Sixteenth sunday After Pentecost: September 29, 2019
Year C, Proper 21:Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31
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From the earliest of times, people have told stories about the wicked getting their comeuppance. It’s rooted in the now-popular belief in karma, also known as “what goes around comes around”.
Many are tempted to see this parable in that light, sort of a revenge mode, but it’s not. It’s more a case of “you just don’t get it, do you?”
Elizabeth Gaskell wrote a novel about a rich cotton mill owner in Victorian England, or more precisely the north of England. The name given to the fictional city of Milton where the mill operates is a disguise for Manchester. Many consider Manchester the center of industrial growth and the exploitation of cheap labor before laws were introduced to protect working-class people and banning child labor. The book was adapted for television by the BBC and shown in America on PBS as “North and South”.
At the heart of the story is the inability of the young mill owner and his hard mother to see beyond profit. The workers are a commodity. Their suffering is irrelevant. They are only visible when they make a nuisance of themselves: when they strike.
Jesus re-tells a popular story of a rich man and a beggar. The picture Jesus paints vividly is one his audience immediately recognized. They lived in a culture where rich and poor lived in close proximity to each other, where beggars were part of the scenery as were stray dogs. Both beggars and dogs were held in contempt. Beggars were thought to be those abandoned by their families, or who were suffering for the sins of their parents, grandparents or even great-grandparents. Dogs were regarded as slightly domesticated vermin.
The rich man was clothed in purple clothes. No cloth was more expensive than that dyed purple. Purple dye was only affordable by the very rich or by Roman officials and patricians. You may remember Lydia, the seller of purple, who befriended St. Paul. The rich man dined sumptuously, just as centuries later mill owners dressed fashionably and had tables, copied from those of the aristocracy, groaning with food, while their workers could scarcely prevent their children from starving.
Lazarus lay at the entrance to the rich man’s house. He was covered in sores; sores that even the dogs wouldn’t lick. Did he have leprosy, the most feared disease of the ancient world? Dogs love to lick scratches and wounds, but not these. Like the Lebanese woman in another incident, he wanted to “gather up the crumbs under the table.” The rich man swept past this grotesque “scum of the earth” until one day Lazarus was gone; he was dead.
The story now takes an unexpected turn. The rich man in Hades is tormented by flames. At first, his thoughts are still of himself. He begs Abraham to send Lazarus to give him a sip of water. Lazarus is still an object, perhaps no longer a beggar but still a servant. Abraham replies that a great gap now prevents the rich man from communicating with his people, the Chosen People, and those numbered among the chosen can’t reach towards those in Hades. A new barrier has been erected. No longer is it between the rich and the destitute, but now between those chosen by God and those who have rejected that calling by rejecting someone, who despite his abject poverty, was a fellow Jew.
The story twists again: “`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.’”
Now another layer is added to the story. It’s still about the blindness of the rich to those whose lives depend on the work they provide or the charity they exhibit. The Rich Man suddenly becomes rebellious Israel, a people who have disobeyed God’s laws, refused the vocation to which they have been called, and wouldn’t change their ways even if a prophet rose from the dead. Here Jesus may have meant that they wouldn’t believe even if Abraham or Moses, or Amos or Hosea rose from the dead.
This story isn’t moralistic in the way we generally understand parables. It’s not saying that the rich man learned anything after he died. Look what he does: He asks for the servant to return from the dead to warn the members of his family about his heritage or legacy. He still gives not one whit for Lazarus the beggar, nor the people of Israel—he cares only for himself and his own. And there’s no reason to believe that the brothers he wants warned were any different. They weren’t going to change and respect the warning of Lazarus—even if a man were raised from the dead.
What are we to learn from Jesus’s story? Beware of being so impressed with your own views, your own possessions, you own intelligence, that you can’t be reached by love and in particular, God’s love. Be careful about that sort of self-justification that thoroughly separates us from God and each other, so that another or others become invisible.
The Rich Man may have told himself that Lazarus was undeserving. The mill owner thought that profit was essential for the economy, for his business, and for the workers. It puts me in mind of the pharmaceutical industry. Last year, Pfizer earned $11 billion in profits. Profits. It is one of the most profitable companies in the world. Yet, despite these enormous profits, they raised prices on 41 of its prescription drugs in January, including drugs that treat asthma, diabetes and cancer. When is enough, enough? When will we respect people over profit? When will we respect the living?
This story is about the respect of the living for the living. The prophets spoke to Israel about justice, about respect for the poor and the weak. The books of Moses spoke about respect for the strangers living in the land. The rich man in this story had no excuse—he was fully responsible for his actions. His lack of compassion was his own, it was not forced on him by God or by circumstances. Yet somehow, he behaved as if it was. “Let Lazarus bring me water.” “Send Lazarus to warn my brothers.” As if some special personal warning would guide them to take care of their interests as if God owed them those things that they denied to other human beings, as if their only problem was a lack of information.
In this parable, the rich man’s life was impoverished because he lacked compassion and mercy, the basic building blocks of an abundant spiritual life. He was free and able to avail himself of all the generosity of God, the wisdom of the Torah, and the passion of the prophets, but instead, he looked to himself, to his own self-centered benefit—and ultimately, self-pity. There was no magic solution, some astonishing miracle was not going to change that.
We are called to be God’s people, to rejoice in God’s gift of love to us, to rejoice in the opportunity to live generously. We may think we have good reason for creating space between ourselves and people who don’t look like me, sound like me, and worship like me. We don’t.
There is an old rabbinical saying that darkness does not end when the sun rises or when someone lights a candle; instead, darkness ends when you can look into a person’s eyes and see the divine. When we look at another person and know that they are God’s creation, that’s when the darkness will end. We must see others not for what they’ve done, nor for what they can become, but for their status as a child of God.
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