First Reading Amos 6:1a, 4-7
Psalm Psalm 146
Second Reading 1 Timothy 6:6-19
Gospel Luke 16:19-31
"The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind; the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down." Ps 146:7
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today's gospel gives us a contrast of different worlds: extravagant luxury and abject poverty, privilege and suffering, the included and the outcast, heaven and hell, reveling in money and rejoicing in God. There are choices, reversals, and consequences. As parables often illustrate and offer a lesson, it is up to us to explore these worlds. We must learn how to recognize opposing worlds in the situation Jesus describes, as well as in our own lives, and discern how to act. We might jump to an early conclusion that we must act right in order to secure our eternal future. Perhaps, but we must also explore our motivations ... the reasons why we make certain choices. Karl Barth argued "eternity is now" (nunc aeternum), the Kingdom is at hand. Eternal life is not only something we look forward to. It is something that has arrived, because Christ has arrived and brought eternity into our midst. It is not enough to simply share with the poor in order to check a box on our righteousness recipe and avoid hell. Barth's words suggests a unique Christian perspective on life and the material things of the world ... things are passing, and passing away ... we are not. A self-giving life is not a negation of life, but an affirmation of the eternality of life. Making choices this way affirms the existence of our lives and the lives around us. Jesus' parable today offers us not only a moral, but a motivation. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Often we only see the stark differences between the world and the kingdom of God. Perhaps we can learn to search for and find where they intersect.
Jesus continues the theme of relationship over money, and adds a series of reversals between the Rich Man and Lazarus. There is an unnamed Rich Man, who could be any rich man, and a poor man named Lazarus, whose name means "my God helps." For clarity, this is a parable with made up characters, and not Jesus’ friend Lazarus, whom he raises from the dead. The Rich Man seems to be very rich. He dresses well, and feasts sumptuously every day, not just on special occasions. He must have a fine house, impressive enough to have a gate. He probably wants to protect his riches. How many of us have clearly defined fences or property lines, which seem to shout "this is mine, not yours"; lines and boundaries that symbolically keep others out rather than inviting them in. Even so, most of us would commend the Rich Man for his accomplishments. Wealth, probably status and influence, would suggest in our society that he has made it! At this Rich Man's gate we encounter poor Lazarus. We imagine he might be lame in some way, as he lies at the gate. We are told he is hungry and afflicted, and his lot is cast with dogs, his only companions as they lick his sores. Unclean in his poverty, his disease, and his company of canines, Lazarus is marginalized and outcast of proper society. He is outside the Rich Man's world. He is literally outside.
The Rich Man is not depicted as inherently wicked. He does not persecute Lazarus, directly refuse him food, or call the authorities to have him removed. The situation is much worse. The Rich Man ignores Lazarus. He acts as if he doesn't exist. He does not even acknowledge his personhood. Last week's gospel should ring in our ears. It is not the Rich Man's wealth that is evil. It is his refusal to use his wealth to nurture relationship, as God uses all His blessings to invite us into relationship with the divine and each other.
Both men die, as we all will. Lazarus is "carried away by the Angels to be with Abraham" suggesting an honored place, perhaps heaven. This brings to mind the concept in scripture of being gathered into the "bosom of Abraham"; the Jewish concept of being gathered to one's people. As a child in the bosom of its mother, Lazarus is safe, warm, and fed. Consistent with his wealth and position, the Rich Man is given a proper burial. But he finds himself in Hades, and is tormented and in agony. How the fortunes of these two are reversed in but a moment.
Motivated by his agony, the Rich Man calls out to "Father Abraham." In calling Abraham "Father" he exposes his connection and understanding of the covenant relationship with God's people, something he seems to have misunderstood or ignored during his life. Earlier in Luke, John the Baptist tells us that it is not enough to claim "we have Abraham as our father" suggesting God's preference for his people. John the Baptist admonished we must be willing to "do the fruits of repentance." Actions speak louder than words. It is more than a little ironic that the Rich Man begs for mercy, when he showed none to the beggar at his gate.
Denied mercy, the Rich Man finally seems to think of others over himself, asking for warnings of his fate to be sent to his family. Abraham responds, "They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them." Throughout time, God has burst into our world, abiding with us, teaching us, and inviting us. The Rich Man recognizes our hard headedness, and says, "if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent." Abraham responds, "if they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead."
Someone did rise from the dead. This is an obvious allusion to Jesus' resurrection, the ultimate prophet raised by God. Jesus provides the ultimate revelation of God, and yet another opportunity to heed God's message. Some will accept and some will reject. Some will be welcomed into the people of God, some will not.
It would be too easy to stop here. Fortunes can turn on a dime. Be nice to those on the way up because you might meet them on the way down. We reap what we sow. Watch out for karma! Perhaps the most powerful message in this parable for us today is in one tiny detail about how we see each other. In the movie Avatar, the alien Tribe that quickly gains our sympathy and support has a unique greeting. They say to each other, "I see you," a phrase that goes far beyond their field of vision. They offer an acknowledgement of the other's presence, existence, uniqueness, and import in relationship. From Hades, the Rich Man calls Lazarus by name, suggesting he knows him, but also suggesting his disregard and negligence in life was a conscious ignorance ... as if Lazarus was invisible ... as if he were not there. Bombarded by tragedy and suffering in the news daily, and confronted by the street corner beggar, how often have we become oblivious to the suffering of the world. In Dave Matthews’ song ‘Dive In’ he sings, “I saw a man on the side of the road with a sign that read, ‘Will work for food.’ I tried to look busy til the light turned green.” Sound familiar?
New Testament scholar John Donahue suggests the problem these days is that the rich often never "see" the poor; as if perhaps wealth can cause blindness, we cannot even "see" the poor at our gates.
We are to set our sights on God who sees all. We are challenged to see ourselves and others as God’s beloved, and act accordingly. Once we set our gaze on the poor and oppressed, looking through the eyes of God, we can never see the same way again. Filled with God’s compassion, which means ‘with suffering’, we must view others as ourselves in order to truly love them, because we are one.
St. Teresa of Avila wrote in The Interior Castle, "Our Lord asks but two things of us: love for him and for our neighbor ... I think the most certain sign that we keep these two commandments is that we have a genuine love for others. We cannot know whether we love God although there may be strong reasons for thinking so, but there can be no doubt about whether we love our neighbor or not." We are challenged not only to share our resources, but to truly see and become attentive to the poor and suffering at our doorstep and around the world. Surely Lazarus was not only poor beggar at the Rich Man's gate. Surely there were others. Surely there are others outside our gate. May God give us eyes to see, to have compassion, and to respond with love. Amen.