Note: This was a difficut text and we had good discussion of it after church after which I made a small edit in the text to clarify what was intended (in bold near the end). Thanks expecially to Tom Tracy for the insignts and cautions about the problems with dualistic thinking in the story. Comments invited and welcomed!
Also, the story at the beginning was told, not read. So, it is not here. Happy to share it if you’re interested. – Klara
TEXT: Luke 16:19-21 – The rich man and Lazarus
[Story – Don Nickerson and the street women’s birthday flowers.]
We have a Gospel story today that is pretty unique.
Luke is the only Gospel to include this parable.
In no other parable is a character given a name, and the one that is named is the poor man, not the rich one. (Women and those who are poor or ostracized are usually not named in the Gospels.)
There is more than the usual amount of detail, rich and sharp, enough that you can paint a clear picture of the scene in your mind: (The Message)
All these are signs that the writer of Luke is clearly trying to make a point, and he wants us to pay attention!
Some context: There has been an abrupt shift from the previous story of the shrewd steward. That parable was addressed to the disciples. This one about the rich man and Lazarus is addressed to the Pharisees. The world view of the day presumed that if you obeyed God, you were blessed, and if you strayed from God’s ways, you were cursed. Poverty and illness proved it. The position was defended theologically and indeed, in Deuteronomy and other scripture, that case can be made. It is a “prosperity gospel” – you get what you deserve – we still hear
it today in some religious circles. So in the parable, the Pharisees identify with the rich man. They understand the rich man’s wealth simply as evidence of Gods favor and the poor man’s condition as evidence of God’s judgment. For them, it might even be said that one should not help Lazarus because to do so would be interfering with God’s punishment!
But wait, when both men in the story die Lazarus is carried away by angels to Abraham. The rich man however, after being buried, ends up tormented in Hades. WHOAH! To the Pharisees, this would be preposterous, contrary to their understanding of scripture. Once again in their eyes, Jesus is turning over the tables.
In Luke though, Jesus never over-rides the law and prophets, he only shines a light on a different interpretation. He has just said “Not one stroke of a letter of the law” is to be dropped. Luke’s Jesus over and over again, challenges the prevailing view, not the scripture itself. And that is exactly what he is doing with this parable – addressing the Pharisees who loved wealth and mocked his position. “NO!” he says to them. “There is no reward for obeying the law, and poverty is not a punishment – There is another way to look at this. Have you not listened to Moses and the prophets? It is the rich man who is in the wrong, but not for being rich. He is wrong because he did not use his tremendous wealth to help Lazarus when he had the opportunity to do so.”
And indeed there is a lot in scripture to support this case too. In Deuteronomy, Leviticus, and Isaiah there is no lack of direction given… share the harvest with the poor, open wide your hand to the needy, break the yoke, let the oppressed go free, give bread with the hungry, clothe the naked…
That seems to be the consensus of commentators on this week’s Gospel. But neither option seems good to me – so here is one more thought. Jesus not only told his disciples what to do, in the Beatitudes for example, but he showed them through encounters his with others how to live a committed, compassionate, loving life. He practiced what he preached by modeling an incarnational, transformational, relational community life with the least of these or these.
The rich man walked right over Lazarus, every time he entered or left his house. He gave him nothing to eat, not even crumbs, no water to drink, no bandages for his sores. Lazarus was invisible to him. Now, imagine Jesus encountering the Lazarus in this story. He wouldn’t just toss some food to Lazarus in an act of charity. Jesus would have knelt down, looked Lazarus in the eyes and talked with him, perhaps touched his cheek tenderly or hugged him, shared what food he had, given him a cloak, asked him what he needed, and even healed him. He would have shown him the compassion and love of God.
The debate about money and how to treat the poor continues to this day, most notable lately in our political discussions. But Jesus showed us that it is not about judgment and reward, but about love and helping others however you are able, simply because they have needs. The words of (only) one commentary I read this week catches it:
“The Scripture says, contrary to the ideology of the overclass, that the Lord Jesus will not ask us on the final day how we fared in the meritocracy. He will not ask how many networks we worked, how many deals we closed, or what our body-fat content was. He will not even ask our I.Q. He will ask us how much we loved the ones who needed what we had to give them. How much did we love them – not because they deserved it, not because they merited it, not because the “least of these” needed reforming. But because, somehow, we needed them as much as they needed us – to keep us all human. Beyond that, these Lazaruses were Jesus in disguise. Jesus incognito. The Son of Man in rags, with open sores, and with a belly that growled with hunger. God in need of human love.
Like the street woman to my friend Don, the one who is a recent Lazarus to me is a young woman who comes to the Center to get hygiene items once a month… You have heard me pray about her. She sits quietly, head down, no eye contact as she waits. There is a number tattooed on her face. Finally one day I asked her about the tatoo. It is her number from prison. She put it there to remind her when she looks in the mirror, not to do again what got her into trouble. In the ensuing conversation I sensed a very gentle, but lonely, wounded and rightly untrusting soul. Slowly, hopefully, trust will build and we will see her more often. It is for women like her that we need Sophia’s House, but to do it well, we need her with us on the journey. Right now our job is to at least see her and be there for her if/when she comes.
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P.S. One note about my exterior and interior journey this summer that relates to how we can become more Christ-like in our responses to the world.
RETREAT: in Chicago with Parker Palmer. Two books –
Hidden Wholeness: Journey Toward and Undivided Life and Healing the Heart of Democracy
“ON BEING” this morning…Parker with Courtney Martin – The Inner Life of Rebellion