- Chapel of St John the Divine
- September 29, 2019
- 09:00 AM
Sept. 29, 2019 Proper 21, C
This story about the rich man and Lazarus could be a parable, or a warning, or an old folk tale given new life. It depends on who you ask.
It doesn’t matter what kind of story it is. The message it gives us is loud and clear. We are to care for those in need. Even if there are no consequences, not caring makes us selfish and hard hearted.
This is not God’s punishment for us, but God’s vision of his love shared and celebrated with all people.
As we promise in our Baptismal Covenant, we will respect the dignity of every human being. This has been God’s will for us from creation.
Amos couldn’t make it much clearer. He rails against the rich who care only for themselves and do nothing to help the poor. And Deuteronomy we says that there will always be poor among us. So we are to open our hands generously to help.
This was one of the basics of Jewish community life. There were poor, there were beggars, there were sick, and there were those who had enough and could share.
The rich man, who doesn’t even deserve a name, was not living by this basic command to care for his neighbor. In fact, he probably didn’t even notice his neighbor, Lazarus, lying outside his door. He would have been left there by friends or family knowing that someone with as much as this rich man would help. Only he didn’t.
There are a few things in this story that would have jumped out at those hearing Jesus. It helps us to know them. Puts us more on a level with that crowd.
The rich man wore purple—the color worn by Roman nobles. Fine linen is worn by high priests. Dining sumptuously every day would be like our having a Thanksgiving dinner every day.
Hades was a pagan idea. Some Jews believed in an afterlife, but others believed in Sheol—the place of the dead. It was not a negative or frightening place.
Lazarus means “God helps.” For Jesus listeners this was a “good guy/bad guy” story. Easy to tell who’s who.
But, for those who believed that wealth was a gift from God and illness a punishment, it was not so easy.
We were created in God’s image and made for goodness, as God is complete goodness. (I commend to you the book, Made for Goodness, by Desmond and Mpho Tutu.)
If we are filled with God’s goodness, the obvious question is, why is there such badness in the world?
The badness comes from our nagging feeling that we are not good enough. That badness comes from our free will that gives space for God’s enemy, Satan, the tester, to fill us with doubt. When we only care about earthly treasure, and not the heavenly treasure in our Collect this morning.
There is a chasm between us and God that is filled with fear and doubt and the need to control our lives and not let God be in charge.
That chasm is depicted in Jesus’ story as being in the afterlife, but he meant us to see the chasm that we dig in this life, too. The chasm that we dig between us and God, and between us and those we consider different, not as good as we are.
The chasm is there between Lazarus and the rich man—a huge economic divide, but also a social divide that compassion doesn’t always cross.
The rich man is condemned not because he is rich, but because he can’t even see Lazarus lying at his gate. He doesn’t see him and he doesn’t respond with common decency to help. Doesn’t respect his dignity.
That chasm between Lazarus and the rich man is still around today. There are so many stories from our news that I could share, but none more powerful than this. There’s a poem by Rose Marie Berger that describes what happened because of a chasm in Hamlet, NC in 1991: (Note—I haven’t received permission to publish the poem, so here’s a recap)
There was a chicken processing plant in the town. It employed many women and “black folk.” It wasn’t a great job, but it helped them with their dream of “wanting their babies to eat half as good as what sat on that rich man’s table every evening ‘round supper time.”
But, the owner got greedy and paranoid about his chicken parts getting stolen by the workers, so he locked the doors once everyone was there in the mornings.
A locked processing plant—just waiting for a calamity. The calamity happened, and 25 workers died.
The poem continues, “the angels, who pay no mind to color, came and carried every single one of them up into the arms of Abraham.”
Mourners at the First Baptist Church cried out that slavery was over—but here it was still going on!
And probably not only in this factory, I’m afraid.
It concludes, “What all happened to the rich man was never much covered in the newspapers, but (the poem ends) the actual truth is his story’s been told before.” “The story’s been told before….”
Yes, we just heard it from Jesus.
The plant’s owners were indicted on manslaughter charges. That may have brought in a bit of human justice, but God’s justice says that this would never have happened in the first place, and the chasm that the rich man dug between himself and his workers would not have been dug. If he had lived by God’s justice the workers would have known compassion, not slavery.
That chasm is evident today in the food that is being taken from people by budget cuts. That chasm is evident every time a person who is “different” is bullied, or targeted or blamed, just because of the supposed difference.
The chasm is being filled by many volunteer hours of outreach such as Soup to the Docks and Sunday suppers. These are small signs of God’s kingdom, because wherever some have food and others do not, there is no kingdom of God.
There is a chasm instead.
We do something about that chasm when we live that very goodness that is God in us and live with thanks and compassion and love.
God is love, but we may have trouble feeling love for some of the folks we meet. Don’t let that get in the way– we are called to be love to them, God’s love, not necessarily to feel love but to act lovingly.
And Paul to Timothy! “As for those who in this present age are rich…..they are to do good, be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share…so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”
“The life that really is life” is a life lived to see the chasm in front of us and fill it with God’s love and compassion.