19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
There is a song that is sometimes sung as an anthem whenever this particular story comes up in the lectionary, when the church uses it as its scripture lesson for the day. And every time I hear it, I just crack up, because this story seems so depressing, but the song is just so happy. The chorus goes like this: “Dip your finger in the water, come and cool my tongue, ‘cause I’m tormented in the flame.”
It is much sillier than the parable that Jesus tells, but my favorite thing about the song is the fact that the rich man doesn’t get it. You know, we spend all this time trying to get rich, but nobody is the butt of more jokes in the stories Jesus tells than the rich man. And here’s a joke for you. A rich man refuses to help a poor man. The poor man dies and goes to Heaven, the rich man dies and goes to Hell, and even THEN the rich man still calls out to the poor man, Lazarus, and bosses him around like a slave. Dip your finger in the water and cool my tongue, ‘cause I’m tormented in the flame.
Here he is burning in torment, and he is trying to boss his way back into comfort, to weasel his way out of Hell by using poor old Lazarus to bring him some water. There is just no convincing some people. I think this story is pretty clear, I mean, I called this the least confusing story in the Bible, but the rich man doesn’t get it. Here is, burning in Hell, and he just doesn’t get it.
A few years ago, Stacey and I were living in a little townhouse community down Lavista towards Tucker, and we had a nice little patio between the garage and the home with a big birch tree and some plants and a bench. On days like today, it was great just to sit and be outside. And one fall, as the leaves started to change and the air started to smell like peace, we decided that what we needed was a hammock chair: a place to sit and read and relax out on our patio. So we went and got a hammock chair and some rope to tie it from a tall branch on the birch tree. And I walked out into the patio area and realized that I had no idea how I was going to get the chair hung. I had plenty of rope, and the branch looked sturdy enough, so I had that going for me, but I didn’t have a ladder tall enough to hang the chair. What I did have was a baseball, so I took the ball and the rope and some duct tape—because there is no better tape for a hair-brained scheme than duct tape--and I fashioned it all together so that I could throw the ball over the branch, unhook the rope, and hang the chair.
And on this particular crisp afternoon, my brother was in town, and he and Stacey stood outside with me and watched me hurl this baseball-and-rope contraption into the air, only to miss every time. I don’t think I have ever seen my wife laugh so hard. She is usually a gracious person, but I looked just ridiculous.
And as I threw the ball in the air, I knocked a little branch off which came down and hit me in the head, but that didn’t stop me, because there is just no convincing some people, and so I kept at it, getting more and more angry as the misses kept coming and the laughing got louder. I stubbornly kept at it UNTIL I threw the ball into the air, lost sight of it in the sun, and did not know where it was going until it landed directly on top of my head.
There is just no convincing some people.
Of course, this parable isn’t just about the rich man’s stubbornness, although as a stubborn people, we have some things to learn. But the root problem is just as important, because if the rich man didn’t get it after he died, he CERTAINLY didn’t get it before he died. And it’s not that the rich man hated Lazarus. He just didn’t notice him, and I mean, that ought not be his fault right? Give the guy a break! Just think of how many things do you and I just not see! There is so much to see, and you can’t notice everything, so we miss some things, and you can’t blame us, really.
There’s this video online of two basketball teams: one dressed in black and one dressed in white. And you are supposed to count the number of times that the team dressed in white passes the basketball. It is called an observation test or something like that. And so the video starts, and you get however many seconds to count the passes. Only once those seconds are over do you hear about the real purpose of the video, and as the video replays again, you realize that as you have been paying attention to the white team passing the basketball, a man dressed in a bear costume has walked straight into the scene and moonwalked out of the video.
When you are looking so intently for one thing, it is easy to miss everything else.
The pastor John Stehdahl tells the story of visiting a young man in a facility for people with severe brain injuries. He says this:
“The young man was agitated and eager to walk, so I joined him as he went from room to room and looked in each room as if he were searching for someone. Eventually we came to a big room that was not in use. At the far end a couple of janitors were at work buffing the floor. I saw that no one was sitting at any of the tables and said to the young man, ‘There’s nobody in here.’
Then, from the other side of the room, came the voice of one of the janitors. ‘What do you mean, nobody? We’re not nobody.’
I don’t recall what lame apology I offered, but I remember the heat rising in my cheeks. I really hadn’t seen those two men, although of course I’d registered that there were janitors at work. My mind was elsewhere.”
It is this way for us with the difficult bits of life. I don’t mean the difficult stuff that happens to us. I mean the difficult stuff that doesn’t happen to us. I know that when you’re in the middle of something difficult, it can seem like a hand in front of your face, like there’s nothing else you can deal with but that one thing. And when tragedies happen, we hunker down, and I think that’s fine. It is a defense mechanism.
The problem is that because we each see things from our own eyes, our own perspective, it isn’t long before we are assuming that I am—that each of us is the center of the universe--and then it can seem like we’re always dealing with something that keeps us from looking around, from seeing what is happening around us.
I’m sure the rich man had a tough time managing all that money, that he was busy dealing with the IRS and watching the markets and all of that. But the fact remains that he missed Lazarus, didn’t see him at all, and as a result, he ended up in Hell, which is almost redundant because I don’t know of any hell worse than being stuck on yourself.
This is what we do. We get so wrapped up in our own business and busy-ness that we miss out on so much else. I don’t care if you are the most learned person alive: all of that learning is merely what the commentator Frank Deford calls “sanctimonious educational claptrap” if you keep your nose in a book and walk right past Lazarus at the gate. And incidentally, let me be clear that keeping your nose in the Bible at the expense of actually seeing God’s people is just as bad as missing them because you are stuck on yourself. Faith is not merely lived out in the head, but in the eyes and the heart, and there are two problems with this kind of blind, sanctimonious faith.
First, we miss out on a potentially life-changing relationship. Though I frequently find myself drawn to people just like me, it is also true that the most life giving relationships I’ve ever come across are with people who are NOT just like me, who bring the gift of a new perspective and who teach me things I did not know.
And second, when we pay so much attention to our own lives that we miss everyone else, we are not doing justice to God’s call to engage the world. I see this all the time in the life of the church, and if I am not careful, I’m prone to it too, prone to step right over the poor person so that I don’t have to ask difficult questions about my own life, about the reasons that I have what I need and others don’t. We like to think in America that it is all related to how hard you work, as if we have the things we have only because we deserve them, but I have had the difficult blessing to lead mission trips and be in ministry with people all over the world, and let me tell you, the hardest working people do not live in houses that look like yours and mine. They frequently live in mud huts, or homes with stick walls, or in squalor, sitting outside the gate of a rich man.
It is not easy to keep your eyes open all the time in this world of ours, and it takes a healthy dose of humility to recognize that it is God who is the center of the universe, not me, and for this reason, I have heard people say that they are just not emotionally equipped to go to the broken places, to see those children who are malnourished, to learn why people are homeless. I will move chairs and cook supper, I will even teach Sunday School; just please don’t ask me to see starving children.
I understand the sentiment—I understand that letting people in, that being vulnerable, can be the hardest thing in life, I mean the very hardest thing—but as much as I understand the sentiment, I also know that it is not good enough. For there are people who have no choice but to be vulnerable: not just emotionally vulnerable but physically vulnerable, nowhere to live, nothing to eat, no one to love them. What a luxury it must be to be able to claim immunity from this holy responsibility because it is simply /. . . too . . . much.
Nowadays, of course, with the internet and globalization and the evening news, it is hard to miss the kind of misery we used to be able to ignore. There’s no question about how many hungry people there are in the world: you can look it up on the computer and get a pretty accurate number. There’s no question what kind of horror comes from disease and terrorism and poverty. We see it on the news all the time. Here it is, right in front of our faces, all the time . . . and yet somehow, we miss it.
Some people call it “compassion fatigue,” the idea that there is so much that needs to be done, so many things that need our attention, that we get quickly overwhelmed and just give up. So much to do, so many problems, and we just sort of shut down, because there is just . . . too . . . much. And it is so much easier to go about our days as if nothing is different, because if we really put the effort into actually opening our eyes, we start to see all kinds of people outside our gates, and the people we thought were invisible start to show up everywhere, and before long, it will seem almost impossible to live life, because Lazarus is everywhere.
It is just too much. If you actually start looking for people, actually start seeing the people we’d rather look straight past, it quickly becomes impossible to live your life as you’ve always lived it. And when people bring our attention to the problems in the world, to the people outside the gate, to the “Lazari,” we act as if they are simply naïve, simply don’t understand the way the world works, simply need to stop caring for the least and the lost, because there is too much to do in our normal everyday lives. The poor will always be with us. Perhaps you should stop being distracted by them, we say, and focus on your own broken life.
And still, somehow, those saints show up in the world, calling us to see the people right in front of our faces, the people sitting at our gates yearning for the crumbs that fall from our tables. You’d think that considering how hard it is to just live in the world, they’d give up, but, you know, there’s just no convincing some people.