September 29, 2019: The Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 21, Year C
September 29, 2019
The Rev. Anna C. Shine
Readings: Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strong rock and our redeemer.
I love today’s Gospel passage! It is a story unique to the Gospel of Luke, containing vivid imagery and nuanced lessons. Jesus turns a folktale into a parable in this Gospel reading. He introduces us to a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. The description shows the decadence of this rich man’s lifestyle. He doesn’t just feast sumptuously, he does this every day. Coupled with the fine linen in the royal color of purple, this man is immensely wealthy. He is a man of extreme privilege.
At his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table. The imagery used in this parable is powerful. We can visualize this man, Lazarus, crumpled over at the gate of this rich man’s home, desperately trying to ignore the pain and itching of the sores covering his body, while aching for food to fill his empty stomach. Adding insult to injury, even the dogs would come and lick his sores. Dogs were considered unclean, and so, although for some of us this picture of a dog’s compassion on someone in pain would seem sweet, in the context of this culture, it makes Lazarus that much more of an undesirable. He is a complete outcast.
So the characters have been introduced and the scene dramatically described when the first twist in the story arises. Both men die – Lazarus, the poor man, unburied, being carried away by the angels to be with Abraham, and the rich man, buried, finding himself being tormented in Hades. It is important to note here that this parable is not a commentary on the afterlife. Remember this is a folktale that Jesus is using and building upon in order to teach a lesson, presumably about wealth.
While being tormented in Hades, the rich man looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. Calling out to Abraham, he says, Father Abraham, 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. I can’t help but hear the syncopated rhythm of the song Jester Hairston wrote about “Poor Man Lazarus” at this point in the story. [“Poor man Laz’rus, sick and disabled. Dip your finger in the water, come and, cool my tongue, ‘cause I’m tormented in the flame”] Very catchy.
But there is an important detail that becomes apparent in this verse. The rich man knows Lazarus’ name! It becomes clear that the rich man knew of Lazarus sitting at his gate when they were alive. And yet he did nothing to care for Lazarus in his neediness. This is the real issue that is being pointed out. It is not that this man was extremely wealthy, but rather that this man did not follow the order of the law which calls us to care for the poor and the needy.
Remember, Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount has already been told at this point in the Gospel story. Add to this the knowledge that Abraham was a wealthy man, but considered a righteous man, a man of God, one of the fathers of the people of Israel. Wealth itself is not the issue. And this is what Abraham calls attention to in his response to the rich man: 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. There is a complete reversal of fortune in the afterlife of these men. This serves as a commentary on the common Deuteronomistic understanding that if you are wealthy and healthy in your life on earth, then you must have done something to please God, and vice versa. Think of the book of Job. His friends tell him he must have done something wrong, he must have sinned, because otherwise he would not have experienced the horrible things he was experiencing.
Jesus gives us this story as a reminder that what we experience in life is not directly correlated to our relationship with God, nor is it an indicator of our own piety or righteousness. As Father Allan preached last week, wealth is a tool, not a god to be served. It is a means to do the work that God has given us to do – as we pray in our post-communion prayer – “to love and serve you, as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.” And what Jesus constantly reminds us is that the service God calls us to is love! Love of God, love of neighbor.
We are never given a name for this rich man, which is not uncommon for Jesus’ parables – think, for example, of the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the Shrewd Steward. None of those parables have named characters. This allows the listeners to realize that the characters can represent themselves, they find themselves relating to some or all the characters. But the poor man is given a name in this parable, Lazarus – which means “God helps.” Perhaps it’s an interpretation in itself – God helps the needy, God helps the poor, God helps the outcast. But what is more significant is that, while Lazarus has a name, he does not speak in this story. He has no voice. No agency. Not once is he addressed personally and not once is he allowed to speak for himself. He is the object of this story. Other people talk for him or about him. And this is an accurate reality for the majority of marginalized peoples!
If we look closely at the passage, we also can see that the rich man’s privilege and hubris does not change after he dies. Even as he is tormented in Hades, he does not repent. He talks to Abraham as one who has always lived in a privileged position, and he once again ignores Lararus’ presence, except to ask Abraham to send Lazarus to his family to save them from the same fate. He essentially calls Lazarus to be his servant, to bring him water, and save his brothers. He asks for mercy, but does not acknowledge any misdoing or awareness of the privilege he held while withholding his extreme wealth from those who could have benefited from it. Abraham explains, besides 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. The chasm, however, is not just a chasm of space and distance. The chasm is in the rich man’s heart. He is unable to bridge the distance with compassion. Although he saw Lazarus and knew of his predicament, he never created the relationship to heal Lazarus, help him, and in the long run, save himself. In an attempt to save his brothers from the same fate, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to them to tell them to repent, thinking that a visit from a dead man should be enough to wake them up to their privilege. Abraham responds with the allusion to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection – If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets [i.e. if they haven’t gotten the message yet from the Law], neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.
And this is crucial, because that means that we can be culpable too. This parable isn’t just relevant to the Pharisees, to whom Jesus is talking. We, too, despite living in a post-resurrection world, can remain unaware of our privilege and allow this to cloud our actions and beliefs. In what ways have we, living in the various privileges we might hold, been blind to and objectifying those outside of our privileged perspective in life? What are the privileges we are blind to – Wealth? Education? Gender? Race? Sexual orientation? Religious affiliation? Ability of body or mind? There are so many to choose from, and it can seem overwhelming. But it is important for us to show up and listen to the Abraham’s of the world who are telling truth of the places where we need to repent. But we must not only repent. We must also lift up those underrepresented voices, use those privileges we do have to empower the marginalized.
And who is the rich man to our Lazarus? In what ways might we need to find our voices and be empowered ourselves? I invite you to reflect this week on the places of privilege we hold as a community as well as individuals. Where do we need to bridge the chasm in our own hearts to have compassion on the Lazarus’ of the world?
May God grant us the wisdom, courage, and ability to take the step beyond seeing the poor man, Lazarus, and move our hearts to return to that beautiful but difficult command to love. Always to love.