Those of us who live in the First World hear a hard and challenging word today. For some of us, Lazarus is at our door, next door, down the street, across the ocean, living without enough food while those of us whose cupboards are full fix our eyes on other matters. Some of us are Lazarus.
It is commonplace to say that preaching aims to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” and indeed that is the gist of Amos (“alas for those who are at ease in Zion” – 6:1) and of the Lukan Gospel’s story of poor Lazarus and that awful rich man.
The rich man thought only of his immediate family. His imagination did not wander outside of his own property lines, his own line of descent. In this world, he served himself and his own, never looking beyond his privacy fence for someone else who might be in need. And he continued to focus on the family in the next world. He wanted to spare them from a similar fate—that of the powerful Israelites, as described by Amos. Those Israelites feasted like the rich man: in oblivion, without thought of their judgment to come. Unawares, they celebrated their own funeral.
Next to our immediate families, however, stands the family of Abraham. This is how the parable pictures family in the next world. Lazarus was by Abraham's side. The rich man called Abraham “Father” and Abraham called the rich man “Child.” [But the rich man] also wanted something out of him.
. . . Adherents to three religions in the world regard themselves as children of Abraham: Jews, Muslims and Christians. We three, like Lazarus and the rich man, call Abraham “our father.” But do we treat one another as family?
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus uses narrative reversal to challenge the inclination of the comfortable to overlook the poor. This turn-around is implied even in the characters' naming. Like Nemo (Latin for “no one”) in Charles Dickens' Bleak House . . . the disenfranchised and dispossessed are frequently nameless. Loss of identity follows closely upon lack of wealth.
It is then striking that in this parable Jesus names the poor man (Lazar is the rabbinical abbreviation for Eleazar, “God has helped”) but not the rich. As this goes against our social inclination, tradition has found a name for the rich man: Dives (Latin for “rich”). But the sharp challenge of this parable is not so easily blunted. – Fritz West
Amos 6:1a, 4-7
[T]he comfortable and the wealthy in the “first of all nations”. . . fancied themselves secure because of their military prowess. But Judah. . . and Israel. . . were no more secure than cities around them. . . which, though once powerful, yet had fallen (1 Kings 14:25).
Amos captures their self-absorbed oblivion with the image of a marzeath, a ceremonial meal known for centuries throughout the Mediterranean basin. These meals often accompanied funerals and, ironically, this is one: the funeral for the very world they had thought to be secure, for “the ruin of Joseph” (v 6). Instead of feasting in oblivion (like the rich man of the parable), the powerful of Israel would have done better to anticipate the coming exile, when they were the first to suffer. – Fritz West
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Although the focus of this passage is false teaching, it. . . touches upon wealth: the temptation of teachers to acquire wealth and reputation by seeking to please their hearers (6–10). Ironically. . . the unsound teacher sacrifices the true gain that does: peace and contentment with what one has.
. . . Not wishing to imply that a Christian cannot be both pious and rich, the author closes with basic instructions for wealthy Christians (17–19). – Fritz West
We might cheer for Lazarus at last receiving help, and we might smugly note the rich man’s hopeless plight in Hades. But the great majority of us in Zion are caught in the awful truth of our riches. By many measures, we ought to be grieving “over the ruin of Joseph” (Amos 6:6): We contribute more per capita toward global climate change than any other nation. We compete only with the Seychelles (holding many Somali pirates) in having the highest rates of incarceration per capita.
The gospel of God’s love for all creation must strive this day not only to show us our failing as a people but inspire us to live with greater love toward God and for our neighbors. That was Augustine’s goal for preaching. The remedy for our great fortune is the admonition in the letter to Timothy: “take hold of the life that really is life” (1 Tim.6:19).
Fritz West, a liturgical author and retired pastor of the United Church of Christ living in Minnesota, serves as the Presiding Member of the Association for Reformed & Liturgical Worship Steering Committee.
Homily Service 40, no. 10 (2007): 50-58.