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For Sunday September 29, 2019

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)



Amos 6:1a, 4-7
Psalm 146
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31

As I sit down to write this essay, millions of young people around the world are pouring into the streets of their respective cities, demanding action on climate change.  From San Francisco to Sydney, New Delhi to London, Berlin to Nairobi, and Karachi to Warsaw, kids are out in force, insisting that their elders see what they see.  Namely, that the planet is in crisis, that time is running out, that the most vulnerable are already suffering, and that our long-established practice of valuing profit over people, and selfishness over stewardship, must end now.

As I watch these children school the rest of us in resolve and hope, I’m having many reactions at once.  One: grief that my generation (and the generations preceeding mine) have so epically failed these young people.  Two: fear at the prospect of what they face as they try to dismantle old, powerful, and deeply entrenched systems of greed, apathy, denial, and laziness.  And three: weariness.  Why?  Because it’s wearying to acknowledge how bad things really are.  It’s exhausting to stay engaged in a world full of risk, loss, brokenness, and suffering.  It hurts to see what God wants me to see.

Which is why, perhaps, the unnamed “rich man” in our lectionary reading this week chooses not to see what’s right in front of him.  In the parable Jesus tells in the Gospel of Luke, a rich man, dressed in purple and fine linen, “feasts sumptuously every day,” while Lazarus, starved and covered in sores, languishes at the rich man’s gate.  Though Lazarus is perfectly visible — he longs to gather even a crumb or two from the rich man’s ornate dining table — the rich man neither acknowledges Lazarus’s presence, nor alleviates his suffering.  In fact, the neighborhood dogs show the poor man more compassion than his wealthy human counterpart; they at least come and lick his sores.

Eventually, both men die.  Lazarus is “carried away by the angels to be with Abraham,” while the rich man ends up in Hades, where the hot flames leave him parched and desperate.  In a perfect reversal of his earthly circumstances, the rich man looks up and sees Abraham and Lazarus “far away,” enjoying every comfort.

 Meister Des Codex Aureus Epternacensis.

So he asks “Father Abraham” to send Lazarus over with some cool water to soothe his burning tongue, or, barring that, to send Lazarus as a messenger to his wealthy brothers, who are still alive on earth.  “Let Lazarus warn them,” he pleads, so that they’ll change their ways before it’s too late.

But Abraham refuses both requests.  The “chasm” separating Lazarus from the rich man is fixed — no one can cross over.  And the brothers?  The brothers have Moses and the prophets; they have everything they need in order to repent.  If they won’t listen to the wisdom already embedded within their spiritual tradition, Abraham says, “even someone rising from the dead will not convince them.”

Needless to say, this is a grim story.  A dire story.  But what I appreciate most is that it’s an urgent story.  It doesn’t mince words about what’s at stake.  It doesn’t pretend that our years are limitless and our options infinite.  This is a story about time running out.  About alternatives closing down.  This is a story for us.

On its face, the parable is about wealth.  Jesus has a great deal to say about wealth in the Gospels, and none of it is pretty.  But the message that reverberates for me — the key danger Jesus identifies in the pursuit of material comforts and riches — is the danger of blindness.  Of moral apathy and indifference.  Of a fundamental inability to see human need, human suffering, human dignity, and human worth — as real.

In life, it’s very likely that the rich man notices Lazarus.  At the very least, he manages not to trip over the guy each time he leaves his house.  Maybe — let’s give him some credit — he tosses Lazarus the occasional coin, or agonizes (as I do) over whether it’s good social policy or bad social policy to give cash to beggars.  Maybe he theorizes about “what kind of poor” Lazarus is.  “Lazy” poor or “deserving” poor?  Down on his luck, or “just” a drunk?  Truly sick, or pretending?  Maybe the rich man says a prayer for Lazarus on the Sabbath.  Maybe, when he’s with his wealthy friends, he brings up “the poor,” and they have an appropriately abstract conversation about “the problem” over dinner. 

 Eadwine Psalter Morgan Leaf M.521 Dives and Lazarus.

The problem is, none of this is the seeing Jesus calls us to.  To see is to risk the vulnerability of relationship.  Of kinship.  Of solidarity.  To see is to put aside forever all questions of worthiness, and recognize in the bleeding Other my own face, my own fractured dignity, my own pain, my own mortality.  To see as Jesus sees is to implicate myself fully in the stories of other people’s hunger, illness, terror, and shame.  

To see Lazarus, the rich man needs to recognize his own complicity in the poor man’s suffering.  He needs to admit that his own inability to say, “I have enough.  I have more than enough.  I have more than enough to share,” is directly responsible for Lazarus’s poverty.  Or — can we press even harder? — maybe the rich man needs to understand that his incapacity to grieve and rage for Lazarus is a fatal sign of his own impoverishment.  An impoverishment so total, no amount of linen, purple cloth, or fancy food can remedy it.  

This is radical seeing.  It is the kind of bold, courageous, and sacrificial seeing that scares us to death — precisely because it asks so much of us.  It asks everything of us, and well, good grief, who among us signed up for everything?  

What’s amazing about this parable is how much it takes for granted.  The story presumes that Lazarus is righteous and the rich man is not.  The story dignifies the poor man — not the wealthy one — with a name.  The story leaves no doubt in our minds that the rich man’s lifestyle is directly to blame for Lazarus’s hunger.  In every single way, Jesus reverses the hierarchies we live by.  

But here’s the scariest part of the story for me: even after death, the rich man fails to see Lazarus.  Privilege just plain clings to him — even in Hades!  Though he piously calls on “Father” Abraham, he refuses to see Lazarus as anything other than an errand boy: “Bring me water.”  “Go warn my brothers.”  No wonder Abraham tells him that the “chasm” separating the two realms is too great to cross.  Let’s be clear: God is not the one who builds the chasm.  We do that all by ourselves.

Perhaps like some of you, I grew up with a version of prosperity theology.  I was taught that material comfort is a sign of God’s blessing, and that while “doing my part” for those lying outside the gate might be nice, I have no ultimate moral or spiritual responsibility to tear down the gate.  

 The Rich Man and Lazarus.

It has taken me a long time to recognize how insidious this notion of “blessing” really is.  How contrary it is to Jesus’s teachings.  When I was growing up, no one ever told me that by locking human suffering out, I was locking myself in.  Locking myself into a life of superficiality, thin piety, and meaninglessness.  As our reading from the epistles puts it this week, the refusal to confront my own privilege, the refusal to bear the burdens of those who have less than me, is a refusal “to take hold of the life that really is life.”         

What I’ve learned from the brave, honest children of the world this week is that the truth hurts.  It hurts to see that I have feasted while others have starved.  It hurts to see that I have lived in ways that imperil the planet.  It hurts to see that I have averted my gaze while the suffering of others — of immigrants, of refugees, of black and brown mothers grieving their shot dead sons, of the homeless I pass daily in the streets of my hometown — continues.  I suppose it’s no coincidence that the least powerful among us — our children — are the ones leading the effort to avert the global crisis facing us all.  The vulnerable simply can’t afford to be indifferent.  

Perhaps this is why Jesus — our vulnerable Servant King — crosses over the great chasm again and again and again, offering us a way forward.  A way of selflessness.  A way of sacrifice.  A way of losing our lives in order to gain them.  

What else do we require?  We have Moses.  We have the prophets.  We have the parables.  We have the life, the death, and the resurrection of the Son of God.  Like the rich man in the parable, we have everything we need in order to repent, find grace, and offer healing love to the world.  What does this mean?  It means we are without excuse as we stand inside the gate.  What will we do next?  Where will our gaze linger?  What will we dare to see?

Debie Thomas:

Image credits: (1); (2); and (3) Orthodox Christianity.  

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