Our gospel passage today is another of Luke’s parables. The characters are Lazarus, a rich man, and Abraham, forefather of the Old Testament. The parable is addressed to the Pharisees as part of Jesus’ long winding journey to Jerusalem. Up to this point the Pharisees have been eavesdropping on his conversation with the disciples. Jesus has just told the parable of the dishonest manager stressing that no one can “serve God and wealth.” Now Jesus tells this open-ended parable about the rich man and Lazarus. Readers are left to draw their own conclusions about how they should live. And as usual Jesus tells a shocking story.
“There was a rich man” said Jesus, “who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat whatever fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
“The time came when the beggar died, and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, the rich man looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So, he called to him, “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.
“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you had good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted and you are in agony.”
After death there was a reversal. Suddenly Lazarus is in heaven and the unnamed rich man is in hell.
This is the kind of parable that might keep us awake at night because compared to most of the people in the world, we are quite rich. And we often don’t see or notice those who are less fortunate.
Biblical scholar William Barclays calls this passage, “The Punishment of the Man Who Never Noticed.” He asks if we have ever noticed how often Jesus talked about the poor and down trodden.
The gospel of Matthew says, ” For I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was as stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothing and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.
“They will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes, or sick in prison, and did not help you?”
“He will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’” (Matthew 25:42-45).
We too might call this parable the punishment of the people who never noticed or the way we ignore those who are right in front of us.
Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, remembered that before they were married, she was working at University Settlement in New York City. Franklin called for her there late one afternoon. She wasn’t ready because there was a sick child at the Settlement, and she had to see that the child was taken home. Franklin said he would go with her.
They took the child to an area not far away and Franklin went with her up the three flights to the tenement rooms in which the family lived. It was not a pleasant place and Franklin Roosevelt looked around in surprise and horror. It was the first time that he had ever seen a slum. When he got back to the street, he drew a deep breath of fresh air. “My God,” he whispered, “I didn’t know people lived like that!”(Leonard &Thelma Spinrad, Speaker’s Lifetime Library (Paramus, NJ: Revised and Expanded, 1997), p. 228.
Obviously, that experience had an enormous impact on the man who would be our longest serving president. But he’s not alone. Most of us are unaware of what situations others are going through.
The rich man in this parable, of course is not alone, or Jesus would not have told this story. All over the world, in every generation, people turn a blind eye to the situations of others who are less fortunate that we are.
Interestingly, Lazarus is is named by Jesus, and but the name of the man who ignored him is not. The poor man is given a name, the rich man is anonymous. It shows the difference between being known and honored by God and not being known by God. The name Lazarus means “God is my Help or Helper.
“By naming Lazarus and not the rich man, Jesus’ story differentiates the difference between worldly status and spiritual status. A teacher asked her students to name some rich people in our society. They said names like Bill Gates, Oprah, and Michael Jordan. Then she asked them to name some people in town who are homeless. The students said, “that guy who camps out behind the shopping center,” “that crazy lady who asks for change in the park.” The teacher said, “We all understood what Jesus was saying: God cares about everybody, even and especially those that society would rather not notice and definitely not name. God noticed Lazarus and cared about him.
God also noticed the actions of the rich man who refused to notice the poor man at his gate. Luke tells us, “The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment the rich man looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So, he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in after to cool my tongue.’ (It sounds crazy to me that the rich man even after death thinks Lazarus should serve him). But Father Abraham replies, “son, remember that in your lifetime you received the good things while Lazarus got the bad things, but now he is comforted, and you are in agony. Their situations were reversed in this story of the afterlife.
In the story, why do you suppose the rich man was in hell? Why did God deal with him so harshly? There was no glaring sin. He was not cruel, as far as we know. He never drove Lazarus away. He was not a monster and may well have been an upright citizen. He was highly esteemed. So, what was his sin? It was the sin of not noticing.
How often do you and I take time to notice the people around us, their needs, their concerns? Not just the homeless people asking for handouts, but the lonely senior citizen, the young mother in the grocery story, the unemployed guy looking for worK. How often do we notice the person who just got bad news from the doctor, the person who is lonely, the person who is depressed, the person fighting mental illness or addiction.
It is a sin that afflicts all of us to one degree or another, yet we rarely talk about it. It is the sin of self-absorption. It is the sin of being so preoccupied with our own cares and concerns that we give no thought to the problems of those around us.
Professor Robert Wuthnow once conducted some research about why some people are generous and compassionate, while others are not. He found put that many compassionate people at some point in their lives had someone act with compassion toward them. This experience of having someone show compassion toward them transformed their lives.
For example, Wuthnow tells the story of Jack Casey. “All I ever learned from my fathers is I didn’t want to be like him,” Jack Casey once said. He was raised in a tough home. His father was an alcoholic. But something happened to Jack when he was a child that changed his life. Jack needed to have surgery and was terrified. But there was a nurse who remained at his side, holding his hand reassuring him that everything would be okay. “I’ll be right here, no matter what,” she told him. And she kept her word; she was there and greeted him with a smile the moment he opened his eyes.
Years later, Jack became a paramedic and he was called to the scene of an accident. A man was pinned upside down in his pickup. Jack did his best to free the trapped man’s even as gasoline dripped down on them. The man was afraid that he was going to die as the rescuers worked to free him. One spark and the whole scene would go up in flames.
Jack remembered back to that time when he was a child and the nurse who never left. He took the man’s hands and squeezed them as he said, “Don’t worry! I’m right here with you! I’m not going anywhere!”
Days after the rescue, the two men embraced as the driver said to Jack, “You know, you were crazy to stay there with me. We both could’ve died.”
Jack smiled. “I just couldn’t leave you,” Jack said. (Rev. Thomas Long. Http://day1.org/1051 meeting the Good Samaritan.)
Here is the point of today’s message. There was a time, spiritually, when each of us was a beggar lying at the gate, totally helpless, and Christ noticed us, and Christ loved us just as we are. As we remember that truth, that compassion, and that grace, Christ calls us to look around and see someone who needs our attention, our compassion, our love. And what the research shows is that this person might just remember our generous attention when he or she is in the position to help someone else. And so that original act of kindness and love is extended perhaps forever. But you can’t be part of this chain of love if you never take the time to look beyond your own cares and concerns. Don’t be like the rich man who will be forever remembered as the person who refused to notice. Look around you today, to someone who needs your love. Amen.