St. George’s Chapel
Proper 21, Year C, September 29, 2013
May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.
On the surface of today’s reading from the Gospel according to Luke, it appears that Jesus is delivering one of his most scathing criticisms of wealth. Lazarus, a poor man whose oozing sores are licked by dogs, sits at the gate of a rich man. The rich man, dressed in robes the color of royalty, enjoys bountiful meals every day. Lazarus looks longingly through the bars of the gate, dreaming of feasting on the crumbs that “f[a]ll from the rich man’s table” (Luke 16:21). Time passes and the two men die. Lazarus ends up in heaven with Abraham, while the rich man is “tormented” in Hades (v. 23). The rich man cries out to Abraham but it is of no use; there is a chasm between them so deep and wide that none can cross it (v. 26).
Having grown up in a privileged household, this passage makes me squirm. I have never had to worry where my next meal was coming from. Is Jesus really saying that just because my family has money, we are not going to heaven? The rich man isn’t an evil person, so he doesn’t deserve to go to hell, right? Where is the “wideness of God’s mercy” that we sing about (Hymn 499)? Is there no hope for those with means?
If we dig below the surface, what seems like a knock against wealth is actually more of a knock against blindness. The rich man is blind. I don’t mean that he needs glasses; the rich man’s self-centeredness has made him blind to his surroundings. Lazarus lives at the foot of a gate that the rich man has built to keep people out. We have no idea how long he’s been lying there, but I imagine it has been quite some time because the rich man knows Lazarus by name. He knows his name, but he never--not once!--offers the beggar some food. Lazarus dies, perhaps from hunger, and the angels carry him away because there is no one to bury him (v. 22). The rich man dies too, but is properly and probably lavishly buried.
In the afterlife, the contradictions continue, but the tables are turned. Lazarus is enjoying the benefits of heavenly life in the presence of Abraham, while the rich man suffers in Hades. Now it is the rich man’s turn to gaze longingly toward something out of his grasp. Even though he realizes where he is, he still carries on as if he were back on earth. He commands Abraham (commands Abraham, the first patriarch of the faith!!) to make Lazarus come down to him to quench his thirst. Even in death the rich man does not see Lazarus as a human being, but as less than, as a person existing merely to serve him. The rich man has learned nothing; the chasm that separates him from heaven is this blindness to others.
I imagine the second half of the story of the rich man and Lazarus is where Charles Dickens got his inspiration for A Christmas Carol. The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers, who are presumably following in his footsteps. But there will be no Marley for the rich man’s Scrooge-like brothers. Abraham replies that there have been enough signs throughout scripture and in the witness of prophets. If they aren’t convinced by that, then there’s no reason to expect that they would change their minds if they saw some dead beggar’s ghost.
Now, it is important for us to remember who makes up Jesus’ audience. Just a few verses before today’s story, the Pharisees, described as “lovers of money,” have given Jesus a hard time because they are not too fond of his teachings, which largely point out their failings and misreadings of scripture (v. 14). The last part of the story of Lazarus is actually a jab at the Pharisees: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead" (v. 31). Because they will not believe in Jesus and his teachings when he is alive, they will not believe in him even after he rises from the dead.
Also in the audience are Jesus’ disciples and most likely a crowd of followers. Jesus speaks with Pharisees and other religious leaders, but he mostly hangs out with sinners and people on the margins of society. Imagine how they must feel to hear this message of hope for the hopeless and a warning against those who put up gates to shut people out! Even if they are persecuted in this life, something better awaits them, because God is on the side of the poor.
The practice of seeing the Bible through the eyes of the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized is called liberation theology. One of the leading theologians is Jon Sobrino, a Jesuit priest and university professor in El Salvador. In the 1970s to 90s there was a brutal civil war in El Salvador. People suspected of aiding the rebels were “disappeared” regardless of profession or gender. In this country, the smallest in Central America, 75,000 people were killed. Most of them were civilians, and many of them were killed and then mutilated by death squads. At the university where Jon Sobrino taught, 6 of his fellow priests were murdered by a death squad. They also killed their housekeeper and her teenage daughter. Jon Sobrino survived, but only because he happened to be out of the country when it happened. Sometime after the 6 priests were killed, some artists drew pictures from photos of people who had been killed in the war. These gruesome images were hung for all to see--in the back of the university chapel. Their mangled and exposed bodies are disturbing, and several people over the years have asked for them to be removed. They want to forget, they want to put the events behind them and not dwell on them any longer. Sobrino refuses; he says that every time he celebrates the Eucharist he sees the drawings and is reminded of his friends and of his purpose.
What the story of the rich man and Lazarus is telling us, what the experience of Sobrino and the people of El Salvador is compelling us to do, is to take off our blinders, to tear down the gates we have put up. I know that I walk around with blinders on. I am ashamed to say that I have ignored homeless people on the street many times. I have locked my car door and pretended not to see the person begging on the street corner. Maybe you have done it, too. “It’s too sad,” we say. “It’s overwhelming; there’s too much that needs to be done, and I can’t solve the problems on my own.” You’re right. We can’t solve them alone. But each and every one of us can change the way we act toward others.
Jesus actually teaches us, in Matthew’s version of the gospel, just how we are supposed to act toward others:
“…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:35-36, 40).
In the gospel for today Jesus is offering us a chance at redemption. Through the story of Lazarus he is urging us to remove the blinders, to truly look at everyone we meet as if they matter. To acknowledge people’s existence; their humanity. Rich or poor, we are all made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:27). Instead of ignoring people that make us sad, when we look at them we should be reminded of our purpose: “…what does the Lord require of you”? “…to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
Photos* I took of the paintings in the back of the chapel
at the University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador (Spring 2010)
*warning: these images are disturbing!!
Sources for Jon Sobrino and the Civil War in El Salvador: