Proper 21, C
1 Timothy 6:6-19
“At his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus.”
Thirty-seven parables (give or take) over the course of the 4 canonical gospels, comprising about a third of the recorded teachings of Jesus. Parables about the Kingdom. Parables about forgiveness. Parables about redemption. Parables about prayer. Parables about, well there are a couple that we haven’t quite figured out what they are about. Thirty-seven parables. One name. Lazarus. In 37 parables, one person gets a name. Why?
The theme in this story is familiar. The Gospel of Luke in particular is replete with references to God’s compassion for the poor, and references to the reversal of earthly fortunes in the Kingdom of God. From Mary’s Song “He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” to the beatitudes in the sermon on the plain, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.” to today’s parable, Luke emphasizes God’s compassion for the poor, the crippled, the lame.
“A parable is a short tale that illustrates universal truth, one of the simplest of narratives.” (Wikipedia) Telling truths within stories allows those truths to be more easily absorbed, digested. A story captures imagination and engages a listener in a way no dry discourse can. A master story teller, Jesus drew from the familiar. Most of his parables arose from everyday life in Palestine. This more fanciful tale he adapted to his purposes from an Egyptian folk tale of the afterlife. It is not meant to be a theological expository on the nature of Heaven and Hell – the story is not really about heaven and hell at all. It’s about seeing. It’s about relationship – with God, with neighbor. This is, in a way, Christendom’s original Pearly Gates joke.
You may have heard this more modern Pearly Gates story. In our changing climate, floods are becoming ever more common. The flood waters rose in the community of a devout Christian man. He went to his roof and he prayed, “Heavenly Father, help me.” A family in a rowboat came by and offered him room in their boat. “No. Thank you, kind neighbor, but my faith will save me.” The flood waters rose, and he climbed to the peak of his roof. “Heavenly Father, the flood waters are rising, help me.” Just as it seemed he would be washed away a rescue boat noticed him and offered him safety. “No. Thank you, kind neighbor, but my faith will save me.” Finally he was washed away, but he managed to grab a tree as the waters rushed by. A helicopter spotted him and came to pick him up. Again, the faithful man clung to his prayer and his faith. “No. Thank you, kind neighbor, but my faith will save me.” He died. When he came to the Pearly Gates he approached St. Peter – Maybe it was Father Abraham? – and said, “I was a good Christian man. I gave to the church. I said my prayers. I clung to my faith. Why did God not save me?” Said Father Abraham, “He sent you two boats and a helicopter. What more did you want?”
God sent us Moses, the prophets, sent us his Son. He daily sends us opportunities to see, to listen, to act, but all we see is the floodwater of poverty. We cling to what we know. We hide our eyes.
In the U.S., the wealthiest nation in the world, 14.5 percent – some 49 million people – struggle to put food on the table. And 15.9 million of these hungry ones are children. (Bread for the World.) Among the 1.9 billion children from the developing world, there are: 640 million without adequate shelter (1 in 3), 400 million with no access to safe water (1 in 5), and 270 million with no access to health services (1 in 7) (State of the World’s Children, 2005, UNICEF) The numbers are absolutely overwhelming. The immensity of the issue of poverty and associated hunger and disease is almost beyond imagining. We become inured to tragedy, to poverty, to hunger. We don’t see anymore.
Jesus gives Lazarus a name. Lazarus is not one in 3 or one in 7 or one of 49 million people. Lazarus is Lazarus. Neighbor to the rich man. Jesus describes no malevolence in the rich man. He lived in his fine house with his fine clothes and ate his fine food. Jesus convicts him of nothing worse than living the American dream 1700 years before there was an America to live it in. We don’t know that he abused Lazarus. He didn’t see Lazarus. The rich man built the chasm between them, a chasm constructed of indifference.
A first century Palestinian would not have been inclined to see the rich man as evil. Their culture taught them that reward follows virtue. If you are rich, you must be virtuous. If a person is poverty stricken or diseased, they must have sinned, or their parents did. We are not so different. Jesus doesn’t tell us if Lazarus drank his last pay. He doesn’t tell us if Lazarus got sacked for showing up to work late. He doesn’t tell us if Lazarus lived too long on his parents’ good will or gambled away the family livestock. He doesn’t say. It doesn’t matter. He is suffering. He is our neighbor.
Although our culture tells us that we cannot have enough – enough money, enough power, enough security, enough stuff – for the most part, we are rich. Some have more monetary wealth than others to be sure, but by virtue of the fact that we have clean water and heat in the winter and food on our tables, we are rich. And yet, we do not have to be the rich man. We can open our eyes and see the need outside our gates. We can painstakingly demolish the chasm. We can set our hopes not on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God. We can be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share. We can take hold of the life that really is life. The poor, the suffering, the marginalized – they have names. They are our neighbors.
Timothy Haut offers this prayer…
Lord, Source of all that is good,
Creator and Sustainer of the universe,
Giver of awesome gifts and undeserved blessings,
Help me to be rich.
Shower me with enough
That I will no longer worry my way through each day,
But instead live in gratitude.
Cherishing my utter abundance.
Help me to have enough of this world’s treasures
That I may know the joy of sharing what I have,
Spreading it around instead of holding on tight.
Let me feel rich with wonder at the great mysteries,
Receiving each day with anticipation
Of the surprises you have in store for me.
Remind me that my wealth is best measured
In the love that I give and the love that I receive,
And that what I own are small things compared to
The splendor of the stars, the brightness of sunlight,
The joy of music, the sweetness of food,
And the glory of this amazingly beautiful world.
Teach me, Lord, to be content,
So that my heart may know peace even in lean times,
And so that my laughter and my joy
May add to the richness of those around me.
And when it is time to leave this world,
Let me go with a thankful heart, my Lord,
Knowing that, through you,
I have been rich indeed. AMEN