The Rich Man and Lazarus — Chris Bowhay

Preached June 10, 2012 at St. Thomas’ Church, Houston

“There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen […] and there was a certain beggar named Lazarus (Luke 16:19).

I have preached about today’s parable for twenty years, and for the past twenty years I have gotten it exactly wrong. You remember the story that Jesus tells: Once upon a time there was a very wealthy man who dressed in the finest clothes and ate lavish meals every day. Just outside the gate that led to the rich man’s mansion, there was a man named Lazarus who had absolutely nothing. He begged for the table scraps that fell on the floor from the rich man’s feasts. It is highly likely that Lazarus was so poor that he was unable to buy clothing—he was naked. Furthermore, he was so weakened with hunger that he lay immobile, unable to push away the street dogs that licked the sores on his exposed body. One day, both men die. Whereas angels carry Lazarus to be embraced by the patriarch Abraham in God’s paradise, the rich man finds himself in hell. The rich man and Abraham have a conversation, at the end of which the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them of the infernal fate that threatens them. Abraham refuses, and tells the rich man that if his brothers cannot hear the message taught by Moses and the prophets, even the appearance of one who rose from the dead will not be enough to change them.

For the past twenty years, when discussing this parable, I have preached variations on one message: if we want to experience Paradise, we must change the way we treat people like Lazarus. If you are like me, you might have interpreted this parable the same way. This message is exactly wrong. The rich man was condemned not because he failed to feed the hungry and to clothe the naked; the rich man found himself in hell because he never realized that he was as impoverished as Lazarus was. He believed that he had everything he needed; therefore, he never realized that he needed God. His primary problem was not his luxurious lifestyle; his primary problem was his ego—his self-reliant self-image that prevented him from acknowledging his total dependency on God. Those who do not enter the Kingdom of Heaven are those who are too full of themselves to receive it. Lazarus enters the Kingdom of God because he knows he has nothing, he is nothing, and he can do nothing without God. The Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus preached comes only to those who turn to God like a little child who runs to his Father. Jesus said, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Mark 2:17).” The Kingdom of God is for everyone, but it cannot be experienced by those who believe in their self-sufficiency. Only those who know that they are empty, broken, and helpless without God discover His Kingdom and enter it.

Our salvation—our entrance into and participation in the Kingdom of God in this life and the next—is not determined by how we treat people who are in need; it is determined by our admission of our total need for God, by our acceptance of His total love for us, and by our reception of His gift of eternal life through the death and Resurrection of Christ. This is not to say that we can forget the poor: Scripture tells us that we need to give of our time and treasure to those in need. But these actions are not a ticket we buy to gain access to heaven; they are natural consequences of people who recognize that everything they have comes from God, and find themselves wanting to give out of honest and humble gratitude. If the rich man had given help to Lazarus from a deluded desire to enter heaven through his own actions, he still would have found himself outside God’s Kingdom. We cannot do anything on our own to force our way into the Kingdom of God, whether through acts of charity or through intentional efforts to make ourselves more virtuous, to make ourselves more righteous, or to make ourselves happier. These self-reliant efforts are the very things that prevent us from receiving the salvation that God offers us as a free gift. Before we can enter the life that God prepares for us, our ego-driven selves must die. Before we can discover the truth about God’s love for us, we must be disillusioned of our self-reliance. Before we can receive the fullness of God, we must be emptied.

William “Dub” Brooks is a friend of mine who is an Episcopal priest in Houston; in fact, he attended our school in its early years. In 2005, after twenty-six years of service to parishes and schools in the Diocese of Texas, he moved to New Orleans to serve as Head of St. Paul’s Episcopal School. He and his wife furnished a beautiful home with a lifetime of accumulated treasures; he was particularly proud of his library, which had over 5,000 books, many of which were first-edition antiques. Within a few weeks of their completed move, an unwanted guest arrived: Hurricane Katrina. Like so many, Dub and his wife were taken by complete surprise; they barely escaped the city on the very day that levees broke. Many of their new neighbors died in their attics, unable to escape the rising floods. Three weeks later, when it was considered safe for some residents to briefly return, Dub travelled by boat through the still-flooded streets to his home, accompanied by a reporter from the Times-Picayune and, oddly, a Buddhist monk who was with the reporter. All he could see above the water was a narrow crest of his roof. At one end of that narrow strip of roof sat a cat—meyowling and hissing—that had somehow survived and swum to safety. Compelled by some inexplicable motive, perhaps out of association with the cat, Dub insisted that the reporter bring the boat closer so that he could try to rescue the animal. He carefully climbed onto the crumbling wreckage of his former home, trying not to lose his balance, and when he reached out to the cat, it immediately bit and tore open his hand before leaping into the water to swim away. Reeling in pain and dripping blood, Dub swayed; the roof began to collapse; and he plunged into the murky floods that still surged with human waste and human remains. Reeking from his baptism in Katrina’s river of death, thoroughly defeated, Dub struggled back into the boat where he completely broke down in massive sobs, overwhelmed by the totality of his loss. At that moment, the Buddhist monk reached into his small satchel and took out a bowl—a small, simple ceramic container with which he collected alms for his daily bread. The monk walked over to Dub, handed him his begging bowl, and said, “Here. You now have even less than I do.” And then they left.

Dub gave me permission to tell this story. He told me that since that day God has completely rebuilt his life in a way that is incomparably deeper and richer than before—not in material things, which are gone forever, but in spiritual and emotional ways that only those who pass through death and emerge on the other side can understand. He told me that he keeps that empty begging bowl on his desk to remind himself of the power that comes from God through emptiness: the emptiness through which our egos are crushed but our souls are made new, the emptiness that precedes transformation and makes room for the fullness of God, the emptiness of the Empty Tomb from which came new and eternal life with the Resurrected Christ.

The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is not a prescription for what we need to do for the needy. This parable is a description of us, who need God. We are all helpless, confused, wounded sinners who need God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love. Every person in this congregation knows some experience of emptiness—a dissatisfactory career, a damaged relationship, a disappointed ideal, a despair over a chronic self-destructive habit, a death of a loved one. You may be going through this experience of emptiness right now, and the pain you feel is so great that you may wonder how you will ever survive. The Good News of the Kingdom of God is that through God’s grace, a part of you will not survive. In our agonizing times of emptiness, our self-reliant egos—which are literally killing us—are killed off. When God brings you back to life—and He will—you will find the new life that God’s love has prepared for you from before the beginning of time: a life that is honest, real, and suffused with an awareness of God’s presence and love. Our oceans of internal emptiness are fed by the rivers of death through which we are baptized, in which our deluded egos die, and from which we emerge new, whole, and transformed by a deeper trust in God.

The message of today’s Parable is this: We must be stripped naked of our illusions of self-reliance—our purple and fine linen—before God can dress us in His transfiguring glory. Like Lazarus the Beggar, only when know our emptiness, only when we know our need for God do we find room for Him to enter and to lead us to His Paradise.