is near, and we can play a part in its inauguration. That is why he tells this story; not to help us dig our own chasms, but to help us fill them in and get to doing the work of God in the world. You see, with every parable that Jesus tells there are layers upon layers of meaning. It is like the layers of an onion, we can peel away layer upon layer. The first layer, like the skin, is the clear and obvious meaning; the one that we have to get through to find the flavor of the onion. It points us there by its color, but we can’t be sure until we dig in.
Here the obvious lesson to learn is that God cares about the poor and we should too. Does the rich man go to hell because he is rich? No. Does the rich man go to hell because he ignores Lazarus? Ehh, that’s not so clear. But does Lazarus go to heaven because he is poor? No. The skin of this onion tells us that we can not ignore the call throughout the scriptures to take care of the poor, the needy, the sick, the widows, the orphans, and those without a place to call home. It is in this first layer that we find our guilt rising and our fear paralyzing, but let’s not stop here, let’s get to peeling.
Peel away the skin and ask a question. For example, here we might ask why Jesus is so exaggerated with his descriptions of the rich man’s riches and Lazarus’ poverty. The rich man is so rich as to dress as the king would dress; in purple cloth and fine silks and linens. He is so rich that he is able to gorge himself at every meal, every day. Lazarus on the other hand is so poor that his hunger is never satisfied. He is so weak from hunger and disease that someone has to place him at the rich man’s gate, he can not make it there by himself. Does it make a difference that the rich man is rich and Lazarus is poor? What if the story involved two neighbors; one with a garage full of tools and the other desperate to build a ramp for his wheelchair bound child? Is this story just about the rich and the poor or is it instead another call to a life of discipleship? Can we be true followers of Jesus and not seek to do good works? Paul says no, “those who in the present age are rich… are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share…”
We see at this layer that Jesus is directing this parable to the Pharisees “who loved money… and were sneering at Jesus.” He spoke to them in terms of rich and poor because the immediate context was one of money. The Pharisees had adopted a bootstrap theology of wealth; God helps those who help themselves, and Jesus is calling that into question. From the parable it seems clear that God helps those who either can’t help themselves or those who help others ahead of themselves. It was the Pharisees’ understanding that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing, that those who had a lot were being rewarded for their faithful living. Conversely, those who were poor, like Lazarus, were being punished by God for their sins or the sins of their parents, or grandparents, and on and on. Jesus tells the Pharisees that they have misinterpreted Moses and the Prophets; they are missing the point of what God was doing in the law of Torah, they neglected to follow all of the rules; ignoring the ones that caused them to come in direct contact with the downtrodden and outcast. Jesus, who will soon be the one who rises from the dead, the one who they still won’t believe, calls them to be rich in good works, and they miss the point.
Still another layer is available. It is inevitable that we will read this parable and try to learn something about the next life. We see here the only parable of Jesus that is mythical in nature. Only here does Jesus deal with both life here and now and in the age to come. What can we learn from the hopeless situation of the rich man; removed from the love of God by a great chasm that is fixed and cannot be crossed? The fear with which we approach this picture of the tormenting fires of hell can be replaced with hope when we see that we are not there yet. We still have Moses, and the prophets, and Jesus who rose from the dead. The great chasm is for us still just a gate and Jesus is in the business of opening gates. The gate in the wall of the Sabbath is opened as he heals the man with Dropsy. The gate in the wall of the strict religious law keepers is open in the parable of the great banquet. The gate in the wall between heaven and earth is opened as we are invited into the Party of God. The gate in the wall between rich and poor is open in this parable of Lazarus and the rich man. The gate in the wall between God and man will be open as the curtain is torn in two as Jesus breaths his last. In the resurrection, the gate in the wall between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, man and woman, will be opened. Jesus reminds us in this layer that he is in the business of opening gates and setting people free. Instead of focusing on the great chasm of the hereafter, Jesus offers us a way out of our fear and into abundant life. Jesus call us to also be in the business of opening gates; to let people in, to pay attention to the world around us, and to see the possibilities that exist when “good fences make good neighbors” becomes “an open gate makes an open heart.”
Just like an onion, the more we tear into these parables the more they disturb us. It really is easy to be deaf and dumb from guilt when the alternative is taking care of the poor, the outcast, the smelly, and the gross. It will seem nice to be paralyzed with fear when we are called upon to open gates that we know were closed for a reason. But following Jesus isn’t a life lived on the surface of an onion. A life lived as a disciple of Christ is one that will cause tears to fall as we do the hard work of “pursuing righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness.” But that hard work is certainly worth it. Amen.
 Barbra Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels, p. 111.