Some years ago, before the death of Mother Theresa, a television special depicted the grim human conditions that were a part of her daily life. It showed all the horror of the slums of Calcutta and her love for these destitute people. The producer interviewed her as she made her rounds visiting the people she cared for.
Throughout the program as you would expect, commercials interrupted the flow of the TV show. Someone cataloged the topics in each segment of the special on Mother Theresa, and then recorded the commercials that immediately followed each segment. The progression went like this:
- First, was a segment on Mother Theresa caring for those with leprosy…followed by a commercial for bikinis.
- Mother Theresa with victims of mass starvation…followed by commercials for designer jeans.
- Stories of agonizing poverty in India…followed by commercials for fur coats.
- Stories of abandoned babies followed by ads for ice cream sundaes.
- Mother Theresa comforting the dying…followed by a commercial for diamond watches.
The irony of this comparison was so apparent. It was a kind of social and spiritual whiplash. Two very different worlds were on display; the world of the poor and the world of the affluent. All in a one-hour TV special.
The world in which we live…the media…the culture…makes it seem “normal,” even desirable, to live like the Rich Man in Jesus’ parable of Lazarus. We occasionally see images of the poor at our gate, but we are immediately reminded of the next car we ought to buy and the next meal we should eat.
We are slowly and methodically being told it is OK to live a life of luxury while others live a life of poverty, until we are numbed to it.
Now let me be clear…the point of Jesus’ parable here today is not simply to beat up on people who have wealth. But, Jesus, in our parable, is talking about the kind of wealth that divides people… wealth that carries a human cost…it is wealth that blinds us from noticing the need that surrounds us.
Jesus tells this story of a very rich man, dressed in fine, purple robes. We don’t know his name, but Jesus says that every day, the man “feasted sumptuously.” Jesus is painting a picture here of a man of great wealth, who wants the world to know that he has great wealth, and who isn’t afraid to spend to the point of waste. This man is in the top 1%, of the top 1%, of the top 1%.
This description is contrasted by the image he draws of Lazarus. Lazarus is poor. Seriously poor. And he is hungry. Lazarus sits on a bench, outside the rich man’s home, waiting for him to walk by, hoping upon hope that the man would give him some of his pocket change…or maybe a few scraps from his table.
Day and night, Lazarus sat on that bench. He is weak. He can barely walk. The mangy street dogs come and walk past, almost like they expect him to die. Lazarus is too weak and exhausted to shoo them away. And the rich man comes and goes, walking right past Lazarus. It is a sad sight.
Except here’s the thing: I don’t think the rich man was ignoring Lazarus. Ignoring someone actually takes effort. The rich man; he doesn’t even see Lazarus. He doesn’t even notice him. And if, somehow, he does see Lazarus, he doesn’t see him for who he is. He doesn’t see Lazarus as a human, in need of care. He doesn’t see Lazarus as an opportunity for the rich man to practice compassion.
Eventually, both men die. And to his surprise, the rich man finds himself having been sent to Hades, which in Jewish tradition, is the place of the dead. It is a place of flames, of suffering, and pain, and no rest.
And the rich man looks up. And in the distance, he sees Lazarus, this poor man, who is being held and cared for by Abraham. To be with Abraham after death is the opposite of Hades. It was a place of reward. It meant that you had led a righteous life.
And the rich man knows what he wants. He wants to be where Lazarus is. And so the rich man calls out to Abraham, and they go back and forth, the rich man finally asking Abraham for just a taste of the cool water that Lazarus is enjoying. And Abraham denies his request. “During your lifetime, you’ve received your good things. Lazarus never had that chance. It’s his turn. And it’s your turn to suffer.”
Now, to be clear, Jesus didn’t intend this parable to be a literal description of what happens to people when they die. And Jesus isn’t teaching that it’s only by doing good things that you can get into heaven and avoid Hades.
Jesus is reminding those who hear the parables, that the whole point of God’s law is to practice compassion, and to take care of those in need.
The whole point of following Jesus is to notice. Let me say that again: The whole point of following Jesus is to notice.
I will admit, I am not always a noticer.
When Lori and I bought our first home together in Maple Grove, we lived near what a lot of people called “The Purple House.” The back of our home looked out over a small city park, with a single softball field and a small playground. Across the park was “The purple house.” But it wasn’t just purple. Each side of the house had its own color. The front was purple. The right side of the house was bright yellow. The back of the house was blue and the last side of the house was a kind of a maroon.
The decorative motif of the home was…shall we say…unique. And every day, when I drove to or from work, I’d see the purple house.
Until I stopped seeing it. Has that every happened to you? When you do something…see something…so often, that you forget to see it? I remember one day, several years later, after I’d driven out of our neighborhood, wondering “did I see the purple house? Is it still there? Is it still purple?” I’d become so accustomed to it that I’d quit noticing it.
I fear sometimes that I turn the same kind of blind eye to the need around me. I fear that I see so much poverty, or pain, or sickness, or racism, or sadness, or anxiety, or homelessness, or hunger…that I quit seeing it. I fear that I quit noticing. I think that is what Jesus is talking about in our parable today.
Because Jesus knows, that if we don’t see, we won’t act. If we don’t see, we won’t care.
Remember what I said before: The whole focus of God’s law is for us to practice compassion…to take care of those in need…those on the margins. In this parable, Jesus is calling us to open our eyes and to see the things that God sees, and to help in the way God helps…in fact, beyond that, it is for us to become the way that God helps. It is God’s work. But it is our hands.
Remember that God always notices the ones who are sitting on that bench, like Lazarus was. God sees the one who doesn’t have a home, the one who doesn’t belong. God notices those who are oppressed, sick or in need. God never, ever simply drives by, and gets to the next stoplight, and wonders, “You know, did I just pass by someone who the world seems to have forgotten?” God notices.
At some level, aren’t we all on that bench? Aren’t we all in need? In need of love and grace? This is what Jesus gives to you and me.
You and I…we may miss things. We may miss the family who just lost a loved one and who is sad. Or we may miss the person who is struggling with addiction, and the shame it has brought them. We may miss the person who is anxious, and who isn’t sure they can do what they need to do. We may miss the person by the side of the road looking for help. But God doesn’t miss them.
Let me tell you about Stephanie. (that’s not her real name, by the way). Stephanie is a young woman from Owatonna who was the victim of domestic violence. She came to Trinity about a month ago because the Crisis Resource Center told her that we have showers that we make available to those in need. This happens all the time. But Jolayne, Trinity’s Director of Outreach, noticed something in Stephanie. Something else. She noticed a pain that caused her to withdraw. She noticed that Stephanie didn’t have much. She noticed that Stephanie didn’t explain much. She noticed that Stephanie was exhausted. Finally, Jolayne just flat-out asked Stephanie “are you sleeping in your car?” Stephanie nodded. She had been. Every night. Right here in our church parking lot.
Jolayne connected Stephanie with shelter…and then with food…and with a listening ear and a compassionate heart.
Figuratively speaking, Stephanie was sitting on the bench, outside the church, waiting, hoping for something. Pocket change. Scraps. And Jolayne noticed and supported her until Stephanie could get back into school and into an apartment, where she is today.
God noticed Stephanie, and God did so through Jolayne.
And God wants you to notice…to open your eyes and to look around. Jesus’ parable reminds you today that you…and all of us…are on this journey of grace to see the ones God sees and to help the ones God helps. As you open your eyes to notice, remember that you notice because God first noticed you. God noticed. You. And God went to the cross. For you.
God, as we follow, we pray for the wisdom to notice, and to care, to feed, to comfort…to love…all in Jesus’ name.
Thanks be to God!