It's the stories we remember ... the stories from history, from our families, from the Bible, from the ministry of Jesus. Long after they've forgotten my sermons, people will say, "I remember a story you told one Sunday...."
Our lives and our values and our convictions get shaped by the stories we believe ... probably because they have the sound and feel of life and reality about them. We can identify with them. In my lifetime, I've been, at different times, the prodigal son, the older brother, and the waiting father. So have many of you. You've been the man in the ditch, the busy priest and Levite, and, hopefully, the Good Samaritan -- in various circumstances. So have I. Then, there's this story about Lazarus and the rich man. I don't have a single purple and linen outfit, but I'm the rich man all right, compared to three-fourths of the world. I don't eat gourmet foods every day, and I'm a glutton just every now and then ... but I live in luxury, compared to three-fourths of the world.
The season of Thanksgiving tells me I'm also Lazarus, the beggar at the gate. The grace of God is the only way I can explain the blessings which are part of my life -- not material blessings, but the gifts of love and friendship and family and salvation and church and heaven. Without the grace of God, if I'm a billionaire, I'm still poverty-stricken. My name is Lazarus.
But we have the grace of God, and we have also a large share of this world's goods -- so the person in this story we most need to pay attention to is the rich man. I doubt that Jesus told it to cheer up the poor. I think He told it mainly to help people with means to see themselves more clearly -- and to make some changes in their lives. So it's not the most comfortable story Jesus ever told, mostly because it confronts us with some painful details.
For one thing, Lazarus has a name; the rich man doesn't. Now, down the years when the church began to speak Latin, they gave him a name -- Dives, meaning "rich." But Jesus only names one person: Lazarus -- and this is the only story in the teachings of Jesus where one of the characters is given a name. Lazarus means "God helps," and that's what the Bible says consistently about the poor. God cares about them, helps them. In the Bible, God sides with those in need. Making the beggar a man with a name and leaving the rich man nameless turns the world's standard on its ear! In our world, the wealthy have names -- Getty, Rockfeller, Hunt, Vanderbilt -- and the poor are anonymous and faceless. If this story tells us how Jesus looks at things, the name Lazarus may surprise us, if not disturb us.
Both men died ... they always do, though we expect it more of the hungry beggar. He's defenseless even against the dogs who roam the streets, let alone the diseases which come from malnutrition. The rich man had plenty to eat, warm clothes to wear, and probably the finest physician in town at his beck and call. But death is the great equalizer. It laughs at our divisions based on wealth or breeding or status.