Lazarus and the Rich Man, a Sermon
(This is a sermon from 3 years ago. I think it still stands.)
We have been seeing these last weeks in the Gospel of Luke continuing admonitions about wealth and how it is to be used. The message is clear: use your wealth in this life for the benefit of others. We are called to lessen the loads of those who are under the thumb of whatever holds them hostage; we are called to be lavish in our rejoicing for them like the prodigal father and the woman who found a lost coin and threw a party. For Jesus told us last week, you cannot serve God and wealth. And the letter to Timothy reminds us today: The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.
Luke has a special message about money and stewardship and wealth, and to drive the message home, today we see the poor beggar Lazarus who died, starving and diseased, at a rich man’s very gate while that man ate wonderful meals and wore fine clothes and slept between clean linen sheets in his comfortable bedroom.
This is a scary story. It makes us fearful about whether or not it is God who fixes the chasm between the destitute and the rest of us in the next life because of the chasm that exists between the destitute and the rest of us in this life. As I said last week, the gap between rich and poor today is the highest it has been in the fifty years such statistics have been charted; in the light of the Gospel story today, we might feel uneasy about this.
I don’t think the divide in Hades, that chasm in hell, is the point of this story, though, for then it would just be about us and how we ought to be afraid of God. This story shows us a person with a name, Lazarus, one of God’s beloved, who suffers the consequences of the self-centered habits of a nameless one on whom fortune obviously smiled but who choose not to see Lazarus. Real people suffer because others do not or will not see them in their need; the message is that we ought to have compassion on others. The Scriptures have always told us this - read the Old Testament prophets and hear how God rails against those who sell the needy for a pair of sandals and crush the destitute into the dust. And Jesus echoes the prophets’ warnings through the stories we’ve been hearing these last weeks. How we use our money and our time and talents matters in God’s economy. This is our calling as God’s people - to be for others. Jesus urges us here to attend to the message. To hear and to be held accountable, now.
I don’t think it is God but the rich man himself who spent his life digging that chasm, just as Scrooge and Marley spent their lives forging and adding to the heavy chain that Marley the ghost rattled in the face of Scrooge when he appeared to him on Christmas Eve. We, like Ebenezer Scrooge, are to take heed now and understand we are meant to use our wealth in whatever amount or form we have it for the benefit of others and not all for ourselves. God’s own people are at risk because of our self-centered ways.
This story from Luke today makes me think, too, about how easy it has become to insulate ourselves from the destitute. We have laws that keep people from sleeping on our porches. We can spend our money putting fences around ourselves so that we don’t see what’s outside them. We can buy our way out of having to even cross paths with the poor. We have air conditioning so we can keep the windows closed and stay inside and watch TV. Those of us who don’t take public transportation don’t mingle with people of every class and situation on the bus or subway but drive alone in our cars with the windows rolled up, and we can ignore those people on the side of the road. I remember in Atlanta before the Olympics, the city got busy moving the homeless people out of the line of sight. Out of sight, out of mind.
And maybe, just a tiny bit like Scrooge, we might think that institutionalizing people is the answer. That will keep them off our doorsteps and into the hands of professionals. And it is true that some problems are so big it takes a something bigger than we are to address them, especially addiction and mental illness.
But here is another truth: Most of us are not hard hearted and mean. Many of us just really do not know what to do about the unrelenting need we see out there in the world. It is so overwhelming, and we wonder what we can even do to make a dent in it.
And often we worry, too. We worry that the world is full of people who are trying to con us out of our money, who will just waste the money on booze or drugs, who will give us a sob story and then hop into their Cadillacs and drive away, laughing, at our expense. We worry about being taken, and so we allow ourselves to get drawn into side issues and away from a place of compassion.
We just don’t know what to do. And so we may end up not doing much of anything at all. The need is so great and we want to use our resources wisely. We don’t mean to seem hardhearted about the chasm between rich and poor on this side of death. When we strip away our fears and defenses, most of us really do wish to be able to make a difference in the lives of the downtrodden. But we are beset with worries and we are distracted into side issues.
And so we insulate ourselves. We learn not to see, we learn to shut out, we learn to avert our eyes. We imagine we are not equipped anyway. We focus on other ways to be “responsible” with our assets.
This week the comic strip Doonesbury has taken on this very topic by having the billionaire investor cum philanthropist Warren Buffet visiting one of his billionaire buddies to enlist him to pledge with him and Bill and Melinda Gates to give away half their fortunes before they die. The guy he visits this week, Jim, tells him no as soon as he walks in the door. “No, Warren,” he says. Buffet says, innocently, “No, what?” Jim says, “I’m not giving away half my fortune to eradicate some random disease in Africa.” Buffet says, “Eradicate a whole disease? My goodness, why wouldn’t you want to do that? I’ll get you a list.” Jim replies, “OK, bad example. I meant something pointless.”
And then he goes on to give all the reasons why he’s not going to join the philanthropy effort. His family, his reputation, his need to feel powerful in response to the people who dissed him when he was a kid.
How do we learn not just to talk the talk but to walk the walk? How do we learn how to use our power for others? We may not feel that we are as rich as the rich man in this story, or Bill and Melinda Gates, but then again, if you make $35,000 a year then you are in the top five percent of the richest people in the world. The people at the Global Rich List website point out that for the same amount of money it might cost me to buy a new cell phone I could buy an entire mobile health clinic to care for AIDS orphans in Uganda. The people at Episcopal Relief and Development remind us that $15 buys a mosquito net that can save three children from contracting malaria, a disease that killed a million children in 2008.
Why wouldn’t I want to do that?
Of course, helping people halfway across the world is sometimes another way we ignore the person who is lying right outside our gate. We have to learn to not be afraid to see them, too, and to have compassion for our nearby neighbors, too, and not just for children in other countries we see in magazine and internet ads. We have to learn how to share our wealth and advocate for the downtrodden among us in addition to sharing with and advocating for the world’s poor. This is not an either/or but a both/and thing. Nor is it either/or that we help as individuals as opposed to becoming part of something bigger than ourselves to tackle problems too large for us to address individually. It all needs doing. And why wouldn't we want to do it?
But first we must learn to open our eyes to the need in the world without becoming overwhelmed by it and shutting down, either by averting our eyes altogether or by focusing on reasons why we can’t share or why people don’t deserve to be helped. And I’ll be honest that it is really easy to become overwhelmed in the face of unrelenting need. It’s easy to be afraid or get discouraged and to think that we can’t really help anything or anybody, so why bother.
This is why we pray every week after we receive the bread and the wine from this table for strength and courage to love and serve God. It takes strength and courage to get past our fears and engage in service to others. It takes strength and courage to be in relationship with people who are different from us. It takes strength and courage to recognize our own dependence upon God and our interdependence with others.
Two last things come to mind: First, we are all in need ourselves of love, of sustenance, of relationship, of a place in a community. If we can see that we ourselves need these things, then it becomes easier to see and respond to the needs of others. We find that we have a kinship with them after all. And second, if we have anything at all, then we have something to share.
I once heard a story about a woman who saw a young boy scavenging in the dumpster behind a fast food place as she was about to drive away. She stopped and handed him her bag of fried chicken and got back into the drive-through line to order another meal for herself. When she passed by the dumpster again, she saw the little boy sitting on the curb, sharing his fried chicken meal with a little cat.
The chasm is there, but we can stand in the gap. When we know that we ourselves are in need, we can more easily see and respond to the needs of others. And if we have anything at all, then we have something to share.