At his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus.Luke 16:20
“Whatever happens,” the poet Wendell Berry wrote, “those who have learned to love one another have made their way into the lasting world and will not leave, whatever happens.”
A lot can happen in this life. Unexpected joys. Unwelcome challenges. There are many twists and turns in this life. And it can all get pretty confusing. But whatever happens along the way, our task remains the same: To learn to love. To learn that we are loved. To learn to return that love to our Creator. And to learn to share that love with one another. And whatever else happens in this life, if we have learned this, we have learned to live as God intended.
“We are put on earth a little space,” another poet, William Blake, writes, “That we may learn to bear the beams of love.”
That is why we are here – that we may learn of God’s love for us, but also learn to bear those beams of love, and let them shine all around us.
The Tragedy of the Rich Man
So what does that have to do with today’s scripture readings? That is a fair question. The story that I just read – the parable that Jesus tells us in Luke 16:19-31 – is about a rich man who has failed at this essential task: He has not learned to love his neighbor. His neighbor is a poor man named Lazarus, who lay at the rich man’s gate covered in sores and hungry. And he is ignored by the rich man. Every day, walking by his gate, ignoring this poor man in need. Even though, as we learn later in the story, the rich man knew this poor man’s name. He still failed to love him.
When the rich man in this parable dies, he is buried and sent to Hades. He does not make his way to the lasting world of love and peace. Why? Not because he hoarded his wealth – at least, I don’t believe so – but rather, because he never learned to love his neighbor as himself. He did not learn to bear the beams of love, and so his life was a failure.
He was rich, to be sure. He lived a comfortable, pleasurable life. Dressed in the finest clothes, feasting on the finest foods. The world he lived in would have called him blessed. And in some ways, he was. But not in the only way that matters. At his gate, day after day, lay a poor man, Lazarus, that the rich man didn’t see, or didn’t love, and didn’t help. And so, when the rich man died, he was buried, and found himself being tormented in Hades. But when poor Lazarus died, he was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.
It is a touching story told by Jesus. But why did he tell it? What was he trying to teach those who first heard it, and those of us who heard it today?
God’s Love for Lazarus
When you think about it, the meaning of this story depends very much on who is hearing it. There are, no doubt, countless Christians who are hearing this story today, in churches all around the world, who will hear it differently from us. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ called “the least of these” by Jesus. They are children of God who don’t have enough to eat, or a roof over their head. They don’t have adequate health care. They don’t feel safe in their home, or in their country. They receive evil things in this life, as did Lazarus in this story, simply because of where they were born, or what they look like, or other circumstances that they may have had no control over.
There are many people who will hear this story today and find great comfort in it. They will be reminded, perhaps, that no matter how poor you are, how unloved and unwanted you are, no matter what this life has done to you, you are loved by God. You are wanted by God. And that there will be a day when you, too, will be carried away by the angels to be with Jesus. There are many people today who will hear this story and relate to Lazarus. The only person in any of Jesus’ parables, by the way, who is given a name. And his name, Lazarus, literally means “God has helped.”
Lazarus reminds us that God promises to help the poor, the forgotten, and the overlooked. God knows their names, and loves them, and promises that there will come a day when they will have enough to eat, when their tears will be dried, and their pain taken away, and when they will rest in God’s love forevermore. What a simple, beautiful message this story contains for all those who have been beaten down by life.
Learning to Love Here on Earth
But this story was not told by Jesus just for them. It was also told for us, for people who probably have more in common with the unnamed rich man than with poor Lazarus. And if this story doesn’t make most of us feel a little uncomfortable, then we might be missing something. Because this story serves as a warning to us that if we don’t learn to love our neighbor here, on this earth, we can’t depend on learning it in the next life. The rich man doesn’t learn it after he dies.
It is clear in this story that the rich man, even after death, has not learned to love. When he sees Lazarus with Abraham, he doesn’t show any remorse for how he ignored him in this life. No regret, even then. Even in the next life, the rich man treats Lazarus as he would a servant. And asks Abraham to “send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water” and cool his tongue. He does not even address Lazarus, even in the life to come. But instead he turns to powerful Abraham, because that is how he still sees the world. Convince the man in charge, Abraham, to order poor Lazarus to help him out.
This rich man still hasn’t learned. Not in this life, and not in the next. So the task of learning to love, Jesus seems to be telling us, needs to happen here, and it needs to happen now. And if it doesn’t happen here and now, we can’t count on it happening there and then, in the next life.
Learning to Love
The rich man, to his credit, asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers, to warn them. But what does Abraham say? “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” In other words, they have God’s word. They should know that God wants them, and us, to love our neighbor. This isn’t rocket science. It isn’t secret wisdom. They should know this. We should know this. But sometimes, we do need a reminder. And Jesus tells this wonderful story to remind us. To teach us, to learn to love. Learn to notice those who are in need. And find ways to love them.
Jesus tells this particular story to some Pharisees, who are described as lovers of money, just a few verses before today’s reading (in Lk 16:14). They are people who justify themselves in the sight of others, according to Jesus. The people that Jesus tells this story to, in other words, are people who need to change, and who need, above all, to learn to love their neighbor. So he tells them this story, which must have shocked them, because they believed that those who were rich were more blessed by God, and those who were poor only had what was coming to them. They were wrong about this. So he told them this story to help them see this world with new eyes. And the story continues to help us in this same way.
It continues to remind us that our most important task on this earth is to learn God, and to love one another. And whatever else happens, when we have learned to love one another, we have made our way into the lasting world. That is our task, the purpose of our life: to learn to love God, with all our heart, and learn to love our neighbor as our self.
Church as a School of Love
And, when you think about it, the work of a church community is to teach us this love. It is to teach us of God’s love for us, and of our task to love our neighbor as our self. The church, as the theologian Brian McLaren puts it, “must be above all a school of love.” Marriages and families are also schools of love. But church is unique, because it brings people together from different walks of life, to teach us of God’s love for everyone, and to help us to learn to share that love with others.
All of our ministries revolve around that central task. Whether it is children at JAM, youth going on outings, adults gathering for WELCA, Lutheran Men, or to travel together, or even to play Pickleball together, we are gathering as a church, in Jesus’ name, to learn to love one another. There are a lot of other organizations in our world dedicated to helping the poor, and they are incredibly important. But part of what makes the church unique is that we are learning to love our neighbor, whether they are rich, poor, or anywhere in between. And the work of a church community is to teach us this love. To teach us of God’s love, and to show us how to share that love.
Church is such a unique community. Because all that we really have in common is that we are here to know the love of God, and to learn to share it. We are made a family through the waters of Baptism, and then given a mission: To love God, and to love our neighbor. Starting here, but then, extending out. To the poor man laying at the gate. To the weary stranger. To the hungry, the lonely, the grieving, the addicted, the lost. We come to receive the love of God, to learn how to love as Jesus loves us, and then we go to share that love, to bear the beams of love.
It’s pretty simple, really. And isn’t that something to celebrate? All that Jesus asks us to do is to learn to love. We don’t have to solve all the problems that plague our world, as if we could. We just have to learn to love. And then? “Whatever happens” in this life or in this world, “those who have learned to love one another have made their way into the lasting world and will not leave, whatever happens.”
So let us learn to love one another, until the day when we are carried away to the God of all love. Amen.