Jesus said: 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. Luke 16:19-21
What do you do when someone comes across your path who asks you for money – someone who is begging on the street, or at the train station or the subway, or some other place you go to? And how does it make you feel when you are approached in this way? These are questions we were discussing in our Bible study group this past week. And there were a variety of answers: one person has invited a street person into a nearby coffee shop and paid for their meal; someone else carries a zip-lock bag with a warm hat or scarf, a bar of soap, and several granola bars to distribute as the need arises; and others of us were not sure we have ever been in a place where we have been pan-handled for money.
It also got us into a discussion of why there are people living on the street or very close to that in the first place – and we came up with lots of reasons, often intertwined and causing a cascading fall into destitution, or pretty close to it. Some of those reasons can be illness or injury, family troubles, mental illness, lack of education, lack of job opportunity, domestic violence, a business failure – just for starters; and then substance abuse and addiction on top of that creates a whole new level of difficulty. Add to all that the very small number of inpatient recovery programs and supervised shelters, and the wait for available beds and funds, even for people who want to get help….and the problem is overwhelming. And that can leave even people of good will and intentions feeling helpless and fearful. When we are feeling like that, it can be easier to turn away, easier not to see. I’m sure we’ve all been in that place.
And then this morning we hear the story that Jesus was telling to the Pharisees when a group of them mocked Jesus for his teaching about not being able to serve both God and wealth, which we heard last week. The Pharisees, after all, were coming from the mind-set that the land (and the wealth that came from it) was a blessing from God and a sign that they were faithful to Torah – the Jewish law for living, the Hebrew Scriptures. So for them, wealth was conflated with serving God, and if there were poor people in the world – certainly in ancient Palestine: Judea and Galilee – it was a sign that those folks weren’t right with God, that their condition in life was their own fault.
So Jesus tells this parable about a man named Lazarus (not to be confused with Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary of Bethany, whom Jesus raised from the dead) who was poverty-stricken, and sick, and sat at the gate of a wealthy man, hoping for some food, or assistance, whatever the man might be able to spare in his direction. But the rich man would not see him, and did nothing. Eventually, Jesus says, both men died, and Lazarus went to be with Abraham, the father of his people, in a place of blessedness and comfort, while the rich man was consigned to the torments of Hades.
It is important for us to be clear that Jesus is not telling this story to describe what heaven or hell is like, or what happens after death. Nor is this story saying that poor people will get their reward in heaven, and so they just need to be patient and wait to die.
On one level, this parable is a cautionary tale, similar to “A Christmas Carol”, by Charles Dickens. The rich man, once in Hades, realizes his mistake and asks for relief; or barring that, at least mercy for his siblings who are still living, that they might learn from his example. In Dicken’s’ story, Scrooge goes through a life review, opens up his places of personal pain and hurt so that he is then capable of seeing the suffering of others, and comes to a place of repentence, and personal change and transformation. Certainly, Jesus wants each of us to hear that our actions and decisions in this life affect our spiritual condition, and the way we live faithfully on Christ’s behalf – or not.
But if we only understand “A Christmas Carol” as personal redemption, we will have missed Dickens’ point. He describes very clearly and directly the social evils of his day – their causes and consequences, the milieu in which Victorian England lived. It was a commentary on society as a whole. In the same way, Jesus uses this parable to address conditions among his own people in their own place and time. In what was largely a peasant society, begging in the street was an everyday occurrence.
But Jesus doesn’t just leave it there. In response to the Pharisees alluding to the Scriptural promises of God’s blessings of land and prosperity, Jesus wraps the story in such a way as to remind them that God’s Law also requires compassion and acts of mercy towards the poor and the suffering and the stranger. He puts these words in the mouth of the rich man and Abraham:
“Father, I beg you to send [Lazarus] 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.” In other words, Jesus is saying, if you hold the Scriptures – the Law and the prophets – in such high esteem and you won’t take them seriously and live by what they say, they you will never be convinced by something outside of them that God does.
Woah! I don’t know about you, but I am always brought up short by Luke’s very sharp drawing of what Jesus has to say. So what do we do with this story in our own context, we who seek to be faithful followers of Jesus? I can give you one example, at least.
This past Wednesday morning, about a dozen volunteers from All Saints’ went to Shop-Rite in Stirling to bag groceries as part of Shop-Rite’s Partners in Caring program. Because Shop-Rite supports our food pantry by putting funds on our account at the Community Food Bank, they invited us to come and help them publicize their efforts to alleviate hunger and food insecurity during Hunger Awareness month. Our volunteers had some really interesting experiences: people who didn’t want help, people who were grateful for the help; some who gave very generously to the collection cans – twice, some who asked how there could possibly be hungry people in America when the use of food stamps in our country is so high – and didn’t really want to hear answer. That’s a very good question, and it has multiple, complex answers.
But we have to start by asking questions right here in our own communities, and being open – maybe even surprised or shocked – by the answers that come. Here is something I have learned in the last six months. There are at least 25 families in the Long Hill Township school system who qualify for the federal free or reduced lunch program. However, those children only get free milk, because our schools don’t have cafeterias and don’t serve lunch. So even though those families qualify for that benefit, there is no lunch to be had, adding to the daily challenge these families have to feed, clothe, educate and raise their children.
Why are they in this situation in the first place? I’m sure there are many, many reasons – a divorce, a death, an illness, a job loss, a legal difficulty, an unexpected pregnancy – each reason as individual as the family. And these are just the folks who have kids in the school system and who have filled out the paperwork. There surely are others.
We are doing what we can to connect with these families, but it is not easy. There is a lot of shame connected to poverty and hunger, people in communities like ours don’t want to come forward and ask for help, they don’t want others to know that they are struggling. They don’t want their children to have the stigma of financial difficulty.
So what can we do, as Jesus’ followers, as God’s People led by the Holy Spirit? We can ask questions, we can educate ourselves about the facts of hunger, homelessness, and poverty. The website of Feeding America is a good place to start. We can read the Gospels deeply and meditatively, open to what Jesus has to say. And we can pray, and ask God to lead us in wisdom and compassion for this world he has made, and then act – in ways small or large, as the Spirit leads us.
Let us pray.
Lord Christ, you call us from death into life in so many ways – spiritual and temporal. Give us the strength and courage to follow you in being life-givers to those who share this world with us. We ask this in your name. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
September 25, 2016