“A poor man died and was carried away by the angels.”
Several years ago in Ft Worth, Texas, a man died on the streets without any money, home, or identification. The man occasionally attended my friend’s church. At the time, my friend, Charlie, was pastor of Broadway Baptist in downtown Ft. Worth, well known in the community for their outreach and service programs, including the weekly Agape Meal that feeds anyone who is hungry. The deceased man was a regular. In fact, when he died, while he had no license or id, his pockets were full of bulletins from Broadway, scripture passages and inspirational messages he had collected at weekly meals and services. That why a police officer showed up at the church one morning and asked to speak to the pastor. The officer told Charlie how a man had died sometime the night before. “We had no way of knowing who this man was, but we saw all these papers in his pockets and we thought we’d come here. We said to ourselves, ‘Broadway Baptist will know him.’”
Our parable today is about who we know. The story begins with a dramatic contrast, describing a rich man finely dressed and extravagantly fed, and a poor man, Lazarus his name, covered in pain and cowering in hunger. Where the rich man puts on purple, the poor man is clothed in sores. While the rich man actively makes merriment, Lazarus passively longs to be fed. Just so we can’t miss the contrast, Jesus describes a gate in between them. Made of wrought iron and rising high, it’s a physical barrier that represents the gap between their lives. These are two dramatically different ways of being in the world. It’s so patterned, it’s as though the rich man doesn’t even notice it. It seems he can’t even see it.
Compassion begins with awareness. With seeing. Indianapolis pastor, Mike Mather, tells the story of students from the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired who were on a field trip when they were asked by their host about how their experiences in life differ from those in what the host called “the seeing world.” Quickly their teacher corrected the host. “The seeing world? No no no – we call it the ‘sighted world.’ Just because you have sight doesn’t mean that you can see.” (1)
Who we know and what we do starts with whether we can see. You’ve probably noticed that Jesus’ eyes seem to work differently than others. Especially in the gospel of Luke — sometimes called “the gospel of Look” because of the focus on sight — there is a focus on what Jesus sees. Dramatic acts of compassion and mercy often follow a moment of seeing. Jesus is described seeing the friends of the paralyzed man in Luke 5, as their faith helps a paralyzed friend walk away with his bed rolled under one arm. Jesus sees a woman weeping at the death of her only son in Luke 7, has compassion for her, and raises him to life. Jesus sees the woman in the synagogue, a woman with a spirit that had bent her spine for eighteen years, until she comes into Jesus’ view and began to stand up straight. Jesus sees people. And he tells us of others who do the same, like a Samaritan traveler who sees a wounded man on the side of the road, is moved deep down in his soul to take him miles to an inn, to return and pay whatever is owed. It’s like a father waiting at the window, described as seeing his son when he’s but a silhouette against the sky, hunched and hesitant journeying up the road, “when his father saw him,” the passage says, he is filled with compassion and runs with abandon to embrace him.
Compassion and mercy begin with seeing. Really seeing. The Zulu people of South Africa acknowledge the importance of this, as their most common greeting to one another is the word, Sawubona. It literally means, “I see you,” — making the overlooked visible, acknowledging the value and dignity of the person, discovering their needs, identifying their fears. “I see you.”
At first, it seems like the rich man in this parable never really sees Lazarus. But notice, as the parable continues imagining Lazarus carried away by the angels and the rich man dead and in Hades, Jesus describes this rich man looking up from his torment: “He looked up and he saw Abraham far away and he saw Lazarus by his side.” In this imagined afterlife, he recognizes Lazarus. He can call his name. He had seen him all along. It’s just that he’d never seen him as anything more than the beggar at the gate, the pitiable charity case waiting for scraps from the table. He’d never seen the gate that divided them as anything more than a necessary measure of security. He’d become familiar with brokenness, comfortable with distance, settled in the safety of division. It’s almost as though he thought Lazarus was supposed to be there, on the other side of his gate. It’s not merely what we see, but how we see.
There’s nothing actively evil about this man, as Jesus describes him. He’s not violent towards Lazarus, or personally hostile. It’s just that he is passively content in keeping things as they are.
It should come as little surprise, as we consider all that Jesus has said about the cost of following him. Jesus has repeatedly warned how those of us who are comfortable in this life can become too settled and secure. In Luke 14 he warns “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Earlier in Luke 16, in the passage we read last week just before this story, Jesus reminds, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Jesus is concerned particularly with how we use our gifts and resources. He gives examples of those who are faithful in doing so. Remember that Samaritan traveler? He is clearly a person of significant means, dropping down payment at the inn and setting up an account to pay whatever is owed. Similarly, the father of the Prodigal son is the owner of a vast estate who can give up the inheritance without feeling it and can throw a party at a moment’s notice. But the man introduced in this parable, seems to relate to his wealth differently. He seems to serve wealth, rather than something larger and higher. He reminds us of the foolish farmer of Luke 12, who bigs large barns to try to hoard all the excess. He’s like the landowner in Luke 16, who is duped by his tricky manager. This man, together with those two, is one of three characters in the parables introduced with that phrase, “Once upon a time there was a rich man…”, which says not merely that he is rich, but that he is a certain kind of rich.
The 2nd century theologian, Clement of Alexandria once cautioned, “money is like a serpent…dangerous but not necessarily deadly…so long as you hold it correctly, so as not to let it coil back and bite your hand…” Notice how the man in today’s parable holds his wealth. Unlike the Samaritan traveler who uses it to meet another’s need; unlike a Prodigal father who is ever watchful at the window; unlike the man in another of Jesus’ parables who throws a great banquet inviting the poor, crippled, lame and blind, the rich man is described as entirely private. While the father feasts with his son, this man eats alone. He reassures himself with extravagant feasting only he can enjoy, clothes himself with fine garments only for his comfort, all the while behind the gate that helps him be comfortable with the brokenness on the other side. It’s not an evil life. But it’s an entirely insulated, comfortable, private life. And that kind of life impacts how you see.
A friend of mine was walking recently in Winston-Salem, on the Silas Creek Greenway. As she rounded a bend, she noticed a beautiful field, large and rolling and wonderfully maintained. Along the land was a low fence, and in the middle of the fence she noticed a sign that read: “Private Property: Please Enjoy.” (2)
This is what Jesus seems to be saying to all of us who are comfortable with things as they are: when you feast, make it an occasion to share abundance with others. Use your gifts not only for your own comfort, but to find the wounded of the world. If you want to find your life, you have to give it. So hold the gifts of your life openly to be shared widely with the world.
Our church has found a unique opportunity to do this recently, seeing the world around us and responding with compassion. Our Christian Restoration Fund (CRF) was first established in 2016, acknowledging the need to meet debilitating financial needs in our community and help people move toward financial independence. In Guilford County, 18.6% of our neighbors live below the poverty line (higher than the national average of 14%). Many others live with financial instability, one missed paycheck or one lost job away from poverty. Often, individuals and families lack resources or a support system on which to fall back, so that a crisis that might prompt some of us to move in with family or draw on savings, can result in life-altering poverty for others of us. We established the Restoration Fund in response to this need. It’s overseen by a committee of our church that, together with staff, helps First Baptist Greensboro to assist some of our neighbors over a longer period of time, helping to address chronic needs, in partnership with the Interactive Resource Center.
Recently, a man named Willie Lee went through the IRC’s self sufficiency program after visiting for other services such as showers and laundry. In partnership with the IRC, our Christian Restoration Fund helped as he secured permanent housing and a job with Harris Teeter Distribution.Recently, Willie Lee was the recipient of the 2019 Dignity Award from the IRC. At the Dignity event this month, I’m told several times First Baptist was mentioned for it’s partnership in Willie Lee’s work toward independence. “First Baptist provided support with it’s Christian Restoration Fund,” they said. It was a way of saying “First Baptist knows him.”
Jesus knows the people at the gate. Jesus knows Lazarus. Of all the parables of Jesus, this is the only time that a character is given a name and with it the dignity and importance that comes with naming in Scripture. However familiar or comfortable we can become with a poor or wounded person at the gates of this world, Jesus sees and Jesus knows, and calls us to do the same.
The rich man of our parable never does. The gate that separated him from Lazarus in life becomes a great chasm in the end in this imagined afterlife. It’s as Clarence Jordan writes in his Cotton Patch Gospel, “You know, you’d better be careful how you dig ditches to keep people out; you might want to cross them yourself someday.”
This rich man can’t see the injustice of it all until he is the one on the other side of it and until it’s too late.
In my work as your pastor, I find myself frequently walking alongside people at the end of their earthly days, and working with families as we reflect and take stock of a person’s life, thinking of how to tell their story. It’s taught me a lot about how I want to approach death. But even more, it’s taught me a lot about how I want to live my life. Often at burial services the last words I share are words that come from a 19th century Swiss philosopher, Henri-Frederic Amiel: “Life is short, friends. And we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those that make the journey with us. So be swift to love. Make haste to be kind.”
I think those that live out such words, and find peace at the end of their days, are those that have seen this world as Jesus sees it, and loved it as Jesus loved it. They have seen with eyes that prompt compassion and mercy, seeing in every person one to be valued and known, important and understood. They have seen where we should be restless with injustice and discontent at the oppression of this world. They have been able to see where we’ve built gates before they become chasms and it’s too late.
It’s too late for this man in our parable. But as his last urgent hope, he wants those behind him to learn from his failings. “Please, if you will do nothing else for me… if you won’t quench my thirst, or rescue me from torment, will you please go and tell my brothers — I have five of them — go to my brothers, at my father’s house, and tell them what I wish I’d known.” To which Abraham replies, “Well what will I tell them? They should know. They have Moses. They have the Prophets. They have the witness of the love of God throughout the tradition of the faith. They have the story of a God whose compassion is always seeing people and knowing people and reaching for people. They have the evidence of God’s embracing love. What else can I tell them? They have all of that!”
We have all of that, too. We have Moses. We have the Prophets. We even have one who rose from the dead to come back for us so we’d never forget that we are seen and known and loved. And we have this word from Jesus today. This word to be people who watch. People who see who Jesus sees. People who know who Jesus knows. That one day we might find ourselves at the end of our days, in the mystery of God, and we might ask, “Lord, when did we see you? When did we see you? When did we see you naked? When did we see you hungry? When did we see you wounded? When did we see you forgotten? When did we see you imprisoned? When did we see you the stranger?” To which Jesus will reply, “Well, whenever you saw my people — whenever you saw Lazarus — you were seeing me.”
- Story told at the Duke Divinity School Convocation of Christian Leaders by Pastor Mike Mather of Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, IN, on September 29, 2016.
- Thanks to Sheila Virgil for sharing this story.