September 25, 2022
One of the helpful things about Jesus’s parables is that, so much of the time, they are pretty open to interpretation. We can imagine and reimagine the scenarios to look at them from different angles. We can ask questions of who the characters represent, and how we fit into the story. And when we can mix up the elements of the parable each time we hear it, it makes it so that one parable can have dozens of possible lessons for us to learn. And then there are parables like the one this morning.
Jesus paints a stark picture of a rich man, living it up with feasts and parties; and a poor man, silently suffering by the rich man’s gate. When they both eventually die, the poor man Lazarus is carried off to heaven to rest on Abraham; and the rich man goes to hell. There is not a lot of wiggle room as to what this parable means. There aren’t enough characters to take away a lot of different lessons. And much like when Jesus says hard things we have historically not wanted to hear, there is a tendency to either soften Jesus’s words, turn them into such a broad allegory that they are meaningless, or ignore them. But the parable is still here. And any time we get confronted with challenging lessons from Jesus, I think it’s our duty to come at them head-on. Jesus calls us to nothing less. So let’s talk about Lazarus and the rich man.
This parable comes right after the lesson we heard last week, when Jesus ended his elaboration on the parable of the dishonest manager with the warning “you cannot serve God and wealth.” This week, we’re hearing a parable that he uses to illustrate that point. In it we have the rich man (who goes unnamed) who lives a good life. He has plenty of food, to the point that he is feasting every day with his siblings. He wears purple and linen—the equivalent of only the best of high fashion today. And every day when he comes home, there is a man sitting by the gate to his household: Lazarus.
Now, Lazarus doesn’t live the good life. In telling the parable, Jesus makes it clear that Lazarus doesn’t even have enough agency to get himself to the gate; he was put there by someone, probably in hopes that the rich man would pity him. But day after day, week after week, the rich man ignores Lazarus. This person, this human being, gets more mercy from the dogs who lick his sores than from the rich man who has every resource to help him. How could the rich man manage to ignore Lazarus like that?
Wealth, it turns out, allows us to insulate ourselves from the needy. And it’s not just gated communities intended to keep out “undesirable” people; or wealthy elites who don’t understand what it means to work a minimum wage job; or taking the interstate to avoid driving through a bad part of the cities. When we have resources in abundance, it becomes harder and harder to notice (and often, to care about) those who do not have.
When we have the means to take care of our health and see the doctor when needed, we usually do it without a thought to those who are forced to only use the emergency room when their chronic condition gets catastrophic. When we have easy access to a car, it’s a rare day when we really think about how those without that resource manage to get around, or what can be done to help them. When we can rely on a quick response to storm damage, even when the power goes out, it makes it very easy to not pay attention to places like Puerto Rico where one hurricane can knock out the power for months at a time. Like the rich man in the parable, we can get so used to looking at our own abundance and safeguarding it that we never look to the side to see the ones who don’t have what we have.
The prophet Amos was trying to get the rich people of Israel to look at their poor neighbors. In his day, Israel was doing very well—it was at peace and benefited from being right on a major trade route. The wealthy of the country kept doing better for themselves, and didn’t pay attention as their pursuit of wealth drove their neighbors deeper and deeper into poverty. So Amos issued a warning: their days of ease were numbered. When the bottom gives out, the top falls that much harder. And when the days of peace were over, Amos warned, the rich would be the first to be carted off into exile. But there was still time, if they repented and used their wealth to help their neighbors in need.
That, ultimately, is what landed the rich man in hell. It wasn’t his wealth. It wasn’t his sumptuous feasts. It wasn’t even his purple and linen. It was the way that he served wealth rather than God. He didn’t listen to the words of the prophets like Amos or the Law handed down by Moses. He got so wrapped up in his own service to his wealth that he ignored the very reason he was given wealth to begin with: to take care of people like Lazarus, and to see them when they were at his gate. The uncomfortableness of this parable is that Jesus seems to be giving us all a stark warning that we won’t be given forever to right the wrong of ignoring the poor. But there is good news.
We’ve been given the warning. Unlike the rich man, we know right now what we need to do. Unlike his brothers, we have someone who came back from the dead to show us the way to life. And that means we have time to repent from the sin of ignoring the poor, even if that need to repent is urgent. We have time to help those who don’t have the benefit of good healthcare, or access to a car, or reliable power. We have time to notice the Lazaruses in our midst, the ones we may be uncomfortable approaching, but who are still children of God given to us to care for. We have time, Jesus gives us the urgency, and we have the grace of God to try.
And what’s more, we don’t have to save the world. That’s God’s job. But where we are, with what we have, the way that we can—this is how God has called us to share our blessings. These are the people God has called us to walk with. These are the people God has called us to see. Whether that looks like sharing our blessing of a ride with a neighbor who doesn’t have a car; or using our blessings to feed an entire school for a year—what matters is that we see those in need and we use our blessings to meet that need. Opening our eyes to those in need is the way God invites us to participate in saving the world.
So take the time to consider all the blessings that you have, and take the time to notice and really see the people, your neighbors and siblings in Christ, who don’t have those blessings. Follow Christ’s lead in vulnerably and humbly serving others, being generous with what you have because God has been generous with you. Share the love, the mercy, and the blessings of resources and access that you have been given with others, so that no one will end up sitting at a rich man’s gate, comforted only by the dogs. Put yourself in the vulnerable position of caring more for the people that God has given to you to care for than preserving the wealth of blessings you’ve been given. And listen to Jesus, heeding his warning when he reminds you to serve God by caring for the least of these.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
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