You’ve all seen the sight as you come to church on Sunday mornings or if you’re downtown at the Overture Center for a concert, or out at dinner at a nice restaurant. As you walk down the sidewalk, you are confronted by panhandlers or see homeless people sitting on the benches. If it’s night, there are people sleeping in doorways or alleys. Whether there are more people experiencing homelessness now than in previous years, the perception that it is a growing problem certainly is real. In a meeting on Friday, Alder Mike Verveer, the alder for this district, said that he has fielded more phone calls and emails, had more conversations with constituents about homelessness this summer than at any previous time in his 24-year tenure on the City Council.
It’s not just Madison. I read an article this week that looked at the spike in calls about homeless people in San Francisco, where the crisis in affordable housing is especially acute. Most of those calls, even if they are intended to help, end up as police calls, a sign of the criminalization of the issue. One person who was interviewed about it said perceptively, “It’s not just that there are more people sleeping in doorways, it’s also that there are more doorways to sleep in.” His point was that with gentrification and development, new people are moving into areas where homeless people have slept in abandoned buildings or empty lots, leaving them with fewer places to go. The increased population also means that more people encounter people experiencing homelessness more regularly.
So when we hear this parable after encountering homeless people on our way to church, our guts are wrenched and our consciences pricked as we think about the vast chasm that separates us from them, and we are more likely to give some spare change to the next panhandler who asks, in an effort to assuage those guilty consciences, even when we know those few quarters may go toward the purchase of cheap alcohol.
The parable we have before us today challenges us. It raises questions for us about the afterlife and about what Luke (or Jesus) understood to be the behaviors or perspective necessary to achieve heaven. It confronts us with the reality of the wide disparity of wealth in first-century Palestine. Perhaps most significantly, it confronts us with the wide gap that separates our selves, our world, and our churches, from the people and churches with whom the gospel writer was familiar.
Let’s look more closely at the story. A rich man is dressed in finery and has a sumptuous table. There’s a poor man, Lazarus, who lies at his gate with sores. The Greek suggests that he was dumped there. Both die. The rich man ends up in Hades; the poor man in the bosom of Abraham. Their fates have been transformed, reversed, but the parable offers no clear reason for the reversal. The rich man pleads with Abraham to have the poor man come and minister to him in his agony. Abraham refuses. Then the rich man asks that Lazarus be sent to his brothers on earth, to warn them of what would happen to them if they continued their behavior. Again Abraham refuses, replying that the brothers have all they need to lead just and righteous lives—the law and the prophets.
The story leaves us with questions. What is the relationship between the two men? One assumes they know each other; the rich man seems to recognize Lazarus when he sees him reclining in Abraham’s bosom. It’s important to note that there is no suggestion in the story that the rich man is in any way responsible for the poor man’s plight. It may even be that his presence at the rich man’s gate is nothing more than happenstance. If that’s the case, however, then why does the rich man urge Abraham to send Lazarus to him, and then to his brothers?
Had he ever really taken notice of him, or if he had, as anything more than a nuisance or an eyesore. It’s doubtful whether he thought he was in any way responsible for Lazarus’ plight, or for taking care of him.
While he seems to know Lazarus’ name, even now when their situations are reversed, he never engages him. While he sees Lazarus reclining in Abraham’s bosom, he doesn’t address him. He still doesn’t care about him. Instead, he addresses Abraham, addressing him as “Father”—suggesting that the two of them have a relationship, that Abraham has a responsibility for this child of his.
While he appeals to Abraham as a blood relative, Lazarus remains to him only someone to be exploited. The bizarre request he makes, that Lazarus might dip his finger in water and cool his tongue, seems unlikely to ease the rich man’s suffering in any way. It’s literally a drop in the bucket. But think of the optics. Lazarus, in performing such a service, would remain in an inferior position, serving as the rich man’s body servant.
In response, Abraham rejects any relationship that the two might have—he points out the vast chasm that separates the two of them, a chasm that can’t be crossed.
It is just the sort of chasm that existed between the rich man and Lazarus while they were alive—the chasm between luxurious wealth and abject poverty. It is a chasm we don’t really understand in spite of the fact that we are surrounded by poverty and homelessness. As real and as deep poverty in America is, the gap that separates rich from poor in the US is nothing like the gap that separates Americans from those in poverty in the third world, in countries like Haiti, for example.
Lazarus ends up in the bosom of Abraham, not in a city paved with gold. That in itself should tell us something about the values expressed in the parable, the values of Jesus and of Luke, the writer of this gospel. It’s not so much a rejection of wealth. It may be a rejection of ostentatious luxury, but not of comfort. Rather, it’s a rejection of the attitude and assumptions we all have that wealth promises security, happiness, and meaning. Lazarus was not rewarded with a mansion, a lavish lifestyle, or riches. Rather, he found himself in Abraham’s bosom. In short, he found himself in a relationship that nurtured and gave him life and meaning.
The lesson from I Timothy underscores this point. Full of ethical and moral advice, the author reminds his reader that we bring nothing into the world and we leave the world with nothing. We should be content with food and clothing. He continues with that famous admonition: “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” It is harsh language that few of us take to heart. We want financial security, especially in these uncertain times.
The parable is about relationship—the relationship between Lazarus and the rich man. It is also about how wealth can insulate us from relationship. It’s easy for us, when we encounter homeless or poor people to blame them. If only they would quit drinking, or clean themselves up and get a job. They’re just lazy, we may say to ourselves. We may be inclined to call Alder Verveer or another alder to complain about all those homeless people sleeping in doorways. We may be inclined to call the police, to take action that we don’t have to encounter homeless people on our walk from the elegant restaurant to the Overture Center, or at least we will choose a route that would make it less likely that we see them. We may want them to remain faceless, nameless, invisible.
But people experiencing homelessness are our neighbors too. They are beloved children of God with value and worth, and deserving dignity. Maybe instead of regarding them as a nuisance, or easing our consciences by giving them a few coins, we might engage them in conversation, at least ask their name. By seeing them, and treating them, as fellow humans, we begin to recognize our common humanity, the needs, hopes, and fears that we all share as children of God. We also begin to see our own vulnerability and our own dependence on God. Compassion, suffering with others, reaching out to others in love is not just our responsibility as Christians, it is also a means for us to experience God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
The parable ends with Lazarus at the side of Abraham—in the bosom of Abraham—as the old spiritual put it. The rich man was in suffering, his brothers in peril, but Lazarus was at rest, embraced in God’s love, nurtured in relationship. When we open ourselves up to that same love, and reach out in love to others, we show forth God’s grace in the world and encounter the love of the crucified one in the face of those among whom we live.