Larry R. Benfield
Proper 21 – Year C
29 September 2013
You need to hear something up front from me about today’s gospel. I am not wild about any parable that begins with mention of a man who is dressed in purple and fine linen, and that ultimately ends up with that same man stuck in Hades. Just sayin’. In that the perception of wealth is a relative thing across the world, and we here in America have it pretty good, there is something too close to home about a parable that tells me that the pay grade of the typical Episcopal Church bishop will eventually get me the world’s worst case of heartburn.
But if I am going to be honest about an essential role of teachers in the church, that is, to hold up a mirror to our own sinfulness, then I might as well tackle today’s gospel. It is a parable unique to Luke. It is also the only parable of Jesus with a name attached to a character. Lazarus is the name given to the beggar at the gate who finds himself in the bosom of Abraham after his death, and there is an entire sermon in the fact that knowing someone’s name is life-giving, as we ourselves acknowledge through liturgy at Baptism and Confirmation. Also, and popularly, this parable is frequently seen to be about role reversal, of how it is that the wealthy of this age will be the poor of the age to come, and vice versa. I think there is much to be learned from that interpretation as we consider the income inequality, how we earn and spend money, and yes, how we worship it. It is a parable that will always discomfit the wealthy.
Today I want to focus on this parable’s role in another way: a story about sight versus blindness, about what happens when we start seeing the world around us in new ways, and conversely what will happen to us if we never do.
There are two parts to this parable. In the first part we get the story of a rich man and how he lives. The rich man is central to the story because, after all, he is mentioned first. That is a thing we need to remember about most parables; figure out what is happening to the first person mentioned, and we will more closely figure out what Jesus is trying to tell us. Perhaps the rich man was the Armani-clad male of his day. He has the stylish house, the lavish lifestyle. But even though he has these things, we soon learn that he is poor in his understanding of those outside his gates; apparently, he has no interest in how they live. He is blind to the beggar at his gate.
The second part of the parable is about the rich man’s discussion with Abraham after the rich man dies. Here is where his continued refusal to see his own poverty becomes glaringly clear. If you think the rich man finally gets the message of what has happened to him after he ends up in Hades, read the parable again very carefully. He does not change one bit from who he was when he was living. He remains poor in his understanding of others, blind to how they feel.
Here is why. When he dies, the rich man continues to act in Hades as he has always acted in life. He wants to order the beggar around. Send Lazarus to do his bidding, whether it is to deliver water or a message. Abraham’s reply is that in the kingdom the days of being ordered around like a beggar are over, a chasm that will not be breached, or as Clarence Jordon in the Cotton Patch Bible once put it, Abraham’s reply is, “Lazarus ain’t gonna run no mo yo errans.” The so-called rich man is clueless in life and just as clueless in death. He never changes how he sees the world. That is why he can’t see the kingdom in his midst.
So far, this parable sounds rather grim. The so-called rich man never changes, and, let’s face it, Lazarus does not become wealthy, so perhaps the parable is not about the rich becoming poor and the poor becoming rich, and the streets of gold that await the poor of this world in some distant future. There has to be something else for us to learn.
And there is. Jesus puts it in the language of Moses and the prophets, mentions them twice, in fact, another clue that something important is being talked about. Moses sees a world in which waters can be parted, sees a future Promised Land when all along others are afraid to go any further. And then we have the prophets, and, well, if they do anything, they force us to see the world around us with brand new eyes. The wellbeing of the widow, the poor, the orphan, the foreigner in our midst, is central to the prophets’ new vision of what created order should be like. If people will have vision like Moses and the prophets, if they engage themselves in the tradition of those people, they will find themselves comforted rather than in some sort of self-imposed agony.
The church continues that tradition. In its first generation, the church was already beginning to develop a language regarding what it thought was important. It was its liturgical language, the same sort of language that we use week after week as we celebrate the Eucharist and baptize new members. We get some of this early tradition in the first Letter to Timothy today, a quotation taken from the early church’s liturgy, quite possibly a baptismal liturgy. “I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” What the church has considered important from its very beginning, what it wants to talk about, is loving God with all one’s heart and soul and mind and loving one’s neighbor as oneself, until somehow Jesus is made real in the world, until somehow we see Jesus.
That is an amazing theological statement. By the year 100 A.D., the church was not sitting around waiting for Jesus to drop from the sky, but instead it said that its members would live lives of love until people Jesus became real.
And that is what we still do. We will see Jesus. To live into that central message of the church is why I want everyone who works for a living or lives off a trust fund, or who is financially poor or who is financially rich, to be in church week after week and year after year. Live into the tradition; soak it up. When we have gathered with strangers long enough, sometimes sitting too near us in pews for our comfort, when we have prayed our liturgy long enough that constantly rehearses the story of death and resurrection, and when we have shared bread and wine enough times with both friends and foes, then we will start seeing Jesus in a thousand faces, both inside this place and outside these doors, and we won’t end up like the so-called rich man who never saw poor old Lazarus sitting right outside his door.
Our call is to go away from this place so living as the body of Christ, living out the commandment of love of God and one another, that eventually people will see that same risen body of Christ through us. It is the same thing that the church has prayed for for 1900 years. We don’t sit idly by. We are waiting for Jesus to show up in boardrooms and welding shops and fast food restaurants and universities and insurance poultry processing plants and even in the bathroom mirror. Pray the church’s central message long enough and our sight will be changed. Live the church’s central message long enough,nd the sight of others will be changed. Pray that message seriously enough and one day Jesus will return, looking in no way like we ever expected. Amen.