“When Seeing Hurts”

September 25, 2022

Luke 16:19–31

‘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.” ’ ***

It hurts to see what God wants us to see.

A week ago, I stopped to fill up the gas tank and as I stood as the pump, I noticed a man under a tree in the corner of the lot sitting on a rolled up sleeping bag. He held a sign. It said, “Vet. Homeless and hungry. Will you help? God bless.” Cars and trucks drove past him without stopping. I drove away trying to ignore the man as well as my long standing personal mental debate over whether it is good or bad social policy to give cash to beggars.

True to God’s timing or sense of humor, this week’s gospel, the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus reminded me of the homeless man under the tree. I began to wonder. Was he Lazarus? Am I the rich man? Will he one day be comforted in the bosom of Abraham while I am in torment? I don’t really think that is what this parable is saying, but I confess I did choose not to see what was right in front of me that day.

In this parable, the unnamed “rich man” chooses not to see what is right in front of him. Dressed in purple and fine linen, he “feasts sumptuously every day,” living in stark contrast to hungry Lazarus covered in sores, languishing at the rich man’s gate. Though Lazarus is perfectly visible as he longs to gather even a crumb from the rich man’s dining table — the rich man neither acknowledges Lazarus’s presence, nor alleviates his suffering. Even the man’s dogs who come and lick his sores show the poor man more compassion than his wealthy human counterpart.

Eventually, both men die. Lazarus is “carried away by the angels to be with Abraham,” while the rich man ends up in Hades, where the hot flames leave him parched and desperate. In a perfect reversal of his earthly circumstances, the rich man looks up and sees Abraham and Lazarus “far away,” enjoying every comfort.

So, he asks “Father Abraham” to send Lazarus over with some cool water to soothe his burning tongue, or barring that, to send Lazarus as a messenger to his wealthy brothers, who are still alive on earth. “Let Lazarus warn them,” he pleads, so that they will change their ways before it is too late.

Abraham refuses both requests. The chasm separating Lazarus from the rich man is fixed — no one can cross over. And the brothers? “They have Moses and the prophets” and everything they need in order to go in the right direction. If they won’t listen to the wisdom already embedded within their spiritual tradition, Abraham says, “even someone rising from the dead will not convince them.”

Needless to say, this is a grim, almost dire story. Yet, it presents an urgency which has value for us. This parable does not mince words about what’s at stake. It does not pretend that our years are limitless and our options infinite. This is a story about time running short, options slimming and alternatives closing down. This is a story for us.

Many preachers have explained this parable to be about wealth. Jesus has a great deal to say about wealth in the Gospels, and none of it is pretty. Yet, thanks to noticing the homeless vet under the tree by the gas station, I read this parable to be not about wealth, but the danger Jesus identifies in the pursuit of material comforts and riches. It is the danger of blindness. In our own pursuits for security and comfort, comes the danger of blindness to human need and suffering.

It is difficult to believe that the rich man never notices Lazarus. Surely, he had to manage not to trip over Lazarus each time he left his house. On occasion he tosses Lazarus the occasional coin and agonizes over whether it is good policy to give cash to beggars. Maybe he theorizes about “what kind of poor” Lazarus is — lazy poor or deserving poor? Maybe the rich man’s mental deliberations include pondering whether Lazarus is down on his luck or just a drunk; truly sick, or pretending? Maybe the rich man says a prayer for Lazarus on the Sabbath. Maybe, when he is with friends of his strata, he brings up “the poor,” and they have an appropriately abstract conversation about “the problem of the poor” over dinner.

The problem is none of this is the seeing Jesus calls us to. To see as Jesus sees is to put aside all questions of worthiness. To see as Jesus sees is to open ourselves fully in the stories of other people’s hunger, illness, despair and hopelessness.

In order to see Lazarus, the rich man needs to recognize his own complicity in the poor man’s suffering. He needs to admit that he has enough. More than enough. More than enough to share and the lack thereof is directly responsible for Lazarus’s poverty. Maybe the rich man needs to grasp that his inability to seethe, grieve, even rage over the conditions of the poor man’s circumstances is a fatal sign of his own impoverishment. An impoverishment so total, no amount of linen, purple cloth, or fancy food can remedy it.

This is radical seeing. It is the bold, courageous, and sacrificial seeing that scares us to death — precisely because it asks so much of us. It asks everything of us, and well, good grief, who among us signed up for everything?

What is amazing about this parable is how much it takes for granted. The story presumes that Lazarus is righteous and the rich man is not. The story dignifies the poor man with a name while the wealthy one remains nameless. The story leaves no doubt in our minds that the rich man’s lifestyle is directly to blame for Lazarus’s hunger. In every single way, Jesus reverses the hierarchies we live by.

But here is the scariest part of the story for me: even after death, the rich man fails to see Lazarus. Privilege just clings to him — even in Hades! Though he piously calls on “Father” Abraham, he refuses to see Lazarus as anything other than an errand boy: “Bring me water.” “Go warn my brothers.” No wonder Abraham tells him that the “chasm” separating the two realms is too great to cross. Let’s be clear: God is not the one who builds the chasm. We do that all by ourselves.

So, how does this parable come to us today in middle class America where we do not have to beg for food, shelter, clothing, anything at all?

I suspect that many people hold the notion that material comfort is a sign of God’s blessing. This idea of comfort being a sign of “blessing” is insidious. It is contrary to Jesus’s teachings. It insulates us from human suffering and isolates to a life of superficiality, thin piety, and meaninglessness. Then where does this leave those like Lazarus in dire need of help?

The second lesson assigned to complement this parable today is from 1 Timothy 6:6–19. It is worth a read. Here’s vs 17–19:

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

To not see our own privilege and forego seeing the burdens of those who have less, is a refusal “to take hold of the life that really is life.”

I have learned from going to places in the world far off the usual tourist path is that seeing incredible poverty, hunger, suffering and hopelessness hurts. It hurts to put eyes on the squalor and depravity where people exist in this human family of ours and then return home to the comforts and feast-like life I enjoy. It hurts to see the homeless vet holding the sign under the tree and face the truth of my own complicity in the chasms that are so prominent in this world.

Perhaps this is why Jesus crosses over the chasms repeatedly, offering us a way forward, seeing the way of servanthood, selflessness and sacrifice. Or to use His own words: A way of losing our lives in order to gain them.

We have Moses. We have the prophets. We have this parable. We have the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Like the rich man in the parable, we have everything we need in order to repent/go in a new direction, find grace, and provide healing and help to the world. And this means we are without excuse to be inside the gate, not seeing Lazarus nearby and the Christ-like opportunities to respond in faithful and grace-giving ways.

Images: 1) www.stireneorthodoxmission.org 2) The Danger of Wealth by James Janknegt 3)Churchoftheholyfamily.org

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Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.