September 25, 2016 – Year C – 19th Sunday of Creation
Lazarus slid along the white stone into the sunlight, rubbing his hands as he went. “Brrr,” he said. “No gloves. I sure wish I had some gloves.” The wall glistened against the clear blue sky. He squinted as he looked out at the black asphalt parking lot. Shiny new cars and SUV’s lined up in neat rows. Lazarus tipped his head back against the wall as the muffled sound of singing broke through the silence of the morning. Then the carillon sounded the end of the service. Lazarus placed his hat at the end of the stump where his right leg used to be. He winced and rubbed his stomach.
The parishioners exited the Sunday worship looking happy and self-satisfied. They walked past Lazarus in their Sunday best, caught up in conversation, slipping on gloves, and adjusting outerwear. One man briefly looked at Lazarus and then looked away. A little girl pulled on her mother’s arm and looked distressed to see Lazarus in such a condition. “Don’t worry,” said the mother, “our church helps these people. Hurry up now, we’ll be late for brunch.” A small boy pointed to the beggar. His father muttered, “He’s an alcoholic. If we give him money, he’ll only get drunk.” Another whispered to her friend, “He’s mentally ill. That’s why he’s homeless.” And another said, “Did he cough? Be careful, he probably has that incurable form of TB.” A man said to his teenager, “I don’t mind helping the poor. I just don’t want to see them.” The dark demons of indifference fled out of their mouths to harden the hearts of these children. They marched by. None looked Lazarus in the eye.
When all had left, the doors closed and the parking lot emptied, Lazarus looked in his hat. 50 cents, said Lazarus to himself, “the veteran’s not doing well today.”
Lazarus rubbed his stomach, leaned his head against the wall, and closed his eyes.
“Lazarus, Lazarus, wake up,” said the short Native woman who now stood beside him.
“Jesus, you scared me! I thought everyone was gone.” Said Lazarus.
“Oh, Lazarus, you know I wouldn’t leave you. But those people, they have hearts of stone,” she said.
Lazarus shook his head.
“Come, Lazarus,” she said, holding out her hand for him to grasp and haul himself up. She handed him his cane.
“Brunch,” she said, and then laughed, “let me take you to brunch.”
“Oh, thank you, Jesus, thank you Jesus.” Said Lazarus, as he looked down at the white stone building that was receding far, far below. (Bruce J. Ackerson)
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is one of the lesser known parables in scripture. It is full of contrasts and reversals. The poor man is named, while the rich man is not. The rich man is dressed in purple, while the poor man is “dressed in” sores. The rich man feasts sumptuously, while Lazarus, looking up, longs to be satisfied with what falls from the table. The rich man has a proper burial, while Lazarus is carried away by the angels. By the end of the story, Lazarus, the poor man, is looking down from heaven, and the rich man is the one looking up, begging.
Jesus tells this story to those who were “lovers of money.” By telling this story Jesus revealed that they loved their money more than people, their possessions more than the poor, their clothes more than compassion, and their extravagant feasts more than sharing food with the hungry. Perhaps Jesus had been a guest at one of the listener’s homes and had witnessed a scene similar to the one with which he begins his parable.
There are many uncomfortable questions before us as we explore one of the harshest readings in Scripture. We hear it as a cry for justice. It is why we donate food to our food cupboard so that when the hungry come to our doors we can help with small food hampers. It is why I service on your behalf on the “Downtown Churches for Social Justice” committee, where we are securing housing for the homeless and coordinating initiatives for those in need. It is why we have the mitten tree every Advent, so that mittens, hats, and scarves are collected for those who are cold. That is why we write letters to release prisoners of conscience on “write in” days. We support groups like The David Suzuki Foundation or Grandmothers for Africa.
It is a cry for justice in our personal lives as well. We are challenged to look at our spending practices. Do we shop at places that sell fair trade? Do we try to buy Canadian made products? Do we act local and think global? Do we live simply, so that others may simply live?
The parable is a difficult one to hear. It is particularly so for us in our context here in Penticton. We have abundance. For us to hear the words of transformation and true faith calls for us to step away from privilege and plenty. I know for myself that is a difficult challenge. In Luke 18 Jesus compares it to getting a camel through a needle’s eye. It is that hard. But, it is something that we are to pray and meditate and work towards.
The riches of the world are held by approximately 20% of the population. This is called the “Pareto Principle.” Perhaps you know it as the 80-20 rule. 80% of the world’s poorest people are exploited by 20% of the world’s richest people. This 80-20 rule applies well to the story that we are exploring today. The hope and promise that Jesus announces is for Lazarus and all the others who know struggles, pain and fear. The redemption that Jesus proclaims is for all the Lazarus’s who suffer because of health problems, grief and feeling lost. The faith that Jesus declares is for all the Lazarus’s who experience loneliness, disenfranchisement from family, and brokenness of spirit. And that is 80% of the world’s people. Perhaps you recognize yourself. Too often we see Lazarus as someone other. Yet, at times he is you and I.
As we hear this parable we find ourselves relating to Lazarus, The Rich Man, and the 5 brothers. Oh sure, we are not rich enough to be constantly garbed in in finest fabrics and eating a diet of scrumptious foods – but rich we are compared to 80% of the world. And true enough, we don’t have to beg for our next meal and we have adequate clothes to keep us warm in the winter. Perhaps we most identify with the 5 brothers. They had heard Moses read. They heard Torah’s requirements and responsibilities to the poor, and presumably not allowed themselves to be changed by what they knew. God says, in essence, “There really isn’t anything more I can do to help them.” It’s interesting that the rich man is still willing to use Lazarus in the servant role in which he was accustomed to seeing him, rather than going himself.
Newspapers love “rags to riches” stories in which a person sleeping in a car one day ends up in a penthouse the next. Stories of such remarkable reversals help nurture the illusion that anyone can succeed in our society. But reality is far more complex. Today, we have encountered a story which is less dramatic that the headlines of a newspaper but far more revealing of God’s character. We who are brothers and sisters to the rich man are called to hear the law and prophets. Will we resist the status quo or will we care for the homeless on our streets and thereby become part of God’s remarkable reversal? May it be so. Amen.