(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA 9-25-2016)
In 2004, when I was called as pastor of the Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, I entered a world new to me. Not the world inside the church building so much as the world camped on the steps, in the alley, and on the sidewalks outside the building.
Day and especially at night women and men, and occasionally children, would roll up their clothes for a pillow, carve out cardboard for a makeshift bed and shelter, and camp out on cold concrete in the winter and scorching concrete in the summer. Every night when I left Central, I tried not to dwell on the nameless folks without a home who were camping on the church grounds, since I was about to return to a comfortable home, a soft bed, with a refrigerator full of food.
Memories of the early years at Central, trying not to notice folks living outside the church, came rushing back this week when I read the parable Jesus tells in Luke’s Gospel. It is a parable that people often think is easy to pin down. I would suggest otherwise.
Some pin down this story as an anti-wealth parable. This theme is common in Luke’s Gospel. Mary sings in her Magnificat: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (1:52). In an early sermon in Luke, Jesus says that God’s Reign is for the hungry and poor, and woe to those who are rich. So some conclude the parable is about the problem of having too much wealth. Maybe, but I doubt it.
Some pin down this story as the “Jesus loves the poor” parable. In this parable, poverty’s new name is Lazarus, from Eleazar, which means, “God helps.” In an old English carol based on this parable, when the rich man sends his dogs to chase the poor beggar Lazarus from his gate, a miracle occurs when the dogs do not attack poor Lazarus but instead lick his sores. So some conclude the parable is about God’s preferential treatment of the poor. Maybe, but I think the parable goes much deeper.
The poet Edith Sitwell pins down the parable in yet another way. In her poem, Still Falls the Rain, she presents Lazarus and the rich man not as opposites but as fellow sufferers, each in need of the mercy of God. She writes, “Christ . . . have mercy on us--/On Dives and on Lararus: /Under the rain the sore and the gold are as one.” Maybe this is what the parable is about, that whether rich or poor, we all stand in desperate need of the mercy of God. While this fact is true, I believe the parable wants us to go much deeper still.
So, let me suggest another way to read this parable. Jesus tells this story in three acts. In Act One we meet the characters: a rich man whose wealth is defended by a gate and demonstrated by royal garments and lavish meals and a poor beggar, Lazarus, who waits each day for the trash to be carried out from the rich man’s mansion. In Act One, we see the world as many then and today see it, a world designed by God, where blessings in this life are a sign of God’s favor, while poverty and hunger are signs of human sloth and Divine displeasure.
Act Two shifts from this life to the afterlife. The poor beggar is treated like the prophet Elijah as he is carried on a chariot to the halls of heaven, while the rich man is buried and tortured endlessly by heat and thirst in Hell. In Act Two, the world as we know it is turned upside down, a world in which the poor prosper and the rich suffer. Yet, in a very basic way, Act Two is simply a repeat of Act One in a new location. The rich man’s interest in Lazarus is simply in how best the beggar can serve him.
Act Three begins with the rich man pleading with Father Abraham to send Lazarus to visit his five brothers, like Jacob Marley is sent to warn Scrooge of his impending fate. The rich man wants Lazarus to tell them of the torture that awaits them, unless they repent. Clarence Jordan, a good Georgia biblical wise man, who retold the parables in a Southern idiom, interprets Abraham’s answer to the rich man: “Lazarus ain’t gonna run no mo’ yo’ errands, rich man.”
I want to suggest that this parable is not yet finished, but awaits Act Four. I want to suggest that this parable is not finally about the rich and the poor or about who gets a heads up that storms are coming. I want to suggest that this parable is less about the afterlife, about eternal feasting for the poor in heaven or scorching in Hell for the rich. I want to suggest that this parable is unfinished and its true meaning is revealed as you and I live out Act Four.
Read the parable closely and the sin of the rich man is not that he is rich or even that he can be mean, sending his dogs to torment the beggar. The great sin of the rich man is not noticing. The rich man never notices Lazarus. He is just another one of the countless homeless, the annoying beggars who are best ignored. Even after his death, even sweating like a devilish dog, the rich man never notices Lazarus as anything more than a slave to serve his needs or an errand boy to carry his message.
The great sin in this parable, the real chasm in this parable is not seeing, not noticing. Until you and I can see, can notice, those who are most often stereotyped or simply ignored, then we are the poor ones no matter how much money we have in the bank.
I would like to think that in Act Four the brothers of the rich man notice what he never did, notice the kinfolk of Lazarus covered with cardboard, sleeping on city streets, without enough food, and with nowhere to call home. I would like to think that they start to lose sleep at night not over how to invest their latest dividends or where to go on their next vacation, but that there are so many nameless ones are eating their daily trash and sleeping under interstate overpasses at night.
As I read this parable, it is not that the rich man did something wrong during his life on earth; the problem is that he did no-thing, nothing. I would like to think that Act Four is not finally about what the brothers of the rich man notice, but what you and I notice. Do we notice the millions in our land of plenty who die from hunger and malnutrition every year? Do we notice people of color who fear for their lives because they are not known by name but by category? Do we notice all who die because of limited health care and almost no mental health care in our land or those who die from chemicals we dump into rivers and belch into the air or who die because they are sent back to their deaths as refugees and immigrants, legal and illegal? I would like to think that the first step toward doing some-thing is for you and I to notice.
After being tutored by wise, compassionate mentors in Atlanta, I started to notice, never enough, but I noticed. The folks sleeping in our Shelter and camped outside the building were no longer “the homeless” to me; they were Lucas and Larry, Mike and Teresa. They were children of God, loved by God as much as I am or you are. They had stories to tell that started to close the great chasm of not noticing and they would no longer let me excuse living on streets as an unfortunate reality. In time, they taught me to notice. As a result, they made my life richer than it had ever been before.
A big part of me wishes that this parable were easy to pin down, that it were only a simple story about the rich and the poor and life yet to come, and not about how you and I are to live this life right now. A better part of me knows that this parable is all about seeing, about noticing, and when we do, Act Four begins and so does new life this side of the grave, a life worth living every single minute.