The Rich Man and Lazarus

Luke 16:19-31

I’d rather hear Jesus’ words today as ones not especially meant for you and for me.  And yes, it would be easier to say that you and I, at first glance, are neither the rich man in the story before us now nor are we Lazarus.  To be sure, on the economic scale we are usually measured by, for the most part we probably do fall somewhere in-between.  So at first it would be easy to dismiss Jesus’ words as not meant for us. And yet, I haven’t really been able to do that for a very long time. This is why:

I was still a student — living then in a small church apartment in North Minneapolis.  My room-mates and I lived there free of charge, in exchange for opening the building in the morning, checking to be sure the doors were locked at night, a taking a late evening walk through that massive building and glancing into every nook and cranny to be sure no one had made their way in during the day who hadn’t also made their way out by nightfall.  Mostly all we encountered were the occasional bats who had been stirred out of their hiding places by the large fans in the church tower in late summer — but it was also so that now and then a homeless person would find his way into a pew where he hoped to spend the night safe and warm.

For you see, North Minneapolis, then and now, is not the kind of neighborhood most people would probably want their 25 year old daughter living.  Only my folks didn’t necessarily know that it was an area marked by poverty and crime and the kind of fear that can live in every heart when both are present.

Only we weren’t there most of the time.  We’d get up early and unlock the doors and head across town to school where we would spend the day learning and socializing with others who were preparing to be leaders in the church. And most days?  We’d be getting home long after the neighborhood had settled down.   It was not so different for those who called that church home.  Most of them didn’t live within walking distance of that building like their ancestors did.  For the most part, except for the small staff, they were only there on Sunday mornings.  And no, they didn’t have a whole lot of connection or commitment to their neighbors.  But they did allow their kitchen to be used on weeknights for a soup kitchen: in an important way ensuring that the hungry were fed.
Even that single important ministry was one I seldom witnessed though, busy as I was.  Most days I would park my car on 22nd Avenue long after that stream of hungry people had made their way past my front door.

Or at least I would have told you then that it was because I was busy.  It would have been truer to say that most of the time I would make sure I didn’t arrive home until late.  For you see, I was actually a little afraid of the people who lined up to be fed every night.  My world seldom intersected with theirs and I wasn’t all that unhappy on most days to miss that line of children and old people, individuals and entire families who came to have their hunger satisfied.  So when on that rare occasion I did happen to come home a little early, usually I would take a side door in and make my way to our apartment — avoiding too much contact with those who lived so differently than I.

Only one day this is how it was.  One of the men in line stepped away from the others. He blocked my way to the side door and proceeded to scream at me using words I had seldom, if ever, heard directed my way.  And in that moment I felt a mix of surprise and fear as his outburst forced me to lift up my head and look into his eyes.  And then into my own heart to acknowledge the indifference that lived there.

Now I’ve told this story a few times before.  Every time I’ve been surprised at the amount of sympathy I receive from those who’ve heard it.  Yes, it would be only normal to be afraid in the face of such an encounter. And no, of course, I didn’t necessarily do anything wrong which would have deserved such a chastising from a stranger.  But here’s the point.  Neither had the rich man in Jesus’ parable done something particularly wrong.  At least we don’t hear that he did.  Rather his sin was simply one of indifference.  Of turning the other way his whole life long.  Of not feeling and responding to the pain of one over  whom he apparently literally had to step on his way about his business every morning, noon, and night.  His sin was that of allowing himself to be so utterly closed off from all this world God made and the varied people who inhabited it alongside him not to mention his daily opportunity to make a difference in it.  And to be sure, the rich man’s sin was reflected in his still seeing  Lazarus as beneath him — as one whom he could order around — even after their fates had been sealed  His sin was not in seeing Lazarus as the child of God that he was. His sin was much like mine.

And so I tell you now that I do understand the rich man in Jesus’ parable now.  I might even say I have some measure of sympathy for him for I know how easy it is to be too busy to take care of the need that is sitting on my doorstep.  I know what it is to really believe that I don’t have what it takes, or that someone else will take care of it, or that such problems are so massive that one person or even a few hundred people can’t make much of a difference.  Oh yes, while it might seem easier to hear Jesus’ words today as not meant for me, and yet, I already know that to do so would be just one more step towards sealing myself off into a kind of hell of my own making.  One where the needs of others are seen as threats and not as opportunities to live as the whole people of God we were made to be.  The rich man’s sin was his indifference.  A long time ago it took a screaming, hungry, homeless person to shake me out of mine.  And yet it is still so that every single day since I find I must intentionally stand still to try to listen and really see the needs of the world with the eyes of Jesus and not my own.  And on many days I find I must ask forgiveness of the One who made us all and loves us all the same, trusting that God will give me yet another chance to live like that is so tomorrow.  And every single day I pray that God will take away my indifference, my fear, or my lack of hope or confidence and help me to live as one who sees and gives and loves in this life right now.

And so over these last couple of days as I’ve pondered the rich man and Lazarus once more I’m thinking about those who are at my doorstep now— who, in fact, pass by my office every single day.  I’m thinking now especially of the home health care workers whose employing office is located in the church building where I serve.  It’s a steady stream of folks who do hard and important work and who, I know, are not paid nearly enough for what they do.  Oh, I make it a point to say hello, to comment on the weather, to ask a perfunctory ‘how are you?’  And yet, I don’t know their stories.  I don’t even know their names.  Perhaps it says something that I don’t have to have someone scream at me to wake me up these many years later.  But I still have a long ways to go before the full meaning and intent of Jesus’ teaching today makes its home in my heart.  How about you?

  • I believe the rich man’s sin in the story is that of ‘indifference.’  Would you describe it in that way or in another?
  • How does this parable speak to you?  Where do you find yourself within it?
  • Is there a ‘Lazarus’ at your doorstep whose name you don’t know?  What does this parable call you to do about that?

2 comments

  1. It seems that Soup Kitchens have the same affect the world over. I agree that we need to be shaken from our state of indifference. Soup kitchens and the like could be seen as God’s way of “in your face reality” for the city dwellers. It is so easy in today’s society to move in the safe and comfortable circles. In fact, if we are really clever we never really need to be confronted at all!!! Thank you God for the opportunity to meet and mix with the needy in our society. To give respect and kindness to others, treating them as equals.

  2. The thing that strikes me most in this parable is the dogs. When Lazarus is covered with burning sores the dogs come to bring him relief. There's healing in dog spit. God helps… I'm mindful of how frequently the homeless in our area are accompanied by canine companions–companions who do not judge them, companions who love them in any circumstances, companions who are faithful to them. Often, it is the dogs who humanize their homeless humans in the eyes of the community. It is the dogs who can help a conversation get started. It is the dogs who can inspire a gift of food or spare change. In the wealthy area where I serve there is growing anxiety about the number of homeless who are camping on our streets, in our parks and on our beaches. There is an ever-louder clamor for the city to do something about it, as if "the city" is somehow distinct from us. Our congregation has been criticized in public meetings for "enabling" the homeless because we give out sack lunches and blankets when those in need knock on our door. I find that, more and more, the attitude is not mere indifference to the poor but an overt antagonism. People are afraid–and sometimes with reason–but it's hard for them to see the situation as something they can personally address in any meaningful way. But I still believe that when enough of us decide to solve "the problem"–and it may be sheer frustration and annoyance that drive us to that decision–when enough of us decide that no one should be without shelter and food then we will find ways to begin to help make these people whole again. In the meantime, there are the dogs. Thank God for the dogs.

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