Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 6:1a, 4-7
Warnings to those who are comfortable or wealthy
The Lord gives justice to those who are oppressed.
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Eager to be rich or eager to pursue richness of God’s justice?
Story of poor Lazarus and the wealthy man
If I were to ask you what today’s parable in the Gospel was about, I’m guessing you might say it’s about not being greedy or about paying attention to the poor, especially the ones right outside our doors. But I wonder if the topic might not be something less obvious. What would you make of the suggestion that mutuality in relationships is the subject of the parable that Jesus tells in our reading from Luke today? Here’s what I am thinking: even if I did not live in the wealthiest nation on earth and have multiple degrees, even if I didn’t own a home and a car and a computer—already putting me in the top 10% of the wealthiest people in the world—I would identify with the rich man in today’s parable. The biggest problem he faces is that he couldn’t see what was right in front of him.
The story begins by saying he loves great food and expensive clothing. Even if you don’t know me very well, you could probably guess that those are two of my favorite things on earth. Other than that, however, there isn’t much other information about him. We don’t even know his name! We know he didn’t treat Lazarus well, but was he a devoted husband? A good father? Did he volunteer at the local synagogue, or serve on the school board? Was he kind and fair to his employees? We have no idea. We know only that, however good or bad a man he was, he ends up in hell, possibly because he neglected one person. Which might make you wonder whether it’s worth trying to live well at all. What’s the point of being good if God doesn’t pay attention?
For that matter, what kind of a man was Lazarus besides being poor and sick? Was he unwell because of his own unhygienic and perhaps immoral or illegal behavior? Did he use dirty needles? Practice unsafe sex? Was he poor because he didn’t try very hard to get (or keep) a job? Did he gamble or drink away any money he did earn? Did he squander opportunities to better himself? Was the reason the rich man knew his name because he once had to fire him or have him arrested? What do we know of this beggar except his name and that he ends up in Abraham’s lap? Is the only ticket into heaven to be destitute in this life? Does God’s preferential option for the poor only take effect after death? Who wants that kind of preference?
The truth is, we don’t know much about these two men. The only thing we know for sure was that they had vastly differing financial situations. Maybe it wasn’t even about their living so much as that the rich man was born to rich parents and the poor man was born poor—just as I happened to have been born to two white, healthy, well-educated, middle class, Christian parents, while on the same day, a child of color was born to a mother and father who both suffered from terminal illnesses that bankrupted them and left them without employment or education, without help or home or hope. Are those just the breaks? And thank God it broke the way it did for me? What is the moral of such a story?
Is this story just a cautionary tale reminding us that we deserve to end up in hell if we ignore the millions around the world who are dying of malnutrition and curable diseases like malaria while we buy bigger and better cars, more household gadgets, and ridiculously overpriced handbags? Are we supposed to believe that all who suffer from disease and want and abuse and neglect in this world will end up at the heavenly banquet, as a reward for going without in this life, while the rich people go to hell in the afterlife because they’ve already enjoyed the good life here? It would seem only fair, but where’s the Good News for people like me in that?
No, I don’t think that is the moral of the story. Yes, there is a chasm between Lazarus and the rich man, but it is not simply one made by their financial conditions. It is deeper and more complex than that, just as is the case in this country.
Isn’t the heart of the problem really more about who is visible and who is invisible? Who is seen and who isn’t? Who thinks they are important or unimportant while others are not? When we don’t genuinely see one another, when we don’t pay attention to those around us, it doesn’t occur to us that each person around us has a story—has fears and hopes and funny moments to share.
In one of Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth, he worries that they are not “rightly discerning the body of Christ” when they commune. That passage was often used in my Missouri Synod church to justify not serving communion to people who weren’t baptized members of the congregation. The thought was that they didn’t understand the body and blood of Christ the way we did. But I’ve come to believe that if we, the Church, are the Body of Christ, then failing to “discern the Body” is the refusal—or at least inability—to discern one another as members of that one Body. When we look past one another instead of seeing one another, when we start to split into us and them, insiders and outsiders, then both literally and figuratively, we are not rightly discerning the Body of Christ. We need, quite desperately, to be RE-MEMBERED. We need to be re-attached to Christ our head, and to one another as fellow members of Christ’s Body.
Now we have no reason to believe that either Lazarus or the rich man in the story were members of a faith community, but since Jesus is telling the story, I find interesting that in the portraits of heaven and hell he creates, he makes no mention of God in either locale. Nor does he mention Satan. Abraham is the representative from heaven in this story, while hell seems void of all that makes life bearable—including the precious commodity of companionship, not to mention the life-sustaining gift of water. Where is God in this parable?
Where was God while Lazarus was lying at the rich man’s gate? Where was God when the rich man suffered in hell? When the rich man gazes up into heaven, why isn’t the name he calls out God’s? Notice that even now, he doesn’t speak to Lazarus, not even to apologize to him, though he clearly recognizes him, and even remembers his name! No the rich man addresses Father Abraham, asking him to send Lazarus to do his bidding. Certainly he thinks of Abraham as his equal or better. If Abraham is the most important person in the room, the one with the most authority, then he’s the one to approach. The old boy networking style always worked for him on earth. Why talk to a beggar when the great patriarch is near?
Impressively, Lazarus does not yell down at him, “You got what you deserved didn’t you, you ungrateful, ungracious old miser!” In fact, Lazarus never says anything at all. Who knows? Maybe he would have been willing go down to touch the rich man’s tongue with cool water—if for no other reason than that helping someone less fortunate can be such a self-satisfying way of feeling good about how kind we are. Or maybe Lazarus doesn’t even recognize him. How many rich men had stepped over him in his life?
In any case, there is no relationship between these two, not even in the after-life. They didn’t connect on earth, and they don’t now. They don’t speak to or about each other, except that the rich man asks that Lazarus serve him and his brothers. Not only is there is no love between them, there’s no discerning of one another as part of One Body.
Perhaps the reason that God is not in the story is because God saw the wide, empty chasm between the rich and the poor, the comfortable and the forgotten. Perhaps God was grieved by the vast disparity between the insiders and the outsiders, between “us” and “them.” And so God willingly steps OUT of that story. In the person of Jesus Christ, God leaves behind heaven to be among us, to SEE all us and to help us SEE one another. In the person of Jesus, God leaves a trail from heaven to hell, traversing the known universe with a path of light and hope and forgiveness that bridges over the great chasm that separates us from God and from one another.
And because Jesus lived and loved the rich and the poor on earth, called each one by name, because Jesus saw all us for who we truly are and loved us beyond all reason…. Because Jesus would stop at nothing to welcome us as members of his Body and because Jesus calls us to be one with each other…. Because Jesus IS the Bridge, we can cross the chasm. Because we are loved by Jesus, the rich CAN go outside the gates and tend to the poor. Because we are loved by Jesus, the poor CAN approach the rich to remind them that all of creation belongs to God. Because we are loved by Jesus we can truly see each other and join in feasting together on and as the forgiven Body of Christ. Because we are loved by Jesus who never delights in evil but rejoices with the truth, we can risk loving one another—being honest with each other about who we are. We can risk trusting one another and being strong for one another.
No one is meant to be always in need or always the giver—human relationships flourish best when there is balance and affection. When there is mutuality in relationships we are better able to live out God’s dream that each person would feel known and cherished. In the presence of God we are all beggars, and we are all rich.
Thanks be to God!
~Pastor Susan Schneider