Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian for the Twenty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time.
‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.
The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.”
But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”
He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.”
Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.”
He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”
He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’
I do not remember when I learned not to make eye contact with people asking for help on the streets.
I am sure no one taught me explicitly—certainly not my loving, compassionate parents. My hometown of Salem doesn’t tend to have folks on the streets, either asking for money or simply claiming a spot to sit, but I spent enough time visiting Washington DC as a kid to be exposed to people sleeping on cardboard or holding coffee mugs full of pennies in their hands. No one told me not to make eye contact with them, but somehow that is the lesson I learned anyway. Perhaps because the crowds rushing around the city all kept their eyes straight ahead, and I learned from the crowds.
Somehow, somewhere, those of us who do not rely on spare change for our meals agreed that the best way to deal with the problem of people in poverty, when they are right in front of us, is to ignore it. Perhaps we are embarrassed by people on the streets, embarrassed by the reminder of our relative luxury and privilege. Perhaps we are embarrassed for the people on the streets, that they have not achieved the kind of dignity we so dearly value for ourselves. Perhaps we think it would be rude to look. Perhaps we think it would be dangerous to look. Or perhaps we have grown so used to their presence that we hardly notice anymore.
Last week’s parable had me all knotted up because it was so hard to understand. This week’s parable has me all knotted up because it’s so easy to understand.
Jesus’ story this week is told in broad brush strokes—it’s almost cartoonish, to some degree. We have a rich man—high-end clothing, a personal chef, arrogant at every turn, and a poor man, sick, starving, pitiable. Jesus is playing with stereotypes here, and there is, as always, danger in that, but this is a parable, not a literary novel.
Somewhere along the way, the rich man learned the same lesson I did: you don’t make eye contact with the guy sitting on the cardboard mat, even if he sits at your front door. It’s just simpler that way.
So every day the rich man steps over Lazarus on his way home, and over the days and months and perhaps even years he probably stopped noticing him at all. Lazarus might as well have been part of the landscaping.
The rich man doesn’t see that Lazarus is a human like him, a human in pain. If he sees anything, he sees a nuisance, an embarrassment, a stray animal begging for scraps. The Greek underlines the rich man’s point of view—Lazarus’ hunger is described as the hunger of a dog for leftovers. In the rich man’s eyes, Lazarus’ poverty and illness make him less than human.
Then something happens to remind the reader that both Lazarus and the rich man are undeniably human: they die.
A word of caution at this point—readers of the Bible tend to get very excited whenever images of heaven and hell make an appearance. We have a natural curiosity about life after death. Unfortunately, this parable is probably not the place to go looking for answers. The afterlife may be no more like this story presents it than the kingdom of God is actually like a mustard plant. This parable is meant to get us thinking about now, not give us a sneak peek into next.
Here we have a total reversal of roles: Lazarus, who in his life was alone and in pain, is comforted in Abraham’s arms. The rich man, who in his life had every luxury, is tormented by fire. But that fire—it forces him out of his complacency, out of his tunnel vision, and for the first time, he sees Lazarus.
This is what the parable says: “In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.” In life, the rich man would not look at Lazarus although he was right in front of him; now he is willing to strain his eyes to catch a glimpse of him.
More than that, it is now the rich man who takes his place among the invisible. Hades is the realm of the dead in Greek myth, and it’s appearance in our gospels shows the influence the Greeks had on the Jews. But it also comes from a word that means unseen—Hades is the home of those we can no longer see.
Lazarus experienced his hell on earth. The rich man now takes his place. You would think that between empathy and the agony of the flames, the rich man would be full of remorse. You’d think he’d cry out to Lazarus for forgiveness.
Except he does not.
Because he doesn’t just see Lazarus, he also sees Abraham—Abraham the patriarch of the Jews, Abraham who himself was a wealthy man, a man of power and prestige. And that’s where the rich man directs his attention—to his “equal,” the kind of man he probably traded favors with on earth.
“Father Abraham,” he says, “have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.”
It almost sounds like prayer. It almost sounds like piety. And yet the rich man still hasn’t brought himself to see that Lazarus is a person, and not a dog to be ordered around. He looks at Lazarus, but still all he can see is his own needs. The rich man is so blind to Lazarus’ personhood that even in Hades he can’t bring himself to ask for help directly from someone so beneath him—who, ironically, is now far above.
Abraham spells it out for him: their roles are reversed. The rich man is in pain precisely because he left Lazarus in pain during his life.
But the rich man still thinks he should get special treatment. He asks Abraham to raise Lazarus from the dead, so that Lazarus can shock his brothers into better behavior.
Now, let that sink in a moment: this guy thinks he’s so special, that his family’s wealth is so powerful, that Abraham (who, let’s remember, is not God) is going to raise someone from the dead just for them. As ridiculous demands go, this tops the cake. Of course, God is already planning a resurrection: but this resurrection will be for all, not just for the wealthy and powerful.
Abraham reminds the rich man that his brothers have their holy scriptures, Moses and the prophets, chock-a-block full of directives to care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger. If they insist on being blind to the poor, it is not because their faith has not adequately directed their attention there.
The story ends there, and it leaves me squirming. If the rich man ends up in the flames for ignoring one poor man, where does that leave me, with the hundreds of people I have passed by on the streets?
Like I said, I don’t believe this is a parable about what happens after we die. I believe in the grace of the cross; I believe in the forgiveness of sins; I do not believe we can earn our way to heaven by spare change passed out on the sidewalk. Yet I also believe that God calls us love our neighbor as ourselves, to care for the last, the lost, and the least, as a way of sharing that grace we have been given.
This parable holds my feet to the fire, as much as the rich man’s were. It doesn’t let me get away with platitudes or excuses. This parable calls on me to see my neighbor—really see them.
I find it fascinating that of all the parables in all the gospels, Lazarus is the only character who receives a name. I do not think that is an accident, in a parable that is all about who is seen and who is invisible.
The simple moral of this story—and it is not a bad moral to draw—is that we are called to care for the poor. More than that, though, we are called to see the poor—and see them not as “the poor” but as our neighbors, our brothers and sisters in Christ, fellow children of Abraham. We are called to know them as Lazarus, as Ethan, as Mandy, as Rod.
Seeing our neighbors is more than just handing out cash—in fact, I have often seen people hand out cash explicitly so people will go away. Seeing our neighbors means seeing why there are Lazaruses at our gates—means looking hard at all the cracks people slip through. It means looking at schooling. It means looking at mental health care. It means looking at veteran support. It means looking at domestic violence prevention. It means looking at health care access. It means looking at addiction support. It means looking at predatory lending practices. It means looking at cycles of poverty.
I do not think people refuse to look at those who sit on the streets because we are cruel, arrogant, callous people—although that is always a possibility. I think we do not look because we are afraid that if we looked we would be overwhelmed; that if we let ourselves get involved with Lazarus, his world would end up engulfing ours. We fear to feel his pain.
And yet that fear keeps him in pain, and if we are one in Christ, than it keeps Christ in pain, too.
I think it is important that Jesus tells this parable about two guys, just two guys. Jesus could have said there was a rich man who was constantly bombarded by all the poor of the city and turned them all away, and the gist would have been the same. But no, Jesus says there was one guy, one guy named Lazarus, and the rich man could have helped him, could have gotten to know him, could have seen him as a fellow human. One man. Just one.
Perhaps there is a Lazarus in your life, one person God has placed near you. Start with them. See them. Look for them.
Perhaps there is one issue God has placed in your heart—education or veteran support or mental health care or any of the great web of human needs. Start with it. Look for ways to make a difference. This church has already begun that work with Food for Thought, and I am so grateful for your ministry there.
When I moved to Richmond, I realized that people with cardboard signs in the medians would be part of my daily life. At first I was resentful; I wanted some kind of sign to put in my car that said I give to homeless relief, I volunteered at a shelter, I’ve done my part. I shouldn’t have to do more.
Then I made a pact with myself—or perhaps it was a pact with God. I would look at these people. I would see them. Even if I didn’t have anything to offer them—or even when I did have cash and chose not to offer it, which is sometimes a choice I make—I would make eye contact. I would recognize that they are God’s children.
I can still picture some of them. The guy in the light denim jacket whose sign read, “Smile! It’s not that bad.” The older blonde woman on the way to the grocery store. The guy with his bicycle just off the interstate.
I am sorry that I do not know their names, or their stories. But I know that God knows them, and treasures them.
And I pray that when I pray, it is not that someone else might bring me water, but that God would hold my feet to the flames, and remind me to see as God sees, and not to be afraid.
For God who sees us and loves us all, sinners and saints and everyone in between, I give thanks. Amen.