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Edward F. Markquart

Series C
What are you doing for Lazarus?

 Pentecost 18     Luke 16:19-21

The parables of Jesus change people. The parables of Jesus have often transformed peoples’ lives. His parables have changed lives of individuals, congregations, and communities.  Many years ago, there was a young man by the name of Morris Wee, better known as Mo or young Morrie. He was away from home for the first time in his life and was at college, so the story goes. It so happened that the Gospel lesson for that Sunday was the story of the prodigal son, and young Morrie heard a sermon on the prodigal son and his life was changed. Young Morrie’s life was changed, turned around, turned upside down, and young Morrie returned to God’s presence in his life. Eventually young Morrie became one of the greatest pastors of the Lutheran church. Eventually, many of us pastors were touched by the larger-than-life presence of a mature Dr. Morris Wee, and Dr. Morris Wee became a mentor for many of us. He is the primary mentor of my life as a pastor. I personally wanted to be like Morrie, and after all these decades, I still do. But it was a parable, the parable of the prodigal son, that initially changed his life and therefore mine.

Another parable, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, was also used by God to change people’s lives, and God used that story, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, to change the life of Dr. Albert Schweitzer. As some of you older people know, Albert Schweitzer was a man from England and he was enormously gifted. He had degrees in music, medicine, and theology; he could do almost everything and anything. One day, Albert Schweitzer came to church and heard a sermon preached about the parable, the rich man and Lazarus, and his life was changed. For him, the rich man was Europe; the poor man was Africa, and he knew that he had to give his life to the poorest of people in central Africa. Soon he left the safety of England for the unknowns of the heart of Africa, and he gave his heart, soul, time and abilities to the poorest of the poor in central Africa. I still remember old pictures of old Albert Schweitzer, playing his little organ, off there in the middle of the jungles of Africa. That parable, the rich man and Lazarus, changed his life. God changed the life of Dr. Schweitzer by means of that powerful parable.

That is true for me as well. Of all the parables that Jesus told, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is the one that touched me the most and  profoundly  and changed me. The story of the rich man and Lazarus has touched me more deeply than all the other parables of Jesus. It was in 1973 that I first preached on this parable and that I really had to study the parable for the first time and let the truth of that parable soak into me. It was a transforming experience. In that process of studying the parable and preaching the parable, God spoke to me and I was personally converted to the poor of the world. Yes, I was already a Christian but I had not committed my life and ministry to the poor of the world before l973.

In that sermon so many decades ago, a fundamental question was asked of you and me: “What have you done for Lazarus?” At the end of history, the curtain will come down and you and I will hear that question: “What have you done for Lazarus?”  In the parable, the rich man is ridiculed for brushing the crumbs off from his table to Lazarus, and we Christians have often given only the crumbs from our table to Jesus Christ. Studies have shown that Lutherans give the equivalent of a “Big Mac” hamburger and fries to World Hunger…per year. $3.50 … a year. All the research says that most Lutherans give merely crumbs to the poorest of the poor of the world. And someday, all of us will hear that question at the end of our history: “What have you done for Lazarus?”

I would like to begin the sermon for today by retelling the parable in a contemporary mode and convert it into a chancel drama of three scenes. I would like to do what Jesus did so long ago: tell contemporary stories in a contemporary mode. Jesus didn’t tell old fashioned stories about Biblical events from centuries before. Rather, Jesus always told new, up to date, fresh, alive stories, and that is what I would like to try to do today. I would also like to play on the word purple; for the rich man in Jesus’ story was dressed in fine clothes of purple.

So let’s go down to Anthony’s Homeport, here in Des Moines, on the waterfront, with all the sailboats right out in front of the fancy restaurant. There was this man and woman, perhaps a husband and wife, who went to have dinner there at Anthony’s, celebrating their wedding anniversary. It was summertime, and the man was dressed in very elegant clothes. He had a new, light wool suit on, light in color, with a hint of light purple to it, and he had a dark purple tie, like this (take a splash of purple linen and tuck it in one’s shirt/alb so it looks like a tie). He looked smashing. And so did his wife, with an elegant dress on, again, light purple in color, and the color of her dress accented his suit. She had on a dark, rich purple colored scarf, with a flash of light purple in her scarf which was flowing across her shoulders. They sat at a table with a dark purple linen tablecloth, and they had purple napkins. So elegant. The long, slim, menus were gracefully brought to them, and the waiter had on dark slacks, a white shirt, and a purple cumberbund. There was a wide variety of selections of meals from the menu, and the couple chose king crab legs with lobster tails on the side. The couple had drinks, then salad, and then the meal was soon served, with pools of lemoned butter. They would dip their white crab into the pools of butter, and the melted butter would drip down their chins and they would wipe the dripping butter with their purple napkins like this (take a purple napkin and wipe one’s chin.) The couple was having such a lovely time together on this their anniversary night, looking out at the water, looking out at the sailboats, looking out at the sunset glowing across the water. The meal was finished. The burnt cream was served for dessert, with coffee, and it was time to pay the bill and leave the tip, nodding to the waiter as they left. Thus ends Scene One. … In Scene Two, the couple is now walking along the wharf, looking out at the sailboats, walking arm in arm, with the early evening breezes from the salt water cleansing their spirits. They want to go for a walk and walk off all they have eaten for they are so stuffed and feeling bloated, and suddenly and unexpectedly, there is an old bum, an old wino, an old something sitting there on the bench near the sidewalk right in front of them, not to be avoided. They are twenty feet from the man and the husband whispers to his wife: “We’re safe. It’s not dark. He is alone and old.” She whispers to him, “What a poor soul. What a pitiful piece of humanity. Look at the old rags for a coat, the worn shoes, the dirt, the smell.” With eyes right ahead, they walked past the wino, the bum, the old something who was sitting on the bench. The couple did not flinch. They did not blink. They looked right straight ahead as if the old wino was not even there. The old wino mumbles as they walk past with eyes straight ahead, “Got any spare change for someone like me?” The couple, past the wino and bench, stops, and the man magnanimously says, “Well, yes, I do,” and he reaches into his right pocket and pulls out fifty cents, and drops the change into the man’s hands, careful not to touch him, for fear of contacting some infectious disease. Spontaneously, the rich man asked, “And what is your name?”  The poor beggar replied, “Lazarus. My name is Lazarus. God bless you.” And the rich man, walking way, says, “May God bless you too Lazarus.”  And the husband and wife continued their stroll, walking off their meal, feeling good about the meal, feeling good about the encounter with the beggar on the street, feeling good that they had been so generous. … Scene Three. The scene changes dramatically. We are now in hell. Yes, in hell, with the flames of hell on fire, burning with scorching heat. But it is not really hell but rather a desert flowing out into infinity, with a hot burning sun and hot scorching desert sands. And off in the distance of that sun-baked desert, there are sand dunes and on those sand dunes are people, and you walk closer to them and see that there is one particular man you recognize, the rich man. He is still wearing his purple, light wool suitcoat, even though the heat is overwhelming.  The rich man is still wearing his purple suit, with the purple tie on (purple tie is still on) and he has the same purple napkin, wiping his forehead that is sweating profusely in the sweltering heat. It is as hot as hell there. It is miserable and he is sweating up a storm. About that time, the rich man looks up into the distance and he thinks sees an oasis, a mirage, a bit of heaven. He thinks it is a mirage, out there in the desert, but it is not a mirage at all. It is the real thing. This oasis is beautiful and luscious and cool. There are water and palm trees and shade and music and laughter and every one is having a really good time. There is his huge crevas in front of him; an enormous gully that separates the heavenly oasis from the scorching desert sands. The rich man, wiping his sweating forehead with the purple napkins, shouts loudly over the gully. “Father Abraham, I recognize the old wino over there. I think his name is Lazarus. Would you have him dip his finger in the cool pool of water over there and then have him cover down here and touch my dried up tongue with a drip of cool water? It would taste so good, so refreshing.” Father Abraham shouts back, “ I can’t do that. There is an enormous gully between us. We can’t get over there and you can’t get over here.” The rich man is so miserable, so hot. He wants to loosen his tie, but for some reason, he can’t. He is so miserable, so hot, so muggy. He again wipes the sweat that is running down his forehead (using the purple napkin.) The rich man starts to think about his five brothers and sisters who are living back on earth, in the United States, all of them living near Seattle, one each in Burien, Sea Tac, Kent, Des Moines, and Federal Way. The rich man is thinking to himself, “I don’t want my brothers to end up here, and so he shouts again, “Abraham. Do me a favor. Send Lazarus, the old wino, back to my five brothers and sisters near Seattle and tell them that they had better take care of the poor, hungry, and starving  of the world, or they are going to end up like me, here in hell.” Abraham calls back, “Your brothers and sisters have the Bible. They have the words of the Old Testament and the words of the New Testament. They know what to do. Even a man who was raised from the dead, wouldn’t scare them into doing what they know needs to be done. Your brothers and sisters have all they need to know what to to.”

And thus ends the story, the drama, the parable of Jesus. And that story has the power to change lives. That parable changed the life of Albert Schweitzer. That parable change my own personal life. That parable has changed the lives of many of you who are seated here today. And that parable asks the fundamental question: “What are you doing for Lazarus?” What are you doing to the poor, the starving, the hungry of the world? What are you personally doing for Lazarus who lives at our gate, Lazarus whom we try to ignore and walk by and pretend he isn’t there?

First, what this parable is not. The purpose of this parable is not to describe the furniture of heaven and the temperature of hell. The purpose of this parable is not to give you a Rand-McNally typographical map of heaven and hell, a map that is used by hikers, with little lines showing the steep heights up heaven, little lines showing the deep descent into hell, little lines showing a deep gully in between the two. Nor is the purpose of this parable is not to imply that heaven is an oasis and hell is like a desert. The purpose of this parable is not to give us a climatic description of weather conditions: hell is insufferably hot and heaven is pleasantly balmy  Nor is the purpose of this parable is to simplistically say that the rich go to hell and the poor go to heaven. There are all kinds of stories in the Bible about rich people going to heaven; such as Father Abraham who was enormously wealthy, King David who was very rich and King Solomon who was reputed to be the wealthiest man of his era.  Nor is the purpose of this parable to condemn the superrich of our society. You know, the Kennedy’s, the du Ponts, the Rockefellers of the past generation. Or the Bill Gates or the Microsoft millionaires. Or the hugely paid athletes, entertainers, TV stars, and rock stars. Intuitively, we want this parable to be about them rather than about us. But this parable is about your life and mine. This parable is about our situation and our lives. The punch line of the parables is usually revealed in their conclusions and the end of this parable focuses on the five brothers and sisters and they are us. The key to the parable is the five brothers at the end of the story, and Jesus is warning Jewish people and Christian people and all people of all time not to be indifferent to the poor. The Gospel of Luke and Jesus are motivating all of us to not be indifferent to the poor and starving and hungry in our midst.

There is going to be a time in history, at the end of history, when God is going to ask you: “What did you do for Lazarus?” You and I are going to be asked that question someday and hopefully we will not say, “O, I gave him some crumbs from my table. I cleaned by table and he got the crumbs that were left.”

In l905, we receive the classic interpretation of this parable in the person of Dr. Albert Schweitzer. The truth of the parable finally penetrated his heart and Dr. Schweitzer wrote the following words: “We British (and Americans) are the rich people. Out there in Africa lies wretched Lazarus. Just as the rich man sinned against Lazarus because of his lack of heart and compassion, so the rich man would not put himself in Lazarus’ place. Nor did the rich man let his conscience tell him what to do. And so we English (and Americans) have sinned against the poorest of the world at our gates.” And what did Dr. Albert Schweitzer do? He gave up his life and went to Africa.

But I really don’t care about the life of Albert Schweitzer and what he did. The question is for you and me. The question is for you and me.  “What did you do for Lazarus? What are you doing for Lazarus?” Are you merely brushing off the crumbs from your table?

Let us take a few minutes and look at the rich man, the man in the light blue purple suit, together with his wife in her equivalent light purple suit, eating his lobster tail and crap with the butter running down his chin. Let us look at this person, at these people. Now, Jesus did not say anything bad about the rich man. Jesus didn’t say what a terrible sinner he was. Nor did the rich man go and kick poor Lazarus. The rich man did not go and spit on Lazarus and call him a wino, a bum, a piece of scum. The rich man certainly didn’t do anything like that. I mean, the rich man allowed Lazarus to beg at his gate, didn’t he? It was like the rich man giving his alms to the poor to the beggar. It was really nice of the rich man to give the poor scum scraps from his table. It was benevolent for the rich man to allow the poor man to eat scraps from his garbage can. So the sin of the rich man was not the sins of commission but the sins of omission. It is what he didn’t do. It is what he didn’t do that damned him for all eternity. You see, the rich man thought it was perfectly natural and inevitable that Lazarus would die of starvation while he, the rich man, ate sumptuously every day. There is nothing wrong with that. I mean, there is always the rich and always the poor; always the wealthy and always the starving. That is the law of the jungle; those are the inevitabilities of human history. It is not my fault that I was born in rich America. Does that give me any added responsibility?  That is the way the world is: some are born in rich countries and some are born in poor counties. I live rich and they live poor.  And so the rich man gave a few crumbs from his table, scraps from his table cloth, the equivalent of a “big Mac” and fries once a year.

So the question was and the question always is: What have you done for Lazarus? What are you doing for Lazarus?

Now, the context of the parable unlocks the meaning of the parable. I have taught you in both classes and sermons that the Bible verses before and after the text being studied are often crucial in order to understand a Bible passage. The context often unlocks the meaning. When we look at the verses before this parable, we discover that this parable was addressed to the scribes and Pharisees, the religious big shots of Jesus’ day, and we discover that the Bible says that they were “lovers of money.” They were lovers of money and because they were lovers of money, they were consequentially indifferent to the poor. The two are always linked. If you love money, you are indifferent to the poor, starving and needy. Such people become so busy living their busy lives that they don’t even notice the poor on their own streets. To live a busy, hectic life takes money, and they were so busy that they didn’t’ see the poor living right next door.

The question was asked: “What are you doing for Lazarus?”

It is interesting to me that the rich man wanted to send somebody back from the dead to speak to his brothers. Send his brothers a miracle and then they will believe. Send his brothers a ghost, a boogyman, and scare my five brothers into believing. Prove to my five brothers that there is eternal damnation and then they will change and shape up. But Father Abraham says “No. They have the Bible. They have the prophets of the Old and New Testament. They have Jesus who was raised from the dead. They have heard the Risen Christ, who while he was human here on earth, tell the story of the rich man and Lazarus. The brothers have the Word of the Lord. That is enough.”

The play continues. Scene One continues. Americans consume far more food and calories than the rest of the world. Six percent of the world’s population consumes fifty percent of the production of goods. Nobody will argue that we Americans are enormously rich compared to the rest of the world and overly consume food and water. Meanwhile we are keenly aware that there is massive starvation among us and around us. Fifteen million people starve to death per year. Twelve million of these are children. Scene One continues. Scene Two is short. Scene Two consists of two words, “they died.” And the curtain rises for Scene Three and you and I are asked only one question:  “What did you do for Lazarus?” Amen.

(Added perspectives that may or not be included I this sermon.) There are other places in the Bible that warn of the danger of being a rich man. Listen to the book of James: “Has not God chosen those who are poor in this world to be rich in their faith and heir of the kingdom that God has promised? Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not the rich who are defaming God’s name? You who are rich: how and weep at the miseries which are going to come upon you. Your riches will rot and your garments will be eaten by moths. Your gold and silver will rust and your lust for money will be held as evidence against you.” In other words, the book of James is hostile against rich people and suggests that rich people, in reality, in spite of their protests, love money and what it can buy more than God.  … Another book, not in our Bible, but is in many ancient Biblical manuscripts, is the book called, THE SHEPHERD OF HERMAS. It says, “For just as the round stone cannot be square unless something be cut off and taken from it, so too those who have riches in this world will not be useful to the Lord unless their wealth is cut away from them.”  I will repeat the image: a round stone cannot become square unless something be cut off and taken from it, so this same principle is true for those who are rich:  a Christian will not be useful to the Lord unless their wealth is taken away from them. So both the book of James and the Shepherd of Hermas reveal attitudes that are hostile to Christians being wealthy.)

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