One of my mother’s frequent exclamations when I was a child was, “How many times do I have to tell you?” This phrase was exclaimed whenever my siblings or I left lights on or laundry on the floor. I recalled this phrase as I studied Jesus’ parable about the rich man and Lazarus. I am struck by the degree to which the rich man just doesn’t “get it.” He is a Jew. The parable assumes that he and his family have knowledge of the law of Abraham and the prophets. He certainly would have heard God’s message that we are to take responsibility for the poor among us. And yet, he passed by Lazarus at his gate, in and out, in and out, every day, and he did nothing to help him. In the afterlife, God’s feelings about the rich man’s behavior should have become dramatically apparent, and yet the rich man still fails to get it. He does not address Lazarus directly, but rather addresses Abraham, whom he presumes to be Lazarus’ superior. The rich man asks Abraham to “send” Lazarus, forcing him to leave his newfound comfort, to serve him and relieve his suffering. Failing at that attempt, he again shows his ignorance, by asking Abraham now to “send” Lazarus to his brothers to warn them of this life to come. In doing so, he again displays his beliefs about Lazarus’ station, even in the afterlife, that his purpose is to serve those who are wealthy. He also exposes that he expects God to privilege his family above others, delivering special messages from the Divine. The rich man, dramatically, just doesn’t “get it,” or perhaps simply refuses to hear God’s consistent message of our responsibility toward all of those who suffer and that all people are inestimably valued as children of God.
One essential question for us to reflect upon in our own time and place is, “Why doesn’t the rich man understand a message that is so obviously clear to us in this story?” The answer is that, like us and every other person who has ever read biblical text, we come to this text with deeply held beliefs and agendas that we are already committed to. The rich man likely held a belief common to his day that wealth and health represented God’s blessing upon the righteous. Likewise, poverty and sickness represented God’s judgement upon the sinful. This is of course, a convenient theology for the wealthy and healthy to hold as it enables us to abdicate our responsibility toward our brothers and sisters who live in poverty. Unfortunately, this corrupt theology is alive and well in our time and place as we are fairly committed to seeing poverty as a sign of laziness or irresponsible living, ignoring the many other factors that contribute to this suffering. As wrong as this stereotype is, part of the truth we are missing is that all of us have character flaws, have behaved badly or irresponsibly at times. Why are we so certain that we are more righteous than those who suffer? Has God deemed our sins to be less grievous than the sins of those who are poor? And, what other messages is God trying to get through to us that we somehow just can’t manage to hear?
Here’s the sermon:
How Many Times do I Have to Tell You?
Text: Luke 16:19-31