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Dreams of Lazarus and the Rich Man

from the “Sermons and Services” collection


1 Timothy 6:6 – 16
Luke 16: 19 – 31

October 2, 2013
Marsh Chapel
STH Worship

The assignment for us preachers this fall is to focus on a parable of Jesus in the context of remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech. The lectionary gives me Jesus’ parable in Luke about Lazarus and the rich man, and also the passage in 1 Timothy about the love of money as the root of all evil. When King said he had a dream, he meant he had a hope fleshed out imaginatively as a rich ideal to be pursued. I’m going to ask what dream Jesus’ parable might attribute to Lazarus, and what dream to the rich man. What dream was being urged upon Timothy by the author of that epistle? What dream should we have? What is the gospel when we cannot afford to dream at all?

Jesus’ parable, like most of his parables and sayings, as in the Sermon on the Mount, is an instance of what biblical scholars call “wisdom” literature, which is mainly about how people in ordinary life are or should be related to God. Other examples are the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, James, and the Pastoral Epistles. This contrasts with the biblical literature that fundamentally relates the action to a much larger national or even cosmic narrative, such as the Pentateuch, Daniel, most of the writings of Paul, and Revelation. Some sayings of Jesus suggest that he also believed that God will eventually intervene in history to establish a righteous kingdom, perhaps with himself at its head. Paul believed that Jesus’ death and resurrection had a cosmic significance with good triumphing over evil and leading to the destruction of the world in the end time when those “in Christ” would be resurrected and lifted up to God in Heaven. Jesus’ parable of the rich man has none of that reference to either a larger national or cosmic narrative, however, only to the immediate aftermath of the deaths of Lazarus and the rich man. Jesus, or at least his editor Luke, apparently could assume that his audience would be receptive to his fanciful account of the afterlife conversation between the rich man and Abraham, something that could not be assumed automatically among first-century Jews and Gentiles when many people did not believe in any afterlife whatsoever. This is true today, even among us.

I say that Jesus’ account is “fanciful” because of his depiction of the geography and character of Heaven and Hades. Although “far off,” the rich man could see Abraham with Lazarus by his side, shout to him, and get an answer. Here in Luke, Jesus depicts Hades as a place of fiery torment whereas some parables in Matthew say it is “the outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth.” We cannot take this parable as giving anything like a literal account of what Jesus believed any afterlife to be, if he had any literal views at all on the subject. I suppose the nightmares dreamt of Hell consist of whatever we most don’t want just as our dreams of Heaven are our fondest wishes.

We can ask what the point of Jesus’ parable is, however. On first literal reading it seems to be that those who have nothing but suffering in this life get an angelic escort to Heaven in the next where they can be with Father Abraham. Those who have everything in this life, however, get dumped into a grave and sent to everlasting agony. The parable ascribes no virtues to Lazarus that would merit him leisure in Heaven. Nor does it ascribe any villainy to the rich man that would merit him Hades. Perhaps this is just an application of the general cosmic rule that the first will be last and the last first. But the rich man does plead with Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his living brothers to change their ways and avoid his fate, so evidently there must have been something he was doing wrong, something he should have done differently. Perhaps he cheated or murdered his way to wealth and with his brothers was a tribe of vicious villains. Let’s hope it was something like that, because if it was nothing more than enjoying the fruits of relative wealth while beggars languish outside the door, then whole nations of us need to take out eschatological fire insurance! The parable ignores this issue.

Its point rather is that what you do in this life is what counts. We have a finite span of years, and after that span has been crossed we are, once and for all, in the face of judgment, what we have been and done. No negotiating in any afterlife. Moreover, Jesus had no conception, in this parable, of Purgatory where sins could be worked off. The great chasm between Heaven and Hades cannot be crossed. There is no mercy in any afterlife.

The reason for the parable is precisely to warn us in this life to shape up now. If our decisions are too self-indulgent, too selfish, too neglectful of others, that is something we can change. When the rich man asked that his brothers be warned, Abraham replied that they already have Moses and the prophets to give warning. It was widely believed in Jesus’ time, as Paul said in Romans, that everyone has a built-in conscience so that they know when they are doing wrong. Even without appealing to the authority of Moses and the prophets, the brothers should have known. And so should we. I don’t mean to say, nor did Jesus, that everyone can solve the extraordinary complex moral issues of our time by appealing to instinct alone. But evolutionary psychologists have shown that our conscience about justice, fairness, compassion, and many related virtues are indeed bred into us, and our impulses about them precede our elaborate moral arguments that mainly attempt to justify our basic feelings about those things. As far as Jesus goes, with modern scientific support, when we do wrong we should have known better, and probably did when we overrode or denied our basic senses of justice, fairness, and compassion. In basic matters of how to live, we have no excuse and what we do in fact is what counts. What we do stands under judgment—life is this serious.

What, I ask, would have been the Heavenly dream of Lazarus? Presumably he hoped for food each day. But if our dream of Heaven is what we want most, Lazarus’ eschatological dream was not to be a rich man but to be with Abraham. Abraham was the symbolic father of the Jewish people and Lazarus wanted a family. The actual family of the Jewish people, as well as his nuclear family, had failed him in life and he was alone with the dogs outside the walls. His dream of Heaven was to be home with his family where he was loved.

What was the dream of the rich man? Certainly not to end up in eternal fiery torment! So far as the parable goes, he seems to have had no serious dream at all, only a complacent assumption that his good life would continue. He did not dream of the Jewish nation taking care of its own, let alone of a world in which the rich provide for the poor. From his hot spot in Hades he addressed Abraham as his Father and Abraham answered back calling him Child. But the family connection could not bridge the chasm. The rich man had a genuine family concern for his brothers when it was too late, but a concern is not a dream. It does not galvanize a life. When Martin Luther King, Jr., said he had a dream, that in itself shamed those of us who have no dream, only concerns and complacence. Jesus attributed no fault to having wealth as such, only to not dreaming anything to do with it.

Our text from 1 Timothy glosses the issue of wealth. It says that those who want to be rich (not necessarily those who are rich) “fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money (not necessarily its possession) is the root of all kinds of evil.” It also says that “we brought nothing into this world so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.” Lazarus lacked food and clothes, and so presumably was justified in desiring wealth, at least to a minimum level. What counted for him, that he lacked, was a caring family. Within minimum bounds, Timothy is told that we should be contented with what we have. Not to be contented, within minimum bounds, is to be subject to those temptations. This is not an encouraging text for those who are looking to find a social gospel! In Jesus’ parable, the contented person was obviously the rich man. I have speculated that he was contented to the point of complacency about the poor man Lazarus on his door step. But Jesus’ text does not say that. It does not say he has a dream at all.

The text in Timothy is not about judgment on the rich but about the danger of discontent with the riches one has. Timothy is told to command the rich “not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” Within minimum bounds, even the relatively poor are richly provided for, according to the author of 1 Timothy. The rich, for their part, “are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” There is no encouragement to have a dream for more money, only warning about the temptations that come if you do have that dream.

Then for what should you dream, according to the author of 1 Timothy? That you might live the life of “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith, take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called. . . . . In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, . . . I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and the Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see, to him be honor and eternal dominion.”

This is a strange but wondrous passage. Note that it is God distinct from Jesus who is Sovereign, King of kings and Lord of lords, contrary to Handel’s Messiah. God alone, not us or even Jesus, has immortality in the richest sense. God dwells in unapproachable light and cannot be seen: forget the Gnostic dream of union with God. Our author says to “take hold of eternal life” which is something we do in this life, not in some afterlife. Eternal life is living now in the Christian way, with “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness.” This eternal life is the right way to live before the God who dwells in unapproachable light. It is a fight, Timothy is warned. But to live this way in the eternal life that can be grasped now is the dream worth fighting for.

The author of 1 Timothy probably did believe in an afterlife and in the second coming or manifestation of Jesus. But his people already had had the first manifestation of Jesus, and the law and the prophets. We know what to do and how to live the Christian way. The author of 1 Timothy had no idea of radical social change of the sort Martin Luther King envisioned; our passage here directly follows one in which the author urges slaves to be good to their masters. But we today understand the implications of the Christian way to include the radical critique and piece by piece reconstruction of society. This is just part of being righteous, godly, faithful, loving, enduring, and gentle. Timothy’s dream is not about some cosmic narrative of redemption where Jesus does the fighting, nor even about the coming of the kingdom in some large-scale historical sense. It does not require an afterlife at all. In fact, I suspect that dreams that focus too vividly on an afterlife are subject to a similar temptation to that of dreams for more riches, namely complacency about living the eternal life now. Timothy is told to take hold of eternal life and not just wait for another manifestation of Jesus. I have a dream, and hope you do too, that we will live before the unapproachable God in the luminous Way of Jesus that has serious consequences about what we do today. Strange to say, contrary to popular usage, this is eternal life, embracing the time of our watch within the eternity of God.

This dream in hand, is there not still a worry? Are there not people outside our gates, perhaps even among us, who are so hungry, so bereft of support, so broken in spirit or body, for whom having a dream seems not an option? The author of 1 Timothy, like MLK, spoke to people who were already on board and needed only focus and encouragement. Another part of the Gospel is that it is never too late to get on board. Not all your hunger can be fed, but you can take hold of the dream. Not all your suffering can be relieved, but you can take hold of the dream. Not all your brokenness can be healed, but you can take hold of the dream. Not all filth or wickedness or self-hate in your own soul can be washed away or turned to the good. But in this life you and anyone else can always get on board the dream and seize eternal life. Remember Tom Waits’ song:

There’s a place I know where the train goes slow,
Where the sinner can be washed in the blood of the lamb.
There’s a river by the trestle down by Sinner’s Grove
Where the Will and the Dogwood grow.
Down there by the train.
You can hear the whistle, you can hear the bell
From the halls of Heaven to the gates of Hell,
And there’s room for the forsaken, if you’re there on time.
You can be washed of all your sins and all of your crimes,
If you’re down there by the train
Down there by the train.
There’s a golden moon that shines up through the mist,
And I know that our name can be on that list.
There’s no eye for an eye, there’s no tooth for a tooth.
I saw Judas Iscariot carrying John Wilkes Booth.
Down there by the train.
If you’ve lost all your hope, if you’ve lost all your faith,
I know you can be cared for, and I know you can be safe.
And all of the shamefuls, and all of the whores,
And even the soldier who pierced the side of the Lord,
Is down there by the train.
Down there by the train.
Well I’ve never asked forgiveness, never said a prayer,
Never given of myself, never truly cared.
I’ve left the ones who loved me, and I’m still raising Cain.
I’ve taken the low road, and if you’ve done the same,
Meet me down there by the train,
Down there by the train.

Brothers and sisters, preach the dream. Amen.

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