Sunday, September 29, 2013

Lazarus and the rich man

If there ever was a parable that should keep us awake at night, it is today’s story of the rich man and Lazarus.  Most of us would prefer not to think too much about this parable because we are quite rich compared to many in the world.  So, we may try to convince ourselves that we really aren’t rich, since our cars are several years old, or we don’t have latest electronic devices.   Then, we might skip over this parable and other teachings of Jesus concerning our responsibility to those in need. We are very much like the rich man in our ability to see only those teachings of Jesus that we want to see.
All over the world, those who have much in terms of the world’s goods turn a blind eye toward those who have practically nothing.  But, as we reflect on this parable, we realize that our riches and our freedom create a special obligation for us toward those in need. 
Jesus said in his parable that Lazarus “was laid” at the rich man’s gate.  He was an invalid who had to be laid there. Lazarus was totally helpless. There were no welfare programs. He had no family to care for him. All he could do was beg, but the rich man couldn’t be bothered even to share a few coins. He refused to even acknowledge Lazarus’ existence.
But, there was one who did notice. God noticed. Luke tells us when Lazarus died, “The angels carried Lazarus to Abraham’s side.” What a beautiful image.  It wasn’t friends or concerned neighbors who carried Lazarus home at the end of a long day of begging. It was the angels. God cared about Lazarus.
This parable demonstrates how differently we see the world from the way God sees it. For, in Jesus’ story, it is Lazarus who made a name for himself and the rich man is anonymous. We know Lazarus’ name, but not the name of the man who ignored him. Lazarus knew God and was known by God. His very name, Lazarus, means God is my Help or Helper.
“By naming Lazarus and not the rich man, Jesus’ story completely contrasts with worldly understandings of who’s who.   Jesus reminds us that heaven is the opposite of this world in many respects, especially when it comes to an individual’s worth in society.
God also noticed the actions of the rich man who refused to notice the poor man at his gate. The rich man was in hell because God noticed him. But why did God deal with him so harshly? There is no record of a vicious, glaring sin. He was not cruel, as far as we know. He never ordered Lazarus from his gate or refused Lazarus the crumbs from his table. He was not a tyrant; not an oppressor of the poor, not a monstrous member of society. Rather, he may well have been an  upright citizen, respected and well liked. No earthly court would ever think of arresting or condemning him. In society’s eyes he was honored and highly esteemed. What then was his sin? His was the sin of not noticing.
          How often do you and I take time to notice the people around us--their needs and their concerns? Not just the homeless people asking for handouts on a city street, but the lonely teenager who lives down the street or the young mother trying to keep her family together after her husband has abandoned her. How often do we notice the elderly person whom no one visits; the jobless guy who is being left behind by a culture that no longer values his talents?  How often do we notice the person sitting just a short distance from us in the pew who has just received a devastating report from a doctor?  Do we even notice what other people around us are going through?
It is a sin that afflicts all of us to one degree or another, and yet we rarely talk about it. It is the sin of self-absorption. It is the sin of being so preoccupied and so busy with our own cares and concerns that we give no thought to the problems of those about us.
There are times in our lives, spiritually, when each of us is a beggar lying at the gate totally helpless, and Christ notices us and Christ loves us just as we are. As we remember that truth, that compassion, that grace, Christ calls us to look around and see someone who needs our attention, our compassion, our love. And this person might just remember our generous attention when he or she is in the position to help someone else.  

As the rich man learns in today’s parable, the distance between ourselves and God in the next life may be the distance we put between ourselves and those in need in this lifeWe may not be rich men or exploiters of the poor, but each of us should take to heart the persistent message of Jesus – that what we have and desire to have can separate us from God and our neighbor; that our possessions can come to possess us; and that true riches are to be found in sharing what we have with the poor.  Don’t be like the rich man who will forever be remembered as the person who refused to notice. Look around you today; find someone who needs your love.