Missing the Point


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

July 16, 2017

Text:  Luke 16: 19-31

     All of us have this experience. We hear a story from someone and other listeners nod their heads and we do so as well to fit in but we just don’t get it. This kind of experience doesn’t just happen with jokes but when someone relates a story about a real life situation. Of course, sometimes this happens because the speaker digresses from the point of his or her story; sometimes it happens because we are obtuse to the real meaning of the story.

     The parables provide really good examples of listeners not getting the point of the story. The Gospels relate how from time to time Jesus’ disciples ask him to explain the point of a particular parable such as the sower casting seed about. In the parable of the shrewd manager we heard last week, the text in Luke goes on to say that Jesus admonished his listeners, the Pharisees in this case, telling them that God knew what was in their hearts no matter how they may have tried to appear to others through their sanctimonious behavior.

     So, just in case his listeners didn’t get it, Jesus related another parable, one that was so clear that its point could not be missed. The rich man who had lived very, very well while ignoring poor Lazarus, found the roles reversed after his death. He was now in agony and Lazarus was in the bosom of Abraham.

     This parable was a favorite for the early church fathers in their sermons. It provided not just an exhortation for giving to the poor but provided a vivid picture of the afterlife of those who were stingy. Augustine closed one of his sermons on the text with the words:  “have respect unto the poor; do good works,” and made it clear that those who did not would suffer torment after they died.

     In the telling of the story, the rich man acquired a name—Dives—which is actually the Latin word for “rich man” in Jerome’s translation of the Greek text into Latin. He was also called Nineveh, the symbol of a city of misused wealth. The text gives the poor man the name of Lazarus, a derivation of the Hebrew Eleazar, meaning “God is my help.” It is the only parable that actually uses a name for any of the characters.

     The parable was a favorite theme in medieval art in both paintings and stone carvings on cathedrals. It was also a favorite theme of the mystery plays because of its vivid description of the afterlife. Lazarus became the patron saint of lepers.

    The contrast between Lazarus and the rich man was used in literature, as in the Summoner’s Tale by Chaucer and in the socially conscious literature of nineteenth-century England and, of course, in the art of the Renaissance well into the present day.  Although the visual arts portrayed the chasm in life, music gave the Lazarus story a different twist, such as in the spiritual “Bosom of Abraham” offered slaves a promise of a life to come in spite of all their travails as slaves.

     The idea of role reversal, often phrased as “just desserts” seems to be an appealing one until we look at it more closely. The question for us becomes: who is the rich man and who is Lazarus? What do they represent to us in today’s world?

     For those of us in the global North, as it is called, the suffering of the Global South is pretty overwhelming. We get mailers and the flyers from various organizations telling us how bad it while they promise to help alleviate the suffering with our donations. Of course, the pitches include photos of starving children and abused animals. What’s particularly interesting is that a recent study of responses to such pitches indicates that photos of children who have become successful is higher than the ones with the photos of desperation.

     How many times have we passed someone on the street with a sign stating “homeless please help,” and kept on going? Are they not the Lazaruses at the door? Like the rich man, have we become so inured to the sight of the homeless and the poor that we push it off with the thought that this kind of societal problem demands a governmental solution?  How can we—how do we—balance a personal response with our understanding that solutions should be societal?

     And the same can be said for our response as Americans to the poverty we see in the world and our collusion through a combination of government policies as well as our toleration of multinational corporations that exploit the natural resources of third world countries for their own benefit.

     The problem with the Lazarus and rich man story is that it was told in a time that did not necessarily reflect the tangled relationships of government policies and multinational corporations. It did, however, reflect the social structure of ancient society in Judah. The prophets had railed against the wealthy oppressing the poor.

The gate in the parable serves as a boundary marker. In the Old Testament it was a place of judgment, the place where the elders met to adjudicate the Torah and to make decisions that affected the people. Samuel meets Saul at the gate to appoint him as a prince over the people because as the text says, the Lord declares that “I have seen the suffering of my people.”

And Amos indicts the leadership of Israel at the gate when he says:  

For I know how many are your transgressions,

    How great are your sins—

You who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, 

    Push aside the needy in the gate . . . 

And this portion of the prophet’s judgment becomes an admonition closing with:

Seek good and not evil.

    That you may live;

And so the Lord, the God of hosts will be with you,

    Just as you have said. 

Hate evil and love good,

And establish justice in the gate. . . . 

     But there is no justice here. The text does not refer to justice as a narrow concept of legal rights but as God’s righteousness that encompasses the right relationship between God and humankind which includes the rights of the poor.

     In our day we also look at the concept of justice as broader than one’s legal rights in a court or a society. We speak of environmental justice, for example, in situations where poor neighborhoods of disfavored peoples, such as First Nation peoples are exploited by corporations, such as the Ironbound in Newark or the Ramapo in northern New Jersey. Standing Rock is not the only place where this Nation abrogates treaties with our own First Nation peoples.

     We bewail the reversal of really basic protections regarding clean water with the withdrawal of surface mining dumping regulations not to mention industry’s glee at getting the EPA to back off on the Pebble Mine silt that will go into Alaska’s Bristol Bay, possibly killing off the salmon industry. But no matter, the rich drink bottled water anyway.

     Those coal miners who voted for Trump now can drink their own polluted water and wonder why their cancer rates soar. Their own short-term and narrow focus will come back to bite them as they lose black lung health benefits–just one of the many little items to be cut in the health budget.

     Justice at the gate requires that we not only face the poor personally but look beyond the immediate and consider the long term. When the rich man, who has no name here, is in Hades, which in the first century did not equate the concept of hell as it developed later, calls for mercy, he calls on Abraham to send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool his tongue and relieve his misery.

The nameless rich man recognizes Lazarus by name, making his treatment of him while alive even more despicable. Lazarus is not just some unnamed homeless person we see on the street but someone we recognize and know. The difficulty we have is in naming the nameless, the poor who live beyond our own boundaries, our own circumference of vision. When they acquire names, how then can we ignore them?

     Part of the difficulty for us in today’s world is that we often find ourselves overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of poverty and injustice. It’s much easier to respond to a particular injustice that one person faces rather than taking on the whole world. Sometimes tending our own gardens is all we can do.

     I know I find myself caught between the desire to care for the immediate and to join the fray of changing the world. It’s too easy to become a Don Quixote in spite of the lovely song about following the star. We need to do more than tilt at windmills but take a realistic, yet hopeful, approach toward the challenges that face us today.

     The challenge of the parable is how to do that. Lazarus remains at our gates both individually and societally. Discerning how to address these challenges remains an important requirement for our lives.

     As some of you know, I—and I’m not the only one here who does this—I feed the deer that come into my yard. Yes, the population has burgeoned because their natural predators no longer have their habitat—and neither do the deer. Our overbuilding continues to destroy their habitat and our environment. So, in my city, I try to make sure that areas are not clear cut while I feed the deer. It’s the same with the rest of our environmental and economic justice issues. We feed the hungry through food collection but we do not forget that there are deeper issues of poverty that face us.

     We have a state assembly and gubernatorial election in New Jersey this year. We need to hold the candidates’ feet to the fire and demand to know how they will address the questions of economic and environmental justice here in New Jersey and at the same time continue to provide the bandaids of food and financial assistance for although they are only bandaids, they do stop some of the bleeding.

Let us pray: You call us to be your people, O Lord, and to care for the poor and abused. Help us discern how best to create your kingdom of righteousness and peace as we strive to follow the One who offered us a new vision of possibilities. Amen.