Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my strength and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:14) AMEN
Today’s Gospel reading continues the topic we started last week concerning the proper Christian attitude towards money and wealth. You will recall that the parable we heard last Sunday, from the beginning of the sixteenth chapter of Luke, concerned the actions of the dishonest manager, who reduced the debts of his neighbors in order to win favor with them. Jesus, unexpectedly, praises this action as he tells his disciples that if a person does a good deed, even for the wrong reasons, he has still done a good deed. Jesus then said that the disciples need to be as savvy as worldly people when it comes to using their time, talent, and treasure to advance the Kingdom of Heaven, in the same way that worldly people seek to advance the kingdoms of the Earth. Jesus continued that this commitment must extend to even the smallest actions in our lives, and warned that you cannot worship God and wealth at the same time.
This theme is picked up again in our Gospel reading this morning with the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. One quick clarification to start: the Lazarus in this parable is not the same Lazarus who is raised from the dead in the Gospel according to John. There is, however, great significance in the name of the poor man in this parable, which is the fact that we even know his name is at all. Notice in this parable that we never learn the name of the rich man, but know the name of the poor man. Jesus has, right off the bat, upended the norms of society. Stop and think about it for a moment, who is it, even today, that we remember by name in our country: celebrities, athletes, politicians, and wealthy individuals. (Some even make it easier for us to remember them by attaching their name to large buildings.) And who is it that we do not remember by name in our country: the poor, the marginalized, the invisible, the untouchables. Jesus, however, remembers them by name, even if apparently he has forgotten the name of the rich man, and by naming Lazarus he grants a poor man the dignity that too often is not given by society. (It is also worth observing that while we know Lazarus’ name, notice who does the talking in this parable, and who do we not hear speak? Some social patterns are timeless.)
So we have two people who live in proximity to one another, but lead very different lives and meet different fates after death. The rich man lacks for nothing in life, while Lazarus lacks for everything. We need to remember that in Jesus’ day there was no ‘safety net’ for the poor: no Medicaid, no unemployment insurance, no food stamps. There were religious laws that called for taking care of the poor, but they depended completely upon the actions of individuals to make them work. This apparently did not happen in the case of the rich man and Lazarus. We are not told what type of interactions they ever had. We do not know if Lazarus specifically asked the rich man for help and if the rich man refused. What we do know is that, because Lazarus was by the front gate, the rich man would have been aware of him and of his need.
The issue of meeting someone’s needs is what is at the heart of this parable; it is not wealth per se, just as it was not in the parable we heard last Sunday. The use (or lack of use) of money is a symptom of a larger problem, rather than the problem itself. This does not mean that we somehow have a ‘blank check’ (pardon the pun) to use money however we want, and our Epistle reading this week from First Timothy echoes this point of view. In the first paragraph we have the admonishment “you can’t take it with you,” as well as the warning that the love of money can lead one astray. The last paragraph reads almost as a succinct commentary on both today’s and last week’s parables. Let me re-read it:
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.
Notice that the passage does not condemn the possession of wealth, but rather the attitudes that spring from it. We are counseled, instead, to “be rich in good works” and to avoid the shadow life of materialism so that we “may take hold of the life that really is life.”
This is what the rich man in the parable failed to do. Note that there is no indication that the rich man ever mistreated Lazarus or bore him any malice; instead the rich man seems to have treated him with indifference. The rich man did not commit a sin of commission, by perpetrating a bad action; rather he committed a sin of omission, by failing to do anything at all. He did not acknowledge the need that was right in front of his eyes. Through his inaction the rich man failed to store up “the treasure of a good foundation for the future.” Now it would be very tempting to think that all we have to do to avoid a similar fate is get in our cars, drive to the Wal-Mart parking lot, and give the guy with the cardboard sign a few bucks, and as a result we will then be good with God, but that would only be a cosmetic action at best. (Richard Stearns, The Hole in our Gospel, p. 187.)
What we all must do is stop and think about the one flagrant need in our own individual lives that we walk by each day, either literally or metaphorically, and yet chose to ignore. I guarantee that every one of us, if we are truly honest, can name what that need is. This is not simply seeking to make a change in society, such as insuring that everyone has something to eat—incredibly important though that need may be. Rather, this involves confronting the unaddressed instance of need in your own life that you step over each day.
Researchers have found that humans tend to focus our regrets in the short term on things we wish we had not done, but that in the longer-term human regrets tend to focus on things we wish we had done. With that in mind, what is your sin of omission that will fill you with regret on that day when you stand before the throne of God? Is it a ruptured relationship that you choose not to mend? Is it an action or inaction that you choose not to change despite the harm it is causing to either yourself or another? Is it the comfort, be it physical, emotional, or spiritual, which you could extend to someone in need, familiar or nameless, but that you choose not to give? All of these are the sins we commit against the Lazaruses in our lives. (Holly Burns, “How to Nurse a Vulnerability Hangover,” New York Times, September 16, 2022.)
The parable of Lazarus and the rich man primarily focuses our attention on interactions between individuals, but you can also use this parable to look at the interaction between institutions, specifically the Church in the United States versus the Church in the rest of the world. The Church in the United States (and here I am speaking collectively about all Christians in the United States, not just one denomination) is the “rich man” of Christianity compared to the rest of the world. It was estimated at the start of the 21st century that the combined total income for individual Christians across all denominations in the United States was $5 trillion per year. To put that in perspective, American Christians, who make up 5% of Christians worldwide, control half of the global Christian wealth. Out of that pool of wealth, American Christians give approximately 2.5% on average each year to their churches (a percentage that has been declining for decades). Of the money given to churches, 98% stays within the church denomination in the United States that receives it—American churches only donate about 2% to help people elsewhere in the world. In other words, American Christians are giving about six pennies per person per day to help people elsewhere in the world. (Stearns., p. 215–218.)
I noted earlier that the central point in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is not solely about money, but instead about recognizing and addressing the needs that we, as individuals and as the church, too often seek to ignore. One of the most powerful indictments against the modern church in America was written by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In it, King writes about his disappointment at the failure of “the white church and its leadership” to join and support the civil rights movement, noting that instead “too many…have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.” (King quoted in Stearns, p. 193.)
King’s letter was specifically addressed to eight local religious leaders who had published an open letter in the Birmingham newspaper denouncing King and his efforts. It should be poignantly and shamefully noted that two of those people were the Episcopal Bishops of Alabama. King’s prophetic warning more than 50 years ago about the fate of the church is still sadly relevant in our own time. It is a warning to us all that sometimes it is easier not to see Lazarus through a stained-glass window.