‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 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; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 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.” 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. 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.” 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.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” 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.” ’
A Preponderance of Evidence- Luke 16: 19-31
In today's Gospel reading, we encounter Jesus nearing the end of his journey to Jerusalem. With the cross looming in his future, feeling that his disruption of the status quo can only be tolerated for a so much longer, he seems to have an important goal in mind for the rest of his journey. He wants to make sure his followers understand how to construct their lives on the foundation of the Gospel. What he has said about God during this time is that God is perpetually loving and continually seeks out humanity and celebrates our renewed relationship... he has said that God will see your pain and heal you without even being asked. What Jesus has said about living a life of Gospel love and justice is that it will be dangerous... is that you will be asked to re-evaluate every part of your life and make it measure up to God's standard. You do this not to earn God's love, but to better reflect this love more fully into the world. Even so, it is not easy to be a mirror for God's love.
Today's scripture, a parable about a rich, nameless man and an impoverished man named Lazarus, falls into a third category of Jesus' teaching: a teaching about how to re-orient your life to be a reflection of God's love. And, my... is this parable harrowing. It begins by describing two men who could not be more different. One was very wealthy and always decked out in the finest clothes: head to toe purple and linen. He had so much money that every meal was a feast. He lived in a home big enough to have it's own gate. And, at that gate, laid the other man, Lazarus. Lazarus is covered in sores, head to toe with purple and red angry welts. He had so little money that he had no food, wishing he could eat the scraps that had fallen from the rich man's table. He had no home, living among the stray dogs at the rich man's gate. No people notice him. Only the dogs notice him, licking his wounds. He is too weak or perhaps too bereft to stop them.
Both men die. The poor man, once ignored by everyone but stray dogs, is now tended by angels. He is taken into the bosom of Abraham, where the great ancestor of his faith offers him love and comfort that he did not have in his life. The wealthy man was buried, another symbol of his wealth. This would be the last thing that goes well for him. Remember, in Luke, Mary sang about God who would bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly. And, Jesus preached about the poor being blessed and said that the rich would become hungry. This rich man in this story would soon embody being knocked off one's throne and being suddenly hungry. Having lived in comfort, his death is marked by isolation and torment. Having always had enough to eat and drink, he now begs for even the smallest drops of water to ease his pain. This rich man who never crossed his yard to tend to the sick man at his gate now suffers alone because because a great chasm separates him from the ones who could offer comfort. This story stands as a portrait of a desperate, tormented, and foolish man.
Before we go further, I'd like to share something that one of the scholars I read this week pointed out. We would be wise to avoid seeing this story as Jesus saying all rich people are terrible and deserve punishment. Jesus is critical of unethical elites, but he is not cruel. Instead, it is more helpful to understand this parable as a critique of a particular understanding of the relationship between wealth and righteousness. Jesus is critiquing a theology that understood one's relative wealth as a sign of one's righteousness. Wealth and comfort are gifts from God for good behavior. Some people who espoused this theology might have assumed that the rich man was rich because he was righteous, and would have expected him to be one curled up in Abraham's embrace. Some might have even argued that had he tended to Lazarus, he might have been interfering with God's judgment. To see him being tormented because, to quote the scripture, he had already received good things, would have completely upended some people's understanding of God. In the story, it definitely upends the rich man's understanding of how he lived his life. He becomes so convinced that he did wrong that he wants to find a way to convince his siblings, who apparently lived like he did, to change their ways.
Knowing that Lazarus could have been the witness to spur him into compassionate action, he pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to his siblings to warn them to live differently. Abraham says no. They have plenty of witnesses to tell them about God's love. They have Moses and the prophets... the whole Law that shares God's concern for the poor as well as God's instruction to care for one's neighbor. They should listen to them. The rich man, remembering how he had misunderstood Moses and prophets and assuming his siblings would do the same, thought they would need more evidence... thought that seeing a man return from the dead might convince them. Abraham says no. The evidence is sound. They shouldn't need more. If they don't believe that, they won't believe anything... even the testimony of a dead man brought back to life.
I have been thinking a lot about evidence and testimony in these last couple weeks. Thirteen year-old Tyre King was shot in the back as he ran from police while holding a bb gun in Ohio. Forty-three year-old Terrence Crutcher was shot as he walked towards his broken-down car with his hands up in Oklahoma. Another 43 year-old man, Keith Scott in NC, was shot after being ordered out of his car where he had been waiting to pick his son up after school. In Maryland, a 15 year-old girl was struck by a car. When she refused care at the scene and tried to ride away, police officers grabbed her off her bike, slammed her into a windowsill, and put her in handcuffs. They told a bystander that she might have a brain injury and they needed to help her. When she struggled while being placed in the back of the police car, they pepper-sprayed her. Her name has not been released. Just a couple days later, in a different part of Maryland, Tawan Boyd, a 21 year-old man, called 911 because he felt disoriented. In the recording of the call, you can hear his girlfriend tell him to "tell them to hurry up" because he was acting strange. Police report that he was acting confused and paranoid, running up and down the street and even trying to climb into police cars. He ended up being punched at least twice in the face and wrestled to the ground. He was hospitalized in intensive care. He has since died. All of these people were black or bi-racial. This seems like a lot of evidence.
About three weeks ago, a colleague of mine here in Maine was pulled over. She had no idea why. She was not in the town where she lived and knew all the police officers. She did not know the trooper who pulled her over. She looked over at her sister and made a joke, something like, "Well, this could be it." You see... she was afraid.. Everything went ok, though. She just had a blown taillight. She made it home. But, she was still afraid. My friends with black and bi-racial kids have been teaching them how to respond to the police in ways that I was never instructed. The cases I've described in the last two weeks just become more examples of why this instruction is necessary. Guys I went to college and seminary with, guys I've worked for, all wonder if they will one day get identified as a "bad dude" and not make it home that night. These stories of fear seem like a lot more evidence to me, just as surely as the words of Moses and the prophets, telling me something about how I should be living my life of faith. I guess the question is, will I heed it, or will it take a dead person... well, another dead person, to convince me to make a change, particularly in the ways that I engage others about racism. This evidence is showing me how systemic racism is preventing black folks from being understood to be whole children of God.
Jesus is clear... the relative cushiness of our life is not a sign of how much God loves us. The tragedies and misfortune that some experience are not always, not even often, signs of some inner problem they are being punished for. My neighbors and friends who are struggling in a world that is punishing them for the color of their skin do not deserve the discrimination, hatred, and fear that they face every day. Our privilege should not insulate us from seeing the pain of our neighbors, some of who sit on our very doorstep, struggling to survive.We don't have to be like the rich man who realized that he could serve his neighbors only after it was too late. We are here, now, like his five siblings, alive and still able to listen to the witness before us. We can choose to live life differently in light of Jesus' call let the oppressed go free.
As Jesus warned us in other parts of Luke, living this new life will be risky and disruptive. We will have to re-examine all parts of our lives and institutions in order to shape them into the standard of God's love. We should have no doubt that this will be really hard. We'll mess up and apologize and start again. We will listen, a lot. But, we have to keep working towards God's reign of love and just. We have one upcoming even that can help us do this work together: the anti-racism training in Auburn on November 5th. What we can't do anymore is sit at our table eating dinner while ignoring the dying man outside. We are called to see just as Jesus saw and pursue our neighbors with love just as God does. There is a preponderance of evidence for what needs to change in our world. Let us all be willing to be changed by it.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon:
I am particularly grateful for conversations and social media posts of friends and neighbors who are also people of color. Many people have shared their testimony with me about their experiences as people of color in this country. For this sermon, I am particularly indebted to a conversation with a former roommate from seminary, the Rev. AJ Green, who helped me think through the process of being changed by witnesses who's experiences differ from one's own, and also, colleague here in Maine, who was willing to share a recent experience being pulled over.
Barbara Rossing: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2983
Sermon Brainwave Podcast: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=795
Lois Malcolm: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1784
Greg Carey: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=679
Reporting on the teenager who refused medical care: http://usuncut.com/news/cops-caught-pepper-spraying-handcuffed-15-year-old-girl-hit-car-video/
Reporting on Tawan Boyd's encounter with the police: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/sep/24/baltimore-man-tawon-boyd-dies-after-he-called-911?CMP=share_btn_tw
Fred Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
If you are looking for a tangible tool for helping someone who is on the receiving end of verbal harassment in a public space, I would encourage you to read the follow post by artist who goes by the name Maeril. She was particularly interested in helping people intervene in Islamophobic harassment, but this technique could be helpful in many kinds of bullying encounters: http://maeril.tumblr.com/post/149669302551/hi-everyone-this-is-an-illustrated-guide-i-made
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.