Text: Luke 16:19-31
Today our scriptures ask us to continue to ponder familiar themes from the Gospel of Luke: reversals, wealth, and God’s love for the poor. Luke chose to emphasize these themes in the way he tells the story of Jesus and we’ve been seeing them play out week after week. For Luke, it is important to remember that God turns things upside down - that God upends the world’s values so that, as Mary sings in the Magnificat at the very beginning, the mighty are pulled down from their thrones and the humble and meek are lifted up, that the hungry will be fed while the rich go away empty. It’s important to remember that Jesus’s first teaching according to Luke was to announce that he came to bring good news to the poor. It’s also important to Luke to deal with the issue of wealth and what we are to do - and not to do - with our wealth. We heard a few weeks ago, for instance, about the man who wanted to build bigger barns in order to hoard his fantastic harvest of wheat instead of sharing it with others, a man Jesus called a fool. Last week this was brought home powerfully when Jesus plainly said you cannot serve God and wealth. But if you will remember, it wasn’t that wealth itself that is the problem, it’s hoarding wealth, it’s focusing on wealth as our ultimate concern that means we become captive to it. And so you can’t serve God and wealth but you can make your wealth serve God.
Taking those themes into account, then, the story we hear today about the rich man and Lazarus is not a story about what happens to us after we die. It’s about what ought to happen to us while we are alive. It’s a story about how we are made for relationship and community, about what our obligations are in our relationships and to our community - not so that we will go to heaven when we die but because God has told us that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves when we are alive.
Jesus seems to be making the point, too, that while God sees the poor, we often do not. We don’t have to - we have that luxury. The rich man had gates and wealth and importance and he apparently had no trouble not seeing poor Lazarus on his doorstep. And we also have gates and other ways in which we can insulate ourselves from others. We can ride in our temperature controlled cars with the windows rolled up instead of on the bus with those who cannot afford a car. We can sit in our homes and watch our tvs instead of hanging out on a park bench with those who don’t have a home. We can eat in an exclusive restaurant and not see the people looking through the dumpsters out back. We in our privilege can choose not to see the poor. But God sees them, and God loves them, and I think today Jesus wants to ask us to make the effort to try to see and love them too, because the kingdom of God is like a society that does not have this huge gap, this chasm really, between rich and poor, that we have in our society today.
And if you don’t think you are rich, here are some numbers to put things in perspective. If you are a household of two people and your income is $16,000 a year, you are richer than 75% of all the people in the world. If you make $35,000 a year, you’re in the richest 10% of the global population. Of course in the United States, these percentages are different because our society is pretty affluent compared to many other countries, but still, here in Virginia more than 25% of all single parent families with children live in poverty. The gap between the richest and the poorest is truly a chasm, not only globally but locally, and God sees that, too.
One of the ironies of our society today is that despite our privileges, our wealth, and our ability to be connected to more people than ever thanks to ever expanding mobility and technologies, we are lonelier and more isolated than ever, too. It turns out that not only do we not see the needs of others but we also often do not see our own need for love, relationship, meaningful connection, a place in a community, and we don’t seem to be able to be intentional about cultivating these things. Many of us don’t really know even our literal next door neighbors, much less our family of God neighbors. We don’t know how to connect.
Maybe if we could see that we ourselves need these things, we might be more likely to see and respond to the needs of others. We might find a kinship with the family of God, a kinship with our neighbors who are on the other side of those gaps or chasms. We might find we could stand in the gap and be a channel of connection if we understood that we need connection and support and sustenance and a place in community, too.
But we also have to come to grips with our privilege and be willing to look at the skinny guy poking through the dumpster or the woman surrounded by shopping bags slumped on the bench or the child too young to be riding alone on the bus and see them as God’s beloved who are disconnected and suffering. We have to be willing to take a risk to connect with compassion. We have to be willing to decide to love our neighbor in meaningful ways, not as a ticket to heaven, but as the way of life on earth.
I said it last week and I say it again - Jesus said that we are to love our neighbors just as we love God and just as God loves us. Jesus said he had good news for the poor. We are that good news, right now, here, on earth.