We’ve heard the Gospel lesson and a great spiritual written about it. Before you get anxious about that going “straight to hell” part, let me assure you that this story is not about the afterlife. When Jesus told this parable, it was meant to focus people’s attention on the here and now. Hearing this parable today, 2,000 years later, it’s meant to do the same. What does this parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus say about our lives today?
Maybe we’ll learn something by hearing the story again. Tell you what let’s do. Let’s divide into two groups. First group (choir side): Listen to the story as if you are the rich man. Second group (kitchen side): Listen as if you are Lazarus. Got it? Here we go.
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.
(To the “rich”) You’re rich, probably royal—you were born into wealth. You aren’t evil, just…insulated by your money and privilege. You enjoy the fruit of yours or some ancestor’s labor. Your wealth isn’t good or bad; it’s just the way things are.
20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.
(To the “Lazaruses”) You’re wishing you’d gotten here earlier to get a seat on the rich side, huh? You are a poor person, one who literally is spat upon. You are invisible. Though you lie at his gate every day, it’s doubtful the rich man ever has noticed you. For him, you simply don’t exist.
But you do exist. You’re a human being. Jesus draws attention to this fact by giving you a name: Lazarus. In fact, you’re the only person in ANY of Jesus’ parables ever named. You are a human being…
…one who is hungry. As the rich man feasts sumptuously, you beg for the bits left for the dogs under his table. As it turns out, the dogs are the only ones who care for you. They lick your sores, as they would lick their own wounds for healing.
So, how are you feeling, rich people? How are you Lazaruses feeling? Ready to change seats, Lazarus? Hold on. You might want to hear the rest of the story.
22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. (Rock-a-my soul in the bosom of Abraham; Rock-a-my soul in the bosom of Abraham; Rock-a-my soul in the bosom of Abraham. O, Rock-a my soul.) The rich man also died and was buried. (He went straight to hell.) 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.
Okay. So, the tormented rich man looked up, saw Abraham and Lazarus in that sweet little scene, then…
24He called out, ‘Father Abraham—Kim: Father ABRAHAM, right–have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ (Dip you finger in the water come and cool my tongue, for I’m tormented in the flames.)
Okay, Lazarus. How does that make you feel? You’re in paradise, all cozy in the bosom of Abraham, finally receiving comfort you never experienced in life…and there’s this rich man who never noticed you in life, who never once acknowledged your agony…He does at least see you now, he knows your name, but he won’t call you by it…no…He’s still trying to order you around…(or order Abraham to order you around). Who is this guy?
But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.
(Carole King: “It’s too late.”) It’s too late. The Rich Man has lost his chance to see the poor man, to help him, to share with him. It’s important to note that Father Abraham isn’t angry or punitive with the rich man here, he’s simply stating the obvious—that there comes a point beyond which generosity can not reach. There comes a point when you dig the moat so deep around you—or the grobin, Jim?—When you spend your life building moats and walls and gates and suburbs around yourself to insulate yourself from the people who make you uncomfortable, the people, in your heart of hearts, you’re afraid of becoming…when you dig a chasm around yourself to keep others out, well, that’s exactly what it does. It keeps others out. It becomes too vast to fill in, too wide to bridge. The chasm, the abyss gapes. Forever. Yeah. It probably is hell, in its way.
(Point out “chasm” between the middle sections.) Thanks to the choir’s help, we’ve created a representational chasm here in the sanctuary today. Take a minute and think—are there chasms in your life? Are there moats you’ve dug around yourself, to insulate yourself? Are there people you work hard to keep at arms’ length?
Who stands on the far side of your chasm? Who has tried to reach you, to no avail? Another way of thinking about it, Who are you glad is on that unreachable far side? To whom are you grateful no bridge will reach?
Where are the poor in relation to you? Or another way of asking it: Where are you in relation to the poor? Are you standing with them? Or have you dug a chasm between you and them? Have you so insulated your life that you don’t see the poor at all?
Author and UU minister Kate Braestrup talks about the time she missed the beltway inWashington,D.C., and ended up on the wrong side of town. To get where she wanted to go, she and her children had to drive through some scary neighbourhoods.
She writes: “When the light ahead turned red and the line of cars travelling upNew York Avenuestopped, a gaggle of homeless men shuffled off the sidewalk into the street. They began dabbing at windshields with dirty rags, beseeching drivers for money.
“I stared at the light, willing it to turn green before they got to me. This sort of thing doesn’t happen in Maine, I said fretfully to myself. I’ll give them money if I must, but I’d really rather the light just turned green. Come on, light. Turn green. Turn green.
“Then one man turned in my direction. He was making some loud, strange sounds, but he was not begging. His hair stuck out in clumps all over his head. Clad only in a pair of cutoff jeans, he wore no shirt, no shoes. His face and torso were thickly scarred, as if he had been badly burned. He had no arms.
“I pressed the button that raised the car windows the last half inch. I checked to make sure the doors were locked. The light turned green, and I drove forward. It wasn’t until I was passing under the traffic light that it dawned on me.
“’He had no arms,’ I said aloud.
“’What?’ the children said.
Shoot. Oh, shoot. “He had no arms,” I repeated.
“’Who?’ her daughter Ellie asked.
“’That man back there…he had no arms.”
“’Poor man,” said Ellie.
Poor man! He had no arms. He couldn’t hurt me. I didn’t need my fists, didn’t need to flee: What did I have in the car that he might need? What did I have that he might want? Juice boxes, cookies, money, Band-Aids, and baloney…but I checked the door locks and the windows to make sure they were closed against him.
“’Mama is crying,’ Woolie announced.
“Having seen, what could I do? Turn around, go back? Chase him down the street, this poor, differently-abled, mentally challenged person of color? Hey! I can see you now! You’re innocent, truly a child of God! Oh, please, can I give you a Fig Newton?
“It was too late. He was gone.” (Beginner’s Grace, 81-82)
We’ve had some fun playing the roles of the rich man and Lazarus, but the real invitation of this parable is to identify with the rich man’s five brothers.
He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
We are the rich man’s siblings. Despite how the economy might make us feel, we are inhabitants of the first world. We do have power in the world. And I doubt that for most of us here this morning, this is the first sermon we’ve ever heard about the poor. The truth is, I could preach many more of these sermons…we could do power points, sing songs, hear testimonies, watch movies, even take mission trips…but in the end, the only thing that will change any of our hearts about the poor, the only thing that will help us to take off our blinders and see, really see, the poor, is our own desire to do so.
So, how about it? Where are you standing in relation to the poor? Are you satisfied with that location? Would you like to change locations, fill in the moat, bridge the gap? If so, you might want to get to work….before it’s too late.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness.
Amen. Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2011
What I left on the cutting room floor….
I came across some questions the other day that have caused me to stop and think—really think—about my relationship with the poor. (These questions came from the version of the Spiritual Exercises I’m doing…see www.creighton.edu/retreat)
What evil continues because of me?
How have I been deaf to the cry of the poor?
How have I insulated myself, lived in my own world so that I don’t get bothered by the need of others?
How does my comfort cost others?