The Rich Man & Lazarus

Joy Wallis

June 11, 2017
Text: Luke 16: 19-31

The Gospel reading from Luke 16 is a story you may well have heard before of the rich man and Lazarus.  We read about a rich man who lived in luxury, nice clothes, and a big house; he feasted sumptuously every day and never wanted for anything. 

At his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus (interesting that “Lazarus” means “God Helps” and he is the only person that Jesus ever names in any of his parables).  He’s not only poor, he’s also sick and covered with sores: dogs would come and lick his sores. 

So, shockingly for the listeners, who would have identified with the rich man, when Lazarus dies, he goes to be with Abraham in heaven. 

The rich man dies and goes to Hades where is he tormented.  He sees Lazarus with Abraham, he realizes he’s screwed up and it’s too late and he says, “have pity on me…,” but there are no second chances.  So he says “Please go warn my brothers…” but the answer is if they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, how is it possible that they can be convinced (“get it”) even if someone comes back from the dead?

Today I want to suggest that this parable is a parable for our time because it’s just so easy not to act. 

It’s so easy not to act!   For so many of us, like the “Rich Man” in the parable, it’s so easy to get stuck in our comfort zones, our relative wealth can blind us to the plight of others at our gate.  Even if we are not blind to their plight, we may be burned out or have compassion fatigue and it becomes just so easy not to act.

This is the sin of omission.  The sin of the rich man was not that he was wealthy and the sin of the rich man was not what he did.… he didn’t order Lazarus to be removed from his gate.  He made no objections to Lazarus receiving his leftovers from dinner.  He didn’t harass him or be cruel to him.… he didn’t want to build a wall… this guy wasn’t the Donald Trump of his time…The sin of the rich man was that he never noticed Lazarus.  He didn’t matter.  He simply accepted him as part of the way his world was….  And that’s a huge challenge for all of us… what do we accept?  What do we miss?  It’s so easy not to act, the worse things get, the more cynical we can become and which means we give up, we despair at ever being able to effect change and eventually we avoid engagement and in our safety and comfort, we begin not to even notice.  It’s so easy “not to act.”

Tonight my son Jack who plays baseball with Collin Bosley-Smith (and is in fact playing today), is off to the University of Maryland because he and a friend won the District National History Day competition.  They made a documentary called “Unlikely Heroes” which highlights an individual, a family, a French village and a country that rescued and protected hundreds of Jews in the Second World War.  The family that they researched was an American Unitarian pastor Waitstill Sharpe.  He and his wife Martha were in their 30s when they left their two-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter in Massachusetts to head to Prague and later to France to confront the Nazis.  They rescued many hundreds of people.  What I love about the boys’ documentary is that they ask us to learn lessons from history.  Even though this happened seventy-five years ago, it’s a timely challenge at a time when the world needs to do more to aid refugees in war-torn Syria and elsewhere.  As their documentary ends with pictures of protesters holding signs that say “No Muslim Ban!” the words pan across the screen… “Is History Doomed To Repeat Itself?” The question that looms out there for me is Why did they (The Sharps) do this?  Why did they feel it was their obligation or their responsibility to take these risks, when it’s so much easier not to act? America was not yet involved in the war and only acted in response to the Pearl Harbor bombing.  It was so much easier not to act!   Maybe it had something to do with their faith.  Maybe they were familiar with the writings of the prophet Amos.  Maybe they understood the call of Jesus to the “least of these,” to justice and inclusivity.  Maybe they had studied stories like this one about the rich man and Lazarus…

The challenge for me and maybe a question for all of us is to ask ourselves is Who is our “Lazarus”?  Who are we missing?  Or who doesn’t matter to us?  Who does Lazarus represent in America?  Is Lazarus the Black-Lives-Matter movement in a world of white privilege?  Is Lazarus the votes that don’t matter and need to be protected at the polls?  Is Lazarus the millions of people who are vulnerable and afraid in Trump America?  Who is Lazarus in our world?  Is Lazarus the Syrian refugee crisis?  Is Lazarus the needs and issues of women and girls here and around the world?  Who is Lazarus in our neighborhood?  Is Lazarus the elderly person who has become invisible as they struggle with loneliness?  Is Lazarus the mom living in a homeless shelter with her two kids struggling to keep them out of foster care?  Lazarus is living on the edges of our world managing on the crumbs of left over wealth, the poor at our gate that we often simply overlook.   

This is a warning to me, to all of us, that our comfort can prevent us from connection, from attachment, from relationship with those whom Matthew calls “the least of these.”  Jim often speaks of and challenges me on how we need “proximity to the poor” to discipline our relative affluence.  And I have some serious rich-man sins to repent of.  As we raised our kids, we were always asking… Who do our children go to school with, have play dates and sleep overs with, play sports with; who are our friends?  But sometimes it’s just not been enough.

Several years ago we got involved with Safe Families.  We have two little girls that we have looked after on a respite basis for several years.  This meant that they often came along with us to Jack’s travel baseball games in Virginia.  On one occasion as we arrived at the field, Sierra saw that some girls from the other team from Virginia had set up a lemonade stand.  The girls were maybe a little older than six-year-old Sierra… maybe eight or ten. 

Sierra ran over to join the girls.  “What are you doing?” she asked.  “We’re running a lemonade stand to raise money for the poor.  Selling lemonade and cookies to the parents watching the baseball game,” they replied.  “Can I join in?” asked Sierra jumping up and down.  “Eh… sure… you can help us.  We are going around taking orders, asking people if they want to buy a cup of lemonade and then taking their money.”  Sierra ran around drumming up business.  A couple of kind parents even gave her a tip!

After a little while we noticed that not all was peace and light over at the lemonade stand.  I walked over to intervene.  Sierra was standing in her defiant stance with her hands on her hips shouting, “Don’t you threaten me!” staring them down with a very angry look.  What happened next was heart-breaking and heart-warming.

I asked what had happened.  The girls from Virginia were very upset.  “She is taking the money from people and won’t give it all to us.  We’ve told her that the money is for the poor and that she has to give it all to us and not keep it, even the tips.” One girl had got angry and said that if she didn’t hand over the money, she would go tell the adults and she would be in trouble.  That was where I came in to hear Sierra saying “Don’t you threaten me!” 

“Listen, everyone take a breath.”  I felt guilty for not realizing that Sierra probably had no experience of a lemonade stand and that I had left her to navigate a situation that she didn’t really understand. 

The first thing I did was to take Sierra aside and let her know that I was going to sort this out and that she wasn’t in any trouble.  I took her to Jim and left her with him to explain the whole lemonade stand/ raising money thing to her while I went back to the lemonade stand girls. 

“So this is complicated and I’d like to explain to you what I think has happened here.  Sierra and her sister are friends of our family and stay with us from time to time which is why they are here.  But most of the time those two little girls live with their mom in a homeless shelter.” The girl’s eyes grew round and some of their jaws dropped a little.  “Sierra was desperate to play with you girls and be included, but she has never seen a lemonade stand before, and I now realize that she doesn’t get what the point of a lemonade stand is.  It was a genuine misunderstanding where she thought she was earning money.  It probably meant a different thing to her when you said you were raising the money for the poor, because you see, she is poor.”  One little girl put her hand over her mouth as if she were about to cry and another said, “We’re so sorry.  She can have all the money.” 

“No,” I said, “giving her the money isn’t the answer.  What she would value most of all is if you take the time to understand her mistake and try to include her.  Be a friend to her.”  At that point Jim came over with Sierra who handed over the money.  I’m sure Sierra was a little nonplussed that she was suddenly treated like a celebrity friend and when we left a short time after had been plied with bags of cookies, chips and drinks!

Everyone learned lessons that day. 

Having those girls in our life has been a gift and a challenge.  One small step.  It would be good for all of us to ask for the eyes to see Lazarus, because it’s not only so easy not to act, it’s so easy not to even notice.