Who is at Our Gates?

Luke 16:19-31                                                                     19th Sunday after Pentecost

Elizabeth M.  Deibert                                                         25 September 2016

 

Last Saturday while Gia and her volunteers in the kitchen were preparing a meal, and I had just met with our newest members, we had someone stop by the church in desperate need for money.   I drove my car while he drove his to the gas station to fill his up – at the church’s expense.  When I drive someone to get a gift card at the drug store or a tank of gas at the corner station, I voluntarily take some risk.   I am sensible about it, but I am willing to take this risk for the sake of sharing the love of Christ.   I always stand in the line with the person or at the pump (in a public space) and I ask about their circumstances, share the love of God, and tell them that I will pray for them.   Do I know beyond the shadow of doubt that the story he told me about his desperate circumstances is true?   No.  But I consider it my job to help him, not to foster dependency, but to show compassion, and I trust you will continue to give to Peace so that we can be a generous church, helping the people on our doorstep in modest ways, as well as trying to make lasting changes to the systems in our society that contribute to the gross inequities between the rich and the poor.     

 

Jesus tells a parable about a rich man, who ignored the poor man at his gate.   He tells it in response to an encounter with the Pharisees, whom he asserts were lovers of money.   He told them they could not serve both God and wealth, but the Pharisees sneered at Jesus.  Jesus said, “God knows your hearts.   What human being prize is deeply offensive to God.”   What he is talking about is wealth and status and power. 

 

Hear the parable from Luke, chapter 16, verses 19-31:

"There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' 25 But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.' 27 He said, 'Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house-- 28 for I have five brothers-- that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' 29 Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' 30 He said, 'No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' 31 He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'"  (NRS)

 

 

This parable gives us in narrative form what Jesus said in the Blessings and Woes from the Sermon on the Plain, which we read from Luke just two weeks ago.   Let me remind you by sharing excerpts:  Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of God…Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation….Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.

 

So then Jesus told the Pharisees, who were powerful and wealthy, this parable.   He was not speaking to the poor at this moment.   That is important to fact to remember.   He is not speaking to a middle class group.   The Pharisees were powerful.

 

So the trouble is that the rich man, wearing fine clothes (purple dye was the designer label of Jesus’ day.) cannot sympathize with the poor man at his gate.  This guy in our day would have owned a car worth $50,000 or more.  His house would have been worth at least three-quarters of a million dollars.   And at his gate, where he kept out undesirable people was a man in desperation whom he never cared to notice or help.   Furthermore, even after he died, he is still thinking that the poor man, Lazarus, should be mowing his lawn or bringing him water to cool himself down or warning his rich brothers.   And he wants Abraham to send Lazarus to tell them.   And therein is the judgement.   What we see in this parable is a great dehumanizing attitude, which is what creates a gulf, a chasm between two people whom God loves.  And until the rich man can see Lazarus as a valuable human being from whom he can learn something, that chasm will continue.  

 

Until the rich man can start paying attention to what God has already said, until he can stop demanding that the poor man be sent on his errands to again serve the rich man’s family again by warning them of the torment that comes to those who have been greedy, stingy, and dehumanizing, then the chasm will continue.   The chasm exists as long as we do not see the other person as a valuable child of God, worthy of our attention and care.   The chasm exists when we do not repent of and struggle with how to share our blessings with others.   The chasm exists when we are not satisfied with a comfortable life, a good enough house, good enough vehicle, and good enough wardrobe.   The chasm exists when we think we deserve to live a luxurious life, and we blame the poor people sitting at the gate, or even working at the gate or in the neighborhood for their poverty.  

 

It comes down to our need to feel the burden of the other person and therefore to do something humanizing for them.   Sure, Jesus said, “The poor will always be with you.”   But Jesus was quick to challenge the wealthy to simplify their lives, so they could follow him.   Further, he warned that they should be generous.  And I believe in our day he would also call for public policy that is generous, giving aid to those who struggle, being merciful to those who were born poor, having compassion for those who have no clean water, not enough money to buy food, and inadequate education and healthcare.   Take a moment with these facts.  

 

(Statue of Liberty)   Mexico and Syria could be seen as Lazarus sitting at our country’s gate.   As a Christian, I cannot support building a wall when Jesus is so compassionate toward the stranger and the outcast.   When you consider the years of torment the Syrians have faced, the terrorism we have faced is but minor.   Our own forebearers had deep compassion for the immigrant, and there were problems with violence and cultural clashes back then too.   But people did not watch cable news all day long analyzing the violence and trying to figure out the detailed history of the perpetrator of every violent crime.  Instead many read inspiring poetry like that of New Yorker, Emma Lazarus, who was Jewish, whose words still inspire from the base of the Statue of Liberty.

 

It is complicated indeed, but the issue is this: how long can we go on living so comfortably while some people, even neighbors in Manatee and Sarasota Counties, are so strapped?   They are working one or two jobs, and still cannot make enough to support their family.   Shannon wrote a book about these people, who are ALICE.   Asset Limited, Income-Constrained and Employed. 

In our lives as individuals and families, in our common life as a church, and in our public life, we must consider what would be of lasting benefit to the weakest among us.    (slide) As Mother Teresa now Sainted said, “If a person dies of hunger, it is not because God did not take care of him or her.   It happened because neither you nor I wanted to give that person what he or she needed.

 

How many times have I ignored Peace’s Mission Team’s call to bring first Sunday food to people at Beth-El just because it was inconvenient?   Because Richard and I forgot buy stuff and did not want to make a special trip to the grocery store.   How many times each month do I justify spending forty dollars a person on a meal, instead of being satisfied with a simple, inexpensive, usually healthier meal at home, which leaves me more money to give away?

 

(slide) There should be no chasm between the 1% and the 99%.  Increasingly, the very wealthy are completely out of touch with the majority.   That chasm needs to be bridged.   There should be no chasm between those of us who do not worry about where we will get our next meal and those who do.   There should be no chasm between those who have access to good schools and colleges and those who don’t.   There should be no chasm between those who have access to quality healthcare and those who don’t.   There should be no chasm between the nations of the East and the nations of the West, or Northern hemisphere and Southern.   It is we ourselves who perpetuate the chasms of dehumanizing attitudes.  

 

(slide) These attitudes continue to add to the torment of violence that we have experienced in the last years.   We must fully humanize the neighbor of different skin color, different culture, language, or religion, and different socio-economic position – if we want these battles and protests to cease.   

 

Again I want to emphasize that when Abraham in eternal life speaks of the great chasm of separation between them and us, he is speaking not of geography but of attitude.  (slide)  Until the rich man repents of his dehumanizing attitude toward the guy at his gate, he will continue in torment.  He may have been able to control his destiny while he was alive, but his torment now is that he must submit to God’s ways of offering human dignity, respect, and peace.   His fire is the torment of embarrassment and humility.   He must admit he was wrong.  

He cannot expect Abraham to send Lazarus off as an errand boy, a servant to protect his brothers from their own blind wealth.   Don’t you see how disrespectful that is, after the way he treated Lazarus in his lifetime?

 

I fully believe that the witness of scripture is that God is love and that God does forgive all people and want all people to know love.   Yet this parable is a stark reminder of our inability to live in eternal peace with God when we stubbornly refuse to see the value of a neighbor, a fellow human being whom God calls us to love.     

 

That’s why I am going to give to the church and to the poor with some reckless abandon.   That’s why I’m going to second-guess myself when I am tempted to ignore the poor, when I am tempted to justify my own lifestyle, telling myself that I deserve it, that they could be where I am if they worked harder.   A true follower of Jesus Christ must pay attention and show compassion to marginalized people just as Jesus did.  

 

The Gratitude Team has ordered books called Satisfied for a class that will begin in two weeks.   The subtitle is “Discovering Contentment in a World of Consumption”   I believe this study will open our eyes.

 

 

(slide) There is no peace until there’s justice.    And there is no justice until the wealthy notice the poor and dignify them by treating them humanely.   I’m not pretending that there are easy answers to the difficult subject of the growing disparity between the rich and the poor.   It is all very complicated, and anyone who pretends there are simple answers is deceiving us.   But God knows our hearts and our attitudes and our motives.   And God calls us to love our neighbor, especially the one who is weak or poor.   Love has many shapes and sizes, but love never ends.