Special photo: Susan Bennett
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is (once again) being challenged by the Pharisees, who are there to argue with him and try to make him look bad, and Jesus tells a parable that’s directed mainly to them.
Just before this parable, the Pharisees were ridiculing Jesus for saying, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” And one of the reasons for that was the Pharisees believed material wealth and prosperity of all kinds were signs of God’s favor –– and, of course, poverty and illness were a sign of God’s disfavor, even proof that you had some awful sin in your life. The belief was that, if you were following the Law and obeying all the rules, God would bless you, and everybody would know you had God’s approval.
The parable is the story of Lazarus: poor, ill, lying by the rich man’s gate, a beggar who was covered in sores and virtually starving to death. And if what the Pharisees taught was true, all this misfortune was his own fault, because God rewards virtue and punishes sin.
Wow! We’re all in trouble, if it’s as simple as that.
A lot of details are left out of this story, but a few things are very clear. The rich man COULD have helped Lazarus. Lazarus was ready to eat out of the rich man’s garbage, if he could only get to it, but the rich man didn’t help. He was busy feasting. I suspect, however, that it was even worse than that. I suspect the rich man was not only unwilling to help, but had even quit SEEING Lazarus a long time ago.
We do have the capacity to be incredibly self-absorbed, focusing on our own needs and worries. As a result, we sometimes miss out on all kinds of opportunities to help –– to help with our money, our possessions, even our attention and our love. And the truth about money, possessions, attention, and love is … to whom much is given, much will be required.
One of the saddest things about this parable is that the rich man not only refused to touch Lazarus, he refused to let Lazarus touch HIM. That’s sad because anytime we allow ourselves to be touched by the poor … whether that poverty is financial, spiritual, emotional, or whatever … we are always a deeper and better person for it. It wasn’t just that the rich man had a lot to give Lazarus, Lazarus had a lot to give the rich man.
In the parable, Lazarus dies and is gathered to Abraham’s bosom, in Paradise. The rich man dies and is sent to Hades, where he’ll be tormented forever. There’s a huge chasm between Paradise and Hades, which no one can cross. And anytime we’re blind to the needs of those around us … or build a chasm between the “them” and the “us” … we’re on the wrong side of that chasm. And, like the rich man, we’ve missed the grace of God –– grace not only for those who are in obvious need, but also grace for US … because we’re also people who are in need.
Long before Jesus’ birth, the prophets challenged God’s people to pay attention to the needs of others. But the rich man in the parable tells Abraham to send Lazarus to him with some water, as he’s tormented in the heat, showing us that even in death, he’s not getting it. He still sees Lazarus as a servant at best. But … there’s no crossing that chasm. Then, he tells Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers, so that they’ll hear the truth and escape this fiery torment. The rich man still doesn’t get it. He’s as self-absorbed as ever.
And yet, according to the Pharisees, this was a man especially blessed by God because of his wealth and prosperity. Abraham has two things to say to him: Not only were the Law and the prophets not enough to save him … people like him won’t understand and believe even if someone comes to them from the dead.
I guess the question is … who’s right outside your door? You know that needy people are all around us, and their numbers are increasing every day. Honestly, if the recession’s really close to being over … I am not yet seeing it.
Needs aren’t always financial. There are many who struggle with illness, even the stranger God puts in your path sometimes when you least expect it. And there are just as many who are sad, grieving, lonely, who really need God and don’t even realize that God’s looking for them. It’s not just about money. Time, attention, and love are needed just as much, and by so many. Sometimes, these folks are family members, neighbors, or the person sitting right next to you in the pew on Sunday mornings. Sometimes, they’re the chance encounters in Publix or Big Lots, or the doctor’s waiting room, or the person you work with, or … who knows?
The thing is to SEE them, to be on the lookout for them and be so filled with God that your eyes and heart are open. If someone’s poor or in trouble, we can’t blame them; if someone seems to be trouble-free, it’s not because God loves them more. We are only to offer help, not establish blame. We’ve been given forgiveness, amazing grace, and God’s eternal love. Let people touch you. In doing so, you’ll receive a gift, even as you open your own heart and share God’s gifts with them.
Rev. Susan Bennett is pastor of Stockbridge Presbyterian Church. She and her husband live in Stockbridge with two giant Rottweilers and a 15-pound rescue dog who is the boss of everybody.