Luke 16:19-31 “Even If Someone Rises from the Dead!”
I was at the beach one day and struck up a conversation with a man. He had two children who were going out into the water with him. They were a little close to a rip, so I mentioned that they might want to move over to the right a little, so they would not be sucked out. The conversation went on from there. I asked him where he worked. He said he worked at Amazon. I asked him if he liked it. He said he did.
Fast forward to the evening dinner hour. My wife always asks about the people I bother wherever I go. I do tend to talk to strangers a lot. Well, anyway, I mentioned this man on the beach who worked for Amazon, had two kids and the like. Just then, my daughter Kim whipped out her cell phone, punched a few keys, and then showed me a picture on the screen. I looked at it. She asked me, “Is that the guy?” I looked at it and affirmed that it did seem to be the man I spoke with on the beach.
My daughter rolled her eyes a little at me. “That man is Jeff Bezos. He owns Amazon!” I checked recently to find out that he is worth $162 billion. Just the same he still just hangs out in board shorts with his kids at the beach on Kauai! And, you never know whom you are going to meet at the beach.
I mention all this because our scripture starts with a man who wanted to make sure that everyone knew that he was the rich guy. He is not hanging around in board shorts in public. He sits in a great house wearing royal colors (although Jesus refrains from saying that he is actually royalty). He is the kind of a guy who wants to rub our noses in his good fortune. In the first mention of him we already do not like him.
Funny thing, we never even learn his name, that is because he is not important, likes he thinks he is. The important one in this story is Lazarus, whose name we learn right off.
The other thing that we might not quite get right away when we read this is the point that Jesus makes that this rich man is feasting everyday. We just are not fixed to the Jewish calendar year as the people who first heard this told by Luke were. You see, in the Jewish year there are two major days of fasting, and four minor ones. This man is said to be feasting everyday! Jesus is implying that he is feasting on Yom Kippur (The day of atonement) when he should be fasting. This makes him a non-observant Jew. He has already forsaken his own faith. He is only concerned with his continuous feasting. (As a side note, there are five major feasts in the Jewish year, too.)
Lazarus is at this man’s gate. Why? We seem to think he is there because he hopes to get a few scraps from the table. Why not go to another man’s house? Perhaps he could go to a man’s house that was more observant of the Jewish faith. You see, in Judaism one is mandated to help feed the hungry. The Talmud even proscribes that every Jewish community set up a special fund to help feed the needy. Isaiah 58:6-7 “Is not this the fast that I choose to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into you house . . . ?” To participate in the religious fast in the Jewish tradition means to invite the hungry to eat what you would otherwise consume yourself!
No, Lazarus is there for another reason. We see that later in the scripture that the rich man calls out from hell for his Lazarus to serve him a bit of water. Lazarus must have been a servant to this man! We see that there was a relationship between the two. Yet, when Lazarus became ill with sores all over his body, he was kicked out of the rich man’s house. That is why he is there. The dogs are licking his wounds, which is more than his own old master would do to heal him. That is Jesus saying that the rich man is lower than a dog!
The story continues with both men suddenly dying. End of story, right? This is the wonder of Christianity, isn’t it! Without the faith, the story would end right there. Thank you, Jesus, the story continues on! That is the good news that Jesus came from heaven to share with us. I mean, this scripture is a great social justice scripture about the need to feed those in need. Yet, right in the middle of this social justice story is the very promise of life eternal with God. Isn’t that amazing how those two ideas fit together! Because we have faith in the life everlasting, we have got to get this life here on this planet to be righteous and good—because we never know when our time is up.
So, this other thing about Christianity is that we get to see dead people. . . .just like that movie “I see dead people.” I still wonder about those days when Jesus appeared back to his disciples--especially to the women at the tomb on Easter morning. How would it have been to see Jesus alive again!?
Let me share with you what happened one day when I appeared to my family after being dead—well, so to speak. In the year 1981, I took the train from the Mexican border with California all the way down to Mexico City. I had been living in Germany before that, and I was maybe naïve to believe that the train to Mexico City would be a similar experience to the European trains.
I bought a first class ticket, which meant that I had a padded bench seat in a wooden carriage that did not even have glass in the windows. The Pemex diesel smoke wafted through the windows all the way. That meant that although I might be the only “gabacho” (white guy) on the train, nobody could tell because I was covered with soot like everyone else.
Somewhere around the town of Tequila (that is a real place where the agave cactus comes from for making the drink), two men jumped on the slow-moving train carrying long rifles. I assumed that I was about to be robbed, taken hostage, or killed outright. No. As I heard from the nice family of Peruvians who were seated across from me, these men were the Federales, the national police force that were on board now because THE TRAIN BEFORE OURS had been robbed. I really did not feel any better at that point! (As an aside, a town south of Mexico City reported an amazing 526 train robberies last year.)
Well, I thought I was dead, but I was not. I made it to Mexico City, stopping first in Guadalajara. But, then when I was there, I learned that the Sonora-Baja Railway went on strike, so that I could not take the train home. Later I learned that the reason the workers went on strike was that the train behind mine had jumped the rails on a bridge, landing in a ravine, and killing most people on board. Yet, I was still alive.
I decided that I would fly home to Los Angeles and called my parents to let them know that I was safe and would take the safer option back home. After visiting museums and climbing pyramids, I got out to the airport and boarded the flight on Mexicana de Aviation airways. We took off. Not long thereafter, about twenty minutes only, the prerecorded announcement came over the loudspeakers “Please prepare for landing at Los Angeles International Airport.” Impossible.
The hydraulics on the plane had gone out. We were making an emergency landing in Guadalajara, at night, at a closed airport, without radar, in the middle of torrential rainstorm. Again, I am here to tell this story! Everyone onboard survived, but the plane was too damaged, and they had to bring in another aircraft to take us to LA. Some people were in fact hospitalized and would not continue at that time. It took the airlines two days to bring in another jet. We lived at the airport in Guadalajara for that time.
My mother and father had driven out to Los Angeles airport to pick me up. All they got from the airlines was that the plane had crash landed. They left their phone number to be called when more was known. They never got called about anything. I was not able to call them from Guadalara as the lines on the phones were always too long. Finally, I made it back to LA. I got a ride from another passenger on that flight who lived close to our home in La Habra. So, I simply walk in the door. I was met with surprise, anger, disbelief, and tears of joy. My mother said: “We thought you were dead.” My mother had already prepared her heart for that. What a shock to see me alive, standing before her.
“Therefore, but by the grace of God go I.” These words were uttered by the evangelical preacher William Bradford in 1555. For some reason we always stop the full quote from him. He was burned at the stake as being an apostate of the official church. The second part of the saying is, ”We shall dine with the Lord tonight.”
Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus is a shrewd affirmation hidden in a social justice message that we will all see each other in the after life! This stuff we call life does not end here. The real question is will we be like the rich man looking up at his servant who is up in heaven as we languish in hell?
The rich man begs God to send Lazarus back to warn my family of this. Let someone who has experienced the grace of God to tell this story. How many times I should have died in my own life? It is a litany of stories I could tell all day. But for the grace of God am I, are WE, here today. Do you have the faith to accept this grace? Then, we shall feast with the Lord together one day.
Reach out to those in need. Feed the hungry. Help the sick. This is also the grace of God. One day we shall all sit at the feast together then. Jesus has gone before to prepare that feast for us. He is risen from the dead. Hear what he has to say.