Have you ever pulled off the freeway onto an off-ramp and seen someone standing there asking for money? Or pulled up to a stoplight and, as you wait, you're approached by someone begging for loose change with a sign that says “Please help me!”? What do you do? How do you respond when you see someone suffering? Do you roll down your window and give them some money? Or do you, perhaps, as I often do, roll your window up a little and turn your eyes away. Because, you know what will happen if you make eye contact, right? They’re sure to think that maybe, if they ask you a little more, you’ll see them. You’ll see how they’re suffering. And, maybe, you might be moved to help.
This is our story today. It’s not a story that’s often read as part of the lectionary. Because it’s a hard story. But, it seems like we’ve been hearing a lot of hard stories this year. Hard stories in the midst of what has been a long, hard year.
Our reading is from the 16th chapter of Luke.
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called 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.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” --Luke 16:19-31 (NRSV)
To begin with this morning, I’d like to place this parable in its context in Luke. Just a few verses earlier, Jesus has been teaching his disciples about the power of wealth and power. Ending his teaching with this infamous, often misquoted, verse: “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Immediately after, the Pharisees, who have been listening in and about whom Luke writes explicitly that they were “lovers of money,” - the Pharisees begin to ridicule Jesus. In response, Jesus tells this story about the rich man and Lazarus.
What’s immediately striking about this parable is who is named and who is not named in the story. Usually, in scripture, those who are without power are unnamed. But, it’s different here. The rich man. The wealthy man. The man who dresses in purple and, literally, the softest underwear. The man who feasts daily. Who kills the fatted calf like the father in last week’s story, not just for a special celebration, but every single day. Every day this man feasts sumptuously. In our world today, he might be a one percenter. A Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk of our day. Yet, this one - this ultra rich man in our story - is unnamed.
By contrast, it is the poor man who is named. Lazarus. Lazarus, meaning “my God helps.” He is the one who is named. Lazarus, a beggar. Who is covered in sores from a skin condition. Who is licked by dogs. Not dogs like ours, who lick us out of affection. But wild dogs. Filthy, garbage-eating mongrels who roam the streets. These are the dogs licking the sores of Lazarus, who is the one named in today’s parable.
Each day, Lazarus lies outside the gate of the wealthy, unnamed man. Begging for food. Asking just for scraps from the man’s sumptuous table. And he receives nothing.
Then, the story changes. Both men die. And, in another of Luke’s great reversals, Lazarus is carried away to the bosom of Abraham - a place in Jewish legend of great bliss. The rich man is buried and finds himself in Hades - the nature of which continues to be debated today. Wherever it is, the rich man is in a place of “torment,” our text tells us.
Now, if we were to give the rich man the benefit of the doubt, maybe, while he was alive, he was so far removed from the grittiness of life - maybe, just maybe, he never saw Lazarus lying outside his gate. There’s no mention of this in the first part of the story. So, maybe he really isn’t such a bad guy after all. Just a little gluttonous. But, not as bad as we might first think.
Soon, though, that theory is blown apart. Because, we read in verse 24, that the rich man looks up, sees Abraham and Lazarus, and asks - no, orders, Abraham to send Lazarus to dip his finger in water and cool his tongue. He knew who Lazarus was. Had likely seen him, his skin condition, the dogs licking his wounds. Had likely heard him begging just for scraps. And he has done nothing. Then, on top of this, fails to understand that he no longer has power or control. Even as he orders that Lazarus be sent to help him.
Are we like this rich man? Have we heard the cries of those struggling in this past year? Have we seen them? Have we looked them in their eyes and said, “I see you. I see your pain. I hear your cries.” Or do we, like the wealthy man, like me, turn away. Pretend not to notice. Never look them in the eyes, because if we did. If we truly did, we could no longer ignore them. Or walk away. Or do nothing.
It may be overwhelming for us. When we think of all the people in need or the injustice that plagues entire systems in our society, it may be overwhelming. That there’s nothing you or I can do to change things. That we’re just one or just a few people. What difference can we really make?
But, the rich man was only one person. And Lazarus was also one person only asking for a little. How might the story have ended if, just one time, the rich man had seen - really seen - Lazarus. Seen his suffering. Seen his need. And made one small gesture. A few scraps from his table.
Jesus was one person, too. Who continues to transform our world. Jesus. Who sees us. Who calls us to his side. Who welcomes and comforts us. And who sends us to welcome and comfort - to see and to hear the unnoticed in our world.
Will this past year change us? Will this experience change us? Will it change how we respond? Will we see and hear and act in new ways when we move beyond this pandemic?
I hope so.
I hope that, in these next months, our prayer may be that the Holy Spirit push us to new places. To new people. To new life. In and through Jesus Christ. Amen.
Preached March 14, 2021, online with Grace & Glory and Third Lutheran churches, Goshen/Louisville, KY.
Fourth Sunday of Lent
Readings: Luke 16:19-31, Psalm 41:1-3