Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 29, 2019
15th Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 91:1-6,14-16, Luke 16:19-21
When studying Scripture, it’s helpful to take note of what happens around a particular reading. If we do so today, we notice that Jesus has been talking about money all through this chapter. We also learn that because the Pharisees are lovers of money, they are none too happy about it. So how does Jesus react? Does he try to avoid conflict? Does he run from a fight? Far from it! Jesus, who is often imagined as meek and mild, is frequently anything but! He’s brave. He’s radical. And he pulls no punches when faced with injustice and greed.
The Gospel of Luke is filled with images of great reversals of fortune—beginning in the very first chapter. Recall the words spoken by Jesus’ soon-to-be mother in what we commonly call the Magnificat:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…he has brought down the powerful from the thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.[i]
Later, in the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus proclaims:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.[ii]
The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is nothing new for Jesus. It’s in line with his teaching and it’s in line with the Gospel of Luke’s overall relentless “concern for the faithful stewardship of goods.”[iii]
Once upon a time there was a rich man and a poor man. The unnamed rich man lives inside the gate of abundance—dressed in purple, residing in the lap of luxury with everything he could possibly want at his fingertips. The poor man lives a very different life. The poor man, named Lazarus, lives on the other side of the gate, dressed in sores and he would give anything for a crumb or two from the rich man’s table. But no crumb will be forthcoming.
Eventually, as is the case for every living soul, Death comes knocking and both men leave their earthly dwelling. In an ironic twist, Lazarus is taken by the angels to rest in the bosom of Abraham at the great banquet table. The rich man now resides in the fires of hell from where he sees Abraham and Lazarus off in the distance. Anguished, he begs Father Abraham to send Lazarus to cool his tongue with just a drop of water. But Abraham says,
Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good things and Lazarus the bad things. It’s not like that here. Here he’s consoled and you’re tormented. Besides, in all these matters there is a huge chasm set between us so that no one can go from us to you even if he wanted to, nor can anyone cross over from you to us.[iv]
Let’s take a moment to look more closely at the behavior of the rich man prior to his death. He doesn’t intentionally harm the poor, pitiful beggar. He doesn’t even order him to get off his property. In fact, he shows no compassion whatsoever. The love of money has turned his heart cold and numb. Archbishop Helder Camara once wrote,
I used to think when I was a child that Christ might have been exaggerating when he warned about the danger of wealth. Today I know better. I know how very hard it is to be rich and still keep the milk of human kindness. Money has a dangerous way of putting scales on ones’ eyes, a dangerous way of freezing people’s hands, eyes, lips, and hearts.
The rich man has endless resources, but he doesn’t try to change social structures. He doesn’t start Break Bread Together or a soup kitchen or a food pantry. He doesn’t search for ways to equip and empower the needy so that they can become self-sustaining. No wonder. From his perspective, there is no need to change the status quo. It serves him quite well (thank you very much). But, oh, the eternal cost. Day by day, inch by inch, the rich man has been digging a trench between himself and the needy of this world—a trench that expands to a great chasm over which nothing and no one can cross. [v]
Essentially, to the rich man, poor Lazarus is invisible and sadly, as one commentator notes, the rich man is none the wiser for his death experience. Notice when he calls for relief from the fires of hell, he never directly addresses Lazarus. He still acts like he’s king of the castle and Lazarus is nothing more than a servant when he requests that Abraham order Lazarus to serve him.[vi] Even from Hades, his attitude hasn’t improved. Lazarus is still nothing more than an object; still nearly invisible. Which begs the question: “Who is invisible to us?” We may not have a beggar living on our door step, but are there other people around us whom we fail to really see?
Recently, I came across a compelling op-ed piece for the Houston Chronicle written by Brené Brown. Addressing how our crazy-busy, anxiety-fueled lifestyles affect others, she wrote:
Last week, while I was trying to enjoy my manicure, I watched in horror as the two women across from me talked on their phones the entire time they were getting their nails done. They employed head nods, eyebrow raises, and finger-pointing to instruct the manicurists on things like nail length and polish choices. I really couldn’t believe it.
I’ve had my nails done by the same two women for ten years. I know their names…their children’s names, and many of their stories. They know [the same about me]. When I finally made a comment about the women on their cell phones, they both quickly averted their eyes. Finally, in a whisper, the manicurist said, “They don’t know. Most of them don’t think of us as people.”
On the way home, I stopped at Barnes & Noble to pick up a magazine. The woman ahead of me in line bought two books, applied for a new ‘reader card,’ and asked to get one book gift-wrapped without getting off of her cell phone. She plowed through the entire exchange without making eye contact or directly speaking to the young woman working at the counter. She never acknowledged the presence of the human being across from her…
[Too often] I see adults who don’t even look at their waiters when they speak to them. I see parents who let their young children talk down to store clerks. I see people rage and scream at receptionists, then treat the bosses/doctors/bankers with the utmost respect.
And I see the insidious nature of race, class, and privilege playing out in one of the most historically damaging ways possible—the server/served relationship.
Everyone wants to know why customer service has gone to hell in a hand basket. I want to know why customer behavior has gone to hell in a hand basket. When we treat people as objects, we dehumanize them. We do something really terrible to their souls and our own.[vii]
I think Jesus would agree, don’t you? For in all of life, Jesus beckons us to follow him as he embodies what the Lord requires of us: to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God. Inherent in the Gospel of Luke is the great reversal of fortunes—so that the first become last and the last become first. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is a cautionary tale that offers us the golden opportunity to reflect on our relationship with our money and with those who are less fortunate than we are. Perhaps, at the very least, it might nudge us to be more diligent in showing basic common courtesy to every human being we encounter—no matter his or her status. Surely, if we try, we can find ways to see—really see—one another. No doubt, the Holy Spirit can show us how to break through the gates that would separate us so we can offer a smile, a kind word, a helping hand…
One day may these oh-so-familiar words be directed to each one of us:
Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”[viii]
If we seek to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, when our time comes to leave this old earth, we need not fear. We, too, shall rest in the bosom of Abraham. Amen.
[i] Luke 1:46,52-53
[ii] Luke 6:20-26
[iii] Scott Bader-Saye, Feasting on the Word, 116
[iv] The Message
[v] Rev. Bruce Prewer @ http://www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C55sun26.htm
[vi] Helen Montgomery Debevoise, Feasting on the Word, 118
[vii] Brene Brown, Daring Greatly, via KindleFire 148-149
[viii] Matthew 25:34-36
*Cover Art “The Poor Lazarus at the Rich Man’s Door” by James Tissott; Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons