Expressions of Love
Teaching disciples with some Pharisees and scribes listening in
Follows parables of grace: lost sheep, lost coin, prodigal son in Ch 15
Shrewd manager; can’t serve 2 masters
New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things and Lazarus in like manner evil things, but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27 He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ 31 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.’ ”
We’ve all seen him or her. He sits in a doorway wrapped in a blanket seeking to stay warm. He may have a dog lying next to him for protection and companionship. He has a cup to collect coins, rattling it when he sees a passerby. She sits near the street corner with all her worldly possessions in a shopping cart, wearing a worn-out coat and gloves full of holes. She has a sign asking for food.
Voices say it’s his or her own fault. There are agencies that provide help. He or she should get a job – lots of places are hiring and are paying $15 per hour. If we give her money, she’ll only spend it on drink or cigarettes. Stay away, he might be violent. So, we walk on by. We might put a few coins in his cup from time to time or bring her coffee and a donut once in a while. We are helping we say to ourselves – doing more than most.
We all know Lazarus. He is our neighbor. Some of us may be rich, well dressed and well fed, and walk past him without even noticing he is there anymore. Others of us may not be so rich or so finely clothed or fed, but compared with Lazarus, we’re well off. He would gladly trade places with us, and we would be horrified to share his life, even for a day.
Jesus’ parable about Lazarus and the unnamed rich man is one of the least familiar and one of the more complex. Numerous threads of meaning are woven through the story. The dynamics of the relationships between the rich and the poor. A picture of what the afterlife might look like for the good and bad. The possibility of someone coming back from the dead to give a message to the still living. We could spend hours untwisting each thread. But we don’t have that much time.
The central element in this parable is the chasm. The dictionary defines a chasm as a marked division, separation, or difference. In this parable, the chasm separates heaven and hell, but it also separates socio-economic classes and the conceived good from the bad. It is a barrier that is difficult, if not impossible, to cross.
When we lived in California, everyone’s yard in our neighborhood was surrounded by 6- or 7-foot-high wood fences. Too tall to lean over the top to talk with your neighbor very easily. The fences kept dogs and children safely in the yard, safely surrounded a swimming pool, and provided privacy. They functioned as a boundary that kept possessions and people safely inside and the unwanted outside. A chasm of sorts.
It was common to equate wealth with virtue in Jesus’ day just as it often is in ours. Good people who work hard and live virtuously are expected to be rewarded with means to live. People with means are often seen as good – smart, hardworking, righteous – because they made choices to acquire wealth – the Horatio Alger story. In the ancient world, qualities such as wealth, virtue, and masculinity worked together to solidify elite social status. Those without wealth are often seen as lacking in mental capacity, lazy, and unrighteous. The wealthy deserve what they have, and the poor get what they deserve. A chasm.
Here in this parable Jesus focuses of another type of boundary. The socio-economic one that separates the haves from the have nots. Each man knows which group he belongs to. The rich man has more than enough – household staff, furnished mansion, parties and feasts for friends, and favorite charities he donates to that help the needy. The poor man, Lazarus, sleeps outside because he has no place else. He would appreciate just eating table scraps from the rich man’s table. Lazarus is even tormented by dogs who lick his sores.
Outside large homes like the rich man’s, there was often a bench, a beggar’s bench, for someone like Lazarus to sit and sleep on. The bench provided a place off the cold ground and visibility to those who walked by. Lazarus may have sat on such a bench as the rich man walked by day after day. Not that the rich man was trying to avoid Lazarus or put him in his place. The rich man simply stopped noticing that Lazarus was even there.
The parable begs the question, “Who do you walk by without, or no longer, noticing their presence?” Maybe it is the man in the doorway or the woman with the shopping cart. They are always there in those same places, so they have become a fixture – a part of the streetscape. You walk by knowing you can’t help either of them every day so, eventually you stop seeing them.
What separates you from others – physically, economically, emotionally, spiritually, theologically? These are the questions Jesus asks in the parable: who have you been ignoring and where is the chasm between you and others. When you go about your normal business, who are you missing?
These are questions for us as a church to consider. Who are we separating ourselves form? Who aren’t we noticing? What are our priorities?
Historically people went to church. In the 1950’s, 1960’s, and into the early 1970’s, the church opened the doors and people came in. The pews were full. Budgets were met. Sunday school was overflowing with kids. There were plenty of people to help with all the tasks of running the church. But the 50’s and 60’s were the anomaly. Baby boomers, the post-war families, flocked to church.
This is the case anymore, not just at Living Hope but in most churches. How you remember what church was isn’t how it is today. We are not living in a Field of Dreams world – “If you build it, they will come.” There is a great chasm formed by the church walls that separate us inside the church from those outside the church. We expect them to come in, they don’t see a reason to or don’t feel welcome.
We, the church, are much better than noticing the needy than we used to be. We see needs and try to meet them – on our terms. We decide who the needy are, what they should be given, and how much time we are willing to give to providing care. Rarely do we take the time to talk with and listen to those we want to help to find out more about them and what they really do need. The mission and ministry of the church is often carried out to meet our own need to feel like we are helping and to soothe our conscious. This work reinforces our belief that we do good things for others.
In the parable, there is one thing that has not changed when the scene shifts to the afterlife – the attitude and perspective of the rich man. Even though he is in Hades, he is still giving instructions as if he is still in charge, asking for his own needs to be met. He also reveals that he does know the name of the man who sat by his gate – Lazarus. The beggar was not unknown to him, only ignored. Here, it is too late for the rich man to change how he treated Lazarus. Abraham expresses compassion towards the rich man, taking no delight in the man’s plight. Abraham expressed sadness at the great chasm between them wishing that things had turned out differently.
Perhaps the boundaries and walls we have created are not so much between ourselves and others but between us and God. This is the point of the parable. We pick and choose when and where we let God into our lives, often on our own terms. Like Lazarus, sitting at the gate, God is always there. Yet there are many times that we walk by, taking no notice of God’s presence. However, God’s expectation is that we go into the world on his schedule with his conditions.
The parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 describes God’s expectation. In that parable, Jesus divides the group of people who stand before him at the final judgement into sheep and goats. His message to them is that those who gave food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited those in prison were doing these things for Jesus as well.
Following Jesus requires a great reversal in our thinking. We aren’t to sit inside the church keeping our programs going, the building cared for, and the bills paid until we can no longer afford to do so. Crossing the chasm, we have created necessitates going outside the building to where the people in need are, the people who need to know that God loves them.
My nephew did just that. He is an avid surfer so spends a lot of time at the beach. He recognized that many of the other surfers didn’t go to church or have a relationship with God. So, he took church to them. His “surf church” began with a canopy, some refreshments, and an invitation to the surfers to join him. The first couple of weeks only a few came to the service. After a few months, the church had grown to 70 surfers on a regular basis.
We’re to leave the building, go into the world, and meet people where they are. It may be the soccer field, the playground, community activities, school, work, the senior living community, or even sitting in a doorway. That’s how we will cross the chasm and meet the real needs of people.
The old ways of being the church no longer work, no longer connect with most people outside the building. It’s time to do something new. And there is still time. Abraham’s message for the rich man’s brothers is just that. They know what the scripture teaches. They know what God wants them to do. They can take a different path.
It’s time to leave the building physically and spiritually to serve others by meeting their needs as they see them. It’s time to go out into the world to share Jesus’ love.