“Don’t eat that, you’ll spoil your dinner!” Moms have been saying that (or something just like it) to their children throughout the ages. And for as long as moms have been cautioning, children have remained steadfast in their disbelief. “But mom, I’m really hungry!” I can eat this cookie now, and my full supper later. The stomach growls, the mouth waters, and the spirit gives in to temptation. And then we realize that maybe mom was right. The passing joy of a cookie or two, ruins our ability to really enjoy the labour of her loving hands when it is time to sit down and eat.
This is the very same cautionary tale Jesus proclaims in our gospel this morning: (19-21) “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.”
Two men in such close proximity, but divided by a world of differences. One is dressed in purple and fine linens, the other adorned in rags and festering sores. One feasts sumptuously, every single day, the other longs for even a taste of the kitchen waste, the table scraps. One’s primary goal in life is to have as much fun as he wants, the other’s is to fend off the dogs as best as he is able. And just as they are in life, so too will they be worlds apart from one another in death.
(22-23) “The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.”
Here the tables are turned … with a vengeance. Death comes to each, but is described in as stark contrast as the life each once lived. This poor suffering outcast, the servant of God – he that had not had a friend in the wide world, whom people refused so much as to touch, now was joyfully received into the eternal home and found a place of honor by the side of Abraham The man so rich in life is simply pronounced dead and buried. A meager and bare conclusion to a life of ease. Oh sure the funeral was probably stunningly extravagant, but so what? Dead and buried the servant of mammon finds himself in excruciating misery.
The tables are turned, but why? That is the question. And its answer is the caution for each of us here today. This story is not a warning against having money. It is not trying to say that all rich people are wicked and that if you treat yourself well you deserve to go to hell. Neither is it teaching that just because a person is poor or suffers neglect they have somehow “paid their dues” and will be rewarded by God. But it does teach that there are only two future possibilities … both heaven and hell are very real indeed. And further it teaches that the ones who seem destined for all good things here, may not be the ones to find them there.
This is the first man’s problem. He looked to a God that was fair. A god who rewards the deserving. He like so many others in this world was under the mistaken idea that having plenty of stuff in this life is a sign of God’s well-deserved favour. How wrong he was. This rich man winds up in torment not because he had fine food and splendid clothes, … but because he set his heart upon it, he sought it, he clung to it, he chose it, he had all his joy, desire, and pleasure in it, and made it his idol. He opened his heart to excess and indulgence and let it blind him to the Word of God, and the need of others. Too late he found out that the one who dies with the most toys is still just dead.
Lazarus, on the other hand, is not rewarded for being mistreated. His fate is not bound by some cosmic pay-back. He is not sainted by his act of suffering. Indeed, we can well imagine that many times he looked longingly at the life of the rich man and felt more than a little pang of jealousy. But in the end we know that he didn’t blame God for his station in life, nor did he look to God for fairness. Lazarus looked for God to be merciful! Indeed, of all the characters in all the stories that Jesus told, only this fellow is given a name. No one else. And the name Lazarus means “God helps” And help him God did – right up out of his suffering and into the merciful fold of heaven.
(24-26) “And [the rich man] called out, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame. But Abraham said, Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.
So, he that never showed pity now asks pity; he that never practiced humility now humbly pleads, but there is no chance for him, his last hope is gone. The rich man made a god of his wealth and possessions and they returned his faith with a life of pleasure. But wealth and health and fame and friends are fickle rulers at best, and their power is limited to this life alone. Lazarus looked to the only God of Heaven and earth, and in the end God returned that faith with the lasting joys of eternal life and an end to suffering.
The rich man’s table is laid bare, and the poor man’s table is filled to everlasting. For the first was set by himself and the second by Christ. And that is the caution dear friends. How you set your table here, has bearing on what you will eat once there. For the tables we set in sin are filled with selfish gain, but the table of our Lord is one of sacrifice and long-suffering. The tables we set with prideful ambition are easily laid bare, but the table of Christ is a feast that brings everlasting life.
For God’s table is richly laden with the choicest wine and most expensive bread – the body and blood of our Lord given into death for the forgiveness of sins. For Jesus knows what it is like to be a beggar at the gates. King of all creation, he became a servant like you or me. Rich though he was he humbled himself to the rags and open sores of the crucifixion. Author of Life, he died for our sins. And that is why the tables are now turned. Death is swallowed up in life, and Lazarus’ like you and me can be sure of a place at the banquet table of heaven God is merciful indeed, and he is helping us even now. Helping us to live beyond the pursuit of our own pleasure and temporary gain. Helping us to trust in him through the good and the bad, through the wants and the needs, through the suffering and grief and pain. Helping us to look in joy to the table to come … and our place at it, right beside Lazarus, and Abraham, and Christ himself.