Homily: A Rich Man Named Lazarus
I remember hearing a hymn based on our first reading from Amos today. It went: “ On beds of fine ivory you mighty ones recline. Eat the best lambs from the flock, in your bowls the best wine. Not a thought do you give to the little ones who are mine. You will be the first to go into exile. But it was a long time ago in a foreign country. and not to be taken too literally.”
In the second reading, St Paul tells us to pray for government leaders to rule well so we can quietly be about our business of living simply. And we all know how well that’s going.
The Gospel tells of the rich man who ignores the beggar at his doorstep and finds that in the next life the very one he ignored is the only source of hope for relief of his eternal sufferings.
As I listen to these readings, I can’t help but consider the opportunities for generosity that I simply overlooked. And it is true that I, like the merchants in Amos’ time, there have been times I, too, have been this outwardly greedy.
One thing that Pope Frances has brought to the forefront in Christian action is the need to be sensitive to the needs of the poor. What will it take? How are we going to get the message that the choices we make have far-reaching consequences? One spiritual writer has suggested that the only things you can take with you into the next life are the things you have shared with the poor.
This week I went to the online website, http://www.globalrichlist.com to see where I stand in the world in terms of income. Good news: it turns out that I’m one of the richest people in the world. Actually, most of us in the United States are. But none of us feel very rich. But compared to the riches of the entire world, we would be amazed at how wealthy we really are. I find that my yearly income including my social security, of about $20,000 places me in the top 9% richest people in the world. 3 billion people live on less than $2 a day. 1.3 billion get by on less that $1 a day. 70% of those living on less than $1 a day are women.
Once they show you where you are on the graph of the world’s population, they congratulate you and then they ask you to share your wealth with others who are in need. Those Lazaruses who lie at our gate and the gate of the world, hungry and longing for the scraps that fall from our tables. They challenge us to use our money for good, to do good and be rich in good works, to be generous.
There’s no question that folks right here in our church, in our families and community, right down the street in this town are feeling not so rich no matter what the website says. That’s fair. Lots of folks are worried about debt and paying for child care and not having health insurance and losing their retirement savings or their homes, about keeping the job they have right now. The gospel isn’t meant to lay burdens on people that they cannot bear, and that is never my intention in preaching, either.
But I would be irresponsible as a pastor if I didn’t love you enough to walk with you – together – down this difficult road and its uncomfortable questions. That’s one reason we come to church, I hope: to wrestle with the hard questions, together.
I think, at the heart of these passages, and at the heart of being a follower of Jesus, is generosity. I really believe that all the virtues flow from generosity. If we’re generous, we trust in God and not in ourselves and our own devices. If we’re generous, we give people the benefit of the doubt, and we don’t judge them, just like Jesus said. If we’re generous, we can open up our hearts to forgive people, just like Jesus said. If we’re generous, we make room for others in our lives. Hospitality, after all, is generosity in elegant action.
Think about this: the words “generosity” and “generation” share the same root word – they both have to do with bringing new life. God has generously given us life, our lives and the life of this beautiful creation, an abundance with far more than enough for everyone, but we just haven’t done such a good job of sharing that abundance.
So there are people in the world who are in need. Are we going to see them, and if so, how are we going to respond?
That’s the thing – Jesus knows that it’s true about money and possessions – they can grab us in ways we don’t want to think about. Instead of owning, we find ourselves owned by our possessions. Luke is trying to warn us, to teach us, that the blessings of this world can turn us inward, or outward, and these words really ought to go right to our hearts: Our money and possessions – and our love of them – she says, can make us “self-consumed, self-important, self-satisfied, self-indulgent, and insensitive to others…it will not be enough to say that we just did not pay attention or that we had intended to help someone tomorrow, or that we surely meant no harm to the helpless around us…”
What if, instead, we turned ourselves over to the imagination of the kingdom of God, an imagination that leads to empathy, to feeling with others who are suffering and in need, and then, to acting on their behalf? I think the readings are saying that this is the path to the life that really is life. It’s also the path to joy. And that’s a scientific fact as well as a gospel truth: I read a wonderful article in the /New York Times/ about scientists who studied neural activity, who measure brain waves. It said that, “Hard as it may be to believe in these days of infectious greed and sabers unsheathed, scientists have discovered that the small, brave act of cooperating with another person, of choosing trust over cynicism, generosity over selfishness, makes the brain light up with quiet joy.”
I don’t think we’re the rich man or Lazarus in this story. I think in this story we’re the five brothers, and the question is not only whether we’ll open our eyes and see, but will we listen, too? (Catherine Matthews Huey)