God helps

Luke 16:19-31

Poor old Lazarus.  His life on earth may not have been anything to write home about, but it all worked out for him in the end, didn’t it?  What goes around comes around, I guess.  There are two Lazarus-es (or is it Lazari?) in the Bible.  One was the brother of Mary and Martha of Bethany… the one who Jesus raised from the dead in the eleventh chapter of John’s gospel.  The other is the one who was “carried away by the angels to be with Abraham” in today’s gospel story from Luke.  The two are not related, but the name they share is indicative of what they do have in common, which is that they both owe their salvation to God and God alone.  In fact, the name Lazarus is a Hellenized (Greek) version of the Hebrew name Eleazar… “El” meaning God, in combination with the verb “azar,” to help.  God helps.

In last week’s gospel lesson, Rabbi Jesus told the Parable of the Dishonest Manager, whose lust for wealth and security seduced him into betraying his true master.  “You can’t serve God and wealth,” said Jesus (Luke 16:1-13).  Apparently, there were a bunch of Pharisees in the audience… you know, “blind guides” …the ones who never seem practice what they preach, or lift a finger to help the worker-bees… the ones who do everything for show, who like to wear fancy clothes and have everyone kowtow to them in public (cf. Matt 23:2-7). Yeah, those guys.  They kind of bowed-up at what Jesus was saying because they were, well, pretty well off… and they didn’t really want to give up any of their privilege or creature comforts.  I mean, who can blame them, right?  They’d earned it, they’d studied hard… made good decisions… cultivated all of the right relationships.  Who could blame any of us for wanting to live safe, comfortable lives, resting on our laurels a bit and reaping the well-deserved fruits of our labor?  Except that Jesus didn’t let them off the hook: “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God,” he told them (Luke 16:15).  Ouch!  And then he told them the story about “The Rich Man and Lazarus.”

How does that story make you feel?  Lazarus was carried away by angels when he died… while the rich man just got buried.  Interestingly, Lazarus is the only actor in all of the parables that Jesus actually names.  He describes all manner of people and creatures: masters and servants, debtors, laborers, wayward and lost sheep (and goats), fathers and sons, wicked tenants, a prodigal, a good Samaritan, barren fig trees, bridegrooms and virgins and let’s not forget the rich fool, among others.  But only one has a name: Lazarus… God helps.  Rereading the parable, it doesn’t appear that Lazarus has done anything in particular to earn a heavenly reward.  And neither does it seem that the rich man had done anything to merit an eternity in Hades, apart from simply being rich… and well-dressed… and well-fed.  He was just fat-and-happy, living large, feeling that he mostly had it coming to him.  And he apparently had it comin’, alright.  How does that make you feel?  Maybe a little uncomfortable?  [Channeling the late, great Rodney Dangerfield] “Hey, what’s a guy gotta do to get into heaven around here?”  Do we have to be poor? …or starve and neglect our bodies?  There have been monks and ascetics throughout history who thought that was an effective entrée to Paradise, but surely that can’t be the only way.  And how about the rich guy, Fr. K???  How rich and fat and happy does someone have to be in this life to risk an eternity of torment in the next?  What about grace?  I thought you said that God doesn’t punish! 

It’s a fair question.  But remember, it’s not just things done that get us into trouble, but also (and maybe even more-frequently) things left un-done.  Maybe we’re not evil people.  Maybe we’re just a little complacent.  Maybe we get so wrapped up in the day-to-day, we forget we were made for so much more.  We’re put here on this earth to help bring about God’s kingdom.  What does that mean?  I’ll tell you one thing I think it doesn’t mean… and that’s fixing all the problems of the world and making it a perfect place to be.  I’m pretty sure that’s way above our paygrade, and I don’t believe God would ever set us up for that sort of failure and disappointment.  But it’s in the striving… that we find redemption.  It is in seeking to do God’s will that we will be saved.  The kingdom of God begins and ends with love… liberating, life-giving love.  Loving God, loving neighbor, loving each other as Jesus loves us.  And love is an action verb.  I believe that the sin of the rich man was in failing to practice love… when the opportunity was right there in front of him, crying out for his attention.  Things left un-done.  And the chasm between Lazarus and the rich man—between heaven and hell—was not of God.  It was of the rich man’s own making through a lifetime of self-absorption and indifference to love’s imperatives.  And grace?  Could not God have reached across time and space and plucked the rich man from his torment?  Saved him from himself?  What do you think?  Anything is possible for God, after all.

Here’s what I think.  I think most of the time, what we really want is for God to just leave us to our own devices… to let us do whatever we want to do, whenever and however we want to do it… and it’s only after we’ve travelled a “fer piece” down the road to perdition that we console ourselves with expectations of God’s grace and forgiveness.  But I wonder if this sort of wishful thinking is more reflective of the illusion of “cheap grace” than it is the genuine article.  Theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes cheap grace as “grace we bestow on ourselves . . . the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession….  Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”[1]  Maybe the rich man and the Pharisees thought they could get by on that sort of “cheap grace.”  Maybe you and I might deceive ourselves into thinking the same, from time to time.  True grace, however, is God’s arms always being open to us—no matter what. There’s no place we can go, nothing we could ever do or say that can permanently separate us from the love of God, BUT… we have to give in to God.  Grace is a gift freely bestowed, but we must take hold of it by faith and amendment of life (cf. Ephesians 2:8-10).  We must choose to step into that Almighty embrace.  God will never force himself on us.

And in our gospel story today, the rich man just wasn’t ready to give in. He was still focused primarily on himself and his own needs and wants, going so far as to suggest that Lazarus, only newly-arrived in Paradise, be dispatched back to earth to do something he, himself, should have done during his living years.  I like to think the Pearly Gates remained open for the rich man, but he’d not be stepping through them that day.  He had his work cut out for him learning the way of love… and figuring out how to repair the breech he had created between himself and his Maker.

Loving God and our neighbor isn’t always easy.  In fact, learning to love each other just as Jesus loves us will, almost certainly, be the hardest thing we’ll ever do during our time on earth.  But it’s a commandment, and non-negotiable.  It’s why were made, and it’s the key to our salvation. And here’s some good news: we don’t have to figure everything out on our own.  We have an Advocate in the Holy Spirit.  Listen.  Have faith.  Take hold of the promise of grace and salvation made possible through the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Give in to God… step into that Almighty embrace.  And remember: God helps.  He’ll lead you in the way of love and open the gates of Paradise to you if you’ll let him.  Let our fervent prayer be for God to show us how we can make love an action verb more-and-more each day.  And though God may not be as quick to relieve us of the consequences of things done and left un-done as we’d like, let us never forget that he is just beside us every minute of our earthly sojourn… and that he always helps.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 44-45, Kindle.

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