WHAT WE CHOOSE TO SEE
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
September 27, 2015; Non-Lectionary Sermon
Deuteronomy 15:1-11; Luke 16:19-31

“Besides all this, between you and us
a great chasm has been fixed…”
Luke 16:26a

Some of you out there are teachers — active or retired. I expect you’ve prepared many a lesson plan in your time. Wouldn’t you love to come up with a lesson plan your students would remember for the rest of their lives?

Wouldn’t you love it — even more — if that lesson plan were to stick around for a couple of millennia, so people in the far-distant future would still be talking about it?

That’s what we have with the parables of Jesus. Parables were the Lord’s teaching tool. Here’s what Amy-Jill Levine has to say about the function of parables, in her book, Short Stories by Jesus:

“They are Jesus’ way of teaching, and they are remembered to this day not simply because they are in the Christian [scriptures], but because they continue to provoke, challenge, and inspire…. Jesus knew that the best teaching concerning how to live, and live abundantly, comes not from spoon-fed data or an answer sheet. Instead, it comes from narratives that remind us of what we already know, but are resistant to recall. ”

That they do — as we’ve discovered again and again, throughout the course of this sermon series on Jesus’ parables. Today we come to the last parable in the series: the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

This parable comes down to us at an opportune time. Pope Francis is not far from here today: just over in Philadelphia. By his very presence he’s reminded America of something we all too often forget: that if we’re to be followers of Jesus, we have certain responsibilities to the poor and downtrodden.

The Pope’s luncheon destination, while he was in Washington, is a prime example. He had just finished addressing a joint session of Congress. Ordinarily, you’d think he would sit down at table with the leaders of both parties, the movers and shakers of government.

But Pope Francis said “no thanks” to their invitation. Instead, he went out into the streets of Washington, to a feeding station for the homeless. There he joined the volunteers in making sure the poor had enough to eat.

Sometimes parables are stories. Other times, they are actions. What the Pope did that afternoon, on the streets of Washington, was a parabolic action.

I think that’s one reason America has fallen in love with him. It’s not that we agree with all the doctrines he’s preaching. He’s certainly not a charismatic public speaker. But what’s captured our attention about this Pope has been those parabolic actions of his: the things that seem to happen not so much according to the script as spontaneously.

There was that little girl who slipped under the barricade and ran towards him, only to be scooped up by a police officer. The Pope saw her from his popemobile. He told the driver to stop. He turned to one of his security detail, the plainclothes Swiss guards, and said “Let her come to me.”

Just like Jesus did! And that picture of the little girl, held high in the air by the burly security guard, beaming with delight, says it all.

Then there was the teenage boy with cerebral palsy, reclining in a special wheelchair behind a barricade, as the Pope’s car drove by. Francis did much the same thing. He ordered the car to stop, stepped out, walked over to the boy and his parents and leaned over the barricade. He cradled the boy’s face in his hands, gave him a kiss on the top of the head, shook hands with the awestruck parents, then walked back to his car and continued on.

The most extraordinary thing about these parabolic actions is that Pope Francis seems to notice particular people in the crowd: the young, the weak, the infirm. He seems to have a special affinity for them. Something about him speaks to us of authenticity. Something about him speaks to us of Jesus. And this is proving to be far more memorable than any words he may say in a speech, whether to Congress or the U.N. General Assembly.

*****

Contrast that with the leading character of today’s parable. He doesn’t have a name. Jesus simply calls him “a certain rich man.” We know very little about him: and everything we do know is a consequence of his great wealth.

This man is more than just comfortably well-off. You could describe him as “filthy rich.”

We know that from the story. He dresses “in purple and fine linen.”

Today, purple is a common-enough color for an article of clothing, but in Jesus’ time it was anything but. The dyes they used to color fabrics all came from natural sources: mostly plants or minerals dug up out of the ground. The color purple, though, could only be produced by grinding up the inner lining of a certain snail shell, the purple murex, found in the Mediterranean Sea. Only a very small part of that shell is actually purple. It took thousands of them to color a single garment. Ancient historians say the ground-up shell powder was worth its weight in silver.

The practical result was that only members of the highest nobility — members of “the one percent,” we’d call them today — could afford purple robes. Even then, they tended to save them for special occasions. Jesus tells us, though, that this man “was dressed in purple.” The verb he uses for “dressed” is an imperfect tense: indicating that the rich man decked himself out in purple every single day.

He also wore “fine linen.” The Greek word used here is also used in Greek editions of the Hebrew Scriptures to refer to the clothing of the high priests, who would generally wear fine linen only on high holy days. This man’s ordinary, everyday clothing is the stuff favored by emperors and by senior members of the religious elite, for their official vestments.

Jesus also tells us he “feasted sumptuously every day.” In the ancient world, the word “feast” was typically reserved for special holidays: the Thanksgivings and Christmases of that society. In the house of this rich man, an everyday dinner is Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one. He reclines at his table, clad in the rarest and most expensive clothing — paying no heed to the effect of gravy stains and spilled wine on those costly fabrics. He doesn’t care. He can afford another purple robe, and another and another.

The man, in short, is not just rich. He’s unimaginably rich. He’s Donald Trump rich.

There’s another principal character: a poor man by the name of Lazarus. He couldn’t be more different. If the other man is the richest of the rich, then Lazarus is the poorest of the poor. He lies on the street outside the rich man’s house, weak and covered with running sores. The only care anyone seems to pay him is offered by the local stray dogs, who amble over from time to time and lick his sores with their tongues.

Now, some commentators assume — based on the position of this poor man outside the gates of the rich man’s house — that he’s a professional beggar. In fact, there’s no evidence to suggest that. From the way Jesus describes his miserable condition, he’s probably too sick to beg. The verb used here for his lying by the gate can also mean “thrown down” — as though he’s too weak even to get up. Someone probably hauled him over there and dumped him by the rich man’s gate, the same way some anonymous people today dump sick homeless people outside hospital emergency rooms.

Now, why would they choose to do that to poor Lazarus? Because there were no emergency rooms. Rich people in that society — be they Roman or Jewish — were expected to distribute a certain amount of their cash to the poor on a regular basis. Such generosity wasn’t an optional whim. It was a solemn religious injunction: in Hebrew terms, a mitzvah. It was the closest that society got to a social welfare system.

We heard that solemn injunction as our first lesson today. Deuteronomy 15 — a portion of the Law of Moses — instructs:

“If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be…. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”

Lazarus, it turns out, is distinctly unlucky: because this particular rich man — his potential savior — couldn’t care less about the Law of Moses. He’s all about the wining and dining, the Thanksgiving turkey and Christmas pudding each and every day. We don’t read, here, about him entertaining anyone. His everyday gluttony is purely to gratify his own senses.

Interesting factoid: the only characters to whom Jesus assigns a proper name in any of his parables are both found in this story. One is Lazarus; the other is Father Abraham. It’s no accident that the rich man has no name: because, as we’ll soon discover, there’s a great reversal on the way. Once the two men die, the tables are turned. The poor man is ushered into heaven and the rich man — well, he goes to the other place. It’s a place where his good name doesn’t do him any good. He’s the nameless sufferer now. And Lazarus is assigned the most distinguished place in all of heaven.

The rich man looks up from his miserable sufferings, and sees Lazarus reclining by Abraham’s side. The Greek literally says “by Abraham’s bosom.” The picture Jesus is painting is of Abraham reclining at his heavenly banqueting-table, with Lazarus laying his head on his chest. The miserable man who once had the lowest place on the pecking-order on earth is accorded the most distinguished place in heaven.

How did he get there? It’s pretty clear how the rich man got to the other place. His soul is weighed down with a heavy sin of omission: his failure to be generous in giving alms to the poor. As for Lazarus, Jesus never tells of any virtuous acts on his part. His chief qualification for entering heaven seems to be the fact that he’s poor.

Now, this had to be a terribly challenging situation for Jesus’ original listeners, because they believed — as most everyone did back then — that God punishes the sinful and rewards the virtuous here on this earth. If a man was poor, it must have been because of some grievous sin. If a man was rich, it can only be because he’s basking in God’s favor.

Now, before you go writing off this sort of prosperity gospel in your mind as childish or irrelevant, consider this. How often today do you hear of someone diagnosed with a deadly disease whose first response is, “Why me, Lord? What did I do to deserve this?” And how often do you see, on some reality TV show or another, the host fawning over some wealthy celebrity family, as the cameras tour their 60-room mansion with two swimming pools and a private movie theater? The message is clear: because these people are wealthy enough to afford such palatial digs, they must be some very important people indeed!

It’s no different today, really, than it was in Jesus’ time. Human communities, then as now, seem to be hard-wired to favor the rich — simply because they’re rich — and to despise the poor just for being poor. You do it, I do it, we all do it: so stop patting yourself on the back. Each and every day, you and I live at cross-purposes to Jesus’ teaching: the message of this parable that we are all on the same level in God’s eyes — and that if there’s any tilt in the favor of one group or the other, the heavenly advantage goes to the poor every time.

*****

This is one way Pope Francis’ behavior on his visit to America is provocative and challenging to our status quo. He doesn’t sit down and have lunch with leaders of Congress. He breaks bread with the homeless: breaks it, and serves it to them. It’s almost as though Francis came to America, land of the rich and powerful, with this parable on his mind. Unlike the rich man — who knows his neighbor Lazarus by name, but somehow looks right through him — Francis seems to have a special eye for the sick, the needy and the despairing.

Back in March, the Pope gave a homily on this very parable. I found it on the internet. Listen to what he says about the rich man:

“When he went about town, we might imagine his car with tinted windows so as not [to be] seen from without — who knows — but definitely, yes, his soul, the eyes of his soul were darkened so that he could not see out. He saw only into his life, and did not realize what had happened to [himself]. He was not bad: he was sick, sick with worldliness — and worldliness transforms souls.”

Pope Francis went on in his homily:

“With a worldly heart you can go to church, you can pray, you can do so many things. But Jesus, at the Last Supper, in the prayer to the Father, what did He pray? ‘But please, Father, keep these disciples from falling into the world, from falling into worldliness.’”

“Falling into worldliness.” Now, there’s a phrase you don’t hear every day! You and I live in a society that glorifies the worldly — the glamorous, the wealthy, the powerful — and stands in the supermarket line behind a couple paying with food stamps, looking over their purchases with a critical eye, searching for anything that seems frivolous or the least bit extravagant.

“They’re poor,” we say of them in our minds. “They’re deficient human beings. They don’t deserve anything good. Maybe if they’re lucky, the dogs will come and lick their wounds.”

Well, my friends, let’s admit it. The message of Jesus’ parable — the gospel in this parable — is not a message you and I are eager to hear. By the standards of much of this world, even the poorest among us here in America have a lot more in common with the rich man — gorging himself on pastries at his banqueting-table — than with poor Lazarus languishing outside the gate.

The parable forces us to ask ourselves: “Which is the more Christlike way — staying inside to feast, or stepping outside to share?”

I think, in our heart of hearts, we all know the answer to that question. We may not like it: but it is the gospel.

So let us go forth with eyes wide open for those our Lord is most eager for us to meet. And let us be prepared to respond to them in love!

Copyright © 2015, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.