Rewarded in Heaven? A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 19C
Perhaps you grew up with the adage that the poor, or at least those who have been treated with some degree of oppression, will get their reward in heaven. I suppose that this idea has some roots in this parable from the Gospel of Luke. If you know the parables at all, you've heard this parable. Like others in Luke, the poor are set above the wealthy. Poverty, whether voluntary or not, is more likely a sign of godliness -- or at least of God's preferential treatment. Pope Francis, thankfully, has been giving attention to this vision, reminding us that the Church has a responsibility for the needs of the poor.
For those of us who are Protestant the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man can be a troubling passage. It seems to speak of something of a middle state, or at least a post-mortem reality, where sinner and saint are in close proximity but separated by some sort of barrier. One's position seems determined by how one lived prior to death, perhaps how well one lives in life, and the positions one has in this next dimension seems to up turn that prior to death.
In the parable, a poor man named Lazarus -- not to be confused with John's Lazarus -- dies at the same moment that a rich man. In death their positions are switched -- I'm thinking of the movie Trading Places staring Dan Ackroyd and Eddie Murphy. The rich man is, interestingly enough unnamed, which is surely a sign of turn of fate. It is the wealthy whose names are remembered even in death. Having visited the Cathedrals of England these past two weeks, I've seen plenty of monuments to the important and the wealthy. If you have enough money you can provide yourself with a nice monument along the walls. The poor, on the other hand, are more than likely to end up in unmarked graves. No monuments to be built in the cathedral for them.
As Jesus tells the parable, the Rich Man finds himself in just a bit of agony. In death his situation is opposite that of life. Lazarus, on the other hand, who in life sat near the rich man's table, hoping to scoop up a few crumbs from the Rich Man's table, even as the dogs came licking his sores, making them, one assume, even more offensive, is enjoying the blessings of living in the presence of Father Abraham. The Rich Man is in agony, experiencing unquenchable thirst. He looks across the divide, and notices that Lazarus is enjoying the blessings of sitting in Abraham's bosom. Father Abraham, he pleads, won't you send Lazarus over here to bring water to quench my thirst. Lazarus and the Rich Man have gotten their just rewards, but the Rich Man still perceives Lazarus as his inferior. Send him over and have him tend to me. Have him do for me, what I refused to do for him in life.
Alas, the divide can't be crossed. Lazarus has his place, the Rich Man his. This has to be additional torment for the Rich Man. He can't even depend on the possibility of a servant in his place of agony. If this is true, then perhaps, Abraham could send Lazarus to his friends still living so that they might be forewarned and change their lives. You know, sort of like Jacob Marley goes back to warn Scrooge (though Marley is Scrooge's equal and not his inferior). But again, such is not possible. Indeed, the friends already have Moses and the Prophets. If they don't listen to them, then why should he expect that they will listen to one coming back from the dead.
Moses and the Prophets -- if only they would listen they would understand God's care and concern for the poor. Here is a Word from God. They should know better. Indeed shouldn't we know better? Do we listen to Moses and the Prophets? Or, are we self-selective, choosing those passages that offer comfort to us in our comfortable lifestyles? When we read this do we spiritualize it enough that we land in Abraham's Bosom? Surely, God is gracious to welcome even one such as me in my own affluence, even if I do walk by the beggar on the street (yes, I have the proper rationalization for this). After all, God works by grace. My works don't determine my place. I'm quite aware of the Pauline vision. I embrace it. But, it does seem that Jesus once again is determined to upset my apple cart. So, can we just let things get sorted out in heaven?