By William L. Turner
Monday, September 01, 1997
It's the stories we remember ... the stories from history, from our families, from the Bible, from the ministry of Jesus. Long after they've forgotten my sermons, people will say, "I remember a story you told one Sunday...."
Our lives and our values and our convictions get shaped by the stories we believe ... probably because they have the sound and feel of life and reality about them. We can identify with them. In my lifetime, I've been, at different times, the prodigal son, the older brother, and the waiting father. So have many of you. You've been the man in the ditch, the busy priest and Levite, and, hopefully, the Good Samaritan -- in various circumstances. So have I. Then, there's this story about Lazarus and the rich man. I don't have a single purple and linen outfit, but I'm the rich man all right, compared to three-fourths of the world. I don't eat gourmet foods every day, and I'm a glutton just every now and then ... but I live in luxury, compared to three-fourths of the world.
The season of Thanksgiving tells me I'm also Lazarus, the beggar at the gate. The grace of God is the only way I can explain the blessings which are part of my life -- not material blessings, but the gifts of love and friendship and family and salvation and church and heaven. Without the grace of God, if I'm a billionaire, I'm still poverty-stricken. My name is Lazarus.
But we have the grace of God, and we have also a large share of this world's goods -- so the person in this story we most need to pay attention to is the rich man. I doubt that Jesus told it to cheer up the poor. I think He told it mainly to help people with means to see themselves more clearly -- and to make some changes in their lives. So it's not the most comfortable story Jesus ever told, mostly because it confronts us with some painful details.
For one thing, Lazarus has a name; the rich man doesn't. Now, down the years when the church began to speak Latin, they gave him a name -- Dives, meaning "rich." But Jesus only names one person: Lazarus -- and this is the only story in the teachings of Jesus where one of the characters is given a name. Lazarus means "God helps," and that's what the Bible says consistently about the poor. God cares about them, helps them. In the Bible, God sides with those in need. Making the beggar a man with a name and leaving the rich man nameless turns the world's standard on its ear! In our world, the wealthy have names -- Getty, Rockfeller, Hunt, Vanderbilt -- and the poor are anonymous and faceless. If this story tells us how Jesus looks at things, the name Lazarus may surprise us, if not disturb us.
Both men died ... they always do, though we expect it more of the hungry beggar. He's defenseless even against the dogs who roam the streets, let alone the diseases which come from malnutrition. The rich man had plenty to eat, warm clothes to wear, and probably the finest physician in town at his beck and call. But death is the great equalizer. It laughs at our divisions based on wealth or breeding or status.
Another troubling detail: one man went to hell, while the other didn't. "Abraham's bosom" or "side" here may mean heaven, or God's presence, or just a way of saying that Lazarus was united with the father of the Hebrew people -- that he, too, is one of the chosen despite the discrepancies of his hunger and his poverty.
So there's no way to see poverty as God's judgment or riches as God's blessing as you read this story. Two hundred years ago, they were singing a hymn which said:
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.
Nonsense! We know better than that!
The nameless man doesn't end up with Abraham, but in hell. This is one place in the New Testament where the word Hades obviously means "hell" -- a place of agony and accountability. At other times, it means "Sheol" -- the place of the dead.
But there he is, in hell, and there's a "chasm." Now, what's that -- a distance between heaven and hell? Or is it a chasm dug by the rich man? All his days he's distanced himself from Lazarus and his kind, and now he's got permanent distance -- not only from Lazarus, but from God.
One final detail that's disturbing. Abraham won't let Lazarus go back to warn his father and his brothers. "Something sensational -- something supernatural -- like a visit from the other side of death would cause them to change their lives."
"No," says Abraham. "If they can live in the midst of hunger and need and not do what's right, supernatural intervention won't help."
Now Jesus is not Charles Dickens. Dickens had Scrooge change his life after Christmas Eve visits from the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. It's a wonderful story, with a happy ending. We love it. But in real life the sins of callousness usually don't have happy endings. Jesus is more honest than Dickens. The problem with the rich man is not that he does not have the data -- he's got plenty: Moses, the prophets, and human need. That's a Hebrew way of saying that all a person needs to be accountable to God is an open Bible and human need.
So it's a story that bothers us, but it's here on the lips of Jesus, and it won't go away. I bring it to our attention today because it's time again to think about world hunger. The Sunday before Thanksgiving is about as apt a time on our calendars as I can imagine to weigh afresh our response to the beggars at our gate -- in the American city, in the pockets of rural poverty, in the countries of the Third World, and in refugee camps where war and famine have driven people together.
These are the people -- about one-fourth of the world's population -- who live on twenty-seven cents a day. They are Lazarus ... we are the rich man. And Jesus' story is a warning against two things in us.
The first is apathy. In this parable, there is no contact at all between these two men -- and there's the rub. The rich man had resources to help, but he didn't care. His sin is not that he caused Lazarus' hunger, or that he kicked him as he walked through the gate every day, or that he mistreated him in any way. His sin is not that he did bad things to Lazarus but that he did nothing. He goes to hell, not because of crimes against the poor, hungry man but because he just didn't care.
This guy is what I'd call a "practical atheist." He's upstanding, moral, faithfully attends the services of the Temple but doesn't make any connection between his proposed faith in God and the practical realities of daily life -- like human need. There's an old Jewish saying that a man is poor indeed who doesn't have a guest at his table. Poverty of spirit can keep us from caring -- poverty rooted in selfish apathy.
Some of us are tempted to forget about the hungry for the same reason. "Let the government take care of it." "There are agencies to deal with the problem." "I don't have the time or energy to care." That's not my problem!" And Lazarus, who needs a hand-out, then a hand-up, gets only crumbs from the table, if he's lucky.
I don't know anybody here this morning who doesn't care about the hungry. By the thousands of pounds of food that we bring through the year on the first of every month, we say we care. By the dollars which go to the Foreign and the Home Mission Boards to fund food-raising projects, we say we care. Our church is not a place for practical atheists. We know that the faith in the worship place connects with the pain at the gate -- and we are the connectors.
But this story warns against something else: acceptance. Lazarus had become part of the scenery, just a piece of the landscape. He's there, every day, catching whatever scraps of bread he can and longing for more. "It's just the way things are," the rich man may have reasoned. "That's just life." We get to that point because we all get weary of Lazarus. There seems to be so little we can do in the face of so massive a need.
The numbers roll off our consciences. 730 million people wake up every morning with little hope of having enough to eat, 195 million of them are professing Christians. Put them in single file, and they'll circle the globe twenty-five times. Four to five hundred of them will starve to death in the time it takes me to preach a sermon on hunger. Here in Texas, the largest groups of hungry are the elderly and children.
Lazarus -- the great need that is Lazarus -- wears us down, and so it's easier just to give up -- to accept the tragedy of hunger ... to let the nameless and faceless ones just fade back and blend in with the background. There hasn't been much media attention to hunger this past year. Sudden catastrophes make more graphic headlines. The support of our denomination to our World Relief Fund is lagging well behind recent years. I think it's because Lazarus shrinks back into the landscape.
This is our most vulnerable spot as a faith-community. World hunger will not yield to an occasional guerilla attack. Only a long and sustained response will do. We must not allow our weariness with Lazarus to become acceptance -- acceptance that nothing really helps, that nothing substantial can be done. That's simply not true. We already produce enough grain alone to supply 3600 calories a day to every living human being. Hunger is a political issue in many places because of greed and oppressive governments; Christians who vote, who write letters, who keep up do make a difference.
We Americans are one sixth of the world's population, but we consume forty percent of the world's resources. Christians who will translate simpler lifestyles into more resources for helping others do make a difference. It wouldn't hurt any of us to miss a meal (or maybe even fast for a day) and designate the money saved to the World Relief Fund through the church. Every dollar so given goes directly to our home and foreign missionaries to use to feed people, to dig water wells, to build fish ponds, to improve agriculture, to teach nutrition, and to be on the spot with real help when natural disasters hit.
We do make a difference as Christians who will not be comfortable with the tragedy of hunger .. who will not accept the situation of Lazarus as inevitable and unchangeable ... Christians do make a difference.
So Jesus' story warns us not to quit caring and not to quit doing. Lazarus lies at the gate and needs a hand. Will he take it if I offer it? Will she use my help wisely? Many will, some won't. That's not my choice ... my choice as a Christian with resources is to extend my hand. It's to offer my voice and my advocacy for Lazarus in a world which doesn't know his name, doesn't see her face.
I know. I see. I will respond -- I will be faithful.