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Let broad humanity have birth…

September 26, 2010

Scripture:  Psalm 146:7-9; Lk 16:19-31

Do you know who this is?

His name is Mark Zuckerberg.  He is the founder and CEO of Facebook.  He is 26-years old and is ranked by Forbes magazine as the 35th wealthiest American, with a net worth of $6.9 billion.  This week he announced that he is about to donate $100 million of his fortune into Newark’s blighted school system.  $100 million private sector dollars given for computers, books, music instruments, art supplies, innovative teachers.  Mark Zuckerberg is a rich man.

A poor man shows up at his gate.  The poor man doesn’t know much about Facebook.  His frail body is worn down by years of addictions.  If we were to psychoanalyze the poor man, we might say the addictions were an attempt to deal with the shame of being the offspring of the relationship between his grandfather and his mother.  There was the abusive relationship with his mostly absentee stepfather.  The poor man went to the blighted public schools where he was fed by government- funded breakfast and lunch programs.  He dropped out of school by 16 only to wander the streets in a wasteland of inactivity and crime.  Eventually, by court order, he is thrown at the gate of a rich man.

Today’s gospel lesson is a challenging one.  Jesus is talking about money and how it impacts our relationships with others—particularly others who either have more or less money than we do.

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus continues Luke’s prophetic critique of wealth.  We have already noted God’s “preferential option for the poor” in Luke’s Gospel.  Before the birth of Jesus, Mary declared in her praise of God, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (1:52).  The angel choirs bring the good tidings of great joy to the lowly shepherds.

John the Baptist subverts an insider religious club way of holding the tradition with the message that “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (3:8).  He warns that “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (3:17).  In Luke’s version of the beatitudes we hear:   “the kingdom of God belongs to the poor and the hungry, but woe to those who are rich and who are full “now” (6:20-26)  The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is on point with this motiff.

In the parable, Jesus introduces the characters and describes their way of life.  We know the man is rich because of his dress and his diet.  He eats food that is valued not for its quantity, but for its presentation.  He wears clothes that are valued for their brand and singular uniqueness.  The rich man lives in a house with gates—for privacy, security and for separation from the riffraff of the city.  Life is good.

Verse 21 introduces Lazarus, the only character in any of Jesus’ parables who is given a name.  Lazarus comes from Eleazor, which means “God helps.”  No one helps Lazarus.  For him, food has more to do with quantity and whether or not there will be any to take away his hunger.  Covered with sores, his body is broken.  He is “thrown” before the rich man’s gate and eventually dies.

(16:22)  The parable does not dwell on Lazarus’s death.  Perhaps the years of eating processed foods from fast food joints and soup kitchens just caught up with him.  Perhaps there were addictions which aged his body beyond his years.  Nothing is said of Lazarus’s burial.

Unexpectedly, we are told that the rich man has died also.  We don’t know the cause of death.  We might guess that his overconsumption had led to high cholesterol and heart disease.  Perhaps it was the social isolation caused by wealth that slowly withered his spirit. Whatever the causes of death, Jesus now takes the story beyond the here and now.  We see into matters of eternity.  We see judgment and mercy.

(16:23-31)  The poor man in Jesus’ story is transported by angels to the bosom of Abraham.  According to Jewish legends, the bosom of Abraham was regarded as the place of highest bliss.  We hear the language of Hades in Jesus’ story and are mindful of the earlier tradition that viewed Hades as the place of the dead, both righteous and wicked.

Commentaries remind us that regardless of whether Lazarus was in Hades or not, Lazarus and Abraham were in sight of the rich man, who was already experiencing the torment that awaited him.  We see the eschatological banquet with Lazarus as the honored guest.  We see the rich man in torment.

Those listening to Jesus are no doubt surprised by this turn of events.  We might be also.  Especially if we believe that blessings in this life are a sign of God’s favor.  Illness, poverty, and hardship…signs of God’s displeasure.  We want to ask Jesus some questions:  How could a beggar go to heaven? We are not told that Lazarus was a righteous man or that he was a believer.  Does Jesus just let anyone into heaven?   Is this parable condemning the wealthy to hell?

As we hold these questions, we do well to remember that this series of teachings in Luke’s gospel begins with Jesus eating and drinking with wealthy tax collectors (Ch. 15).  We remember his visit to the house of wealthy Zacchaeus.  Jesus extends compassion and hospitality to the rich.  Perhaps this parable is less about heaven and hell than it is about our relationship with others across economic difference.

(16:24)  Three exchanges between the rich man and Abraham follow.  Lazarus never says anything.  Abraham now speaks for the beggar who has no voice.  In the first exchange, the rich man asks “Father Abraham” to send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool his tongue.  He addresses Abraham as “Father.”  He seems to presume that he should be recognized as a “son of Abraham” also.  After all, he has the right family name.  He went to religious schools.  He worked hard.  He grew up in a tight-knit socio-religious community where these things gave you the social capital to presume righteousness.  So it is not surprising that he should address Abraham as a peer and see Lazarus as someone who exists to do his bidding, to fit into his world.  “Send Lazarus…”

Perhaps this is the main issue we need to sit with as we consider this parable.  The take away is not to recognize that we are rich…or we are poor.  The main point is not whether we will give away some of our money to help those in need.  Perhaps the main point Jesus is making is that the wealth of the rich man prevents him from seeing or relating to Lazarus as a fellow child of God.

Why did Mark Zuckerberg donate $100 to the schools in Newark?  Relationship.  He decided to make this generous donation after hitting it off with the mayor of the poverty-stricken city.  When we are in relationship with others across economic differences, we begin to see that our stories are intertwined–we are a part of a common story.  Because of relationship, Zuckerberg’s story will intersect with the stories of many in Newark.

When we are rich, it is possible over time for wealth to numb us to the need of our neighbor.  We live in totally different worlds.  We imagine that we ourselves have no need, are sufficient unto ourselves, and can easily substitute hard work and a little luck for grace and mercy.  We may go to church or we may stay at home and read the New York Times.  We view Lazarus with mistrust.

When we are poor, we can become deluded into thinking that we are victims…dependent on the rich, church, government—for our daily bread.  We see people for the money they have and not as a fellow child of God.  We may show up at church when we need some money.  We do not trust the rich man who lives behind the gate.

In both cases, we experience a poverty of relationships, a chasm that is difficult to cross into the way Jesus invites us to eat together in the Kingdom.

One of the booths at the Lampeter Fair this week had a large banner sign with the words:  Are You Sure? The church group at the booth was no doubt asking the question of the passers-by with heaven and hell in mind.  At another part of the fair several individuals were handing out Obama money evangelistic tracts.  On the back of the million dollar bill with Obama’s caricature on the front was a message.  “The million dollar question:  Will you go to heaven when you die?”  The question is followed by a quick test to determine the answer.  I was thinking about these evangelistic strategies in light of our text this morning.  In the context of Jesus’ parable, it is easy to imagine that the rich man might have been sure he was going to heaven (the bosom of Abraham) when he died.  One can imagine that the beggar might not have been so sure.  I wonder how this parable along with Psalm 146 which speaks of the LORD watching over the strangers might shape our understanding of God’s mercy and judgment.  Could it be that Jesus is trying to teach us not so much about eternal security, but more about compassionate action?

In our song of response today we will sing these words.  Let broad humanity have birth!  Let there be deeds instead of boasts. Let broad humanity have birth…As we have compassion on those who carry the responsibility of wealth and the burden of poverty.  As we see the link between our wellbeing and that of others.  As we trust that Jesus is creating a new community that transcends race and socio-economic status.

If we are to see broad humanity have birth among us, I suspect it will involve trusting in Jesus more than political ideology, economic system or family heritage.  Both rich and poor are invited to the table in the kingdom.  May broad humanity be born among us.


Sermon Questions:

1.  How does you economic status (rich or poor) create barriers to practicing hospitality across difference?

2.  How comfortable are you with the notion that God has a “preferential option for the poor?”

3.  How is the story of the rich man and Lazarus Good News for both rich and poor?

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