Eleven years ago, before seminary, before ordained ministry, my spouse Terri and I and ten younger adults of our parish, decided to join in with another church, to support their food ministry for the homeless, who were living on the streets of Fort Myers, FL. We shadowed the other group for a couple of weeks, then finally we ventured out on our own, and took on a different evening to provide food for the many people living in poverty. We gathered at the church to make sandwiches, pack potato chips and fruit, and to fill our coolers with ice and cold drinks. The first few evenings when we shared our food offerings on the streets, our little group was very uncomfortable, and we were overwhelmed by the situations in which, most of the folks were living. Soon though, we learned that the needs of our new friends were much more than food, more than the cold drinks. What our sisters and brothers really needed the most was their dignity and to be treated humanely.
Our ministry group learned that the chasm, which often stands between the ministers, and those to whom we were ministering, was an unplanned life crises or more likely than not, a single paycheck or two. Many of our new friends were like any of my group just a few months before, but life happened and they were unable to maintain jobs, relationships, and shelter.
Today, “the poor can easily become an abstraction as the experts theorize on the “poverty problem,” or the politicians debate its cause and solution, or the ministers preach sermons about justice and compassion.”(1) We are not talking about abstract ideas or problems to be solved. We are talking about people whom society often overlooks or looks at with disdain, but they are God’s people whom God loves, and those whom God demands we all love.
In today’s gospel reading from Luke, Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus who in life were as far apart from one another, as they were after death. Lazarus suffered in life living in poverty. The rich man enjoyed life in utter comfort. The rich man was tormented in death, yet the poor man Lazarus was at peace and comfort in death. Is this a story of retribution for ill-gotten gains, or is it a tale of someone getting their just deserts, or is something else going on in this story?
The parable of Lazarus and the rich man is not a story of justice in the next life imposed for the terrible acts done in this life. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man shows each of us that death is the great leveler of humanity. We all enter this world naked and frail, and we leave it in like fashion. It reminds us that in life, we are all from the same family: rich or poor, healthy or sick, and the ethnically, gender, racially diverse. Paul reminds us that in Christ, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28). God sees all of humanity as one family.
I believe this parable suggests that we all are equal in God’s eyes and our value before the throne of grace has nothing to do with our portfolio, our assets, or the things, which we often value as reflections of our self-identity. So, in the story why is there a chasm between Lazarus and the rich man? The gulf between the two of them in death was already present in life. The choices of the rich man, the decision to overlook and diminish the value and humanity of Lazarus in life was were the real great divide between them emerged. The rich man saw Lazarus as poor, but the reality is “what seemed to be (the rich man’s) affluence was really poverty, for the person who appears to be rich in the short view may actually be desperately poor in the long view.” (1)
Our homeless ministry team, by our second or third month of service was not only bringing food and drinks to those folks on the streets, we were spending a couple of hours just sitting with our new friends, learning about their stories, sharing ours, and discovering how closely our lives were to one another. On one particular night, one member of our team noticed this certain man of short stature sitting alone and being very protective of his backpack. My team member went and sat beside him, took him some food and tried to connect.
He was resistant, but over time, the young woman learned his name. Jimmy spoke very little, probably because he had been on the streets for twenty years. Jimmy many times had been the victim of beatings by others on the street, who would take what little he had. He mostly only communicated using a small hand gesture that seemed to indicate his isolation, his loneliness, and the abuse of dignity he had experienced for years. The young minister’s heart broke over this man’s plight and so, each week she made it her ministry to spend time with Jimmy trying to connect. Eventually, she broke through the chasm and Jimmy opened up and at one point, I vividly remember she and him smiling and laughing together. The gulf that separated the man on the street and the woman in the suburbs had been bridged. God’s kingdom burst forth that day.
Now here is the difficult part of this story. We never knew what happened to Jimmy, and as far as we know, he may still be on the street today, or worse. What we do know is that Jimmy’s life for a time was changed in ways we cannot fathom, all because one young woman worked to create a bridge to cross the divide between them. Jimmy experienced the great leveling place where we all meet each other, at the crux of our mutual poverty, and where we experience the human family under the fatherhood of God.
Jimmy for a moment or so each week was no longer a victim of indifference, indignity, and merciless abuse. Jimmy was a child of God with a story, with value, and with sister/brother in Christ who showed him love. Is this not what we all desire?
Now, the other part of this story is the fact the young woman who ministered to Jimmy was transformed as well. Over time I saw a change in her that was miraculous. She loved others deeper, cared for others in ways never before, and looked at life with new eyes and a new perspective. She, like her friend Jimmy had equally been transformed by the encounter. This is the good news in the Lazarus and the Rich Man Parable, if we listen to and respond to it with humility, compassion, and mercy.
Sisters and brothers, we need one another. “Jesus makes clear to us that we still have the opportunity to see that (the rich man) needs Lazarus as much as Lazarus needs (the rich man). The need of Lazarus was for food and clothing and medicine; he needed to be treated as a human being in a human way. The need of (the rich man) was not for anything that money could buy; he needed to know what it means to be human.”(1) To be human is to follow the law Christ left for us, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The rich man asked Abraham to send Lazarus. He said, “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.” (Luke 16:27-28) I believe God sends Lazarus’s out among us every single day. Maybe Lazarus IS the homeless person on the street or another often forgotten person society overlooks. Maybe Lazarus is that person in your office that you dislike or the neighbor whose actions just annoy you beyond imagine. Maybe Lazarus is the family member with whom you are estranged. Lazarus is our sister and brother with whom a chasm separates us under the fatherhood of God. We all need to hear and respond to the call to love one another, and we all need to be challenged to recognize that we are all a part of the human family.
Maybe the truth of the matter is that God is not only sending Lazarus to us, but God is sending us into the lives of those same people, with whom we are called to love. Maybe we are really the ones living in poverty; a poverty of spirit, heart, and mercy. Maybe God is reminding us that as one family, equal in God’s eyes, equal by the nature of our common humanity, we must really care for one another. Remember, Jesus said when we care for the least of these, we are caring for and loving Christ himself.
(1) Huie, Wade P. “Poverty Of Abundance.” Interpretation 22.4 (1968): 403-420. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 22 Sept. 2016.