Lazarus and the Titanic
Luke 16:19-25 (King James Version) There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: 20And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, 21And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.
22And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; 23And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. 24And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. 25But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.
The parable might not have been necessary, if God’s people had done what the Word says. Commentator Warren Wiersbe feels there would have been little poverty in Israel, if God’s people had followed God’s instructions about the Sabbatical Year and the Year of Jubilee.1 During the Sabbatical year, land was not to be farmed. The volunteer crops that grew were to be harvested by the poor.2 The Year of Jubilee did more than that. Generally, property was to revert to its original owners, debts were to be canceled and those who were slaves because of debt were to be freed.3 The Year of Jubilee was almost like a small businessmen’s charter of rights, guaranteeing he would not always owe his soul to the banks.
Protecting the poor was not just a theme of the Mosaic books. Old Testament prophets spoke out against those who became wealthy by exploiting the poor and the widows.4
The story of the rich man and Lazarus needs to be considered from two very different perspectives. First, we need to look at the literal meaning of the text. Then we need to look at the spiritual meanings of the text.
The rich man is not named, but Lazarus is named. No other character in one of Jesus’ parables is named.5 Even when it does not appear God remembers the names of God’s people, the Creator does remember who the Lord’s people are. They are written where they cannot be overlooked, on the palms of the Eternal’s hands (Isaiah 49:16).
In one of the oldest manuscripts, however, the rich man’s name is an abbreviation of Nineveh.6 Since the name Nineveh only appears in one manuscript, we should not make too much of that. But the choice of that name is interesting. You see, Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. The Assyrians flaunted their power and were very cruel.7 Perhaps, there is a comparison between flaunting power and flaunting wealth, between physical cruelty and ignoring the needs of the sick and destitute. The Assyrians were Israel’s most dreaded enemy.8 One could wonder if that manuscript carries the message that rich, selfish people are serious enemies of God’s people.
Dogs were not well regarded in ancient Israel. Generally, dogs were despised. Street dogs were not clean and were especially unpleasant.9 In this story, the dogs pay more attention to Lazarus than the rich man. In short, they are better neighbors than the rich man.
The rich man may have felt he was doing enough for Lazarus. After all, he let Lazarus stay at his gate. Simply tolerating those who are poor or powerless is not good enough. Tolerating people is not showing them love and acceptance. The rich man’s sin was not his wealth. His sin was not respond to Lazarus’ need.10 Some church people take the same approach. They tolerate the poor, the needy, the oppressed, visibility minority members, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans-identified people. But tolerate is all they do. They are not mean. But they do not include, appreciate, affirm, prize, or cherish people who are different than they are. When we tolerate people in our churches who need to be affirmed, prized, and cherished, we’ve missed the mark.
When the beggar died, he was given a place of great honor, with Abraham. The Talmud says Abraham’s side is the home of the righteous.11 The rich man did not go to paradise. From his place of torment, he begs for help. This story seems to imply that how we treat the destitute, the sick, and the weak members of society may influence our next life. Failing to show love and mercy may lead to loss in the next life.12
The rich man and Lazarus illustrates a reversal of situations.13 Through the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus illustrates His teaching in the sermon on the plain in Luke chapter 6.14 The rich man has comfort in this life. In the next life, he is shown in agony and is not able to receive comfort. “The rich man becomes the beggar, while the beggar is now the rich man.”15 The high society man becomes an outcast; the outcast high society. The Messiah is in the business of making outcasts into high society - royalty, the children of the King. Christ is still doing that. Many of you are living testimonies to the fact that God is making the queer outcasts of society into royalty.
The story of the rich man and Lazarus may have shocked people.16 Many people thought wealth proved your righteousness. The Pharisees seemed to believe that.17 A poor person, who does not seem to have the Lord’s favor receives rewards and the rich man who appeared to have God’s blessings is punished.18
Lazarus means God helps.19 Luke’s audience may have seen the irony in the story. To them, it might have been funny - a poor person, a person who does not have God’s blessings is named God helps. They might have been thinking, “Ya right! Good one Jesus! Tell us another joke!”
We are not sure why Jesus told this story. Certainly, His story was consistent with the Old Testament prophets. The parable may have been meant to comfort the poor and vulnerable members of society. But it’s main intent may have been to challenge20 and warn the rich. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man warns of the danger of not showing charity.21 What were the rich man’s sins? Not abuse. No record that he got rich from bad business deals, from fraud.22 Not a word about him violating the law, violating the Sabbath, or not attending synagogue. No crimes were committed by the wealthy man other than being rich, finely clothed, well fed, and stingy.23 In this story, the rich man is only indifferent to Lazarus’ needs,24 even though Lazarus lived at the rich man’s gate. Just refraining from hurting the poor is not adequate. We are to give them relief.25
I was thinking about this sermon as I was out for a walk. A beggar asked me for change. And I did not help him. He was not given food or change. Somehow, Jesus’ message in the story of the rich man and Lazarus needs to touch my heart.
This story reminds us of our responsibility to help those who are poor or powerless. If we look closer, we see a spiritual application too.
We are spiritually wealthy. Each week we are able to meet in a beautiful church building. There is freedom to express our beliefs in Bible study groups. The choir may perform musical numbers that leave us breathless. We sing some fun songs, some serious songs, some worship songs. And then we hear a sermon.
Our church family may feel more like true family than our real family. You see, the blood of Messiah is a stronger bond than the bond between blood relatives.
Our time at church may have plenty of enjoyable socializing. We may feel we are well fed and happy. Indeed, we may think we are so well fed that we feel no hunger for God. We leave church feeling contented and full. As we walk out of church, right at the front of the church are those who are spiritually hungry, those who are spiritually sick. And many times we ignore them. We walk past, not even noticing they are there.
Somehow, we forget the people outside our church, those who are not Christians. They are hungry for just the scraps from our table. And our churches have room for the spiritually poor.
Perhaps, the movie Titanic can shed some light on why our churches are so empty. The Titanic hit an iceberg. In one scene people are boarding the lifeboats. Rose’s mother asks, “Can the lifeboats be seated according to class?”
Rose responds, “Shut up! Don’t you understand? There aren’t enough lifeboats, not by half. Half the people on this ship are going to die.”
Her finance replies, “Not the better half.”
Not the better half. What an attitude! The better half will live. The attitude is common in churches. And it is why many churches are not full.
Some people seem to forget they do not deserve God’s love or salvation. As a result, they treat people outside the church walls as second class citizens. There is no point in making them feel welcome in church. They deserve their fate, let them drown.
Look around. Think of the churches you know. How full are they? Churches that can seat 100 might see 30 people for a lot of their services. Worse yet, churches that can seat over 1,000 with a weekly attendance under 200. And I am convinced churches are only as big as the members really want them to be.
Why are so many people outside of the lifeboats of society, the church? How come many people are in the freezing waters of our earth, when many churches have so many empty pews?
You may have seen a church like it. A gigantic, historic church, in a prestigious neighborhood. A marble entry, that looks like you could skate across it. The sanctuary’s stained glass windows tell the history of the world from creation, to Calvary, to the resurrection. Oak moldings. Carved oak pews. A u-shaped balcony that runs the full length of the sanctuary.
The parking lot looks like an import car dealer’s lot. You could find plenty of Jags, BMWs, Mercedes, Porches, Acuras, and Bentleys. The poor people drive Lincolns and Caddys.
A little old lady lived on the wrong side of the tracks, at least on the wrong side of the tracks for that church. The pastor as not eager to have her in church. After all, she looked a little seedy. She wore faded, out-of-style clothes. Her grey hair was rarely neatly combed.
She called the pastor for the fifth time to discuss membership. He put her off again. He said, “ . . . go home tonight . . . talk with God about it. Later you can tell me what He said.”
Months later, the pastor ran into the lady. She was scrubbing the floors in an office building. He felt compelled to ask, “Did you have your little talk with God, Mrs. Washington?”
“Oh, my, yes,” she replied, “I talked with God, as you said . . . God said for me not to get discouraged, but to keep trying. He said that He Himself had been trying to get into your church for 20 years, with no more success that I have had.”26
But class snobbery in churches is not limited to social classes. There is theological and denominational snobbery too. And people with different theological beliefs might not be any more welcome than a person from the wrong side of the tracks. Unfortunately, some people are more interested in making sure the people in church are true denominational people than they are in helping people become Christians.
Many times we are so intent on making people good denominational robots that we do not meet their true spiritual needs. We concentrate on making them dipping Baptists, Eucharistic Lutherans, prayerbook Anglicans, praising Pentecostals, or predestining Presbyterians. And if somebody does not fit our doctrinal priorities, we subtly reject them.
A moving scene in the movie Titanic takes place in the lifeboat Molly Brown is in. She makes a passionate plea to rescue people from the icy ocean. Molly pleads, “Come on girls. Grab an oar. Lets go.”
A man on board responds, “Are you out of your mind? We are in the middle of the North Atlantic. Now do you people want to live or do you want to die?”
Molly’s plea becomes more powerful. She appeals to the ladies to save their husbands. “I don’t understand anyone of you. What’s the matter with ya. It’s your men out there. There’s plenty of room for more.”
A man on the lifeboat responds, “And there will be one less on this boat, if you don’t shut that hole in your face.”
Some people who want to preserve denominational heritage may attack the very people who are committed to saving people from the freezing waters of the spiritual ocean around the church. Those who are extending hands to the masses in the freezing spiritual waters may feel pressured to stop inviting people to church.
When we are tempted to put the purity of our denomination above reaching out to those who need our assistance, we need to remember the words of Molly Brown. “It’s our men out there. There’s plenty of room for more.” Those people outside the church are our family, our friends, our neighbors, our peers, our colleagues. They are our people and they belong in church.
Toward the end of the movie Titanic, the aged Rose remembers, “Fifteen hundred people went into the sea when the Titanic sank under us. There were twenty boats floating near by, and only one came back . . . One. Six people saved from the water, myself included. Six out of fifteen hundred. Afterward, the seven-hundred people in the boats had nothing to do but wait . . . wait to die . . . wait to live . . . wait for an absolution . . .”
The challenge from the Titanic movie is to be that one boat. Be a person in your church, in your home, in your school, in your work place who will go out and search the freezing icy spiritual waters. Have the courage to stand for what is important, for bringing people into the church of Jesus Christ, for feeding the spiritually hungry, for bringing joy into the lives of those who cry.