In today’s parable, Jesus takes a folk tale known in his day and turns it into a narrative masterpiece. The story depicts someone who is, in the words of our Old Testament reading, “at ease in Zion.” He’s been privileged and complacent his whole life and Jesus shows us what that choice leads to. The rich man, whom legend names “Dives,” (that just means rich) tends to his own wants while ignoring the world beyond him – and especially his neighbor Lazarus, who is poor and sick. Now we’re not told that he did anything specific wrong, mind you – he might have been an upstanding citizen – Jesus just lets it be understood that Dives failed to let others into his heart.
Well, as we know, death comes to all. It comes to Lazarus first, and Jesus touchingly describes God sending angels who carried him right to the side of the great patriarch Abraham. And then he lets this blunt sentence drop by way of contrast: “The rich man also died and was buried.”
In case we don’t get the hint that Lazarus, though outcast, lived a life pleasing to God, whereas our comfortable homeowner did not, Jesus clarifies the story by placing Dives in what he calls Hades: that’s actually a word from Greek mythology, one of several terms the Bible uses as images of the state of the dead who have chosen against God. Dives in Hades can see Lazarus in paradise and cries out to Abraham, “have mercy on me.” He who used to ignore beggars has started begging himself -- because in God’s way, as Jesus said, the first shall be last and the last shall be first.
It’s a total role reversal, but the amazing thing is that it hasn’t taught Dives anything. He hasn’t changed. Not only does Dives not apologize for ignoring Lazarus in life, he demonstrates that his main concern is still his own comfort – or in this case, the lack of it. And Lazarus, at Abraham’s side, still looks to Dives like an inferior, someone who could be called upon to run an errand.
In keeping with what Dives still thinks of as his stature, he addresses that call not to the former outcast Lazarus, but to the patriarch Abraham. “It’s hot down here, have Lazarus get me some water.” And when Abraham says that’s impossible, he replies, “Well, then send him over to my father’s house.” He remains centered in death just where he was in life -- on his own wants. Remember Abraham saying that a “great chasm that has been fixed between you and us”? That attitude is what fixed it. The great chasm between Lazarus and Dives in this tale isn’t one of physical distance – they could talk and see across it. What separates them irretrievably is spiritual distance, and that’s something people create for themselves every time they refuse to be open to love.
Even the message Dives wants to send his brothers expresses that refusal. He has realized that if his brothers continue as they are, they will surely end up where he is, in misery. But he doesn’t want to make sure they learn there is a place of eternal joy and comfort in God’s presence; he wants them to hear about torment so they can fear it. Dives has destroyed his own sensitivity to the joy of God, and can see only the isolation he’s made. Abraham points out that the brothers have already been given all the warning and promise they need to make the right choices. They have the Bible, a love letter from God through Moses and the prophets that is so rich and full you could spend twenty lifetimes plumbing its depths. But Dives essentially says, “Oh, who reads that old thing? I said, send Lazarus. If someone comes to them from the dead, that’ll be enough to convince them.”
And here is the brilliant climax to Jesus’ story. “If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets,” says Abraham, “neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” The not double, but TRIPLE meaning of this line is heart-stopping. Yes, it refers to the parable’s fictional character Lazarus. But there was also a real, human Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, whom Jesus actually had raised up from his grave. Many of those standing there listening to this story probably knew him personally. Had that been enough to convince them all? It had not.
And aside from Lazarus’ temporary resuscitation, there is a third meaning, the resurrection of Jesus himself on Easter day into an unending life. “Neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” And that’s where he turns the spotlight off these Biblical characters and takes aim at us. Christ is risen. Someone has come to us from the dead. Is it enough for you?
The fact is that if someone really wants to say yes to themselves and no to God, nothing will be enough. When people choose over and over to live for themselves, they can’t help but deaden their spiritual perception, or in Bible terms, “harden their hearts.” God works 24 hours a day trying to break through to them. He puts himself out, goes to ridiculous lengths. Is it any wonder he laments in the book of Isaiah, “What more was there to do that I have not done?” He gives people the Word of God, and some call it fiction or oppressive. He gives us miracles, and some call them coincidence. He even gives us the resurrection we ask for, and some call it an old wives’ tale.
God loved Dives and reached out to him over and over until the moment he took his last breath, just as he does with every one of us. But the man just kept on choosing his own convenience, settling deeper and deeper into himself. The suffering of others was just part of the landscape, and letting himself become vulnerable to them, or to the awesome love of God, never made it onto his radar.
Yeah, it was a comfortable upstanding happy life, but it proclaimed over and over an unrepentant no to everything that is really important.
Dives walked that path, and he stayed on it his whole life, and he found himself still on it after death. Separated from poor Lazarus by a great gulf, just as he had always been, and only barely able to wake up to the fact that the gulf that separated him from his fellow man separated him from God too. You and I are all choosing every day whether to dig that gulf deeper, or bridge it. The chasm that Jesus pictures for us today doesn’t suddenly, arbitrarily appear after death as some kind of random heavenly punishment, or surprising out of left field reward. Of course salvation is about saying yes or no to Jesus, but that decision is worked out day by day as we say yes or no to many smaller things.
As we choose whether to splurge on that really great looking set of patio furniture Instagram showed us, or give that same amount to charity instead. Whether to kill an evening binge-watching another Netflix series, or spend it praying over the Gospel of John. Whether to go cheer at the kids’ football game, or down a couple vodka martinis alone. Whether to keep your Baptismal vows, or pragmatically live a whole different set of values.
Those are the little daily decisions that establish our path in life. Those are the choices that express the opening, or closing, of a heart. It isn’t like right after we die, out of nowhere, someone is going to say to us, “so, would you prefer column A angelic bliss, or column B lake of fire?” Who on earth would have trouble making up their mind if you put it that way?
No, the choice is the same all along, always has been, always will be: yes to Jesus’ life in us this time, or no. And we’re already making that choice over and over every day, until the moment when it turns out to have been made for good.