The Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
We’re in a season when we can literally see God’s abundance. The gardens are still madly casing forth tomatoes and squash, but the leaves are turning to bright red and gold. It’s also a season when, in church, we turn out attention to reflecting on stewardship, as you can see from the piece at the beginning of your bulletin this morning, what it means for us to be the stewards of God’s abundant blessings, and to reflect on the ways in which we choose to share our resources.
So how timely it is that our lectionary directs our attention to Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Poor Lazarus.
It’s a fantastical story – much more a fantasy that most of Jesus’ other parables. It challenges us to think about the perils of wealth.
The story concerns a rich man – who , in the parable, has no name – and a poor man who loiters at his gate, Lazarus.
We’re supposed to notice - contrast in their life circumstances:
Eventually, as is the case for all of us when our time comes - both die.
He looks for solace, requesting drop of water, but is informed by Abraham that it is too late – he had his chance - “a chasm has been fixed” that prevents deliverance from his torment.
The story ends on pessimistic note. Even rich man’s hope that his family can learn from his fate will do no good: “if they did not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced” by a messenger from the afterlife.
Jesus’ parable not a cautionary tale about what we need to do to qualify for entrance to heaven – we can put that one aside.
The parable is about our relationships here and now.
Two weeks ago we heard pair of parables of “the lost” whom G wants to restore to relationship – the lost sheep, the lost coin.
The rich man doesn’t know it, but he is lost.
He’s lost not because he is rich, not even primarily because he shows no compassion for Lazarus, suffering at his gate, (though both are true).
The rich man is lost because his wealth prevents him from even seeing Lazarus as a person worthy of his concern, as another child of God. Even from Hades, he sees Lazarus as a servant to attend to his needs.
The “fixed chasm” that separates rich man and Lazarus after death is a chasm that was established in life. Maybe the rich man’s eternal torment is his isolation, his inability to see, to feel for, to respond to the Lazarus’ needs with compassion, because he has been insulated by his wealth.
Wealth and the privilege it provides DO serve to protect us from encounter with the suffering of others;
Likewise, and maybe more importantly, material and social privilege prevent us from knowing our need of God, prevent us from recognizing our need to trust in G, because they provide the illusion that we are in control, and that because of our wealth and our privilege, we are entitled to have things the way we want them.
Conversely, our own pain is often what brings us to know our need for God, and becomes a doorway to learning to truly trust in God’s presence and care. Exposure to others’ suffering, when we can allow ourselves to really encounter it, is so often what transforms us, what shapes in us a response of care and compassion. If we are fortunate, transformation in our consciousness leads to transformation in our behavior.
The story of the rich man and Lazarus bears a striking resemblance to a story from one of the other great faith traditions of the world. The foundational story from the tradition of Buddhism goes this way:
Siddhartha Gautama, the “enlightened one” was born a prince of high caste in Hindu family and sheltered from seeing sufferings of the world. One day drove out from palace to meet his subjects. Saw an old man, a diseased man, a decaying corpse. Questioned his driver, who explained the inevitability of aging, disease, & death.
Despite having been offered throne of the kingdom, Siddhartha set out on life of asceticism – self-denial - in search of truth.
Buddhist tradition teaches – and I am inclined to believe it, and not see it as incompatible with my Xn faith – that Siddhartha found enlightenment, found true peace. I think it is not an accident that his journey began with recognition of the suffering of others.
Like the rich man of our parable, he was sheltered from the sufferings of others. Unlike the rich man, he allowed is eyes to be opened to see them. He was lost, but found himself, found the true path, through compassion borne in awareness of the suffering of others.
Another connection that comes to my mind as I continue to process the anti-racism workshop I took part in a week ago, as to do with white privilege.
Our whiteness – for those of us who are white – is the equivalent of the rich man’s wealth. Our racial identity enables us to live without thinking about racial injustice – other than when we choose to do so, just as the rich man’s wealth enabled him to live without worrying about Lazarus, lying hungry and thirsty at his gate. Racial privilege allows us to live without worrying about our sons and husbands and brothers being shot by the police. Like the rich man, we can tell ourselves –“Not my problem”, and when we do, we, too, are lost.
Jesus' parable is not a mandate to sell all that we own, but rather, an invitation to open ourselves to the needs of those at our gates, whether in Franklin County or in our nation or across the world. The scriptures call us to be affected by those in need – to experience the discomfort of considering others’ difficult lives – and to share out of our resources in response.
As Paul instructs Timothy in this morning’s epistle:
As for those who in the present age are rich
(and let’s not kid ourselves: in contrast to so many in the world who are starving, who do not have clean water or basic healthcare, or just treatment in the judicial system, we are rich)
As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life. Amen.
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