19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’31He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Confession time: I pushed someone down in the hallway once in middle school. It was a girlfriend of mine who had said something really mean to me. So I ran down the hall after her and shoved her to the ground, uniform skirt and all. At the time, I’ll confess that I had no regrets. She deserved it, I thought. I didn’t even get caught. But the next day, let me tell you, I wished that I had a rewind button. I may have apologized…or not- I don’t really remember. But the experience has stuck with me to this very day. A rewind button would also come in handy for the times I send a text message to the wrong person. One day I was heading somewhere and had to go through Martinsville to get there. While sitting at the stop light on the square, I decided to send a quick text message to Corey that said, “I can see you!” (Note: don’t text and drive!) After a few minutes, I got a text back that I couldn’t check right away since I was driving, but I assumed it was my husband texting back. When I arrived at my destination, I looked at my phone to see a text message from one of my friends from seminary who lives in Texas that said, “You’re in Austin?!” who probably that I had been stalking him! Oops. Rewind button. Or the times I hit send on an email before I was finished writing it, or all of the times I sassed off to my parents or was mean to my sister as a teenager. That rewind button could have really come in handy. Some days, I feel like this guy. We all do.
Above just about any character we meet in scripture, no person is more in need of a rewind button than the rich man from our text today. Jesus tells this story to the Pharisees as a response to their love of money. In the section just before this, Jesus tells a parable about how no one can serve both God and wealth. Now, he tells another story to get the religious leaders to understand the dangers of living a lavish lifestyle and not giving even a second look to the poor and suffering among them. So we meet the rich man who dressed in purple and fine linen (symbols of wealth) and who feasted lavishly each day. Then we meet Lazarus, who sits at his gate, covered with sores, longing for even a scrap from the rich man’s table. Dogs (probably not the cute and cuddly kind!) come and lick his wounds. Lazarus dies and is carried by the angels to be with Abraham, presumably in some form of heaven or pleasant afterlife.
Meanwhile, the rich man dies and ends up in Hades, a not very pleasant afterlife. As the rich man is being tortured in Hades, he looks back at his life, and then at poor man Lazarus enjoying the riches of heaven, and longs to press that rewind button, at least if it could get the message to his family on how they should change their ways. But if you read the text carefully, he never actually apologizes to Lazarus for the way he was treated. Instead, he pleads with Abraham that if he would just send Lazarus to his father and brothers and warn them, they will not end up in the same condition in Hades. Abraham rejects this plea, saying that the rich man’s family already possesses all they need in order to avoid suffering in the afterlife- they have Moses and the prophets. If they do not listen to those teachings, then they will certainly not even listen one who rises from the dead. In death, the rich man longs for some kind of repentance for his actions- a rewind button- if he could go back and do it all again, would he notice Lazarus at his gate? Would he actually listen to what Moses and the prophets have to say? He and his family had the knowledge- it was right in front of them- what they didn’t have was the willingness to actually listen.
What can this imaginative story teach us about God, life, humanity? First of all, this story is one that reminds us of God’s extreme love and concern for the poor. Notice that in this story, Lazarus, the poor man, is given a name. The rich man is not given a name. Lazarus suffers in his lifetime, but is sent to the life hereafter relieved of his suffering. The rich man is sent to pay for his lack of compassion. Second, this story teaches us the importance of noticing the Lazaruses that congregate at our gates. We shouldn’t turn a blind eye when we see someone who is suffering and pretend they do not exist. The least we can do is offer a kind word, a helping hand, a way to give someone a chance for a better life. Third, this story reminds us that we are only given this one life, and that we should live it to the best of our ability to do good in this world. Here I am reminded of this John Wesley quote (slide), “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever as you can.” If the rich man had a rewind button, these would be good words for him to live by. They are good words for all of us to live by.
As a pastor, I often talk with people who know that their time on earth is coming to an end soon. When they tell stories about their lives, they sometimes share things that they regret- things that they wish that had done or had not done- and these stories are never about that promotion they didn’t get, not having enough money, or not enough successes in life- most of these stories are about relationships. If they had a rewind button, they would take more time to listen, they would love more, they wouldn’t have worked so hard, they would have spent more time with their loved ones, they would have kept in touch with more friends, they would have had more courage to be themselves rather than the person someone expected them to be. Do these sound what you might say if this was your last day on earth?
As we get a picture of the rich man in Hades looking through the great beyond at Lazarus, perhaps some of these rewind button thoughts come to mind: “I wish I had cared for the people around me- I wish I hadn’t walked over Lazarus every day without even giving him my leftovers or offering help. I wish I had listened to Moses and the prophets- there I would live out the word of God found in passages such as Leviticus 19:18 that says, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ or Isaiah who commanded us to ‘share your bread with the hungry and invite the homeless into your house.’” The rich man might have said, “I wish that I had the courage to live a life where my actions are in line with my beliefs. If I could go back and press rewind and do it all again, these are the things I would do.” (Homiletics).
But friends, hear the good news. We are not yet looking back on our lives from an afterlife longing to press a rewind button. We are still here where we can make changes for ourselves that benefit others through the way in which we live. The rich man’s family turned a deaf ear to the teachings of Moses and the prophets, even to the point where they wouldn’t have believed if someone has risen from the dead to give them a message. We celebrate the good news as Christians that Christ has died and risen from the dead in order to give us life. Are we convinced? Or do we turn a blind eye and deaf ear to this proclamation of faith? Jesus has risen, but we still live with feeling that we need a rewind button in our lives- and that’s ok- none of us are perfect, we will make mistakes in our lifetimes, we will wish for a rewind button or a do over. But we don’t want to arrive in our final days with these regrets hanging over our heads about having not cared enough, not listening for the word of God enough, or not actually living out our faith to the best of our ability.
So as we still have time in this life, we have a choice to make- with every breath we take, we have the opportunity to turn it all around and make a difference. We have a choice to say whether or not we are going to care, whether or not we will look after the Lazarus who arrives at our gate, whether we will actually carry the message of Jesus out into the world instead of it forgetting it as soon as we walk out of these church doors every week. We have a choice to live our lives in such a way where we won’t feel such a strong need for that rewind button all the time. And these choices don’t have to be life shattering or world changing. They can be small things- the words that you use when you talk to people, the way that you treat someone, being more aware of the world around you, watching for people who might need help, even with something small. Sometimes the problems of this world seem so overwhelming. We think of the hunger crisis in Africa and even in our own country and even here in Morgantown. We think of disease, war, famine, human trafficking, violence- the list goes on and on. But people of all shapes, sizes, ages, colors, and genders can affect the world in both big and small ways.
I always think of the popular story about the boy with the starfish- probably a story you’ve heard before- a boy and is walking on the beach, and on the beach are thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore. One by one, the boy was picking up starfish and throwing them back into the ocean. A man passing by saw him and said, “What difference does it make to throw these starfish back when there are thousands of them? You will never be able to save all of them.” And the boy looked at the man, threw another starfish in the ocean and simply said, “Sir, it made a difference to that one.”
Each day presents new opportunities for us to be world changers, for us to make a difference, for us to treat someone, even if it’s just one person, as we wish to be treated. It’s as simple as that. It’s as profound as living out the words of Jesus when he gives the greatest commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Live your life that you will have no regrets about how you treated the people around you, strangers and neighbors alike. Live your life so that you will not have much need of a rewind button. And all that takes is us being willing to see the divine image present within each human being.
Desmund Tutu had some wisdom to share about this when he said with his dancing eyes, “These people that treat us like dirt, they’ve already lost. This is a moral universe. (We are human beings made in the image of God.) If we hadn’t believed what the Bible tells us, we wouldn’t just shake hands with each other, we would genuflect. The God in me honors the God in you.” May this be so for each of us. May this be the choice we make- the chance we take to turn it all around. Amen.