1 Timothy 6.6–19
…the poor person has a name: Lazarus; the rich and powerful person, by contrast, does not. In the world today the situation is reversed: the poor are anonymous and seem destined for an even greater anonymity. They are born and die without being noticed. They are disposable pieces in a history that eludes their grasp and excludes them. — Gustavo Gutierrez and Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Muller, On the Side of the Poor: A Theology of Liberation
Blessed are you who are in need;
the kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who now go hungry;
you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now;
you will laugh.…
But alas for you who are rich;
you have had your time of happiness.
Alas for you who are well fed now;
you will go hungry.
Alas for you who laugh now;
you will mourn and weep. Luke 6.20b–21, 25–26
Let’s start with a story.
A young couple were killed in a car accident on the day before their wedding. They arrived at the Pearly Gates. St Peter felt sorry for them, and asked if there was anything he could do to make being in heaven even more pleasant for them. So they looked at each other and asked if it would still be possible to be married in heaven. St Peter looked a little thoughtful and said, ‘It’s never been done before. But leave it with me.’
About a hundred years went by. One day, they ran into St Peter and asked about the wedding. ‘Everything is being arranged,’ he assured them.
Another hundred years passed, and they saw St Peter in the distance. They reminded him about the wedding and said, ‘We know that in heaven, a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day, and time is of no consequence…but we’ve been waiting over two hundred years.’ St Peter replied, ‘I am truly sorry. All the arrangements were made the day after you arrived but there’s just this one problem.’
‘What’s that?’ they asked.
St Peter said, ‘Have you ever tried to find a minister up here?’
When we hear a story about St Peter at the Pearly Gates, we know to wait for the punch line. We don’t imagine that we are hearing anything about what ‘heaven’ is really like. We know it’s not a theological treatise that claims to describe the future life.
Similarly, when we come to the Parable of the Rich man and Lazarus, we don’t read anything about what life beyond death may be like. We’re reading a story that was told in different forms, possibly originating in Egypt. When people heard it, they knew it for the story it was.
But what is the story about?
I recall in my medical student days, being taught how to examine patients. We had a mental checklist of what we had to ask about and what to look for in physical examination. Time after time, we were told: ‘More things are missed by not looking than by not knowing.’
More things are missed by not looking than by not knowing.
In our parable today, the rich man doesn’t look at Lazarus, sitting at his gate. Not one time.
We could say this is a parable about not looking, not seeing. And therefore, not knowing, not caring.
The rich man lived in luxury. Fine food, fine wines, the best of everything. He dressed in purple. Nowadays, we don’t think anything of that but in ancient times purple was a very expensive dye indeed. Dressing in purple was a sign of great wealth being flaunted for everyone to see.
The rich man wanted people to see him. He was the centre of attention. He didn’t notice the beggar at his gates. If he did see the beggar, there would have been plenty of mental filters that blocked him from really registering what he saw:
If only he’d get himself a job…
It’s his own fault, it’s because of the choices he’s made…
If I were to help him, what good would it do?…
The rich man probably thought that it was just God’s will. That idea has persisted for hundreds of years. It’s still around in the shape of ‘prosperity theology’. We began today by singing the Australian version of that old hymn All things bright and beautiful. The original version was published in 1848. It had this verse in it:
The rich man in his castle,
the poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
and ordered their estate.
That verse really does remind me of this parable, the rich man in his mansion while the poor man languished at his gate. The verse was was thrown out of the hymn many years ago. We don’t sing it anymore. We can’t sing it.
Have you ever noticed that when stories are told, the great and powerful are named but ordinary people are left unnamed?
Who fought at the Battle of Waterloo? Why, it was the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon Bonaparte. No, it was thousands of ordinary foot soldiers, cannon fodder who lost their lives or their limbs to make their generals famous. We don’t know their names. They are long forgotten to us.
It’s the other way around in this parable. We know the beggar’s name: Lazarus. We don’t know the rich man’s name. Dressed in purple, the centre of attention, he is nobody. Like the farmer who built bigger and bigger barns, and then just died. Or the rich young ruler, who walked away saddened because he couldn’t give up his riches. All of them, nobodies in the kingdom of God.
But we see Lazarus. He was somebody. And we remember his name.
We could even say that in this story that God knows Lazarus’s name, but God doesn’t know the rich man’s name. What a terrible thing.
Later scripture scholars tried to put this right. They called the rich man ‘Dives’, which is just Latin for rich man. So you may read of the Parable of Dives and Lazarus. Don’t be fooled: only Lazarus has a name.
Lazarus means ‘God has helped’. I wonder if people sniggered at that. God-has-helped? He’s a beggar, he eats the scraps the rich man throws out on the street, he can’t stop the dogs that lick his sores… Lazarus? What a joke! God hasn’t helped him at all!
They call death the great leveller. And it’s true, death will come to us all. But this story looks beyond the veil of death, just as our Pearly Gates stories do. We find the rich man in hades, the shadowy world of the dead the ancients believed in. There, the rich man is in torment.
And there, he finally sees Lazarus. He’s still not far away. Lazarus is close to Abraham, the great father of faith. So 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’s not asking for much, is he? He’s not asking to be released from the flames, just for a drop of water on his tongue. Surely, that’s not too much…
But what does his question say about his opinion of Lazarus? As far as he’s concerned, Lazarus is Abraham’s lackey. Click your fingers, Abraham, and send that beggar Lazarus over to me to make my burden easier!
It seems as though the rich man doesn’t yet realise that the tables have been turned. He is now on the outer, not Lazarus. He has to be told there is a great gulf fixed between him and Lazarus, one which no one can cross.
So the rich man keeps bargaining. Perhaps he’s read Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal. What about sending Lazarus (you know, the lackey, the ragged beggar) back to warn my brothers?
Bad news on that front too. Abraham tells him,
If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.
Of course, that was literally true. Jesus had risen from the dead by the time people read this story, and they didn’t believe it.
And Jesus is the beggar at the gate. Homeless Jesus is a work by a Canadian sculptor, Timothy Schmalz, that depicts Jesus as a homeless person sleeping on a park bench. The original sculpture is at the University of Toronto. Other copies exist in other places, one in the Catholic Cathedral in Townsville. We are challenged by this sculpture not just to look at a homeless person, but to see her as Jesus. Would your heart go out more in compassion if it were Jesus before you?
I said before that this is a parable about not looking, not seeing, and therefore not knowing, not caring.
The responsibility was in the hands of the rich man. The beggar at his gate was also a child of Abraham. The rich man had ignored Lazarus.
What would have happened if he’d looked at Lazarus, really looked at him? He might have seen a fellow human being. He may even have started to be able to see things through Lazarus’s eyes.
Seeing things through the eyes of another person: we call that ‘empathy’. It’s the next step beyond really seeing a person. It is looking with that person’s eyes, as best as you are able. It’s trying to see the world as they see it.
I asked earlier if you would have more compassion if the homeless person before you were Christ. Compassion is the fruit of empathy.
In the Christian story, God has empathy, because God becomes human with us in Christ. God sees the world through the eyes of a human being. God knows the struggles of being truly human in a sinful world that rejects true humanity.
Don’t let me give you the impression that I think empathy comes easily. But most of us can learn to have more empathy.
You might think that empathy is something you’re just born with. Not true! How much empathy does a newborn baby have? Zilch! We learn empathy. We learn by looking, really looking and silencing judgement. We don’t just look at others; we use our imaginations to try to see what they see as they look. We try to imagine their feelings. The rich man didn’t do that, not at all. He didn’t even try.
If you look at the news or enter the world of social media, you quickly become aware of a stunning empathy deficit in today’s world. I read an article about Greta Thunberg, the 16 year old Swedish activist. She addressed the United Nations summit on climate change. She said
You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words… The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line.
I admire this young woman. I try to look at the world as she does, yet I can only see what she sees for so long. Then I falter, and my mind starts thinking about what’s for dinner. Greta speaks prophetic words for our day, calling us back to our true predicament.
I also read the comments on social media. What people say about Greta Thunberg is just disgraceful. They are made to look at her; but they don’t really see her.
They—we!—circle our wagons, protect our interests and push away anyone who is a threat.
Because really, in the terms of this parable, most of us here should identify with the rich man. It is his eyes that we see life through, we who have enough to eat, and somewhere to sleep.
Our task is to learn to look through the eyes of others, those who are poor and yes, those who are seeking a new home in Australia. Through the eyes of a beggar in the street, and those in wheelchairs who can’t access NDIS funding because the government needs a budget surplus. Through the eyes of abused women and children.
Jesus’ parables are stories that lead us further into what it means to follow Jesus in our time. They are not meant to leave us comfortably where we are. We could say that Jesus’ parables are stories that help us see life through his eyes. To have empathy that is taught by the words and the Spirit of Jesus. Isn’t that amazing? We can look through the eyes of Jesus by taking his parables to heart. By taking them in as food for our spirit, so we can grow as disciples of Jesus.
Yes, most of us here stand in the rich man’s shoes in this parable; our task is to learn bit by little bit what it’s like to see life through Lazarus’s eyes. To do that, we need to pay great attention to the world’s Lazaruses. Can we make that journey, together?
West End Uniting Church, 29 September 2019