Sermon; Proper 21C; Luke 16:19-31
Today we have the second of two parables revolving around wealth. The first came last week with the story of the shrewd manager; and if you don't remember that story, it's because we interrupted our regularly scheduled readings to transfer the Feast of St. John. Today's story is the well-known parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
To recap . . . Lazarus lives in pitiful conditions outside the rich man's gate where he receives no aid whatsoever. They both die and Lazarus ascends to heaven while the rich man descends to hell. The rich man pleads for mercy, receives none, and then begs for Lazarus to be sent as a messenger to his siblings. The clinching line is, “If they didn't listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone rises from the dead.” – An obvious allusion to the resurrection of Jesus.
As usual there is a lot going on in this passage, but I want to focus on the interaction between the rich man and Lazarus.
Jesus paints a picture for us of the rich man. He doesn't just say he's rich, but that he dresses in purple and fine linen, giving us a picture of royalty. Purple was the most difficult color to manufacture, therefore it was the most expensive of fabrics. He also feasted sumptuously every day, giving us a picture of someone who never had a PBJ in his life. And he lives in a gated community.
Notice, though, that Jesus never condemns the rich man for being rich. He never tells us that the acquisition of wealth is a bad thing. He just channels his inner Joe Friday and gives us the facts – he was rich, he dressed well, he ate well, and he lived in a gated community. Nothing wrong with that.
Lazarus, on the other hand, is a poor man who has camped out by the gate of the rich man. He is covered with sores. He can't afford to receive medical treatment, so he relies on dogs to come and care for him by licking at those sores. He longed to satisfy his hunger with the scraps from the rich man's table, but was never able to. This scene has always reminded me of the opening scene in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” where Nick Nolte's character is digging through the trash bins looking to feed himself and his dog.
As the story continues, they both die, Lazarus ascending to heaven and the rich man descending to hell. Note, though, that the rich man doesn't go to hell for being rich. The rich man goes to hell for being blind.
In August of 2001 my family moved to Evanston, IL, just north of Chicago. The first time we were in the city my daughter wanted to help every destitute person she saw. It was distressing to her to see so many people in need being ignored by so many more. But the longer we lived there, the more we got used to it. Keep your head down. Look straight ahead. Don't look anyone in the eye. Don't acknowledge anyone.
This was the sin of the rich man.
Yes, he probably suffered from the sin of greed. Yes, he probably suffered from the sin of gluttony. He may have committed the sin of theft. He probably committed a whole host of other sins we can only imagine. But the most egregious sin was in not recognizing, or even seeing, a fellow human being.
Maybe it was due to the social strata of the day. Maybe it was due to contempt. Maybe it was due to fear. But whatever the reason, the rich man was blind to the poor man lying outside his gate.
This parable isn't about the evils of being rich. This parable may be about how we choose to use or not use our riches. This parable is most certainly about how we see and relate to our fellow human being.
That is the question before us today: How do you see or not see your fellow human being?
One of the things I appreciate about Community Cafe, which we just hosted yesterday, is how it's set up. There are plenty of feeding programs set up like a cafeteria assembly line where the people come through, getting plates dished up, with little to no interaction. We're different. We set people at tables and interact with them. They are invited to receive personal hygiene items. Waitstaff takes their order and brings them their food. A dessert tray is brought to their tables. I wander around meeting and greeting. In short, they are not pieces of an assembly line, but they are people to be seen.
Years ago I remember a story of a homeless man sharing his experiences. He said something along the lines of, “If you can't or won't help me, that's fine; I don't expect everyone to give me money or food. But don't ignore me. At least tell me you can't help.” He had a deep desire to be seen and to be given the common courtesy of being recognized as a fellow human being.
A lawyer asked Jesus, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment?”
And Jesus replied, “ 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' And the second is like it, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'.”
Today's parable is reminding us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Today's parable is reminding us that if we are blind to the people around us, then we fail to live out this commandment. This parable reminds us that we are to respect the dignity of every human being, whether they be a rich man in purple robes or a poor man lying at our gate.
We might not be able to solve the poverty problems, but we should certainly be able to see those around us who are in need. And by seeing them we can begin to recognize their humanity and worth based solely on the fact that they, also, were created in the image of God.
It doesn't cost us anything to treat others with dignity and respect; but it will hurt us immensely if we willingly remain blind to the world around us.
Open your eyes, for the world is at your gate.