PROPER 21, C
1 Timothy 6:6-19
“At his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus.” Over the course of the 4 canonical gospels, Jesus blessed us with at least thirty-seven parables (depending on who’s counting), 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, with last week being a prime example. Thirty-seven parables. One name. Lazarus. In 37 parables, one person gets a name. Why?
The Gospel of Luke in particular is replete with references to God’s compassion for the poor as well as references to the reversal of earthly fortunes in the Kingdom of God. Mary sings “He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty”. The beatitudes in the sermon on the plain declare “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.” From these examples through today’s parable, Luke emphasizes God’s compassion for the poor, the crippled, the lame.
Parables tell truths within stories allowing 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.
800 million people, 11% of the people in the world are immediately vulnerable to climate change impacts – drought, floods, extreme weather changes. 1 in 10 people live at altitudes at relatively immediate threat by rising sea levels. In the U.S., the wealthiest nation in the world, nearly 15 percent – some 40 million people – struggle to put food on the table. 12 million of these hungry ones are children. 25% of Native Americans live in poverty. Nearly 2.5 million preventable deaths of children under the age of 5 every year—are related to malnutrition. (Bread for the World.) Ecologically and economically irresponsible practices of the rich impact the very poor dramatically more than anyone else. The numbers are absolutely overwhelming. The immensity of the chasm between the world as it is and the world as it should be is enormous. We become inured to tragedy, to poverty, to hunger. We don’t see anymore.
Jesus gives Lazarus a name. Lazarus is not one in 10 or one of 800 million people or part of 25%. 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 America existed 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, an indifference so profound it persisted even in death – send him with father, send him to my brothers – the demand of a master, not an equal.
A first century Palestinian would not have been inclined to see the rich man as evil. Their culture taught them that reward follows virtue. Rich = Righteous. A diseased or poverty stricken person must have sinned, or had parents who 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. Sweet holy God, open our eyes to see your work in the world around us: the work you have done. The work we must, must do! AMEN