If you didn’t make it onto Forbes Magazine’s list of the 400 richest people in America or the top 100 billionaires in the world, (or even if you did) you can go to a website entitled “globalrichlist.com,” enter your income, and find out where you stand in relation to the other 7 billion or so inhabitants of the planet. I did just that–entered an approximation of what Bruce and I make annually, and it turns out that together we are in the top .07% of the richest people on earth. A pastor and a school teacher, living in Vermont, make more than 99.93% of the people in the world. I find that amazing–and more than a little troubling. It makes me re-evaluate what it means to be “human”–not so much the qualities, the longings, the emotions, the abilities of human beings, but rather what “the human experience” is like for the majority of humans. My life is obviously not the standard, but the exception.
Is the pain in the gut and light-headedness of hunger the typical human experience? Is the heartbreak of loss of children to hunger or disease what the majority of parents experience? Is living amidst squalor, crowded in living spaces with entire extended families, without furniture, the most prevalent form of human habitation? Whatever the physical circumstances–and I know there is no one “typical” or “average” description–at the very least, the overwhelming majority of my brothers and sisters use far fewer resources and have a vastly smaller carbon footprint than Bruce and I do, and we think we’re pretty conscientious.
In the United States, the top 5% of the population has not only weathered but prospered in this latest economic downturn, while the other 95% have fared far worse. Here in Bennington, the number of homeless people and folks needing some form of public assistance has increased, while the number of resources available has not. When I came to Bennington 18 years ago, the first homeless census I remember turned up about 36 homeless individuals on a given day in February. Today there are over 400.
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen,” Jesus said, “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.”
Jesus’ first century hearers would not have assumed right off that the rich man was unrighteous and Lazarus a poor, but noble man. In fact, wealth was more often seen in that culture as a sign of God’s favor, poverty a result simply of birth or even punishment. The rich man doesn’t abuse Lazarus, doesn’t send his servants out to remove him from the gate. The rich man just doesn’t see Lazarus.
Then, as happens to the best of us, both men die. “The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham,” Jesus says, and “the rich man also died and was buried.”
Jesus is using a folk tale known in a variety of versions in a variety of places in the ancient world . It was probably originally Egyptian, one commentator says (Alyce McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 9/29/13), and the Greek name Lazarus has the same root consonants [Hebrew has no vowels] as Eliezer, referred to in Genesis as one of Abraham’s servants. There are rabbinic tales that have Eliezer walking the earth to report to Abraham how his children are observing the Torah directives regarding widows, orphans, and the poor.
So now we find the rich man in Hades, the Greek version of the underworld, being tormented, and he looks up and finally sees Lazarus far away, at the side of, or in the bosom of, Abraham. Jesus is not trying to describe the geography of the afterworld or to tell us how to get to heaven or hell. He’s using this familiar tale to make a far more important point about how to live right now, right here.
The rich man calls 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.” He still doesn’t see Lazarus as any more than a servant to ease his discomfort, and addresses Abraham as “Father” to claim his religious bloodline. Abraham reminds him of all the good things the rich man had received and experienced in his life and all the hard and evil things Lazarus had experienced, and now, as throughout Luke’s gospel, there is a great reversal of fortunes. Remember Mary’s song when she is pregnant–”God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
The “great chasm” that separates Abraham and Lazarus from the rich man is less a prescription, a cruel punishment for those in torment who can see bliss across the way, than it is a description–there is simply a great divide between rich and poor. It is not simply a matter of money, but rather the “love of money,” as the letter to Timothy says, “which is the root of all evil,” and the real evil is the blindness it causes. One commentator writes, “Jesus knows that it’s true about money and possessions–they can grab us in ways we don’t want to think about.” (Kate Huey, Sermon Seeds, 9/29/13)
Really seeing the poor, getting up close and personal, so to speak, about what their life is like, what it means to be without dental or medical or psychiatric care, what it means to be without access to showers or laundry facilities, really seeing them makes us uncomfortable. It might even offend us. Aren’t there rules for “social engagement,” as they say, as our parents may have taught us?
Amos was a herdsman from the north of Israel, plucked away by God from herding his sheep and cattle and dressing his sycamore trees, to come south and warn the kings of Israel that their abandonment of God’s ways and their reliance upon foreign powers was about to result in a major disaster. This smelly, dirty shepherd was about as welcome in the halls of King Uzziah as a crazy homeless man would be in any of our homes or churches today. “Alas for those who are at ease in Zion,” he croaked. When the king told him to get out and go away, Amos essentially said, “No can do.” “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; [he said] but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”
“Alas,” Amos said, “for those who lie on beds of ivory and lounge on their couches, [who] are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.” And, indeed, the elite were the first to be carried off into exile by the Babylonians. Sending Amos away, out of their sight, was not going to save them.
Then the rich man said, “Then, father, I beg you to send [Lazarus] 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.’”
The actress Susan Sarandon is passionate about a number of justice issues and often portrays characters who illustrate those issues. You may have seen her as Sister Helen Prejean in the movie “Dead Man Walking,” for example. One morning she was interviewed on the Today Show, but wanted to talk less about her most recent film and more about the justice issues she was concerned about. When asked why, she said, “My work is imagination, and that leads to empathy, and empathy leads to activism; I’m just doing what a citizen is supposed to do.” (Cited by Kate Huey, op cit.)
Jesus’ work was also about imagination–imagining the kingdom of God in parables like this one today, which can lead us to empathy and then on to activism, what a citizen of God’s realm is supposed to do. How many of you were surprised to hear about the number of homeless people in our community? How many were surprised to learn of the number of people involved in selling drugs here, let alone the number of people who buy from them? Do we see these people in our daily travels? Or do our daily travels just not put us in places where homeless people are or drug dealers deal? That’s not necessarily a criticism, it may just be a description. The chasm is wide.
But Episcopal priest Suzanne Guthrie talks about the “chasm of consciousness.” How often do we choose not to notice or not to know who or what is on the other side of that divide because it’s just easier to go about our lives if we don’t know? Guthrie talks about not really wanting to know what happens to the waste or plastic she uses or who produces those products, how and who produces her clothes, where the materials that make up her cell phone or her computer come from–like the mineral coltan which comes from war-torn and rape-infested Congo. “Why go out of my way to know these things when I could have a clear conscience by not knowing? (So easy in our culture!) [she writes]. Why would I rather know and feel guilty and miserable than not know and accept what is easy and at hand? I suppose it has to do with being alive. I want to be alive. I want to continually awake to Reality. And I suppose it has to do with love. I share this human adventure for good and evil. But I’d better know the evil if I’m luxuriating in the good.” (Suzanne Guthrie, View from the Edge of the Enclosure, Proper 21) And so she lifts up all these concerns in her prayers, she financially supports hospitals and clinics which are helping the women rape victims in the Congo, she lives with the discomfort and does what she can to bridge the chasm.
We are neither the rich man nor Lazarus. They are both caricatures in a parable to make a point. Though we may be wealthier than most people in the world, in our immediate context, many of us struggle to pay our basic bills, to put food on the table, we do not live extravagantly. But we can at least get the message of this parable. We are more like the 5 brothers back in their father’s house, who have Moses and the prophets, plus all our modern-day prophets and artists, plus the gospel of Jesus Christ, to warn us about the perils of letting money and possessions blind us to the needs of others, to tell us that the abundant life which Jesus said he came to give us is far more than money and stuff and power, which is how our culture would describe “abundance.” Abundant life is about relationship– with others, no matter how alike or apparently not alike they are to us. Abundant life is about relationship with God and our true selves. It’s about service and wholeness, laughter and tears. It is a scientific fact, as Natalie Angier wrote in the NY Times: “Hard as it may be to believe in these days of infectious greed and sabers unsheathed, scientists have discovered that the small, brave act of cooperating with another person, of choosing trust over cynicism, generosity over selfishness, makes the brain light up in quiet joy.” (Cited by Huey, op cit.) Abundant life is being fully alive, to the glory of God. May we choose life and choose it abundantly. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark