Luke 16:19-31: Attention, Compassion, Justice

March 14, 2021
Joanna Harader

*You can view video of a preached version of this sermon on YouTube.

The other morning Ryan was telling me about Trump’s house in upstate New York—a house he hasn’t even visited for several years. According to the all-knowing internet, this house has 60 rooms, three swimming pools, and a bowling alley.

Then I remembered a piece I heard on the radio about a $1000 sundae. It includes Madagascar vanilla beans, truffles, caviar, and, of course, gold leaf. Plus you get to keep the crystal dish it’s served in.

Of course, Trump’s 28,000 square foot mansion has nothing on the 400,000 square foot, 27-story home called Atilla in Mumbai, India. It’s valued at $1 billion; it has a 168-car garage, three helipads, a “health level,” and a home theater that seats 50 people.

And those poor schlubs eating their $1000 sundaes are missing out on the $14,500 “Stilt Fisherman Indulgence” dessert which is Italian cassata with Irish cream in a champagne base and hand crafted chocolate stilt fisherman—adorned, of course, with an 80 carat aquamarine stone.

Jesus says that the rich man “feasted sumptuously every day.”

I’m not sure if these were $1000 sundae feasts or $14,000 Italian cassata feasts, but it is clear that the rich man in this story is extremely wealthy. In addition to feasting daily, he also wears purple. In biblical times, this rare purple dye was derived from the bodies of certain snails and could be more expensive than gold.

As this man is feasting in his purple clothes, a starving man clothed in sores lays at the gate of his estate.

We know, of course, that the world is not all mansions with indoor pools and thousand-dollar desserts.

Over 600 different people used the Lawrence emergency winter shelter these last few months. And I have heard of three people in our community who died due to lack of shelter during the most bitter nights. I recently heard a pastor talk about how some of the unhoused members of his congregation know the schedules for when different restaurants throw out food each day. One gentleman eats Little Caesar’s pizza from the trash a couple of times a week. And, of course, there are restaurants that guard dumpsters or ruin their unused food to make sure nobody can eat the food they throw out.

This story Jesus tells brings these two extreme worlds together—the super-rich and the abject poor. Within the first three verses of the parable, we are challenged to consider this wealth disparity—this chasm.

In thinking about the uninhabited Trump mansion and the 168-car garage and thousand plus dollar desserts, I was reminded of an experience I had years ago. Ryan and I, as grad students, had been talking about his parents’ wealth—because they had significantly more money than we did. Then we went with his parents to his aunt and uncle’s house and the conversation after that visit included talk of how much money Ryan’s aunt and uncle had—definitely more than his parents. And I realized that almost everyone in the world has this conversation. No matter how wealthy you are, someone has more money, a bigger house, fancier food to eat.

So, while it’s true that the rich man in this parable is very very rich, I think we miss the point if we read this story as only applying to the wealthy elite.

This parable holds a message for all of us who have shelter while others do not. For those of us who have food while others do not. For those of us who are well cared for while others lack the most basic health care.

In his sermon on this parable, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. asks: What, then, were the sins that lead to Dives’ damnation?

(Dives is the name traditionally given to the rich man—though it seems significant to me that Jesus doesn’t give him a name.)

King says,

First, Dives’ over absorption in self prevented him from seeing others. . . . He passed Lazarus every day, but he never really saw him. . . .

Secondly, Dives was condemned because his selfishness caused him to lose the capacity to sympathize. There is nothing more tragic than to find a person who can look at the anguishing and deplorable circumstances of fellow human beings and not be moved. Dives’ wealth had made him cold and calculating; it had blotted out the warmth of compassion. . . . He saw men hungry and fed them not; he saw men sick and visited them not; he saw men naked and clothed them not. . . .

Finally, Dives’ greatest sin was that he accepted the inequalities of circumstance as being the proper conditions of life. . . . There are certain gulfs in life which originate in the accident of circumstance. So in the parable Lazarus was poor, not because he wanted to be, but because tragic circumstances had made him so. On the other hand, Dives was rich because fortunate circumstances had made him so. There is a circumstantial gulf between Lazarus and Dives. Now Dives’ sin was not that he made this gulf between him and Lazarus; . . .The sin of Dives was that he felt that the gulf which existed between him and Lazarus was a proper condition of life. Dives felt that this was the way things were to be.

I love King’s articulation of Dives’ sins, because I think it points us to three important things we need to attend to in our own spirits and in our economic lives: attention, compassion, and justice.

First, we are called to pay attention to the people at our gate. Or holding signs in the parking lot. Or camping along the levy. Or getting food at LINK. To pay attention to all of the people God puts in our path, not just the people like us, the people with whom we feel comfortable.

Second, we are called to compassion. As we pay attention to people, we should open our hearts to compassion for them. And that compassion will lead us to action—to feed the hungry, tend to the sick, visit the lonely. Sometimes, at least for me, I am hesitant to open up to compassion because the problems are so big and I know I can’t help everyone. I don’t know where to start or where or how to stop. Perhaps this parable is a good guide for this dilemma. Just as the rich man is not condemned for his failure to feed all the hungry people, so we don’t bear responsibility for the world. But who are the people at our gate for whom we do bear responsibility?

And finally, there is this question of justice that King articulates. He references Reinhold Niebuhr, saying that the rich man “took the ‘isness’ of circumstantial accidents and transformed them into the ‘oughtness’ of a universal structure.” That the rich man thought he deserved to be rich and Lazarus deserved to be poor. Like US slave owners insisted that Black people deserved to be enslaved and white people deserved to be masters. Like many people agree with Albert Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, that “There’s just something about the order of creation that means that God intends for the preaching voice to be a male voice.” People don’t make the rules that women can’t preach; it’s just how God intends things to be. Like many people today still blame the poor for their poverty, rather than recognizing the ways our economic systems work to keep the rich rich and the poor poor.

But Jesus’ parable contradicts this idea that people deserve their economic circumstance. As we see Lazarus sheltered in the bosom of Abraham while the rich man suffers in flames, it becomes clear that God does not, in fact, favor the, rich man. The situations of the two men on earth were a result of “circumstantial accidents,” not God’s divine intention. And so, in addition to sharing our food and other resources with those in need, I believe this parable also calls us to address the systems that create such disparities between the haves and have nots in the first place.

As I read and contemplate this parable, it feels like the rich man’s final request was granted after all. That, in a sense, Lazarus has come back to warn us about the chasm—and to encourage us to take steps now to alleviate suffering.

I don’t often issue direct challenges in my sermons, but today I do have some “homework” for you in the coming week: choose one of these three areas to attend to in your own life: attention, compassion, or justice. Where is God calling you to focus? What is God calling you to do?

You do not have to do it all. But commit to doing one thing that might help bridge the chasm.