Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
January 29, 2019
Scripture: Luke 16:19-31
This month, we’ve been reading a bunch of the parables that Jesus told to his followers – these short stories that use everyday people and situations that are designed to teach people about God. Some of the parables would fall into what I would consider to be “happy parables” – like the lost sheep and the lost coin that we read at the picnic. Other parables have been much harder to understand and to learn from, like the unfaithful steward that we read last week – the story that I re-named as The Manager who Switched Sides.
This week, we’ve got another parable – the Rich Man and Lazarus – and this one seems to be pretty straight-forward on the surface. We have Lazarus, a poor man, covered in wounds, lying just outside the gate of a very wealthy man. Did you know that out of all of the parables that Jesus told, Lazarus is the only character to have a name? Right from the beginning of this short story, we’re being set up to cheer for Lazarus – he has a name, something that we can grab on to and identify him with. But as the story progresses, did you notice that Lazarus doesn’t say anything or do anything? Lazarus is named, but most of the story that Jesus is telling consists of a dialogue between the rich man and Abraham.
Lazarus begins the story lying outside of the gates of the rich man, covered in wounds which would have made him ritually impure in the eyes of religious and cultural norms; and his wounds are being licked by stray dogs which make him doubly impure. When I read this story this week, it made me think of a news piece that I heard on CBC radio earlier in the week, talking about the increase in crystal meth use in Saint John, and one of the symptoms of crystal meth is open sores. And so reading about Lazarus, my brain made a quick connection to those who are living on the margins in our time and place.
And Lazarus dies, and is carried off by the angels to the place of the dead where he rests with the ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah and Rachel and Bilhah and Zilpah. The rich man also dies, and is buried in what was likely a lavish funeral, and he goes to the place of the dead where he faces torment. We aren’t told the exact nature of the torment, but it is hinted that this involved flames and thirst.
At this point, this story illustrates perfectly that thing that Jesus repeats again and again – the last shall be first and the first shall be last. The one who enjoyed luxury and comfort on this side of death is now being tormented; while the one who lay in pain and poverty in life is now being comforted after death. A total reversal of fortunes.
Now the rich man, he still doesn’t get it. He calls out to the ancestors, to Abraham, begging him to send Lazarus to him to relieve his suffering. When Abraham points out that this is impossible, the rich man pleads with him to send Lazarus to his siblings to warn them to change their ways, and again Abraham says that this won’t work.
The rich man still doesn’t get it. In life, he didn’t do anything to relieve Lazarus’ suffering; and even after death, he still sees Lazarus as a person to be ordered around according to his whims. He still doesn’t see Lazarus as an equal, let alone more deserving of comfort. He still doesn’t get it.
We can leave it at that – an example story of don’t be like the rich man – but if we were to dig just below the surface, it can become a very disturbing parable indeed. Because we have to ask ourselves, even though we are cheering for Lazarus, in our day-to-day life are we more like Lazarus or are we more like the unnamed rich man?
This week, I came across a website that allows you to enter your income, and it tells you where you fall in terms of wealth on a global scale (www.givingwhatwecan.org). Now ministers are not the highest wage-earners in Canada, but when I punched in my annual salary after tax, my salary puts me in the top 5% of people in the world. Even when I knocked off the 10% offering that I give to the church, I still fell into the top 6% of people in the world.
And so when I look at where I fit in economically, on a global scale, I am sitting in a position much closer to the rich man in today’s parable than I am to Lazarus, and this thought is terrifying. And so I have to go deeper into this parable; I can’t just stay on the surface.
And so I ask, what was the rich man’s crime in Jesus’ story? Why, when he reached the place of the dead, was he subjected to torment? Because if he was deserving of the torment simply for having much while Lazarus had little, well, then, I think that we are all probably in the same boat as he was. There are so many people – close to home and around the world – who are living as Lazarus did, on the margins of existence, while we are living in relative comfort, knowing where our next meal will come from, and confident that we will have a roof over our head tonight.
So what else might have been the rich man’s crime? Was it that he wanted to help, but he didn’t see Lazarus lying there? But we know that not only did he see Lazarus lying there, he even knew Lazarus’ name. In the place of the dead, the rich man cries out to Abraham, asking him to send Lazarus specifically to cool his thirst and warn his brothers.
And so where does that leave us? That leaves us with a rich man who knew that Lazarus was there; who knew Lazarus by name; and yet who chose not to do anything to help Lazarus. And I think that this was where he went wrong; this was his crime.
We don’t have to look very far to see the Lazaruses in our world. We can look on the TV or the computer and see images from places in the world with famine and drought, we can see people fleeing from war, we can see economic refugees risking their lives to cross borders.
But there are Lazaruses closer to home too. Bette could tell you how many people are sleeping under the viaduct in Saint John, even in the dead of winter. How many people get their only meal through Outflow or the Romero Van. How many people are sleeping in the shelters, and how many people are turned away because the shelters are full. How many people are couch-surfing, unsure of where they will be sleeping the next night or the next week. And this parable calls on us to do something.
This parable calls us to share out of our abundance with the Lazaruses in the world. This parable calls us to advocate for changes to the systems that keep some people in poverty. I even think that this parable calls us to consider the Lazaruses of the world when we are choosing who we are going to vote for in next month’s election.
And we can do all of this out of fear of eternal torment like the rich man in the parable; or we can do it because God’s Holy Spirit is always transforming us more and more into the Body of Christ. And as the Body of Christ, we are called to spread God’s love in the whole world, wherever we find ourselves.
Can you imagine how the parable might have ended if, instead of lying outside the gate of the rich man, Lazarus was lying at the feet of Jesus? Can you imagine Jesus gathering Lazarus up in his arms, cleaning his wounds, putting clean clothes on him, and feeding him with good, healthy food? Can you imagine Jesus calling Lazarus “Brother,” and treating him with dignity and respect so that Lazarus knew that he was loved?
And if we are the Body of Christ in the world, the hands and feet and heart of Christ, are we not called to do likewise?
"With God, the world is turned upside down..."