Misery, Money & Me
On Thursday I went to drop Maisy off at daycare, which is located in the student housing area of Luther Seminary. Thirty children line up under the awning near the front door to catch the bus every morning. This particular morning it was raining, and there were two police cars pulled up to the sidewalk, the officers talking to someone in the middle of the swirling, noisy crowd of children.
I took Maisy inside and when I came out I heard from a parent that the police were trying to “move someone along.” This man had been storing his bike near the dumpsters, and had been spotted earlier that morning in the seminary library – conspicuously not reading, which raised suspicion, and someone called the police. So while the children waited for their bus, they witnessed the police intervening on this vagrant who had been seeking somewhere dry to pass the time.
Now, this sort of thing really messes with us Christians. On the one hand, we don’t want homeless people hanging around our kids waiting for the bus. We want security and order where we live, so if we were being honest, at least some part of us would say we were glad for the police intervention here (someone from the seminary did call them, after all).
But we can’t just stop at that, our faith has something to say about it too. We feel conflicted, torn, we stand around and wonder aloud if there is somewhere he could go, if there was some policy the seminary should have when this happens. “We are a Christian institution, after all.” one dad said.
It’s one thing to send money to people over there, but it gets a lot messier when they’re dumped right on your doorstep.
In our story, Lazarus, the pitiful poor guy, is right there, blocking the way even, every time the obscenely rich man comes in and out of his house.
So I guess he was supposed to take care of him. I guess what we’re supposed to get from this parable is that we should take care of the poor or else we may find ourselves in trouble. The rich man clearly did not do the right thing.
But what is the right thing? Giving money you know will be used on alcohol or drugs? Not giving money because you can’t trust how it will be used? Putting yourself or your family at risk for a stranger?
And the one poor person dumped on our very own doorstep is nothing when we let ourselves consider the vast numbers of people living in poverty in our own city, our own state, nation – to say nothing of the world, of the war torn places of starvation and suffering beyond our wildest imaginations, poverty we couldn’t even begin to fathom.
It is absolutely paralyzing, really, and we can feel incredibly overwhelmed if we let ourselves. We want to do the right thing, we want to be good people, we want to make a difference, we care, but what is the balance? How do you live a life that includes vacations and Starbucks, bus stops and birthdays when so many people are suffering?
So, if you can’t do enough, which nobody really can, after all, then at least feel really guilty when you do anything extravagant.
We had a song we use to sing in my deeply ironic family that went: “Happy Birthday, ugh. Happy Birthday, ugh. Misery and despair, people starving everywhere. Happy Birthday, ugh. Happy Birthday ugh.” Maybe that is the right Christian attitude. If we can’t bring ourselves to let the rainsoaked stranger inside our own homes or libraries, at least we can feel really torn up and conflicted about calling the police on him…
Life isn’t fair. It is horribly unfair, and everything we do, practically, participates in this unfair system. My cell phone has some kind of metal in it mined by children working and dying in some African country for pennies a day, My coffee was grown on land cleared out from destroyed rainforests by people unable to use their own fields for food crops because they make more growing coffee for rich Americans to drink than they would growing things that could actually feed their families. My clothing was probably sewn by a child in China.
I am practically personally filling landfills with pull-ups and disposable cups, and I drive every single day past someone with a cardboard sign and struggle to make eye contact and wonder if today I should give change or not.
I waste so much, and I take so much for granted, I ignore so much of what is going on in places outside my own daily grind, and the thought of learning to be conscious of my impact and eliminating my carbon footprint and buying sweat-free, fair-trade, local, organic, give-back and green makes me bone weary and so defeated.
And it makes me feel really really guilty.
And this parable just seems to heap the coals on.
There is a chasm between the rich man and Lazarus. As small as a doorstep or an automatic fence, but a chasm nevertheless. And for whatever reason in the universe where these perverse and unfair things happen, one was rich and the other was poor, and no amount of crumb sharing or brow beating was going to ultimately change that.... Just as there is a chasm between me and Haitians living in tent cities, an impossible and vicious divide.
This parable then follows the rich man and Lazarus past this realm and into the next. Now, in death, after their alienated but adjacent lives, there is a chasm that they can see with their eyes, an impossible, impassible separation. The rich man is on one side of the divide and Lazarus is on the other and the gap between them is expansive indeed.
When the rich man looks up from his torment and sees Lazarus resting in comfort, he begs that Abraham send Lazarus to help him.
As one person has said, “he asks for mercy, not forgiveness, he asks for water, not for life.” He still, even in the torments of Hades, does not get it. Dude, it’s OVER for you. You HAD your chance and you blew it. Don’t you even get it YET? You were no more deserving of your wealth than he was of his poverty. And that chasm you reinforced between you and this beggar on your doorstep, it’s real now, how does it feel to be on the other side of it?
And if you don’t feel the impossibility within this story by now, you’re not listening. Because unless you are poor, unless you’re Lazarus with the sores and the starvation and the food just outside of reach, unless you’re in dire straits, or Darfur, chances are, the character that’s YOU in this story is the rich man.
And Lazarus? Divine justice looks after Lazarus – the only person, ever, in one of Jesus’ parables to be named, and his name means “God helps”. GOD helps him. God has got his back. God makes sure that in the end Lazarus is ok.
But what of this great chasm? What of this impossible divide, and the nameless rich man, now forever thirsty, and his five brothers back in life doomed to inherit his fate?
What of us?
“Your brothers wont believe, wont change their ways, even if someone comes back from the dead.” Abraham tells the rich man. Jesus tells his disciples.
Even if someone comes back from the dead, it wont convince them that this life is fleeting, that what we’ve been given by the luck of the draw is meant to be shared, that we are, in some way, responsible for, or at least connected to, one another, that God’s grace is what holds us all in the end. They wouldn’t believe when the prophets warned them and the law told them, and they wont believe even if someone who died came back.
But the truth is this: we do know someone who has come back from the dead. And we do believe him.
We believe him when he says he is making all things new. We believe him when he says the poor will not always be poor and riches will pass away. We believe him when he dumps over the tables of the moneychangers in the temple and says “You come to God because God makes a way, not because you earn it or buy it or deserve it. Because you need it. And you all need it.” We all need it. We need a way across the chasm that separates us from God and each other. The impossibility that paralyzes and blinds us every day.
We do know and believe someone who came back from the dead, and what he said was “Repent, the kingdom of heaven is near. It’s peeking through even now. Feed the hungry, clothe the poor, love the outcast… When you do these things for one another, you do them to me.”
The kingdom of God makes you see people differently.
The rich man is not in trouble for being wealthy. He’s not answerable for all the other poor people in his village, or country. He is where he is in this story because he did not see the one right in his path.
He is in trouble for thinking he is the center of the story. He is in trouble for not seeing.
Two individuals living side-by-side, day in and day out. Lazarus was placed on his very doorstep and he did not see him. And even after death, he still does not see Lazarus as anything but a subordinate in his own story, someone who can do something for him, who SHOULD do something for him.
Lazarus is not an underling meant to prop up this man’s life. He is not a backdrop to be ignored, or a burden to be avoided. He is a person. He is known to God; he belongs to God. And he’s a fellow human being, no different than the rich man himself.
This is the rich man’s great sin. He does not see Lazarus’ humanity, or his own.
The kingdom of God is at hand. Where the hungry are fed. and the brokenhearted are comforted. and the meek inherit the earth. and mercy and peace are the order of the day. Where people are seen and known and we are part of the greater whole. We’re talking about God’s kingdom, not our’s. And it is right here, reach out and touch it, dip your toe in and test it out.
The world is filled with unfairness and evil, and when we see it we bear the injustice of it, the grief of it, we weep for it and we do what you can. And we also live our lives, which are a gift, as all life is a gift. We live our lives in gratitude and in openness to the ways God might be calling us to join in this kingdom unfolding, this newness weaving its way through reality.
It doesn’t solve the moral dilemmas or make things easy for us. And what we do with our money does matter. It matters. It says something about what matters to us, and it really can affect other people in small and in really big ways. But, as Paul says, “If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. I am nothing.”
If I do all that I can with everything I have to make the world a better place, because it is the right thing, or because I feel obligated or sad about the world’s problems, if I do it so that I learn and grow, or so that my children will have a better world to live in, or so that the principles of justice and equality will stand... All these things are good things and good reasons, but if any of them are my reasons for doing good things I will inevitably, one day, either give up, or burn out in defeat, or break down in despair or shut out the world’s problems and focus only on myself.
I will miss the whole point because I am still the center of the story, I am the primary actor and the world is my stage, the others are in it are not fellow human beings but my duty to care for, a project to fix or a crisis to solve.
But Lazarus had a name and the rich man did not.
This is God’s world, not ours. And it is filled with people with hurts and hopes and needs and joys, here sharing life with each other, people whose humanity calls out my own and together we reflect the image of God.
To hear the message of Jesus’ parable, the words of the dead and risen one, we must See Lazarus. The named ones, the ones God knows and sees. We must live from our shared humanity. We are mutual recipients of grace, sharers of grace and participants in God’s unfolding promise.
So may we see. May we we live joyfully and participate freely in the ways God’s love is making all things new, both far away and right on our own doorstep.
Loving God, we repent for our apathy. for our fear. for being paralyzed by guilt and overwhelmed by the sadness of it all. We repent for thinking it is hopeless. And we repent for thinking it is all up to us. For thinking we are the somehow the center of the story and what we do can make or break the whole narrative. Help us to trust you. Help us to see the people you put in our path, to recognize our common humanity, and to share what we have with one another and the world that you are redeeming. Thank you for your grace that holds us all, now and forever. Amen.