Mercy on trial


Sermon for September 29th, 2019


Amos 6:1a,4-7
Psalm 146
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31


Now we all know that Jesus is a storyteller. Jesus is a teacher, and one of the most important ways he teaches is by telling stories. We call his stories parables. They are short stories that are meant to make a point or to teach us something.


Well today we get a doozey. In today’s gospel Jesus tell a story about a man in hell.


That’s right.

The same Jesus who said to the woman caught in adultery “neither do I condemn you,”

the same Jesus who said “judge not, let ye be judged,”

the same Jesus who said “in my father’s house there are many mansions,”

the same Jesus who said to the thief on the cross “today you will be with me in paradise,”

the same Jesus who taught us to pray saying “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,”

this same Jesus who teaches us about love, and redemption and the power of forgiveness and who offers us the promise of eternal life and a heavenly kingdom, this Jesus is talking about a man in hell today.


The man Jesus was talking about was a rich man. He had had fine robes, the best food. But all those comforts are gone now. Now he’s in agony. He begs for mercy. He needs help, but help is too far away. He calls out to father Abraham who is way off in the distance, caring for and feeding this poor man that he recognizes as someone that used to sit outside his gate. And he begs Abraham to send this poor man named Lazarus down to help him and show him some mercy. And in Jesus’s story Abraham says, “no, he can’t get to you.” Jesus is telling a story about a man that begs for mercy from a God figure, and a father figure, from Abraham, and doesn’t get it. Now it’s understandable if you are scratching your head and thinking that this isn’t the kind of story you like to hear Jesus telling. We don’t like to think of people suffering and condemned to hell. We don’t like to think of people begging for mercy and coming away empty handed. Surely if we believe in a God of forgiveness and mercy then this story Jesus is telling will make us a little uncomfortable, that is, until we realize that maybe Jesus isn’t telling this story to make us question the mercy of God; maybe he is telling it to make us question our own mercy. It’s not God’s mercy that is on trial in this story, it is our own.


And then you get more uncomfortable. Because you start to wonder about all the times you had the opportunity to show someone mercy and failed. Don’t think it doesn’t happen every day, to all of us. We have the opportunity to show someone kindness and mercy, and we don’t do it. It makes us uncomfortable. We find ways to avoid it. We make it someone else’s job; someone else’s problem. Or maybe we will say that it is the government’s problem to deal with. How many times in the name of mercy do we put up barriers between ourselves and people that actually need mercy.


You know you have to pay attention when Jesus is telling stories to what details he adds and what details he leaves out.


For instance, in all of Jesus’s parables, in every story he told throughout the gospels, he never gives his characters names. It is always a certain king, a manager, a merchant, a priest, a Pharisee, a widow, a rich man…he always uses generic terms for his characters, except for one time. Right here where he talks about a poor man named Lazarus who is carried away by angels to be with Abraham and to eat at his table. Even the rich man in this story has no name. But the poor man…he has a name. He might not have had much of an identity to the rest of the world; to the rest of the world he might have just been some bum on the corner, but to Jesus he has a name. He is known by God, even if the rest of the world passed him by.


Here’s another little detail that would be easy to miss: All Lazarus wanted was the scraps. He wasn’t looking for wealth or riches or revolution; he wasn’t trying to change the social order, or take the rich man’s robes….he just wanted the extra food that fell from the man’s table. The rich man couldn’t say that he didn’t have the ability to help this man. The help that this man needed was laying on his floor amongst his trash. If the rich man had treated Lazarus half as well as he treated his own dogs it would have been something. Even the neighborhood dogs had more compassion. The problem was not the rich man’s ability.


So what was his problem? Was he never told about the importance of recognizing the humanity of others? Had he never heard of the mercy of God? Was God’s will that we should care about what happens to others never made clear to him? No, it had been. He had heard the warnings of Prophets like Amos. He knew the Psalms that sang of God’s mercy, he knew the law that commanded the love of and care for his neighbor. So what was his problem?


And then, when the rich man cries out for help, why does he think it is Lazarus’s job to come and help him when he couldn’t be bothered to lift a finger to help Lazarus in this world. Why does he think, even in the bowels of hell, that Lazarus is supposed to be at his beckj and call to serve him and his family? Why does he expect more compassion than he shows?


Or maybe that’s the problem. This man is expecting more compassion than he is showing. Just like we expect more forgiveness from God than we are willing to show, despite the fact that we are always praying for God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Well maybe we are getting our wish. Maybe God is forgiving us, exactly the way that we are forgiving others. Just like the rich man is getting just as much mercy as he was willing to show.


Now mind you, I don’t think that we actually do get what we deserve in life. I am sure that God’s mercy and forgiveness are infinitely greater than ours, but then I have to remember that this parable isn’t about God’s mercy, it is about ours.


One more little detail that Jesus leaves out: Abraham says to the rich man that there is this huge chasm that is fixed between Lazarus and you. This huge division has been created and we can’t get to you and you can’t get to us. Jesus in his story says that a chasm has been fixed between the rich man and Lazarus, and this chasm is the reason why the rich man suffers, but what Jesus doesn’t say…is who put it there.


I’m willing to bet that it wasn’t God.