16 Pentecost, Proper 21 – September 25, 2022
My friend Barbara says that “each of us has things we tell ourselves to protect us from the pain of those around us. For example: we’ll say things like, well, if only he had not dropped out of high school. If only she had not had so many babies. If he would just learn more English. If she would only stop drinking. It’s human nature to find some reason why people are the way they are, so that we can get on with the business of being the way we are without too much drag on our consciences.”
But, in reality, we don’t all begin our life on a level playing field. We don’t choose the circumstances into which we are born. Some have great difficulties in life and can be a modern-day Lazarus. So, what about the Lazarus’ of our day?
The rich man in our gospel story knows who Lazarus is. Lazarus lay at his gate, covered with sores, longing for even a scrap to eat. The rich man is so completely focused on himself that he has utter disregard for the needs of Lazarus who is at his very own gate. The gate that is the entrance into his life, the entrance into a relationship. He was protecting himself from Lazarus’ pain.
Death, it has been said, is the great leveler. According to our parable today, it does much more than submit us all to the same fate. It can lead to a dramatic reversal of fortune. Sooner or later everyone, whether rich or poor, has to die.
But even from Hades the rich man cannot imagine that Lazarus isn’t there to serve him and his purposes. Though the rich man is in agony in the flames, he is still completely focused on himself—his thirst, his family, what others can do for him. Regardless, Father Abraham will no longer allow Lazarus to be exploited. The tables are turned.
There is a song entitled “Tramp on the Street” by Ramblin’ Jack Elliot from the album “Me & Bobby McGee” (Rounder Select, 1995). The lyrics go like this:
Only a tramp was Lazarus that day, He who lay down by the rich man’s gate. Well, he begged for some crumbs from the rich man to eat, But they left him to die like a tramp on the street. He was some mother’s darlin’, he was some mother’s son; Once he was fair and once he was young, And some mother rocked him, a little darlin’ to sleep, But they left him to die like a tramp on the street.
If Jesus should come and knock on your door, Would you let Him come in and pick from your store? Would you turn him away, with nothing to eat? Would you leave Him to die like a tramp on the street? He was Mary’s own darlin’, he was God’s chosen son; Once he was fair and once he was young. And, Mary, she rocked Him, a little darlin’ to sleep; But they left him to die like a tramp on the street. Jesus, He died on Calvary’s peak. Nails in His hands, Lord, nails in His feet, Gave his life’s blood for you and for me, But they left Him to die like a tramp on the street.
There’s something to these lyrics. Comparing Lazarus with Jesus. There’s something there about relationship. Remember that Lazarus was by the gate, the entrance to the rich man’s home. The rich man had many blessings, but he kept those financial blessings to himself and in the process missed the blessing God had placed right at his very own gate.
Caring for Lazarus would have been a blessing, getting to know Lazarus would have been a blessing.
The chasm that was fixed between the rich man and Lazarus when they died was created by the rich man. He created his own Hades. He is the victim of his own way of life. When we succeed in cutting ourselves off from each other, when we learn how to live with the misery of other people by convincing ourselves that they deserve it, when we defend our own good fortune as God’s blessing and decline to see how our lives are quilted together with all other lives, then we are the losers. Not because of what God will do to us, but because of what we have done to ourselves.
The rich man was offered the same grace that Lazarus was offered but instead of using it he dug a chasm between himself and God. I think it was C. S. Lewis who described hell as a place where the doors are locked from the inside. The rich man always had the key (grace being the key) but he didn’t understand how to put it in the lock and open the door.
The good news is that Jesus is telling us this story. We can ask for the key to the gate and be open to a relationship with the Lazarus’ of our day. Instead of creating a chasm between us and those we do not understand, we can choose to enter into a relationship with them, to understand their needs as well as our own. We can choose to let Lazarus in the gate and by doing so, allow Jesus Christ into our life.