Staring Mercy in the Eye – Br. Jim Woodrum
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When I began studying our gospel lesson for this morning, the first thing I thought of was an event from this past week that made all the major newspapers and has been circulating as a video on social media. The video is of Senator Elizabeth Warren confronting Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf about taking responsibility for fraud committed by his company who then scapegoated lower level employees.[i] Senator Warren’s examination of Mr. Stumpf was scathing and I have to confess I took a slight sadistic pleasure in seeing him wide-eyed and squirming as she fired question after question, admitting damning evidence into public record from what seemed to be this great chasm separating the two. After seeing the video, I couldn’t help but to think how lucky the rich man in our gospel lesson was to have had his interchange with Father Abraham instead of Senator Warren. While Abraham’s interaction with the wealthy man is firm, his tone is at least compassionate. To be honest, I think my curiosity was more the result of my recognition and identification with Mr. Stumpf. Throughout my life, I have at times made poor choices based on selfish motives. I too have had to face up to my shortcomings, ask forgiveness, and make reparations for harm caused to those whom I’d hurt. Perhaps you can relate.
But while this parable Jesus tells may remind us of Senate hearings or our own experience at getting caught doing something we know is wrong, there is one major difference that we might miss if we didn’t look carefully. The wealthy man in Jesus parable has committed no crime. He has not defrauded people like the tax collectors of his day. He has not gotten caught embezzling funds like the dishonest steward from last Sunday’s gospel.[ii] As a matter of fact, as far as we know, this wealthy man is an honest, upstanding citizen who happens to have the means (that he most likely earned) to have a nice home in a gated community, wear the nicest of clothes, and enjoy deliciously rich foods every day. Can we really fault him for any of that? You could say he is in effect ‘living the American dream.’ However, it’s not for any evil committed (what we would call sins of commission) that the wealthy man finds himself in proverbial ‘hot water,’ in the afterlife. Rather Jesus alludes that it is for his sins of omission, and I’ll come back to that.
Jesus explains that outside the wealthy man’s gate lay a poor man named Lazarus. Lazarus was a pitiful sight to behold, covered with oozing sores that dogs would lick, perhaps getting a taste of the bigger meal to be had once Lazarus died. We don’t know anything about Lazarus, who his family of origin was, or how he got to be in the condition that we find him in the story. All we know for sure about Lazarus is that he’s hungry. Jesus says Lazarus “longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.” Was this wealthy man aware of Lazarus laying outside his gate? Did Lazarus ever speak up and beg for alms as the wealthy man was leaving or arriving back home, calling attention to his need? Again, we don’t know because Jesus leaves out these details.
But what we can surmise from our study of scripture is that in first century Palestine (and I would add not unlike our own day) there was a tendency to distinguish yourself from other groups and castes of people. Jewish people were God’s chosen and the Gentiles were not. Certain professions were good and noble while others were considered sinful and a reflection of bad choices made in one’s life. If you were poor or sick, it was believed that God had afflicted you for either your sins or ones committed by any member of your family. If someone of an upper caste associated with any of these social outcasts, they were considered ritually unclean and not allowed in the Temple. While it may be circumstantial as it pertains to this parable, we can deduce that Lazarus was invisible to the wealthy man because he was a ‘nobody,’ not even considered human; simply food for the dogs. The Temple leaders taught that people who were like Lazarus were not even loved by God. And if you were not loved by God, you were anathema.
But it is at this point that the unexpected happens and we take note of a theme that is central to Luke’s gospel: that theme is hope. Tradition tells us that Luke was a physician. In one of the stained glass windows on my right, we see an iconic image of Luke holding a caduceus, which has sometimes been associated as a symbol of medicine. Luke’s vocation was bound up in the reversal of sickness and brokenness into wellness and wholeness, and Luke uses this theme expressly in his telling of the good news. From the start of his gospel we hear Mary, the mother of Jesus, sing a hymn of praise to God that extols the reversal of earthly roles in God’s economy. She sings: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.’ ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.’[iii]And again at the beginning of Jesus ministry, He is given a passage to read in the synagogue from Isaiah which says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus rolls up the scroll and proclaims “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”[iv]
And so this theme of reversal shows up in the parable Jesus tells. We hear that Lazarus dies and is carried away to heaven by angels where he is in the company of Abraham. And while Luke does not expressly say it, we can’t help but to picture Lazarus resting in Abraham’s bosom completely healed and made whole, fully the person God had created Lazarus to be from the beginning. For anyone listening to Jesus who had suffered like Lazarus or felt any sting of societal injustice, this was a ray of hope: that in God’s economy, wrongs would be righted and God would restore them to wellness and wholeness. And so it is for us. Everywhere we look, we can see the ills of injustice: violence, war, addiction, abuse, racism, neglect, indifference. Many of us bear the oozing wounds from these ills, carrying around burdens that have been unfairly placed on us with no help in sight. Luke’s gospel message is that in God’s economy, healing is on the way and when we put our trust in Jesus, holding out our hands and giving our burdens to Him, we will in turn be fed, salved, and nurtured back to the fullness that God has always intended for us.
But what about the wealthy man? Well he also dies and after his burial finds himself being tormented in the depths of Hades where he sees Abraham and Lazarus in heaven from across this great chasm. He begs for mercy but Abraham replies that while the man was living he received his good things but that Lazarus, who was made to suffer at human hands and never as much received a crumb of goodwill from the man’s table, was now receiving his consolation. The wealthy man was being punished for his sins of omission; for having the means and power to help, but instead choosing to look away. The chasm between them was impossible to breach. So the wealthy man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his family to warn them of the torment awaiting them if they did not change their ways. But Abraham replies that they have Moses and the prophets. If they won’t listen to them then they surely will not listen to a poor, homeless man who has risen from the dead. And that is where we’re left at the end of today’s lection. While this parable Jesus tells is good news to those who resemble Lazarus, we are hard pressed to find anything hopeful about the plight of the wealthy man who ironically has remained nameless throughout our gospel lesson.
But parables were not meant to be stories with a static interpretation but rather were supposed to be mulled over and viewed from different perspectives in order to extract a larger truth, one so big that we might not be able to notice. While the wealthy man’s fate is dismal, there is good news to be found. In the parable, when Abraham scoffs at the idea that anyone would listen to a poor, homeless man risen from the dead, you can almost imagine the twinkle in Jesus’ eye. God was indeed planning to send a poor, homeless man, risen from the dead, as a harbinger of His love and mercy, and Jesus was this man. The mercy of God was looking the Pharisees straight in the eye as Jesus alluded to his own death as the atoning sacrifice made for the world and that, through His resurrection, would bridge the great chasm between humanity and their creator, forever healing the numbing indifference that had plagued creation since mankind disobeyed the will of God whose sole intention for us was a loving relationship. And Jesus is still among us, calling us home, giving us the means to live into our vocations as children of God: to be creators, healers, teachers, reconcilers, and harbingers of God’s Kingdom here on Earth.
You don’t have to go far to see the walls of privilege here in Cambridge. Just beyond the gates of Harvard University, one of the greatest educational institutions in the world, many Lazaruses are laying on the ground, hungry and longing for just a crumb. With God’s help we have the power not only to feed them, but also to clothe and heal them. May we have the courage to open our eyes, roll up our sleeves, and engage in this vocation of love and mercy; to be wounded healers, showing the same compassion that our Savior has shown us. Amen.
[ii] Luke 16:1-13
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I like to surprise a person seeking alms on the streets with a bigger bill than expected. Then I express my gratitude as follows: “Thank you for reminding us that everyone is not fortunate. I appreciate the work you are doing!”
This passage makes me angry. I live in a downtown area and, like you, have many who live on the streets. The rich man also had had the teachings of Moses and the prophets – what impact did they have on the rich man?//Many on the street people have never had anything in their lives: born into poverty, abuse, little education, maybe parents at 15 or 16. What does the future bode for them? More of the cycle repeating itself. Yes. There are places where many may be fed and clothes, but their lives are still overwhelmingly like Lazarus. Christina
Jim, I need the word “healing” in all the aspects you mentioned. My healing is so slow from the events of 2 summers ago. And my concern regarding the events in our nation is overwhelming. Thank you.
In this sermon you have comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. I live on both sides of that coin, and I thank you for this good message.
I enjoyed your sermon, but i’d like to offer one correction. Jesus was never “homeless”. He worked throughout his life. He was born in a stable because Mary & Joseph forgot to make hotel reservations, not because they were poor.
Love what you do
Gently provocative. Thank you.
Geoff, I agree with you that Jesus was never homeless. But after He became an iterant preacher, there most likely were times He and His folloers didn’t have adequate shelter.
Also, I believe carpentry, in that time and place, was both a respectable occupation and a reasonably well paid one. I don’t know where the New Testament addresses this.
Actually Jesus claimed to be homeless. John 9:58. And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.”
Br. Jim, this is such a meaningful sermon.
One detail startled me a bit. I have never known that this Lazarus was the same one who was raised from the dead. If that was so, what a sermon he could have preached! Would he have regretted being raised? Of course, we don’t know what his station in life, financially and otherwise, was before he died. Oh, well…
I have heard countless sermons on this gospel passage. It confirms the facts of heaven and hell, I believe, and points out the changelessness of life after death. It certainly gives a picture of “the haves and the have-nots.” And should prick our consciences with the contrast. Thanks for this good sermon on a shocking parable.
What a wonderful sermon Br. Woodrum. Thank you for sharing it with us. So wonderfully written! In addition may God continue to bless yourself , and all the Brothers for their Vocation.