Re-membering Jesus Amos 6: 1, 4-7; 1 Tim 6: 6-19; Lk 16: 19-31
The trend that began last week of parables seemingly aimed particularly at me is evidently not going anywhere. Even if I did not live in the wealthiest nation on earth, have multiple degrees, own a home and a car and a computer—already putting me in the top 10% of the wealthiest people in the world—I would have to identify with the rich man in today’s parable. Jesus begins his story by saying this rich man loves great food and expensive clothing. You don’t have to know me very well to guess that those are two of my favorite things as well.
Other than those details, however, there isn’t much other information about this rich person–not even his name, which I imagine had a lot of weight in his context. All we know is that he mistreated a beggar (who DOES get named), who is lying at the entrance to his gated community. Was this rich man a devoted husband? A good father? Did he volunteer at the local synagogue, or serve on the school board? Was he kind and fair to his employees? We have no idea. We know only that, however good or bad a man he was, he ends up in hell, possibly because he neglected one poor person. It might make a person wonder whether it’s worth trying to live well at all. What’s the point of trying to make ethical choices and do good deeds on a daily basis if God makes judgments based on singular instances of bad behavior, instead of on the cumulative whole of our lives?
For that matter, besides his being poor and sick, what do we know about the beggar called Lazarus? Was he unwell because of his own un-hygenic and perhaps immoral or illegal behavior? Did he use dirty needles? Practice unsafe sex? Was he poor because he didn’t try very hard to get (or keep) a job? Did he gamble or drink away what money he did earn? Did he squander opportunities to better himself? Was the reason the rich man knew his name because he once had to fire him or have him arrested? What we know about poor Lazarus is primarily his name and that he ends up in Abraham’s lap. Is the only ticket into heaven to be destitute and miserable in this life? Does God’s preferential option for the poor only take effect after death? If so, who wants that kind of preference?
The truth is, we don’t know much about these two men. The only thing we know for sure was that they had vastly differing financial/social situations. Maybe this difference wasn’t even attributable to their way of living—just the result of the rich man being born to rich parents and the poor man being born poor–just as I happened to have been born to two heterosexual, white, healthy, well-educated, middle class, Christian parents. On that same day, I’m sure, many other children were born to parents suffering from terminal illnesses that bankrupted them and left them without employment or education, without help or home or hope. Are those just the breaks, and I should thank God it broke the way it did for me?
Is this parable just a cautionary tale reminding us that we deserve to end up in hell if we ignore the millions around the world who are dying of malnutrition and curable diseases like malaria while we buy bigger and better cars, more household gadgets, the newest iPhone or—let’s face it—yet one more pair of ridiculously overpriced shoes?
Are we supposed to believe that all who suffer from disease and want and abuse and neglect in this world will end up at the heavenly banquet as a reward for going without in this life, while the rich people go to hell in the afterlife because they’ve already enjoyed the good life here? It would seem only fair, but where’s the Good News in that for people like me? Where’s the Gospel in all of this?
I find interesting that in the portraits of heaven and hell he creates, Jesus never mentions God in either locale. Nor does he mention Satan. Abraham is the representative of heaven in this story, while hell seems void of all that makes life bearable–including the precious commodity of companionship, not to mention the life-sustaining gift of water. Where is God? I bet that’s a question we’ve all asked at least once!
For that matter, where was God while Lazarus was lying at the rich man’s gate? Where was God when the rich man suffered in hell? When the rich man gazes up into heaven, why isn’t the name he calls out God’s? Even at this moment, isn’t it telling that he doesn’t speak to Lazarus, not even to apologize to him? He clearly recognizes Lazarus, and even remembers his name; yet the rich man addresses Father Abraham, asking him to send Lazarus to do his bidding. Certainly he thinks of Abraham as the most important person in the room, the one with the most authority. Why wouldn’t he approach Abraham with his agenda? The old boy networking style always worked for him on earth, so why not? Why talk to a beggar when the great patriarch is near?
Impressively, Lazarus does not yell down at him, “You got what you deserved didn’t you, you miserable old coot?” In fact, Lazarus never says anything at all in this parable. Who knows? Maybe he would have been willing go down to touch the rich man’s tongue with cool water—if for no other reason than because helping someone we consider less fortunate can be such a self-satisfying way of feeling good about how kind we are. Or maybe Lazarus didn’t even recognize him. After all, how many rich men had stepped over him in his life?
In any case, there is no relationship between Lazarus and the rich man–not even in the after-life. They didn’t connect on earth, and they don’t now. They don’t speak to or about each other, except that the rich man asks that Lazarus be sent to serve him and his brothers. Not only is there is no love between them, there’s no recognition of one another as part of a common humanity.
The heart of the story rests on who is visible and who is invisible. Who thinks their questions, concerns, issues, and points of view and family are more important than anyone else’s? Who does not expect any offers of help or even basic dignity or respect? In this culture—as in most—the rich get seen and heard; the poor do not. The tragedy is that when we don’t genuinely see one another, when we don’t pay attention to those just on the other side of the gate, we are in danger of forgetting that each person has a unique history—one including specific fears and hopes, unique scars and nicknames and nightmares, calamities and funny moments—that makes them who they are. Lazarus and the rich man missed all of these things about each other.
Perhaps the reason that God is not in the story is because God saw the wide, empty chasm between the rich man and the poor man, the abyss between the comfortable and the forgotten, and God was grieved, just as God is always grieved when we create insiders and outsiders, “us” and “them.” So God willingly steps OUT of that story. In the person of Jesus Christ, God leaves behind heaven in order to come among us, to SEE and HEAR all of us and to help us SEE and HEAR one another. In the person of Jesus, God blazes a trail from heaven to hell and back again, traversing all the known universe in a glorious explosion of light and hope and forgiveness that bridges over the great chasm that separates us from God and from one another.
Jesus loved the rich and the poor on earth, called each one by name, and cherished all of humanity beyond reason. Because Jesus would stop at nothing to welcome all people as members of his Body, at his final meal with his disciples, he asked his disciples to continue that work—to eat and drink together to re-member him. That is, to put back together the pieces separated from one another by circumstances and choices. Re-membering the Body of Christ is what is Jesus calling us to do. Jesus IS the Bridge across the chasm between the haves and the have-nots, connecting us all forever.
Because we are loved by Jesus, those who are rich CAN go outside their gates and serve the poor, not only by throwing a few coins their way, but by addressing the systemic divides that create poverty to begin with. Because we are loved by Jesus, the poor CAN approach the rich to remind us that all of creation belongs to God, and it is part of our job as stewards to share what we have. Because we are loved by Jesus, those who have no power can speak truth to power (just watch Greta Thunberg for inspiration!). Because we are loved by Jesus we can truly see and hear each other and join in feasting together on and as the Body of Christ, re-membering him. Because we are loved by Jesus who never delights in evil but rejoices with the truth, we can risk loving one another, being honest with each other, trusting one another and being strong for one another.
No one is meant to be always in need or always the giver—human relationships flourish best when there is balance and humility. When there is mutuality in relationships we are better able to live out God’s dream that each person feels known and cherished. In the presence of God we are all beggars, it is true, and we are all rich beyond all measure.
Thanks be to God!
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