Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
This is a terrifying parable. Yet, it seems fitting, somehow, for the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana. The celebration, which begins today at sundown, ushers in ten days of repentance culminating in the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur. Each is consistent with the warning of the prophet Amos in our first reading: let all couch-surfers, and La-Z-Boy riders beware. The revelry of the loungers shall pass away (Amos 6:7).
The bible is sometimes called the ‘Good Book.’ It’s ‘an owner’s manual,’ or a ‘handbook for life.’ Yet those labels fail to capture the spirit of readings like these. Today, the bible more closely resembles ‘The Monster Book of Monsters’ of Harry Potter fame which was not just about terrifying magical creatures, but the book itself was a terrifying magical creature. One mistake at opening the latch on that oversized textbook and you’d be attacked by its razor-teeth. Author J.K. Rowling told an interviewer that she meant to create a “vicious guide to monstrous creatures”—a book that can (literally) eat you alive (Rick Lawrence, De-Boring the Bible, Friday Thoughts, 9/23/22).
The Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor once famously said, “the more you poke the bible the more the bible pokes you back.” Indeed, as Christians have always claimed, the “Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
Poet Ogden Nash wrote, “There is only one way to achieve happiness on this terrestrial ball, and that is to have either a clear conscience or none at all.” Having no conscience isn’t really an option for Christians. Eating and drinking the living Word of God ensures there will always be something gnawing at us. Whatever comfort and compassion we receive from grace also afflicts and convicts us whenever we would withhold that very same compassion from any other human being who is suffering and in need.
Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus underscores the extreme urgency of now. There is such thing as being ‘too late’ to stop the unnecessary and unjust pain of today. Our inaction and indifference can launch a thousand indelible consequences for which we must all account for tomorrow. A heavy conscience is God’s way of steering us toward greater peace and wellbeing for everyone. With our own hands, grace would span the chasm between the haves and the have-nots.
This time of year the classic tale, Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol warms our hearts as the days of fall turn to winter. Our gospel today tells much the same tale, except the characters receive no warnings. The angels carry Lazarus to Father Abraham while the rich man descends to Hades to live in agony among the flames. The grace of God is a great comfort for the afflicted but a terrible affliction for the comfortable.
Mary the mother of Jesus sings this same tune in the famous poetic words of a different song. The Lord God “…has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:52). How beautiful the Magnificat sounds at Advent. Yet how terrible and unfair it sounds in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
Lazarus was chronically hungry. He wore rags. His body was covered with lesions. And, as much of the art about this parable emphasizes, the dogs licked his sores. We cannot be followers of Jesus and indifferent to human and non-human suffering.
The first-century hearers of Jesus’ parable would not have assumed that the rich man was evil or that the poor man was righteous. On the contrary, wealth in the ancient world was often viewed as a sign of divine favor, while poverty was viewed as evidence of sin. The rich man’s sin was not that he was rich, but that, during his earthly life, he did not “see” Lazarus, despite his daily presence at the entrance to his home. In fact, the first time he ever sees Lazarus is when, from Hades “he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side” (v. 23). (Daniel Clendenin)
As for Lazarus, we aren’t told he was faithful, but his name means “God helps,” which implies righteousness. Lazarus’s hunger and willingness to eat whatever was at hand remind us of the Prodigal son’s famished, desperate condition in the previous chapter (Luke 15:16). God shows a preference for the poor—not a preference for poverty. Whether our gospel as a parable, or a literal description of the afterlife, the point is the same. To censure your compassion is to make God’s grace an exile.
We know many Lazarus’ in the bible. He is Elizabeth, whom ageism casts aside. He is Mary, whom classism deems unworthy. He is the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet, whom sexism makes sure to spend more time pondering the possibilities of her sin rather than the power of her tender and generous act. We know many Lazarus’ in our own time. He is anyone deemed unworthy to be a true American or to have their vote counted. He is the forced laborer who makes our shoes and our jeans. He is the unseen, the disenfranchised, the hungry, the naked, and the oppressed.
As I say, this is a terrifying parable. For Jesus, exclusive concern for one’s own self-interest qualifies one as a “fool.” The ghost of Jacob Marley fashioned a chain of greed he must carry for eternity. The rich man created a chasm between himself, and Lazarus, fashioned by his own indifference. Yet, before the chasm, there was a wall between the rich man and Lazarus. In the wall was a gate at which Lazarus sat. Opening the gate to become neighbor yields moments of resurrection and new life for us. Opening the gate brings moments of joy. These are the moments that give us peace the world cannot give and that bring the dead to life. (Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, 2016.) The cruel chain of indifference is broken.
I wonder, can we here at Immanuel help one another loosen our chains, and to open the gates of our hearts and minds, to live the gospel with greater integrity without judgement but with creativity and joy?
Scripture makes clear, justice isn’t God’s job. It’s ours. Justice is God’s will for us. Shalom, harmony, and balance among diverse peoples living as siblings is God’s vision for us. For Luke, this is the God’s-eye vision for our lives we first glimpse not from the mountaintop, but standing shoulder to shoulder upon the plain. With the Prophet Isaiah we proclaim “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7)
Let God’s people say, Amen.