Our readings today seem to be all about money. Jeremiah is buying land in Judah; Paul tells us that love of money is the root of all evil then Jesus shares a terrible story about a rich man going to burn in hell. I guess it really is stewardship season so I should be begging you to give money to church!
A politician dies. He gets up to St. Peters who asks him if he wants to go to heaven or hell. The politician asks if he can preview both places first. “Sure”, says St. Peters. He shows him heaven, which is calm, lovely, full of people sitting on clouds, playing harps. “I don’t know, can I see hell?” “Sure”, says St. Peters and he sends him down to hell. Now, this is a different story: There’s a fabulous golf course with most of his old friends playing on it. After they play, there’s a spectacular meal with amazing food and gorgeous women. Well, that choice is easy for the politician. The next day he tells St. Peters that he votes for hell. So, down he goes. The devil opens the door, and the politician sees horrible flames with people on fire, suffering and screaming. He turns to the devil and asks what the heck happened? The devil says, “Oh, I thought you, of all people would understand. Yesterday we were trying to get your vote but not that you’ve chosen, you get to see the real thing!”
Our gospel seems like a very simple story, doesn’t it? Rich man is a jerk and is suffering in Hades, poor man receives riches in heaven. But it’s a parable and so it should shock us, jar us. Do you feel shocked? Well, be sure that the people to whom Jesus told this story were very shocked. In those times, there was widespread belief that wealth was a sign of God's favor and poverty a sign of sin. This tale upends that worldview.
Let’s look at it closely. First, note that the rich man has no name while we learn that the poor man is named Lazarus. Jesus often names the important people in his stories so right off the bat, we understand who matters here. We immediately get the great contrast between these two people: the rich man covered by purple robes and fine linen (which means he has fancy underwear) while starving Lazarus is covered in sores. They both die. Lazarus is raised up by angels to stand by Father Abraham while the rich man is buried, to be tormented in Hades. Please note that Lazarus didn’t have to do anything to earn his place in heaven, but it sure seems that the rich man earned his place in hell.
In those days it was commonly believed that people could actually see each other in the various realms of the afterlife. So, the suffering rich man looks up from his flaming world to see Lazarus embraced by Father Abraham in heaven. Listen to how the rich man still sees things: he begs Abraham to use Lazarus as a servant to bring cool water down to him. Notice that he calls him by name. He knows the name of the man who has been suffering on his doorstep all these years. He ignored his needs in life and he still thinks Lazarus only exists to serve him.
I’m glad that Abraham ignores his plea, pointing out the great gulf that exists between these two men. Who made that chasm? God? No. The rich man made this great chasm by never, ever seeing or acknowledging the humanity of Lazarus.
Still not seeing, he again begs Abraham to send Lazarus out on a task. Treating him like a servant, he wants Lazarus to go tell his brothers to change their ways so that they don’t suffer his fate.
Oooh, Abraham slams that down. “They already have Moses and the prophets. They should listen to them.” The rich man persists, believing that his brothers will listen to a man risen from the dead. “Nope” – says Abraham. “Nothing will convince them to change their ways, not even someone risen from the dead!”
Jesus isn’t exactly subtle here in his foreshadowing of future disbelievers. For 2000 years many people who call themselves believers have ignored Moses, the prophets and even someone risen from the dead. I’ve had “Christians” tell me that feeding the hungry is enabling them and that we should stop providing meals. Frankly, I just don’t know how to respond to them. And just a quick aside here: when someone piously says “God helps those who help themselves” to justify their lack of empathy, I like to remind them that is not in the Bible but is actually a quote from Benjamin Franklin!
The rich man’s sin was not that he was rich, but that during his earthly life, he didn’t see Lazarus. He didn’t acknowledge that Lazarus was a fellow child of God. He walked by his suffering neighbor daily without helping him. I admit that I often walk by people begging on street corners. I do try to at least look into their eyes and acknowledge them, but I can’t deny that there is a chasm in this world between the haves and the have nots and I often feel helpless in the face of it.
One of the many things I love about attending St. Marks is the way my eyes have been opened to so much more of the world around me. Through working with Chaplains on the Harbor, we’ve been able to SEE, meet and know people who have experienced life on the streets. Prompted by Connie, we were able to generously help school children in our community. This church is a vehicle through which we can all do so much good.
Back to our parable: David Lose writes: Seeing, in this Gospel, is a very big deal. Because before you can have compassion for people, you have to see them, acknowledging their presence, needs, and gifts and above all their status as children of God worthy of respect and dignity. This the rich man utterly fails to do.
Although it seems like it, this parable isn’t about heaven or hell. It’s about how we live our lives right now. The kingdom of heaven isn’t a future promise, it starts now, every time we embrace the abundant life God offers us in and through those around us. This parable is an invitation to live a fuller, more joyous life by sharing our time and talents, and our wealth with others right now. The kingdom of God is at hand. It is up to us to open our eyes and our hearts to it.
So please pray with me: Dear God, open our eyes to those all around us and especially to those in need, that we may see everyone everywhere as your beloved children.