18th Sunday After Pentecost
September 26, 2010
When I was about 25 years old, I served for a very short while as a volunteer ambulance driver. My first call was for a diabetic woman who was having a diabetic reaction and needed to be taken to the hospital some 23 miles away.
When we picked her up at her house, I was taken aback by the appearance of the woman. She was immensely obese. Her clothes were soiled with food and sweat stains. Her hair was tangled and matted. She gave off a strong stench. My immediate reaction was disgust. I wanted very little contact with her. Let’s get her in the ambulance, get her to the hospital… and be done with her.
As I was generating this reaction in my head, the nurse who was with me reacted in a completely different manner. She spoke kindly and encouragingly to the woman. She touched the woman. Stroked her supportively. She stayed next to this woman the entire 23 miles… and handed her off to the hospital with the same love and care she had shown the whole way.
When we got back in the ambulance, she made no mention of the woman’s horrible, stinking state. She had only concern for her well-being. I remember thinking, “That’s what Christ looks like.”
I also no longer felt disgust for the woman, but for myself. The nurse — by her compassionate behavior — had revealed my own complete failure to be who I knew I should be. I was left to wonder: “What kind of person am I? What good am I if I can’t manage to generate compassion and kindness in a situation like that?”
Most of Christ’s parables and many of his sayings are either bewildering or unsettling. Last week’s parable (with the dishonest manger being praised by his master) definitely belongs to the bewildering category, but this week’s parable definitely belongs to the unsettling category.
Like my experience in the ambulance, it raises very unsettling questions about who I am… questions I’d rather not have to face.
Last week Jesus warned that a person cannot serve both God and wealth. This week, he seems to go even further and paints a picture of wealth itself as separation from God. He tells a parable about a rich man.
The rich man is not portrayed as evil, he simply lives according to the standards of his time and class. In other words, he lives as rich people do. He has wealth and he enjoys it. What’s wrong with that?
But as he enjoys his good fortune, he (like most affluent people) is oblivious to the suffering that is found right outside his gate. His wealth shields him from it.
The parable shows that by immersing himself in the benefits of his riches, the man built an unbridgeable gap between himself and God. One thing that is interesting is that Jesus regards this, first and foremost, not as a sin, but as a form of stupidity.
There’s no excuse for this rich man. He had the word of God — Moses and the prophets — and from these witnesses, he should have learned who God is — that God stands with the poor and oppressed. And he should have known that where God is, there should he be also. When he immersed himself in his riches; when he abandoned Lazarus (by putting up his protective gate of wealth and affluence), he abandoned God. That seems to be what this parable says about the fate of the rich man.
The name Lazarus, on the other hand, means “Helped by God.” Nothing is said about either his faith or his goodness. All we know is that he had no one but God to help him. This is an amazing point to consider.
Lazarus, upon death, is taken to paradise not because of his righteousness; not because of his faith — but because he had no one but God to help him…. That’s all he had. But then, nothing more than that is needed. The mercy and compassion of God is such that it sweeps up those who are abandoned and without hope and draws them to himself.
It’s important to understand that the point of Jesus’ parable about the rich man and Lazarus is not to provide an explanation of who goes where after death, or about the criteria which determine that. The main focus of the parable is not the afterlife at all. It’s not even the rich man or Lazarus. The focus is actually the rich man’s brothers — those still living, those hearing the story. Those who still have time, in this life, to arrange their lives in a proper way, to give their hearts to proper things. It is them, this story is actually about. It is for their benefit this story is told.
People tend to use wealth, consciously or unconsciously, to separate themselves from the ugliness of poverty. And when we do this, we act in a way that moves us away from God. This is what makes wealth so dangerous.
By American standards, I am certainly not a rich man; but in the context of the whole world community, I am, in fact, a rich man. I have what I need, and more. My reaction to the woman in the ambulance, was a rich man’s reaction. I didn’t want to see her or deal with her. I wanted her, and her problems out of my sight. In reacting that way, I moved myself away from the presence of God. That is how wealth affects a person.
Wealth tends to create a poverty of love. It causes us to become fixated on ourselves and our relationship to things. Then we become obsessed with maintaining and preserving our things. Before long we’ve built all kinds of physical, social, mental and emotional walls between ourselves and those who have nothing. And that leaves us with a community without mercy or compassion, which is an offense to God.
Jesus tells us… Jesus warns us that the natural result of wealth is separation from God. We need to hear that. He’s telling us that for our own benefit. Wealth pulls us away from God because it seperates us from the poor and the outcast… and because it leads us to believe that we can find security and fulfillment in something other than in the one who called us into existence.
Jesus also tells us that — in a way — the key to our salvation lies at our gate. In Lazarus, among the poor and desolate, who have no one but God to help them. There we can find release from the curse of wealth; because there we can discover the humanity we share with Lazarus.
In the end, the rich man was like Lazarus. His wealth — though immense — had no power to protect him and he — like Lazarus — had no one but God to help him. But the rich man did not figure that out in his lifetime. If he had opened his gate and opened his world to Lazarus, he might have.
You and I — though we more closely fit the profile of the rich man — are, in truth, like Lazarus. No matter what we have or what we can do, in the end, we have only God to save us. Wealth can separate us from the poor and outcast, but it cannot separate us from God. Like Lazarus, God has the final word over our lives.
I think the nurse in the ambulance understood that. There was no barrier of wealth separating her from the sick woman, just a sense of shared humanity that drew her to the woman in compassion and mercy. That sense of humanity, and compassion and mercy is born of God. May it be born in us.