Pentecost XIX – Proper 21 –September 25, 2016
A sermon preached by The Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA.
In all of the parables told by Jesus, Lazarus is the only character given a proper name which adds a weight of importance the poor man who is covered in sores and laying at the rich man’s gate. The name “Lazarus” is the Greek form of the same Hebrew name “El-azar” which means, “God blesses” or “God has helped.” Though we know the name “Lazarus”, be clear that the “Lazarus” in today’s Gospel lesson is not the same Lazarus who was raised from the dead. The Lazarus who was raised, the brother of Martha and Mary, is known as “Lazarus of Bethany.”
In today’s parable, the rich man is lavishly dressed in the latest fashion. He is wearing a robe of purple, made of the most expensive dye of his day. Lazarus is not only a poor man, he is a beggar who has been dumped outside the gate of the rich man. To us it may seem that it was humiliating for Lazarus… to have dogs lick his sores. It could be that the dogs were the only ones who were moved to tend to Lazarus… just as they would comfort their own puppies. After a nightmarish experience in life, Lazarus is greatly blessed in heaven… as he is taken up to Abraham, into the “arms” of Abraham or, depending upon the translation, into the “bosom” of Abraham… as we hear this story referenced in the spiritual “Rock-a-My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham”… a song that gave hope to the oppressed and enslaved, hope for their reward to come in the next life. And what of the rich man? He, and his attitude, are taken down to Hades where he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to him “to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” I don’t know about you but at this point I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the rich man. Even in Hades he is treating Lazarus as if Lazarus were still an inferior, asking that Lazarus to leave the comfort of heaven and cross the great chasm between heaven and hell, to have Lazarus take care of him. The rich man even has the chutzpah to ask Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them about what could be in store for them… but I wonder what the man’s warning to his brothers would actually be… What would the man want his brothers actually to know about avoiding the place of torment? The man makes his request without the slightest bit of awareness of his own blindness and disconnection. The rich man’s last ditch plea is in concern for this five brothers, even as he is still turning a blind heart to Lazarus, the one whom God blesses, the one who was poor and humiliated on earth. Which ever way we approach this parable, the scene is graphic and the message is blunt. The rich man was as dense after death as he was in life.
Money and wealth… in and of themselves… are not “bad”. It is the attachment to wealth that is spiritually problematic. It is the love of money that separates and blinds us. Paul writes to Timothy, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” Wealth can build up a false sense of comfort and security and the love of money can build walls of separation.
The rich man is sent to “Hades” which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Sheol.” Ancient Jewish views of the afterlife vary somewhat, as they do now. It was a common belief, however, that all of the dead, the good and the bad alike, go to the grim, colorless place of still and quiet that is a resting place below in the underworld. In the parable it is obvious that the rich man is not resting and still. He is in torment. It is likely that the Greek image of Hades had merged with the Jewish concept of Sheol by the time that this parable was first told. In Greek mythology there are five rivers in the realm of Hades: the river of sorrow, the river of lamentation, the river of fire, the river of oblivion, and the River Styx, the river of hate. There is a whole large history of hell that includes images of an actual place known as Gehenna, that was located southwest of the city of Jerusalem, a valley that had once been once a site of human sacrifice and slaughter. Gehenna later became a place where garbage and sulfur burned perpetually. In the Middle Ages hell became an obsession. It was envisioned as a destination for those who have a shallow faith and who disobey the church. Some of the pageant plays of the day even included the great “Hell Mouth,” the personification of hell in which the pageant stage displayed a large gaping mouth that spat hellish flames into which sinners were violently thrown… their fiendish, agonized wails becoming a chorus of the damned… all for the amusement of the people… and the message of the church that was basically: obey the rules, or else! In today’s parable the rich man does know agony in the place of death. But Jesus’ message isn’t about hell fire and damnation. Jesus meant teach the Pharisees in particular, not about how to get to heaven or how to avoid hell, but about how to live now, about how we are to direct our love, our caring and our compassion to even those who, for us, are the hardest to love.
Let us start our effort by doing, what might be the difficult work… of directing our own compassion… towards the rich man. Are we up to the challenge of stepping away from a knee-jerk temptation to judge him while being satisfied with ourselves for clearly understanding that we should care for the poor and the destitute who are in our midst? Can we cross the chasm of difference and meet the rich man with an attitude of “I and Thou” as the great Jewish theologian Martin Buber described it. “I and Thou” is not “Me and You.” “I and Thou” melts the territorial boundaries of separation…bridging the gap between one individual and an other… a movement that shifts beyond ignoring another, or merely experiencing another. An attitude of “I and Thou” invites us truly to encounter another, to look and “truly see” the person before us, even if we, ourselves, are not seen. We are invited to listen with patient hearts… and to resist the temptation to jump in… with urgency… to share our own thoughts and perspectives. Encountering another in an “I and Thou” manner asks our patience, our presence, and our engagement… in the same way that God wants our full attention. The rich man was oblivious to the real presence of Lazarus, and so it continued even as the man knew torment after death. We are afforded the opportunity to offer the rich man the very same thing that he was unable to offer to Lazarus.
I remember preaching on this parable a few weeks after 9/11. It was a challenging time of shock, anxiety, heightened reactions, and fear. It was the beginning of an increase in Islamophobia, when people of Middle Eastern appearance, as a group, were viewed with suspicion and targeted as “the enemy.” People who were perceived as “the enemy”… “Those others” were attacked and shunned. Fifteen years later it is hard to think that we have made much progress in bridging the self-imposed chasm of difference in our country. This separation and animosity… is hellish.
Today’s parable is one for our time. We can choose to live an agonizing, fear-filled existence of separation from God and one another. Or…we can choose another way. We can accept Jesus’ invitation to live our lives as steadfast witnesses and doers of compassion. We can seek the image of God in the very people and situations that pose great challenges for us: those on the other side of the political divide; those on whom we cast our greatest contempt; those who might be the most challenging and difficult. So I ask: can we look again? …first at the sore-ridden beggar Lazarus and see that he is blessed and beloved? …and can we step closer and gaze in at the rich man in his fancy robes, feasting in his irritating, blind and hardened ways… and see that he, too is a beloved child of God… even as he continues to steep in his own obliviousness?
A couple of weeks ago, during the Mezzanine presentation by our Celtic pilgrims, Stanley shared an image that he brought home with him from Ireland. As we were viewing a slide of a stone bridge he recalled the group being reminded that stones can be used to build walls of separation. But stones can also be used to build bridges to enable us to cross over from of side of a river to the other or, metaphorically, to cross the chasm of our own imposed “difference” that separates us one beloved child of God to another… bridges of life and connection. As it says in our opening prayer:
O God, grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
 Martin Bubuer, I and Thou, New York: Charles Scribners and Sons, trans. 1970.