New Hope Fellowship
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 29, 2019
This is a story that is well-traveled. It exists in several cultures and in many versions. Most scholars trace this story back to ancient Egypt, where tales of the dead in the afterlife abounded. There are at least seven versions of this story that appear in rabbinical sources.
In Greek the name Lazaros has the same root consonants as the Hebrew name Eliezer who, Genesis 15:2 tells us was a servant of Abraham. Some rabbinic tales feature Eliezer (Greek Lazaros) walking in disguise on the earth and reporting back to Abraham on how his children are observing the Torah’s prescriptions regarding the treatment of the widow, the orphan, and the poor.
Jesus’ version of this story that he tells here in Luke 16 sets up a stark contrast between a rich man and a poor man. On one side we have the lavish life of the rich man. We don’t know his name, but we know he has a beautiful home, feasts on extravagant banquets, and wears fine purple linens—a sign of the upper classes.
Directly on the other side we have a desperately poor man. What we are told about him is that his life consists of grubbing for scraps that would normally go to the dogs and having sores on his body that the dogs lick. We are also told the poor man’s name, Lazarus. He is the only character in all of Jesus’ parables who is given a name.
Eventually, of course, both men die. And the parable describes how the poor man is taken to heaven and is at Abraham’s side while the rich man is tormented in Hades.
Now, this story is not meant as a literal portrait of what life after death is like. It reflects the Greek notion that souls go to the underworld for punishment at death. Hades is not mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament as a place of torment.
And then there is this whole business of the ones in Hades looking seeing the ones in heaven and communicating with them. My friend Jim Somerville says he doesn’t think he would like the kind of heaven where people in hell could shout at you. He would hope for better zoning regulations. Even on an airplane there is that curtain that separates first class from everyone else.
What we have here is a parable meant to illuminate truths about the kingdom of God and shed light on how we are to live this life, not a realistic preview or prediction of the next life.
[Alyce McKenzie, “‘To See or Not to See’: Stepping Over Lazarus? Reflections on Luke 16:19-26,” September 19, 2010, Patheos]
So, in the story, the rich man in Hades begs Abraham to send the poor man to give him water, even just a drop from the tip of his finger, yet Abraham informs him that the chasm between them is fixed across which no one can pass. The rich man’s fate is sealed. For him, the chasm is fixed for eternity.
So one of the things we see here is this common theme in Luke’s gospel of the great reversal—that in the Kingdom of God, the poor and lowly are lifted up while the proud are brought low. In this case,
the poor beggar competing with dogs for food with
sores on his body in this life
finds himself in resting comfortably in the bosom of Abraham in the next life, while
the man who feasted lavishly every day
finds himself tormented in Hades in the life to come.
For this parable to have any meaning for us, we have to figure out what is the rich man’s problem. Why is he punished in Hades in this story? It’s not so obvious at first glance.
He is not harshly condemned. He is not indicted because he is rich, as if there were something inherently evil about money. First century hearers of this parable would not have assumed that the rich man was evil and that the poor man was righteous. In fact, wealth in the ancient world was often viewed as a sign of divine favor, while poverty was viewed as evidence of sin.
We are not told in this story that the rich man persecuted Lazarus or deliberately refused him food or sponsored legislation to rid the city gates of beggars.
What is the rich man’s real problem?
I think the rich man’s sin is this: During his whole earthly life, he never saw Lazarus. Despite his daily presence near the entrance to his home, he never saw him.
The first time the rich man ever really sees Lazarus is after he dies when, from Hades “he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side” (verse 23). When you think about the rich man never seeing Lazarus while he was alive, he is like those who pass by the man in the ditch in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. They cross the road on the other side.
The Samaritan is the only one who really sees, who “has compassion,” and helps the wounded man. The rich man, in his stepping over Lazarus, is like the priest and Levite in the Good Samaritan parable.
We can imagine the rich man passing by Lazarus at the gate several times a day, never once addressing him. It is not that the rich man wishes Lazarus harm in particular; he probably doesn’t feel anything for him at all. To the rich man’s point of view, they live in two entirely different worlds with a huge divide, a great chasm, between them—one has nothing to do with the other.
And in Jesus’ story, the consequence of living in separate worlds in this life is that they end up living in separate worlds for eternity, only their situations are reversed.
The rich man opens the curtains to his dining room so everyone can see how sumptuously he feasts every day, but he never looks out the window to see the guy
dressed in rags,
sitting on the curb
out front. He opens the curtains so he can be seen, but he doesn’t see.
Martin Luther King once preached a sermon on this parable, and he put it this way:
[The rich man] went to hell not because he was rich, but because he passed by Lazarus every day and never really saw him. [He] went to hell because he allowed Lazarus to become invisible…because he failed to use his wealth to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus. In fact, he didn’t even realize that Lazarus was his brother.
This is a story about what we have, but it is also a story about what we see. This is a text in which Jesus calls us to confront the reality that every day we pass by people who are in desperate need—in obvious ways, and in far deeper, less obvious ones—and we do not even see them and we walk right by.
Most of the time I genuinely don’t think we do this on purpose. But the results are the same. Needs are not met. Children remain homeless. Adults, people we know, even, remain trapped in desperate fear and loneliness. One of the reasons that poverty is so difficult to confront is because it forces us to look into the eyes of people who are not as different from us as we would like to believe, and hear their stories, and walk with them in their struggles, and see, really see, the pain living in their eyes.
[Chris Tuttle, “Blindness and a Vision of Community,” September 29, 2013, Day 1]
And when we stop looking, when we quit seeing, that’s when we are in trouble. That’s when we lose our way.
I really admire and appreciate what you all are trying to do with helping to provide food for those in need in this area. It didn’t have to go that way. You could have just closed your eyes to those around you here and kept on with business as usual. But you have tried to see.
At my first church after seminary, I was pastor of the First Baptist Church in Eagle Lake, Texas, a small town of 3,500 people. We didn’t face people in need everyday at church, but we also did not have big resources or systems in place. So there in Eagle Lake, from time to time, people would come to the church asking for help with gas, food, clothes, things like that. And I would scramble around and try to respond as best I could.
We lived in the church parsonage in Eagle Lake, and our house backed up to the church parking lot. One day I heard my dogs really barking out in the back yard, and I looked out the window in the living room and saw this old Winnebago—the worst looking motor home you’ve ever seen (it looked like Cousin Eddie’s in Christmas Vacation or Walt and Jesse’s in Breaking Bad)—in the church parking lot. On the top of this motor home they had added on a big wooden storage area made out of plywood.
And these four guys had gotten out of it, and they were walking around the side of our house toward the front. So, I walked out on the front porch and waited for them to come around.
It was three young guys—late teens, early twenties—and one guy who was maybe in his late thirties. He was the leader. He looked like Charles Manson. He had a beard and thick brown hair. He had on shorts and a tie-dyed tank top and no shoes. He was short but real muscular. The three younger guys were really rough looking. One had bleached hair and dreadlocks, that sort of thing.
The leader said, Hello brother. They needed some gas money and some food. I asked them where they were going. He said, Wherever the father takes us. He said he was pretty sure the father wanted them to go to Alaska. I asked where they had been. He said it didn’t really matter where they had been; what was more important was where they were going. He was very wise, this guy.
I agreed to go with them over to the church to get them some food. We had a small food pantry there. I went back in the house to get my keys, and when I came back out the leader asked me if they could say a prayer.
They circled up and held hands in my front yard; I really didn’t want to get in on that, but I didn’t really have a choice. He prayed this prayer about the father and light and some other stuff. Then he came toward me. I stuck out my hand.
He said, We hug.
I said, Great. He reached out to hug me. I kind of held on to him at the waist. It was a long-distance hug. Then the other three guys came up in turn for their hugs. I’m not really a big hugger.
So we went over there to the food pantry at the church, and I gave them some canned goods and, honestly, tried to get rid of them as quick as I could. I hustled them out the door. Locked it. Went back to my house annoyed with the whole thing, honestly.
I really didn’t think much about that again until a couple of days later. I was driving in my car somewhere, and I thought about my attitude about people coming to the church for help:
When did I start getting annoyed when I had to deal with people?
When did I become
a dispenser of cold charity instead of
a dispenser of love and grace?
When did I quit seeing the one desperate enough to come to the church for help as a person and
when did I start merely tolerating him as a religious
obligation to be processed through the system?
When did I stop seeing?
Jamie and I live in the Fairmount neighborhood, and we do a lot of walking in the neighborhood and over on Magnolia. And you come across a lot of people on the streets around there who ask for money. And one of the things I try to do is at least look the person in the eye and speak. I don’t usually give money, but I do try not to just look away and walk by.
That doesn’t always turn out great. The other day I got into an argument with a guy who came up asking for money for a bus ticket. I told him he could go over to Broadway Baptist Church, that they will sometimes give people bus tickets.
He got frustrated with that answer, I assume because he really just wanted money. He said kind of angrily that he didn’t even know where Broadway Baptist Church was. I pointed and said, It’s right over there.
He said, I don’t want to go over there.
And I said, Look, you were asking for a bus ticket and I’m telling you where to get one. And I’m standing there on the sidewalk pointing and having standoff with this guy.
So it doesn’t always go well or go smoothly. And I’m not always as kind and gracious as I should be.
But I don’t want to fall into the trap of, like the rich man in the story, opening the curtains so I can be seen, but not seeing others who are right there.
The thing is,
once your eyes are opened,
once you start to see again,
once you see that person who is hungry when you
have more food than you can eat,
it changes everything.
Preacher Fred Craddock tells the story of being invited to speak at a conference at Clemson University about the problem of world hunger. He was to speak with a couple of others. Before the lectures began, a young woman began the program with a devotional. Craddock didn’t know her.
She was a young woman, mid-twenties, She had pale-blonde, straight hair; she was thin, wore no makeup and had a very soft voice. When she got up to give the devotion, she had a big yellow legal pad with a lot of writing on it. Everyone saw it and thought, Oh no. We are going to be here for the night!
Her voice was very soft, and at first Craddock thought he just couldn’t understand her because she was speaking too softly. But then he started to realize she was speaking in another language. Then he recognized in the rhythm of what she was saying that it seemed that she was repeating the same thing over and over again in different languages. She spoke in another language, and then in yet another langue.
What she was doing was saying one thing in all the major languages of the world. When she got to German, Craddock thought he knew what she said. She said this one thing sixty-five times in sixty-five different languages. It was one sentence, and the last time she spoke it, she spoke it in English. She said, Mommy, I’m hungry.
Craddock thought about what she said all the way home that night. As he drove along, he saw a billboard on the highway said this: All you can eat for $6.99.
But in his head it was Mommy, I’m hungry.
When you really see that hungry person out the window of your dining room while you are feasting sumptuously, it changes everything. Maybe that’s why the rich man let Lazarus be invisible to him. Because if he saw him….
Who are we supposed to identify with in Jesus’ parable? The rich man in all his opulence who doesn’t see and who faces eternal consequences?
The desperately poor Lazarus?
Who are we supposed to identify with?
There are some other characters in this story we haven’t talked about, you know. The rich man’s brothers. Remember them? While the rich man is in Hades, he thinks of his five brothers who are still walking this earth, and he wants someone to warn them so that they will not also come into this place of torment. And Abraham says, No, they have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.
Maybe you and I aren’t the rich man, consigned to Hades for all time because we have treated others as invisible. Maybe we aren’t poor Lazarus.
By now maybe we are now realizing that we stand in the place of the five brothers—
those for whom it’s not too late,
those who still have an opportunity to be instructed
by the scriptures to see the beggar at our gates.
It’s not too late for us. We have been warned. We just need to open our eyes and see.