Cross Words

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Luke 16: 19-31

“There was a certain rich man who clothed himself in purple and fine linen, and who feasted luxuriously every day. At his gate lay a certain poor man named Lazarus who was covered with sores. Lazarus longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Instead, dogs would come and lick his sores.

“The poor man died and was carried by angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buriedWhile being tormented in the place of the dead, he looked up and saw Abraham at a distance with Lazarus at his side.  He shouted, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I’m suffering in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things, whereas Lazarus received terrible things. Now Lazarus is being comforted and you are in great pain. Moreover, a great crevasse has been fixed between us and you. Those who wish to cross over from here to you cannot. Neither can anyone cross from there to us.’

“The rich man said, ‘Then I beg you, Father, send Lazarus to my father’s house. I have five brothers. He needs to warn them so that they don’t come to this place of agony.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets. They must listen to them.’ The rich man said, ‘No, Father Abraham! But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will change their hearts and lives.’ Abraham said, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, then neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’”

Before we tackle this dramatic and uncomfortable parable, I first need to tell you about crossword puzzles. 

I love crossword puzzles. Like, really love them. My standard lunch break is playing the daily online puzzle from the Washington Post, then I have a physical book of puzzles I’ll use to unwind at night. I’ve been known to mentally play someone’s crossword puzzle over their shoulder if they’re next to me on an airplane. 

It was my dad who kicked off my love of these classic puzzles. Starting around middle school, we’d get home from church, pull out the Sunday paper, and start working through it together. 

Dad also taught me the tricks of the game. Being successful at crossword puzzling isn’t just about having a large vocabulary or extensive collection of trivia in your brain. As any of my fellow puzzlers in the congregation will tell you, you have to be able to look at the same clue from different perspectives. 

Crossword puzzle creators love to bake wordplay, puns, and misdirects into their clues. For example, a clue might be “met expectations.” You might think the answer would be something like “satisfied.” But in fact, you might need to read that clue as Met expectations—The Met being a common nickname for The Metropolitan Museum of Art. And so the answer might actually be art, galleries, or even galas. 

It’s amazing how hard it can be to shake your first reading of a clue to see it from other angles. We tend to hold on to our first thoughts, no matter how much of a wall we’re running up against. 

I think this love for puzzles has served me well in studying Jesus’ parables. Jesus, like many Jewish rabbis, had a love for the twist, the trick, the new angle. He loves to make us think, to make us reconsider, to lead us along with clues until we can figure out the answer for ourselves. 

The toughest thing about today’s parable is its simplicity. It’s hyperbolic, almost cartoonish, told in broad strokes and stereotypes. We have a rich man—high-end clothing, a personal chef, arrogant at every turn, and a poor man, sick, starving, pitiable. Interestingly, that poor man is the only character in any of his parables given a name—the name of one of Jesus’ own friends. This is personal for Jesus. 

Despite Lazarus’ permanent position at his front gate, the rich man doesn’t see that Lazarus is a human like him, a human in pain. If he sees anything, he sees a nuisance, an embarrassment, a stray animal begging for scraps. The Greek underlines the rich man’s point of view—Lazarus’ hunger is described as the hunger of a dog for leftovers. In the rich man’s eyes, Lazarus’ poverty and illness make him less than human. 

Then something happens to remind the reader that both Lazarus and the rich man are undeniably human: they die. Suddenly, their roles are totally reversed: Lazarus, who in his life was alone and in pain, is comforted in Abraham’s arms. The rich man, who in his life had every luxury, is tormented by fire. 

Lazarus experienced his hell on earth. The rich man now takes his place. You would think that between empathy and the agony of the flames, the rich man would be full of remorse. You’d think he’d cry out to Lazarus for forgiveness. 

Except he does not. 

Because he doesn’t just see Lazarus, he also sees Abraham—Abraham the patriarch of the Jews, Abraham who himself was a wealthy man, a man of power and prestige. And that’s where the rich man directs his attention—to his “equal,” the kind of man he probably traded favors with on earth. 

“Father Abraham,” he says, “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.”

It almost sounds like prayer. It almost sounds like piety. And yet the rich man still hasn’t brought himself to see that Lazarus is a person, and not a dog to be ordered around. He looks at Lazarus, but still all he can see is his own needs. The rich man is so blind to Lazarus’ personhood that even in Hades he can’t bring himself to ask for help directly from someone so beneath him—who, ironically, is now far above.

Abraham spells it out for him: their roles are reversed. The rich man is in pain precisely because he left Lazarus in pain during his life. 

But the rich man still thinks he should get special treatment. He asks Abraham to raise Lazarus from the dead, so that Lazarus can shock his brothers into better behavior. 

Now, let that sink in a moment: this guy thinks he’s so special, that his family’s wealth is so powerful, that Abraham (who, let’s remember, is not God) is going to raise someone from the dead just for them. As ridiculous demands go, this tops the cake. Of course, God is already planning a resurrection: but this resurrection will be for all, not just for the wealthy and powerful. 

Abraham reminds the rich man that his brothers have their holy scriptures, Moses and the prophets, chock-a-block full of directives to care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger. If they insist on being blind to the poor, it is not because their faith has not adequately directed their attention there.

The story ends there, and it leaves me squirming. If the rich man ends up in the flames for ignoring one poor man, where does that leave me, with the hundreds of people I have passed by on the streets? I may not be rich like the rich man, but I live like a queen compared to millions on this planet. Has Jesus condemned me to hell here? Is Jesus really… talking to me?

Some of you may have caught the prediction this week that Christians are predicted to lose their majority in this country in the next fifty years. I’m not going to get too bothered by that—I suspect that identifying as Christian on a survey and living as Christian in the world are fairly disparate experiences. But when it came  up in conversation among some clergy friends, one pointed out that the places where Christianity flourishes are the places where people are suffering. Where they are oppressed. Where they know the life of Lazarus.

The gospel, as Jesus himself said, is good news for the poor. It is liberation for the oppressed. It is freedom for the captives. 

But that same good news to the poor often sounds like bad news to the rich, and sabotage to the oppressor. The more comfortable we get in life, the less comfortable Jesus’ teachings become. 

As I have said before, Jesus was not against wealth. He had wealthy friends, women who bankrolled his ministry. But again and again, he saw how wealth can replace faith as our hope and stay in life. Again and again, he saw how wealth created chasms that no one can cross—not even with the best intentions. I don’t think this simple parable was meant to tell us exactly what happens when we die—but it is about as strong a warning for how to live in this life as I can imagine. 

There is an old saw that the gospel is designed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Of course, very few of us are only one or the other—the wealthiest among us cannot buy our way out of depression, cancer, political upheaval, and the poorest among us can live with a great deal of joy and meaning. But a gospel that always and only ever gives comfort makes for a poor diet—sometimes we have to eat the vegetables alongside the cake if we are to be healthy disciples of Christ. 

And so I can conclude that while this parable is not necessarily comfortable for me, it is good news in its way—a reminder not to let my money, my privilege, my station in life blind me to others in need of aid. But more importantly, I think, is to not consider first what this parable means to me, but to look at it, like those crossword clues, from a different angle—what does this parable sound like to Lazarus? What does this parable sound like to all those people around the world who have been told to expect nothing, to hope for nothing, that they are nothing?

This parable is good news for Lazarus. Good news that those forgotten in this world are held in the most tender care by God. 

I find, sometimes, that my task as a disciple is not to worry too much about what Jesus is saying to me, and whether or not I find it comfortable, but to look where Jesus is pointing, and rejoice that others have a gospel that is so, so, so good for them. 

Sometimes it isn’t all about us. That’s worth learning. The rich man could have used the lesson.

And so I come back to those cross word puzzles that I love, and a bit of wordplay I can’t resist. These last two months we have journeyed with Jesus through some of his most tense days. He’s had followers by the hundreds and invitations to fancy parties, but instead of luxuriate in this popularity he has doubled down on his mission instead, which is, as he said at the beginning “to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The intensity of his dedication to these goals—comforting the afflicted first and foremost—has brought some harsh words. We’ve heard Jesus tell us that following him will divide our families. We’ve heard Jesus command us to invite not friends but strangers to our parties. We’ve heard Jesus describe three different times how wealth can take us far, far away from God. 

Yes, Jesus is not afraid of using harsh words. Cross words, some might even call them. This is not the sweet gentle Jesus from our Sunday School days. This is a Jesus who wants us to put a little elbow grease into being his disciple. This is a Jesus with high standards. 

Yet in all these cross words—angry words—I also think Jesus gave us cross words—words that show us how to join him in carrying the cross. 

The installation on the back wall here, planned and carried out by the planting team, was the inspiration for this sermon. Each word here is from one of our scriptures in the past two months. I love this image—bold, but also complicated. 

Here are the words: treasure, dignity, humility, joy, choice, mercy, each of them connected back to discipleship. These are “cross” words indeed—words that give us a glimpse into the kind of lives we are to live, and the kinds of values we are to hold, as we follow Jesus Christ. They are also, I think, a glimpse into the kind of world Jesus so longed to create—a kingdom come that had its birth on Easter morning and is still growing in each one of us who are faithful today. 

Like the rich man, we have Moses and the prophets. More than him, we have the teachings of Jesus, the writings of the early church. We have the witness of generations upon generations of the faithful. We know what to do—pick up our cross and follow him. Join him in the good news business. 

Jesus is talking to us. Will we answer?


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