This sermon was given by The Rev. Luther Zeigler on Sunday 29 September at the Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard. The readings for the day are available here.
“And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table . . . .” Luke 16:21
At the lunch hour, I often stroll from my office at Two Garden Street over to the Market in the Square, that deli on the corner of Church Street and Brattle, to get a sandwich. Most days, as I’m leaving the Market, I’m encountered by someone on the corner who is rattling a cup of coins asking for spare change. Because it is a spot on the Square with a fair amount of foot traffic, it is a popular place for our homeless friends to situate themselves.
Nearly every day, I confess that I struggle with how best to respond to this recurring encounter. Some days, I drop some money into the poor soul’s cup. Other days, I stop, and rather giving spare change, I’ll offer the person half of my sandwich, thinking to myself that food is better than money since it can’t be used to fuel an alcohol or drug addiction. Still other days, I’ll stop and try to explain where the nearest shelter or feeding program is located, believing that pointing to our city’s social services might be a better strategy for dealing with the situation than arguably furthering a dependency on handouts.
But then, I’m ashamed to say, there are those days when I’m too distracted with my own issues to bother to stop at all; or in too much of a hurry to notice the person standing there; and there are even those times when I’m just plain sick and tired of having to face this depressing reality every day en route to lunch and secretly wish I worked somewhere devoid of such people and problems. I’m not proud to acknowledge these feelings, but I suspect many of you struggle with this same mix of emotions and may be just as flummoxed as I am as to how to respond to these daily encounters.
But then, one day something different happened. As I was coming out of the Market, with my sandwich and iced tea in hand, poised to drop my spare change in the cup of some obviously struggling young man, he raised his hand signaling that he didn’t want my money. Instead, he gestured me to come near, saying, “Pastor, could you pray with me?” It was midday, and the Square was filled with folks each on his or her own mission, and I admit I felt slightly self-conscious at this invitation to pray in public with a young fellow whom I did not know.
But I somehow was given the grace to overcome these fears, and so I approached him. And, as I did, he gently took my hands (and I’ll change his name here to protect his privacy), and he said to me: “My name is Phillip and I’ve been out of work for years. Would you please pray that I might find some meaningful job? And I have a mother, named Dolores, who is struggling with a heart condition. Could you pray for her too?”
And so, there we stood, in the midst of the bustle of Harvard Square, Phillip and me, praying together.
And that is when my eyes were opened to something that I should have seen long before. Suddenly, this “homeless person,” this “social issue,” this “problem to be solved,” or even worse, “this nuisance to be avoided,” was a man named Phillip, with a mother named Dolores. A man with a story. Someone’s son. Someone with hopes and dreams, as well as pains and disappointments.
The real question, I want to suggest, that we should be asking ourselves as we encounter our homeless brother and sisters on the streets of Harvard Square is not whether we should or shouldn’t give them our spare change, or something to eat, or some helpful advice about the nearest social program. The question that we should first be asking ourselves is whether we are prepared to see them, know them, encounter them, and relate to them as human beings. It is not an easy question, by any means, but it is the question Jesus poses to us in today’s gospel.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is too often reduced to a simple morality tale about the dangers of wealth, the vice of self-indulgence, and the characteristic Lukan motif of an eschatological reversal of fortune, with the last being first and the first being last.
But this interpretation doesn’t do full justice to the parable. While, to be sure, there is a stinging critique here of the oppression of the poor by the rich, there is a subtler and related message embedded in the parable as well – a message about relationship.
One of the most striking things about this parable is that it is the only one of Jesus’ parables in which he names one of the characters: Lazarus. This is not just some anonymous, faceless, impoverished man. Indeed, in contrast to the “rich man” in the parable, whom Jesus does not name, and who is just one other rich man among many in Jesus’ parables, Lazarus is here given an identity. Jesus knows him, implicitly suggesting that we should know him too.
Moreover, Lazarus is the Greek form of “Eliezer,” which in Hebrew means: “God helps.” And Eliezer, you may remember, is the name of Abraham’s companion from Genesis 15, himself a model of faithful and hospitable service to Abraham and Sarah.
Read this way, the text invites us into a relationship with Lazarus, by naming him, by describing his plight, and by recalling for us the cherished relationship Abraham enjoyed with his loyal friend of the same name. Indeed, the intimate nature of the relationship is modeled for us at the end of the story as we see Lazarus at Abraham’s bosom after he is carried to heaven. The NRSV translates verse 22 to read that Lazarus died and was carried off by the angels “to be with Abraham,” but the better translation of the Greek is that Lazarus was carried by the angels “to Abraham’s bosom” – that is, close to his heart.
There is, in short, a great chasm in the parable between the loving relationship that Abraham and Lazarus share and the lack of one between the rich man and Lazarus. The text vividly portrays for us how the rich man, so absorbed in his own pleasure, keeps Lazarus out of sight, physically separated on the other side of a gate. The rich man seeks to protect himself from all the Lazaruses of the world, leaving them to be tended to by the dogs, who lick their sores. The rich man literally doesn’t want to see Lazarus, keeping him at a distance, refusing to recognize him as a fellow human being, treating him like just another domestic animal. There is no effort to know Lazarus, to encounter him, much less to share his bounty and be in relationship with him.
And notice this too: even after the rich man is condemned to the fires of Hades for his callous self-absorption, and pleads with Abraham for mercy, the rich man never calls out to Lazarus directly for forgiveness. Instead, he pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus as his messenger to save the rich man’s brothers, once again treating Lazarus not as a brother himself, but as a servant to be used for the rich man’s own purposes.
Again, the rich man’s sin is less his wealth per se, as it is his indifference. He remains blind to the reality and dignity of his fellow human being, both in this life and in the next.
Please don’t misunderstand my implication. I’m not so naïve as to believe that each of us can have a relationship with all the poor and homeless folks we encounter each day. We are frail and limited human beings who can only do so much, and who have other relationships and responsibilities that legitimately compete for our attention. But perhaps if we start by looking at our neighbors a little differently – seeing a Phillip on the street corner, rather than just another nameless homeless person – by God’s grace we will gradually be brought into a deeper, healthier and more generous sense of community, as we are slowly brought into more authentic relationships with those with whom we share this earth. And then, perhaps, we will be surprised that such a renewed sense of community and relationship suddenly becomes the catalyst we need to move us forward toward real social change.
St. Augustine once said: “God gave us things to use and people to love; and sin is the confusion of the two.” Maybe that is not a bad caption for today’s gospel lesson. God gave us things to use and people to love. The rich man’s terrible confusion, and ultimate sin, was in falling in love with his things rather than with his brother, Lazarus.
May God help us from making this same mistake. In the words of our epistle lesson today, let us not “set our hopes on the uncertainty of riches,” but rather, let us “be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share,” so that we might “take hold of the life that really is life.”