In the midst of what is being called “Chiberia” – where the weather in Chicago has been colder than the South Pole this week – I cannot help but think about the thousands of Chicagoans who remain homeless and struggle to seek shelter from this bitter cold. (According to the Chicago Coalition for Homeless, 116,042 Chicagoans were homeless in the course of 2012-2013.)
As many of us are able to seek refuge in our warm apartments, homes, coffee shops, and libraries from this Chiberia without giving much thought to those who are not so privileged, I thought I’d share a sermon I preached at Ebenezer Lutheran Church on Sunday, Sept. 29 (the Festival of St. Michael and All Angels)… “The Rich Man and the Man With A Name.”
‘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. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.
In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 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.” 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. 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.”
He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him 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.” ’
A few years ago while I was serving as an intern pastor at a church about a mile from here, I attended a pastor’s conference in Denver. The conference was held at the Sheraton Hotel and Convention Center, which is quite the hotel: with a gorgeous lobby, beautiful rooms, incredibly comfortable beds, great food served by the hotel staff… you name it. And it is located right downtown on the 16th Street Mall, the main business district of Denver. If you’ve ever stayed in a really nice hotel like this, you might know what it felt like for me – as a second year seminarian and a pastoral intern, having the opportunity to get away from my studies and messy apartment and stay in this luxurious hotel – I sort of felt like I was royalty for the week.
Our first full day at the conference included several workshops and classes beginning in the early morning and lasting until dinner-time. So you can imagine how ready we all were to rush out of the convention center to enjoy our hour and a half break on the town. When our last workshop ended, we all quickly met up with our groups of friends and ran outside – everyone hurrying in order to beat the crowd of the 500 other pastors. We all wanted to ensure that we got a table at our top-choice restaurant, since we knew that the bill was on the house, thanks to our home congregations.
As my new pastor and seminarian friends and I rushed down 16th Street to get to our desired restaurant, a man came up to us holding out his bare hands that were bright red from the cold and asked in a small shaky voice if we could buy him a little something to eat. I only noticed him because he had actually walked up onto the sidewalk next to one of my new friends who was walking directly in front of me. But just as he finished speaking, my friend quickly said: “Sorry, sir. We are in a hurry.” And she and her friends next to her picked up their pace and scurried on by. So this man, who was as skinny as a stick – so skinny that his eyes sunk into his skull – with only a stocking cap and an over-sized hoody sweatshirt to shield him from the January cold, was left standing on the sidewalk with his bright red fingers stretched out to me and with a look of complete hunger and desperation in his eyes.
I stopped, looked at him, and considered my options as the rest of my new friends continued to make their way quickly down 16th street without me. I could stop and get him some food somewhere or I could brush him off, and rush on by to catch up to the rest of my group. If I stopped, this would interrupt my overly comfortable and luxurious week and it would keep me from experiencing my very short social time that I really was looking forward to.
The easiest thing would be to just brush him off, ignore him, and quickly walk away. I had a small time frame and a lot on my plate, after all. (Pun intended.)
I think that this is a somewhat similar situation for the characters in Jesus’ parable in our text for today in Luke.
In Jesus’ parable…
There was a rich man…
And this rich man wore some of the finest, top-of the line clothes of his day – fine linens and articles of clothing that were purple – a color that was favored by the royalty and that only the extremely wealthy could afford.
And this man feasted sumptuously… He consumed large amounts of the finest foods and delicacies that would have been prepared and served to him by his servants – not just on special occasions, as feasts were saved for – but he feasted every single day.
And he lived in a home: probably with the finest dining hall and most comfortable and warm beds.
And this home was protected by a gate: something that only the most elite urban resident would have owned and that would have kept out the most miserable weather conditions… and not to mention the least “desirable” city folk.
And then there is another man…
In extreme contrast to the rich man, this man is very ill and extremely poor.
Instead of being clothed with fine linens and purple garments, he is clothed in large sores that covered his body… that were so bad that the hungry wild city dogs would lick them as they impatiently waited for the scraps of the rich man’s food to be thrown outside of the gate.
This man is helpless, lying on the ground at the front of the rich man’s gate – for who knows how many days and nights.
How he got there, we don’t know. Maybe a compassionate person in town dropped him off at the gate in hopes that the rich man’s scraps would save him from his ultimate destiny of a miserable death caused by hunger. Or maybe this poor man went to this rich man’s quarters in hopes for just a bit of food to tide him over, and in the long, miserable wait, his body couldn’t take the malnourishment anymore and collapsed.
And we don’t know how or what caused him to be in such a dire situation in the first place: whether it was unemployment, lack of health care, or being taken advantage of by greedy business owners… Depression, lack of good education, family abuse in his early years that left him on the streets to fend for himself since he was a child, or a system that did not help him get back up when he was pushed down.
We just don’t know.
What we do know is that he was so hungry and desperate to satisfy his hunger, that he put himself in such a humiliating situation: lying so helplessly at the foot of the gate of one of the most elite’s living quarters, waiting for the scraps of food from the rich man’s luxurious and abundant daily feasts. Scraps that would not have been even left-overs from the rich man’s plate, but rather pieces of pita bread that the rich man and any others dining with him would have dipped into a bowl of water, wiped their dirty hands with as a cleaning devise, and would have thrown under the table. Scraps that after the feast was over, the rich man’s servants would have cleaned up from the dirty floor and thrown out to the trash… to the unclean wild city dogs.
This poor man was desperate, and he was seeking out his last possible chance to survive through the night.
And while we may not know how this man got to this dire and humiliating situation, the audience of Jesus who was listening to the story would have taken a guess. The scriptures had been misinterpreted for years: the common belief was that such poverty was a consequence of sin and poor choices and that wealth was a consequence of piety and was a sign of God’s blessing.
So to Jesus’ audience, it would have made sense that the rich man would have stepped over the poor man in his condition in order to enter his gate and his home – possibly day in and day out – giving this poor man little notice.
The poor man was not deserving of anything else. Plus, the rich man had a lot of important things to think about: a household to take care of, feasts and parties to tend to… Stopping to help or acknowledge this man would interrupt his important agenda. It’s likely that this rich man didn’t even see this poor man. He was not his concern and was just one of the many unlucky and undeserving poor folks he walked by every day in the city. Why would he see or notice THIS one?
But isn’t this a familiar and common narrative in our capitalistic society today?
Don’t we often praise those who have worked hard for their extravagant paychecks that allow for mass and luxurious consumption and demonize those who can barely make enough to get by?
Don’t we often hear this type of demonization of the poor and homeless – and in many cases even think it ourselves?
It’s their fault that they got themselves into this situation. We shouldn’t punish the hard-working wealthy class by increasing their taxes. Why should we stop what we are doing to acknowledge and give to someone who is begging for some change, food, or time, when we have more important things to do and they are obviously lazy?
I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a friend in college. I had been talking to Larry, a man I became acquaintances with whose home was a tent on a campsite – when he was lucky and his tent was not stolen – and who hung out at the university union building during the day, hoping to get a meal or a few bucks for a hot coffee and possibly a bit of human socialization.
After I said goodbye to Larry one day, a friend of mine from the Christian campus ministry I was involved in came up to me quickly and said, “Emily, you should not be talking to that homeless man or giving him money or food. He is just lazy and choosing not to get a job. You are enabling him to mooch off other people.”
Yet, after getting to know him over the course of my four years in college, I had realized that this guy was not just a homeless man.
He had a name… Larry.
And the stories that Larry shared with me as we would eat a sandwich or drink coffee together – about his past, his losses, and his sufferings that led him to this place in life told me otherwise. They opened up my eyes to see Larry as a beloved child of God…
As someone who was just like me…
Who was once a kid who wore a backpack and went to school; who had parents and siblings; and who had experienced many joys and celebrations as well as many losses and sufferings in life.
And yet, somehow I was the lucky one – not because I worked harder than he did – but because I had the resources and the opportunities to make it through high school and to go to college… And to not have to ever live in a tent or worry about putting food – good food, might I add – on my table.
Yet, I am ashamed to admit that it took me a very long time to get to that point where I could truly look at Larry as an acquaintance and as an equal to myself: as someone who I just happened to share my stories with and listened to his while we sat outside the union over a coffee or a sandwich, rather than just seeing him as someone I was doing charity work for.
This reminds me of a video that has been shared all over facebook this past year. It is an interview with a man named Ronald Davis who talks about what it is like to be homeless in Chicago. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend that you watch it.
One of the most touching parts of the video is hearing about how he is treated and looked at while on the streets trying to get a few dollars in order to stay in a safe bed at night or to get some food to eat.
“It’s really humiliating to be shaking a cup 24 hours a day, and people just look at you like you’re some kind of little bum.” He goes on to tell the interviewer about how passers-by have hollered at him to “get a job, bum.”
“I’m not a bum,” Ronald says, as he breaks down in tears. “I’m a human being.”
Yet, too often, we don’t look at people who are living differently than we are, who have not had the same kind of upbringing, or opportunities or resources, or second or third chances like we have – as human beings, with stories, and with a name.
And this is the problem that Jesus is identifying in his parable as Jesus continues the story in our text for today. The rich man was so focused on his wealth, his possessions, his home… his feasts and parties, his status, his to-do lists, that he was unable to see the poor man who was desperately lying at his front gate.
The rich man’s blindness, his love of his abundant wealth, and his fear of having to give any of it up kept him from seeing and responding to the poor man for who he was: a human being and a beloved child of God… a man with a story and a man with a name.
To Jesus, this is such an offense against God and God’s children that it had major consequences.
In Jesus’ story, after both of the men die, it is the rich man – the one who was considered to have received divine blessings and a high societal status – who remains nameless and who is being tormented with a burning tongue in Hades (the place – according to Jewish thought – where people would go after they died and were buried.)
And it was this poor, desperate, dying man – the one who had been seen as no more worthy than a dirty, city wild dog to the rich man – who was given a name…
A name that means: “one who is helped by God.”
And it is this Lazarus – not the rich man – who is carried up in the after-life by the angels to sit at a place of honor next to Abraham.
Jesus’ warning from just a few chapters earlier in Luke was likely now ringing in the ears of Jesus’ audience…
The last shall be first and the first shall be last…
And it is not until the rich man is experiencing a bit of the poor man’s earthly plight in Hades, that he somewhat sees Lazarus at Abraham’s side.
And yet, even in this after-life scenario, the rich man’s eyes are still not fully opened to who Lazarus truly is in God’s eyes. And instead of taking responsibility for his own selfish actions on earth, he begs Abraham to send Lazarus – the one he, himself, refused to see and to help on earth – to now come to him and to cool his burning tongue – giving him relief from his own anguish. So even as the roles are reversed, in his torment the rich man still does not see and affirm the poor man’s humanity. And he is given no relief from his agony.
Now, most of us here are probably not even close to as wealthy as the rich man in our story. But many of us here do live lives that are full of abundance and comfort: the ability to go out to eat in Andersonville – maybe even once a week or more; to get the new update on our iphone; to sleep in a warm and comfortable bed on a cold January evening; to grab a hot cup of coffee at Starbucks on our way to work because we didn’t have time to make coffee at home; to travel to another city like Denver and go to a conference in an amazing hotel…
Or just to be able to fill our schedules with so many activities, meetings, and social events, that we are too busy to stop and even just acknowledge the existence of a man sitting at our gate – shaking his cup and asking for food.
We may not be as “rich” as the rich man in Jesus’ parable, but we do live rich and abundant lives in so many ways compared to the majority of people around the world. Hey, we don’t have to go too far from Ebenezer Lutheran Church to pass by many of the individuals and families who could only dream of having a taste of our abundance.
Now it’s not this abundance that we have that Jesus is condemning… Abraham, himself, was a man of earthly wealth – and yet is sitting in a place of honor in the after-life of Jesus’ parable. But it is the love of this worldly wealth, status, and abundance that Jesus is warning us about.
Such love of abundance keeps us from truly seeing the humanity of others and sharing some of that abundance with others in need.
As St. John Chrysostom put it: “Not to share one’s goods with the poor is to rob them.” And as Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel explained: “The opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference.”
Now some of you might be wondering what happened with the man I encountered in Denver. While I was so tempted to go with my friends, something tugged on my heart that night to stay with this man and take him out to a sit-down dinner.
And even though it was obvious that other customers in the restaurant we went to didn’t think he belonged there – as we could feel the constant glares and looks and even heard the whispers of a few of the people around us – Richard still told me at the end of the night that for the first time in years he felt like he was a normal human being who was equal to the others who were dining in the restaurant – rather than a piece of dirt.
And he told me that he truly felt that I had been an angel sent to him by God that night.
But what was so amazing to me was that while I had gone into this dinner thinking I was making such a sacrifice and was doing my good deed for the night, in hearing the stories about Richard’s life and his continued faith through so many tragedies and crises: I began to realize that I was the one who finally was experiencing the beauty and joy of true humanity again in that moment.
And I began to realize that it was Richard who was an angel sent to me that night.
The stories of Richard’s life and his love for others touched me and inspired me in ways that I could not have possibly imagined and that I will never forget.
In my time with Richard, God opened my eyes to see the beauty and faith in him that I was so tempted to ignore.
And in allowing myself to see Richard for who he truly is, God also released me from some of my own torment – like the rich man in Hades – that comes with too much focus on the abundance, comfort, and busyness of life.
So how might we hear what Jesus is speaking to each of us through his parable in our passage in Luke?
Maybe some of us need to first recognize the abundance that we do have and explore how God wants us to share that abundance with others: whether it be our money, possessions, food, time, gifts, resources, or stories.
Or maybe it is figuring out how we might better see, get to know, and respond to the needs of others around us – esp. those who we might otherwise ignore and disregard as fellow human beings and children of God.
And if we don’t know where to start on this process, maybe we need to begin with a daily morning prayer, asking God to help open our eyes each day to the fullness of God’s kingdom and God’s children around us. In doing this, we might actually be pleasantly surprised at what God might help us see, how God might teach and touch us through our new relationships, and how God might release us from our own torment that comes with focusing on and worshiping our worldly abundance and riches.
I’d like to leave you with a benediction that was posted this week on d365.org, a daily online devotional:
“May God fill your soul with waters of generosity; Taking you to the gate of thirsty neighbors; That you might come to know them and, knowing them; Share from the richness of God’s love.”
Linking with: Hear it on Sunday, Use it on Monday
Related Websites and Articles:
“What If the Homeless Man on the Bench Was Jesus?” (on eape.org)
“Life of a Homeless Man; Steve Gallagher’s Story” (on lakevoicenews.org)
“20 Things the Poor Really Do Every Day” (on benirwin.wordpress.com)
“Magdalene” (on gottafindahome.wordpress.com)
“It’s So Little” (on gottafindahome.wordpress.com)
“Spirit of the Poor” Link-up (on newellhendricks.wordpress.com)