19th Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 21, Year C. September 29, 2013. (Text: Luke 16:19-31)
Once of the nice things about where we live in Bozeman now, as compared to where we used to live in Aspen, is that we’re only one mile from Costco, instead of 75! But there’s always something troubling to me about going to Costco. Or, rather, about coming home from Costco. When we’re on the homeward half of our journey we’re often forced to stop at a traffic light where a homeless person is standing on the corner holding a sign scrawled on a piece of cardboard that reads, “Homeless. No job. Please help. God bless.” It isn’t always the same homeless person. Sometimes it’s a man, other times a woman. Sometimes older, sometimes younger. And the message on the sign varies a little from one needy person to another.
When the red light forces me to stop directly in front of the beggar, I keep my eyes glued to the traffic signal. I never look into the person’s face. I do not meet his or her eyes. I act as if this needy person—this homeless person, this beggar—is not there. I do so because if I looked into that face, into those eyes, if I smiled or made some kind of human contact, I could not stop myself from giving him or her all the cash in my billfold. And, the thing is, I could afford to do that once or twice, but not every time I pass that way. We’re thrifty people, and that’s why we shop at Costco a lot. —However, I could afford to hand over a ten or a twenty every single time I stopped there. We always save at least that much by shopping at Costco! …So why don’t I do that?
It strikes me that there are two opposite movements at work in the world. If we wanted to use New Testament language, we could call these two opposite movements “spiritual powers” that are “at war with one another.” One power is from God and works to bring people together to recognize our essential sameness and discover community with one another, emphasizing a hope that we all might eventually come to share a common vision for life together—not denying our differences, but emphasizing our similarities, our human connectedness as children of God, and our common hope. The other power is “from the dark side,” and it’s the exact opposite: it pushes us apart, towards separation from all who are “different” from us—socially, economically, racially, etc.—looking for a future when we can go about our lives without reference to these “different” people—except when we can make money off them or use them, some way, for our own advantage.
Maybe the world has always been like this. Maybe what I’m noticing is simply a pervasive, age-old phenomenon, nothing new. We see a form of it in the pithy parable Jesus told about the Rich Man and Lazarus, the beggar. “There was a Rich Man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the Rich Man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.”
People at the pinnacle of the ancient social order lived in a world of their own, in a bubble of privilege. (Pssst! It’s still the same in 2013, right?) But, outside the Rich Man’s house, outside his “gated community,” was a poor beggar. It’s interesting to note that this beggar is the only character in a parable of Jesus who’s given a proper name: Lazarus, which means “God is my help.” (Keep that meaning in mind!) Lazarus is not only poor, he’s also sick. His skin is covered with ulcers, and the dogs that have been eating the gravy-soaked bread discarded under the Rich Man’s table come out and lick the beggar’s pustulant sores. Lazarus is hungry, and he’d have been delighted to have some of the table scraps that went to the Rich Man’s dogs.
Notice that we’re not told anything about the Rich Man’s “inner life” or his “true values.” We’re not told that he was evil. He was simply living the privileged life of wealth and comfort which he’d inherited. Neither do we learn anything about what people today would call the “spirituality” of poor Lazarus. We don’t hear that he was virtuous or pious. We just have his name: “God is my help.” Maybe that’s all we need.
Both men die, and their ultimate destinies continue to be as different as their earthly lives were. But their fortunes are reversed. The Rich Man ends up in a place very much like hell, while poor Lazarus is borne by angels to be with Abraham, “the friend of God”—which is the best spot heaven could possibly offer. We get a little insight when the Rich Man looks up and sees Abraham far off in heaven and begs him to “send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.”
But Lazarus can’t be sent to help him, because, as Abraham says, “Between us and you a great chasm has been fixed.” The social distance that was part of their earthly life is now expressed as a spiritual reality in the age to come. Of course there has always been a “great chasm” between rich men and beggars, between those for whom God alone is their help and those whose real dependency is on something else —like money, fame, or power; or like dogmatic purity, political correctness, and having the “right” friends.
But in Jesus’ story each one knows that the other is there—just on the other side of the gate! The Rich Man even knows the beggar’s name. In fact, he probably saw him every day as his slaves carried him to and fro in his sedan chair—including trips up to the Temple for prayers. Filthy, sickly Lazarus was always lying there at his gate, an unattractive feature in the otherwise pleasant environment of the Rich Man’s world, something to be accepted but otherwise ignored by a very important fellow whose personal concerns were elsewhere. Lazarus lay at the gate of the mansion, begging for alms from the Rich Man and his guests—people whose religion taught that to feed the hungry and help the poor were acts of devotion to God.
At the end of Jesus’ story, the Rich Man pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his brothers about the fate they can expect unless they change their lives. This brings us to the main point of the parable. Abraham answers him, “They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.” The tormented Rich Man replies, “Oh, no, Father Abraham! But if someone comes back from the dead, they’ll listen to him.” Abraham knows better. If they won’t listen to the truth from Moses or the prophets, they won’t pay attention even to one who returns from the dead. (Pssst! Hint to Christians here!)
This parable is a warning and a call to repentance, because we are the brothers and sisters of the Rich Man (including those of us who shop at Costco in order to save money to spend elsewhere). We are those the Rich Man wants Lazarus to warn: “Repent, while you still have time!” It’s not merely a matter of reminding us to practice charity for the poor. And it doesn’t tell us that it’s evil to have great wealth, since Abraham himself was one of the richest men of his time. Besides, the Rich Man probably tossed a shekel to Lazarus from time to time. His guests, arriving and departing with their retinues of slaves and flunkies, probably did the same.—After all, no beggar sits every day at a spot where no one ever drops a dollar in his cup.
This story is a warning about the great chasm we so regularly put between ourselves and others. It’s a warning against the dark power that’s at work in our world—and was at work in the world of the Bible, too— a power that pushes us to live in our own, exclusive, upholstered “boxes,” separate from any significant form of community with people who seem to be different from us—whether because they’re poor, diseased, or mentally ill, or because they’re aliens of some kind, members of another race, adherents of another religion, or participants in what we delicately call “an alternative lifestyle.”
Over eighty years ago, George Buttrick, one of the greatest preachers of the last century, said that Jesus’ parable offers no support to the assumption that the Rich Man would have fulfilled his spiritual duty if he had simply dressed Lazarus’ sores and fed his hunger. Buttrick wrote this: “True charity is more than flinging coins to a beggar; it is not spasmodic or superficial. ...Food and medicine are necessary, but there is a more fundamental neighborliness.”
Christ commands his Church to offer the world “fundamental neighborliness,” a loving and compassionate connection with people of every type and condition, a readiness to look the beggar in the eye, to shake his hand, to know and be known by those who, like poor Lazarus, are lying “at our gates”—or standing at corners where traffic lights force us to stop our cars.
Such a passion for neighborliness arises in the hearts of those whose hearts have been shaped by the One who rose from the dead to give us a new Way of Life.
 George A. Buttrick, The Parables of Jesus (© 1928), p. 143, quoted in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, Luke-John (©1995), p. 320.
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