Why did the physician Luke include the story of the rich man and Lazarus? Last week we realized why as one of our vacation days introduced us to Cornelius Vanderbilt who turned $100. lent to him by his mother into an estate of 100 million dollars at the time of his death.
In 1980 a descendant described him as “illiterate, bad-tempered and foulmouthed, and inclined, when trapped into a social event, to spit streams of tobacco juice and fondle the maids.”
Fortunately, his oldest son William who received the bulk of the estate didn’t carry on his father’s reputation and also disproved his father’s prediction that he would not be able to maintain the inherited wealth. William doubled it to over $200 million.
But 30 years after the father’s death no member of the Vanderbilt family was among the richest in the US; 18 years after that one of his grandchildren is said to have died penniless; by 1947 the mansions in Manhattan were torn down and the contents sold at auction; and in 1973 when 120 descendants met for a reunion, there wasn’t a single millionaire among them. They had lived to outdo one another in setting the trends in building lavish homes, giving outlandish parties, and spend their days racing yachts, sports cars, and horses. It was also said that some had substance abuse problems. http://www.earlytorise.com/how-the-worlds-richest-family-went-broke/
As the National Park Service staff member told this story, I heard the echo of today’s Gospel line:
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day”…choosing to live as though everything existed for him. When he died and was buried, he found himself all alone in the fiery flames. It was then that he realized how he had lived for himself and no one else and cried out for someone to warn his brothers, only to be told,
‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’
It’s a story that if read at bedtime, can lead to the nightmarish thought of dying and finding ourselves inheriting the rich man’s agony. And it’s certainly not a story to read to our preschoolers in Church School or during their time in the Church Nursery!
It is a story for adults to read with an ear attuned to the words: “Moses and the prophets.” - "Moses and the Prophets" - what church School Classes, Bible study, and personal meditations on Scripture's words is all about; what Jesus used in His teachings and we now read samplings in the Gospels - quotes from the book of the Law, Deuteronomy, and the prophet Isaiah.
If the rich man had done that, he would seen that what mattered more than anything else was to live by the Ten Commandments and the prophets’ sermons that charged him, a child of Abraham, a Jew,
to love God by loving his neighbor:
to see the homeless poor shivering in the cold and clothe them in one of his many coats;
to see the strangers around him and welcome them to his table set with a scrumptious feast;
to enlarge his concern beyond his own flesh and blood and see everyone as God’s children, including his family and himself.
But even more, it needs to be heard as a story told by Jesus, Who said He had come to fulfill “the Law and the prophets” – to fulfill them by filling them with visible examples of His own life, to see and accept and live as members of His Body, His family, His church, so that anyone, who is a Lazarus, feels the embrace of a loving God in the caring service of those who let Jesus continue His ministry through them.
As our group toured the Vanderbilt mansion in New York’s Hyde Park along the Hudson, our guide carried the family story forward to say we were seeing the estate purchased by one of Cornelius’ grandsons, Frederick, to be a spring and fall home for him and his wife Louise, and where he lived full time when widowed.
Frederick was different from the rest of the family. When refrigeration replaced ice, he won’t convert. The two men who kept the walk-in box stocked with ice would lost their job and houses for their families; he kept them employed and they retired with a pension. At his death, he also made provision for all the servants in the
household to be given enough money to live a more than comfortable life.
“He gave millions of (unpublicized) dollars to philanthropy,…more than 1 million dollars to Yale for the construction of dormitories and 4 million more after his death; 3 million to Vanderbilt University. The Red Cross Fund, YMCA, and the Vanderbilt Clinic were among his favorite charities, and the Salvation Army was willed 1 million dollars at the time of his death.” http://www.earlytorise.com/how-the-worlds-richest-family-went-broke/
Frederick, in his way, “saw” the Lazarus at his gate.
There is a wonderful twist in a seemingly troubling story with its hard-to-accept statement, especially when traced to Jesus, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’
The storyteller is God-in-Christ the One, the “someone” raised from the dead to bring His new life to us to receive and share with today’s Lazarus who is waiting to be raised from the slow death of being dismissed as not deserving of our caring.
When we see the Scriptures brought to life in Jesus, we know what matters more than anything else is to act, and in acting, those we serve are raised to new life on this side of death.
Today’s Gospel story is definitely not one to read to children, but it is one to act out, beginning with the youngest through a ministry we celebrate today as we count Kelly and Randy George’s 18 years of serving in our Church Nursery…18 years of teaching the Bible by living out the charge given in today’s letter:
… pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith…
The “fight of the faithful” who see in each child a little bit of Lazarus in need of knowing “Jesus loves me” – love shown through a wiped tear, a listening ear, an embracing hug; a loving God known through those who first let God love them.
A shepherd on the highlands of Scotland was puzzled by a man who was kneeling close to the ground taking notes and sketching something. When quizzed, the man took out a magnifying glass for him to see the delicate flowers in the grass. “To think,” said the shepherd, “ I have been trampling on them, never knowing what beauty was beneath my feet.”
To think what matters more than anything else is to hear today’s Gospel story as Jesus’ call to see what matters more than anything else:
Scripture coming alive in Jesus to come alive in us. Amen.