Even though the lectionary removed the context for this story, we can follow the flow. You might even sense Jesus’ exasperation with those who willfully misunderstand what he has been proclaiming. Back up a few verses, it isn’t a part of this text, but it might get you in the mood for preaching this story. Verse 16: “The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force.” What in the world does that mean? Entering the kingdom by force?
What if it wasn’t “by force,” the way we usually understand it? It isn’t strongarming one’s way into the new age by brute strength or superior weaponry. What if, instead, Jesus was talking about those who think they deserve entrance? They thought they could get in through their status or wealth. They thought they were owed a place in God’s kin-dom.
Does there seem to be surprise on the part of the rich man who found himself in a place of punishment instead of the paradise he expected? He is, however, bold enough to shout across the gap and ask for mercy, “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in the water to cool my tongue.”
We don’t have any indication of the tone of this request. He asks for mercy, true, but he still seems to see Lazarus as a means and not an end. Let him serve me. Send him to tend me. There has been some considerable debate about the demeanor of the rich man and of Lazarus from biblical scholars. Some point out that Lazarus was allowed to lay at the gate of the rich man, receiving crumbs. The idea that crumbs would fall from the rich man’s table all the way out to the front gate seems unlikely. So whatever crumbs Lazarus was living on came to him through the largess of the rich man in the house. Lazarus wasn’t chased away and perhaps was fed – not healed, but fed.
The question of whether the rich man was a good man or had a good heart isn’t really addressed in this story. The problem is the gulf. The gulf in life was between the rich and the poor. Jesus, as Luke records the story, doesn’t seem concerned with the condition of the heart as much as the disposition of wealth.
In an interesting departure from the usual, in this story, the only named character is Lazarus, the poor man. The rich man is anonymous. He could be anyone. He could be the one Jesus was accusing of loving money. He could be those who have when they are surrounded by those who have not. He could be identifying the gap that exists in this world and suggesting that gulfs continue to be a problem. That’s why Abraham cannot “send Lazarus” to help the poor rich man now suffering. There is a gulf. And the gulf doesn’t seem fixable in that life. This means that it can only be crossed or closed in this one. Jesus is calling all his listeners to pay attention to the gulfs that exist in our world. How do we close the gulfs between the haves and the have nots? How do we close the gulfs between those who hold power and those who live on the margins? How do we close the gulfs . . . or how do we cross them? Interesting word choice there, don’t you think? It takes a cross to close the gulf that exists between people.
It is also interesting that the conversation in the story is not between God and the rich man, but between Father Abraham and the rich man. Is that significant? Is Jesus saying that we can’t wait for a miracle to cross the gulf, but that it is within the power he has given us to make that change? We think too often of the power of the Spirit we have been given as an internal thing, an individual thing. Our salvation is about making sure that we are right with God. But what if we can’t be right with God unless we are right with people too? What if our internal transformation happens in concert with an external transformation? What do we United Methodists like to say? That we are “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” They are one in the same, markers on the same journey. What are we doing – we as individuals, of course, but we as a church more appropriately – to cross the gulfs that exist in our own communities, in our neighborhoods?
Did the rich man even see Lazarus? He saw him in the afterlife as a possible means of relief from his suffering; but did he see him there before laying at his gate? He was generous enough to not run Lazarus off, but did he really see him? Transformation begins with seeing. That’s why we at Discipleship Ministries continue to say “See All the People “(https://www.seeallthepeople.org/). It is the beginning of accepting the power Jesus gave us to cross the gulf.