Sept. 25, 2022, Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost The text is Luke 16: 19-31.
19 “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, 2 1who 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.’”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
They were called “Waiting Benches” or “Beggar’s Benches”, and they were a common sight in the ancient world. In fact, several were unearthed when the city of Pompeii was excavated; they were found outside the doors of the homes of many of the wealthy residents of this Roman-era city. And it was not unusual for the very rich in Jesus’ time to have a Beggar’s Bench installed at the gate of their luxurious houses.
These designated begging areas served a two-fold purpose. The poor and needy would have a place to wait for the wealthy to offer them alms; either leftover food directly or money with which to purchase something to eat elsewhere. And in the honor-based culture that was prevalent throughout the Roman and Hebrew world, the wealthy were afforded the opportunity to practice their charitable actions in full view of the public. Thus, the hungry were fed and the rich were seen to be generous by their neighbors. And, even though the Torah instructs the Jewish people to donate to the needy, wealthy Israelites in Jesus’ time were not above practicing their charity in a very public manner. Let’s be honest here, it all seems a bit tacky and somewhat improper that coming to the aid of someone in need would be done only if the person doing the giving did so with the expectation that they would be seen and praised for their charity.
Nonetheless, this was the prevailing social and cultural custom of the time, which makes the parable of the rich man and Lazarus all the more compelling. By not offering something from his extravagant bounty the rich man is going against social and cultural norms; not to mention he is in direct disobedience to Jewish religious Law. Note that in the parable, Jesus names the poor, hungry beggar Lazarus, and the wealthy person who ignores him is simply referred to as a rich man. In addition, there is so much more to this story; what is told and what is left unsaid. Jesus is portraying the greatest amount of difference possible in comparing the lives of these two men. We’re told the rich man feasts every day. This hints that he hosted daily banquets, not unlike the wealthy persons Jesus has told parables about previously. Such as the one who gave great feasts and neglected the hungry, while the high society guests shuffled about to find the best seats at the table. Jesus admonished this same rich man for inviting his wealthy and powerful friends to dinner, rather than extending invitations to the poor, hungry, and outcast. Or the parable of the rich man who gives a feast and has to bribe street people to come, because his wealthy friends have better things to do than accept his invitation. Yet, not even the richest of the rich feast at banquets every day; yet Jesus portrays the wealthy man in this morning’s parable as doing just that. He wants to be sure he shows the unimaginable chasm between the rich man and poor hungry Lazarus.
And to be certain that his hearers fully grasp just how rich the man is, who ends up begging Abraham to send Lazarus to him to ease his agony, Jesus clothes him in fine purple linen. Only the extremely wealthy or royalty could afford to wear clothes colored purple, since the dye itself was exorbitantly expensive. It was extracted from a species of snail found in the Mediterranean Sea, and thousands of these mollusks were required to obtain a small amount of the actual purple dye. Thus, only the very rich or those with royal ties could afford such colored clothing. Then Jesus adds an unspoken twist to the parable; note that Lazarus finds himself each day “lying” at the rich man’s gate. The Greek word hints that he was more likely “thrown” or “dumped” at the front of the gate; perhaps abandoned there by his family, hoping that either the rich man or his guests would be charitable toward him; as the culture dictated, and the Law of the Torah commanded. And by virtue of the fact that Lazarus is forced to “lay” in the dirt outside the gate, we may assume that this extravagantly rich man didn’t bother to place a beggar’s bench there to provide some dignity for Lazarus, or any others who might come to his door for help.
The chasm to which Jesus refers when describing the impassable divide between heaven and Hades after death is no less wide than the one that separates the rich man and Lazarus in life. Yet, in death the rich man seeks to have this divide crossed, as he asks Abraham to “send Lazarus” to attend to his need for water to quench his thirst, as he suffers the flames of Hades. It’s now apparent that he knew the existence of the starving Lazarus lying outside his gate covered in sores, going so far as to refer to him by name. Yet he never bothered even once to offer him the crumbs that fell from his daily banquet table. He would likely have stepped over Lazarus to enter and exit his home, and seeing him lying there in the dirt he never considered performing his civic or religious duty to come to his aid. Yes, the chasm between the rich man and the starving Lazarus was a gulf that was too great to cross. When Abraham tells him that Lazarus will not serve him in Hades he pleads to have him sent to warn his brothers, so they might not suffer the rich man’s fate. Still, after all that has happened outside his gate during his life and the impassable rift that separates him from Lazarus in death, the rich man feels he has the right to suggest that Lazarus somehow owes this service to his family.
Jesus’ intention this morning, as is true with all his parables, is to compel those he is preaching to to imagine themselves taking the place of the characters in the story. And I would suggest that he intends that his original listeners would find themselves in the role of the rich man, as Jesus strives to make them understand the great rift between rich and poor; those who feast every day and the ones who are hungry. Those who live in gated mansions clothed in royal purple and the beggars lying in the dirt outside their gates. And, as is also true, this admonition comes down the ages to us, unfiltered and undiluted; we are also commanded to acknowledge the responsibility of those who “have” toward those who “have not”.
But I think the prime lesson for us is to be certain that we, unlike the rich man in the parable, are to be aware that Lazarus exists, that the ones in dire need are all around us; and we are commanded to ensure that they are seen, even if they are invisible to us. There are no beggar’s benches set up for our hungry neighbors to place themselves, hoping that they are seen, hoping that they will not be stepped over as those with plenty sit down to feast, while the hungry yearn for crumbs. Yet the need persists, even when we’re not able to see the poor, the homeless, or the hungry. Often, they are right before us and they are invisible simply because we refuse to see them. But if we at some point come to realize that the great chasm between us and them isn’t nearly as wide as it seems; if we act in ways that narrow it, then we come to recognize that if the gap can be reduced, then it’s possible to cross it. All we need to do is ensure our eyes are fully open and that we acknowledge that we see those on the other side. For God surely sees them.
The people of Emanuel have made it clear that they do in fact see the needs of their neighbors. You have compiled and distributed “We Care” kits of basic supplies to those you have “seen” on the corner. And, you have donated over 100 shopping carts filled with groceries to those who are visible to the ones who directly distribute the food to them and their families. So, in a sense, you have “seen” these people also. And you, along with others packaged meals to feed over 17, 000 people, who like Lazarus wish only to be visible to those who have the ability and the means to provide for them. God sees them, and so do you.
But the job’s not done, the chasm has yet to be eliminated. There are still many who have yet to be seen. Many who remain invisible on the other side of the chasm, the gate, the front door. And perhaps the best way for us to ensure that all those in need are seen by the ones who have the power to aid them, is to take on the role of Lazarus in Jesus’ parable. If we remind ourselves that as wide as the chasm is between the “haves” and the “have nots”, it’s possible for any of us to quickly find ourselves on the side of Lazarus. It wouldn’t take much to send anyone over the chasm, to find that we are now the ones struggling to be seen, to be the recipients of the charity of others. Perhaps our eyes might be more widely opened if we acknowledge that our lot in life isn’t that far removed from those who we seek to help. We may be more inclined to step up our church’s mission and ministry if we envision ourselves occasionally sitting on the waiting bench, and wondering if we too, are seen. Martin Luther surely engaged in this exercise, as he put himself in the place of those who were otherwise invisible in the world. His last words were, “We are all beggars; this is true”. He was right, we are all beggars. We plead for the grace, mercy, and forgiveness of God. And we are commanded to share our blessings with those who find themselves begging only to be seen. Let us always “see” our fellow beggars, the ones who sit on the bench beside us.
Will you pray with me? Good, and gracious, and holy God, help us to remember that we are all beggars, that we are in constant need of your love and mercy. Open our eyes that we may see the needs of others, and to remember that no matter how wide the chasm that separates us, we are still brothers and sisters. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One who calls us to always strive to narrow the space that keeps us from those in need. Amen.
God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good.