The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21), Year C.
Jesus said, “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.'”Luke 16:19-31
A history teacher walks through St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Like the many other tourists who surrounded her, the magnificence of the space took her breath away. As she walked through the Basilica, marveling at the gold, marble, and splendor that surrounded her, she was struck by a sudden clarity. In her years of teaching, she had told the story of the Basilica’s construction countless times. Yet as she was finding in her first visit, the pictures, architecture plans, the videos, none could properly convey the opulence of the space. Within it there was a presence she had not known until her visit. An invisible hand that had laid the foundation, built the walls, though most importantly of all, had financed the construction. Yet for all the glory, gold, and names etched in marble, no honor was given to the most important partner in its construction.
As she passed under the great dome, she remembered that while skilled architects, artists, and engineers had a hand in the construction, they were dwarfed in number by the thousands of poor peasants who had paid for the project. Of course, these poor people were not shareholders who would see returns, or willing patrons whose names would be inscribed and remembered forever. Rather, they were victims of church officials and priests who sold them indulgences, worthless scraps of paper promising their loved ones would pass through the suffering of purgatory into heaven, for a small fee. While the Vatican got its basilica, a monument to stand for the ages, the poor, trusting in their church, lost even more. Despite their invaluable contribution to the project, their names and faces are now forgotten. For the rest of her career, the history teacher would tell her students, “It was my visit St. Peter’s Basilica that made me understand Protestant Reformation”.
It is this blindness to the poor that is the heart of Jesus’ parable. Like the other parables about money, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus makes us squeamish. Once again, we are not treated to the gentle, friendly Jesus encouraging us to love one another, but a brutally honest Jesus who pulls no punches about wealth distribution.
Like so many of Jesus’ teachings about the realities of wealth and poverty, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus makes us so uncomfortable that it usually gets handled in two ways. It gets dismissed as too obvious, “yes, yes, we all know greed is bad. I make sure to drop my pledge in the plate and give to the food bank, I even sometimes give cash or a sandwich to the people in the median. What more do you want from me Jesus?” Or, it overwhelms us with guilt, as we remember all those we’ve seen at the gate, but feel powerless to do anything meaningful about it.
However, both these responses misunderstand the parable. This isn’t a simple story warning against greed or meant only to inspire guilt. More than anything else, this parable demands that the poor be seen.
It’s no secret that as a society, we overlook the poor. From zoning laws, benches with arm rests in the middle, free bus tickets to other cities, vagrancy laws, and of course, gated communities, we desperately try to keep the realities of poverty and inequality out of sight. It is our greatest shame. For all our wealth, technology, and good intentions, the problem of poverty has gotten worse. So we hide, we glance away, we shoo away Lazarus so we don’t have to look at our collective shame.
But even this obvious oversight is not what the parable warns us about.
In the parable, Jesus offers a dramatic reversal of fortune. The rich man, who would normally be showered with titles and honorifics, is given no name. While Lazarus and Abraham are the only named characters in any parable. Even in this small point, Jesus drives against the usual interpretation of wealth. Lazarus is a nickname for Eleazar, or “God helps”. Jesus is noting that it is Lazarus who is helped by God, rather than being cursed by God. The belief in wealth being a sign of God’s favor being all too common in the ancient world and today.
The reversal of fortune continues in their death, Lazarus is carried into heaven, like a great prophet or hero, while the rich man simply dies and is buried. In the afterlife the message of the parable finally becomes clear. There is a great chasm between Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham and the rich man in torment. But what is this chasm? Despite the looks, this isn’t a parable meant to theologically describe the afterlife and Judgement, Jesus gives us others to cover those topics, rather, this reversal of fortunes, and the chasm between them, illustrates our fundamental mistreatment of the poor in this life.
Notice that the rich man never says a word to Lazarus. Notice that the rich man only talks to Abraham, and expects Lazarus to do his bidding, offer him drink, warn his brothers. That chasm fixed between them was put there by the rich man, same as the gate that Lazarus sat outside of. The chasm cannot be crossed because even in the afterlife, even in his torment, even in his conversation with Abraham, he never sees Lazarus as a human being.
More than the love of money being the root of all kinds of evil is our unwillingness to see the poor as human beings. We see poverty as a problem to be solved rather than people with meaningful lives. We write it in our policies, we test means to make sure they are worthy of assistance, we say they deserve their lot. Even with the best of intentions we see the poor as people we can save, as the benefactors of our generosity. When we try to have honest conversations about inequality and poverty, it is always as a problem to solve rather than about real people. The sad truth of the world we chose to live in is that we primarily value people by how they generate profit, or how well they consume. Rather than holding up the humanity and dignity of all people, any who do not fit into neat economic categories are overlooked. We could have better mental health care, care for the elderly, or child care, but these services are for those who do not produce profit or consume, so they are overlooked. They are a bad investment. They languish at the gate, because they were deemed “unprofitable”. The ill, the aged, the young, the poor, they are problems to be solved instead of people to love.
But who is this parable for? Is it merely a stern warning for the “lovers of money” that were Jesus’ audience? To Lazarus, it is a message of hope, a reminder that he is one of God’s beloved. To the rich man who feasts sumptuously without sharing so much as the table scraps, it is that stern warning. But what of the rest of us; those us caught in-between, who may still cross the chasm?
Perhaps we find our solidarity with the five brothers. We have Moses and the prophets, who tell us to open a loving hand to the poor. God has given us everything that we need for the redemption of the earth, all we lack is the mindset and willingness to do it. We still have a chance to restore the dignity and humanity of those whom we have overlooked. But in order to do so, we can no longer turn a blind eye. We must see Lazarus at the gate, and remember who really built the basilica. In all things, God will be our help. In truth, we have been given more than the five brothers, someone has come to us from the dead, calling us to repent, saying:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”Luke 4:18-19