Lazarus at Our Gate
Sept. 26, 2004
There were two major league baseball players, a catcher and a pitcher. They were not only good friends but also men of faith. They both loved baseball so much, that they could not imagine being happy in heaven if there were no baseball there. So they made a pact that whoever would die first would try to come back and report whether there was baseball in heaven or not.
Shortly after this agreement, the catcher suddenly died and entered his eternal reward. A couple months later, being a man of his word, he appeared in a dream to his friend. “I have good news and I have bad news,” he said. “Which do you want to hear first?” The pitcher responded, “I’ll take the good news”. “Well the good news is this: there definitely is baseball in heaven. The field is perfect, the crowd is always supportive, and I play every day.” “Wonderful,” said his friend. “What’s the bad news?” “Well the bad news is, I’m looking at the board posting the players for tomorrow’s game, and you are scheduled to pitch.”
It is going to happen to all of us sooner or later, with warning or unexpectedly. We will need to pass from this life to the next, and make an account of the life we have lived. That is why it would be wise for us to listen to Jesus’ teaching in today’s parable. In this disturbing but important parable we hear how a rich man failed to attain eternal life, even though he had been abundantly blessed.
Why did he fail? There is nothing in the parable that indicates he was a dishonest man or a mean man. Nothing that indicates he was unthankful for what he received. He seemed to be a person who enjoyed life and who shared what he had with his family and friends as he feasted sumptuously every day. Nor is there anything in the parable that indicates that he mistreated the poor man Lazarus who was at his gate. He did not insult him or abuse him. In fact, it seems that he never even noticed him.
This is what I would suggest is the failure of the rich man: he did not notice Lazarus at his gate. The two of them did not live far apart. Lazarus was sitting at his very door. Yet the rich man lived his life isolated from the poor man. There was a gap between them. The rich man lived his life without noticing the poor man who was close at hand. After his death, the rich man certainly noticed Lazarus. Not only did he notice him, but he wanted to bridge the gap between them. He begged that Lazarus would bring but a bit of water to cool his tormented tongue. But after death we discover that the gulf becomes a chasm, and it is no longer possible to cross it.
Obviously then, the point of the parable is to notice Lazarus at our door and to reach out to him while there is still time.
Lazarus is at our gate. He is one of the more than one million children who are homeless in America, who sleep every night on our streets. He is one of the many fellow Americans who are afflicted with and dying from AIDS. Lazarus is at our door. She is one of the millions of Americans who have no access to health care, who must choose between buying her heart medicine and putting food on her table. Lazarus is at our gate. He is an acquaintance who lost his job through downsizing and has just taken out a second mortgage. She is an elderly woman who is in a nursing home now for ten years where no one visits.
Lazarus is at our door. He is the person in our school or in our office that cries out for respect but must face ridicule every day. She is the person struggling with mental illness who comes off a bit odd and is discounted as a person of value. He is our next door neighbor who recently lost his wife of forty years and hangs around the driveway as we come home, looking for company.
Jesus calls us to notice Lazarus at our door, and to reach out and cross the gulf that isolates us from him. He calls us to do this in a very personal and specific way. It is important to notice in the parable that the rich man did not ignore all the beggars in Israel, but only Lazarus who was closest to him.
We cannot be expected to reach out to the millions of people without health care or the tens of millions who are dealing with grief. But we can be expected to notice the Lazarus who sits at our gate. Who is he? What is her name? You know it. The name is coming to your mind right now. That person is the person that the gospel calls you to recognize, to notice, and to touch. Do not ignore him or her. Do not pretend that the need of one so near to you is not your concern.
There is good news and bad news in today’s gospel. The bad news is that we are very likely ignoring people who are close to us and who are in need. The good news is that there is still time to change. Lazarus is at our door. Jesus calls us to notice him and let our love make a difference. Reach out, cross the gulf that presently separates you from him. After death, it will be too late.
September 30, 2007
There are many things we could discuss about this long and difficult parable about the rich man and Lazarus. But today I would like to focus on its stark and some what disturbing ending. I believe that the ending has something important to say about the way that we live.
You remember how the parable unfolds. There was a rich man who feasted sumptuously every day, not a care in the world, as happy as he could be. But then he died and he discovered to his dismay that he should have lived differently. He was in torment, whereas the blind beggar who once sat at his gate was in glory with Abraham. The rich man realized all too late that there was nothing he could do about his situation. But he begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers so that they could change and avoid his cruel fate. Abraham says, “They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.” The rich man says, “No, they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets. But they would listen, if someone were to rise from the dead.” And here comes the disturbing ending. Abraham says, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone were to rise from the dead.” Abraham’s statement is a warning, a warning to us. We should listen today or be sorry tomorrow.
What should we listen to? To Moses and the prophets. Who are Moses and the prophets? To the Jewish people and to Jesus they represented all that God had revealed, all that God had told us throughout the scriptures and throughout history. The same is true for us. Moses and the prophets are for us is all that we find revealed in the Bible and all that the spirit reveals in our hearts as we live our lives. God is speaking to us. God is trying to get our attention. God is speaking through the scriptures and through the events of our life. We should listen today or be sorry tomorrow.
What should we listen to? It varies with each one of us. I cannot tell you what God is speaking to you today, but here are some possibilities: God might be saying that there are issues in your marriage which you need to face; that there is someone who has hurt you and you need to reconcile and forgive; that you are unhappy in your job and it might be time to change; that you are spending your time in the wrong places, and you need more time with your children and grandchildren; that there is someone in your life who needs help and is waiting for your assistance; that there are people who care for you, and you need to celebrate their love. Each one of us must ask, what is God speaking to me? What is God telling me I need to do? We must listen and we must to listen today.
Why is it that we don’t listen? There are two principle reasons: time and fear.
We often do not listen to what God is saying because we presume there will always be more time. We say to ourselves, “I know what God wants me to do but I’ll face that tomorrow. Today, I’m doing what I want to do. I’ll get around to God wants me to do.” The problem with the excuse of time is that it often betrays us. What is possible today might not be possible tomorrow. The opportunity we can seize now could evaporate with a change in ourselves or in someone else. The window of opportunity can all too quickly close. That is why we need to listen today.
The other excuse is fear. We know that if we listen to what God is asking us to do, it might be difficult. We might be afraid to face it. Here is where faith is important. If we really believe that what is being asked of us comes from God, then we need to believe that God will be trustworthy. God will not ask us to do something and then lead us out into the desert to die. If a direction really comes from God, then we can follow it with confidence. We do not need to be afraid.
We believe that God is speaking to us all the time, that God is communicating things to our heart. Therefore, we need to listen. We need to listen now; we need to listen without fear. The only danger is to go on with our lives as if everything is fine. We must not be like the rich man in the parable, feasting, moving along without a care in the world, when in fact, something needs to change. We cannot presume that God will send an angel to tap us on the shoulder. We cannot presume that God will raise up someone from the dead to tell us what we must do. God is already telling us what to do.
Listen and respond today.
Playing So as to Win
September 26, 2010
The scene is this: a Saturday morning soccer game with the teams composed of six-, seven-, and eight-year-olds. All the children are on the field, but the experience and the purpose for being on the field varies from child to child.
There is a six-year-old, and this is his first soccer game. All that he really knows about soccer is that he’s supposed to kick the ball. So when the ball comes at him, he kicks it hard, and it flies. Now, he doesn’t know whether it’s a good kick. He doesn’t know whether he’s kicked it to his own teammates or to somebody on the opposing team. But, he’s so excited that he runs off the field to his parents, yelling: “Mom and Dad, look. I did it. I kicked the ball.”
There is a seven-year-old on the team, and she is a scrambler. She’s fast, and her purpose is to get the ball. She’ll knock anyone out of the way that blocks her. She wants to score a goal and she wants everyone sitting in the stands to see it.
Then there is an eight-year-old. He is the veteran of the team. His purpose is somewhat different. He surveys the field. He knows where his teammates are. He assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing team. When he controls the ball, if he has the best shot, he’ll take it. If he doesn’t, he’ll kick the ball to a teammate. You cannot be successful at soccer without players like this boy because he understands that soccer is not about kicking the ball nor even about making a goal—soccer is about winning the game.
This Saturday morning soccer game can be used as a parable for life. It reminds us that we can give ourselves to many important and good things in life, but none of them, in themselves, guarantees success. What we really need in life is the wisdom to be able to survey the field and make the moves that will lead to the ultimate purpose of what life is about.
The rich man in today’s parable did not have that wisdom. He was blessed. He was happy. He feasted every day with his friends. And many people, I am sure, admired him and wanted to be like him. But, he did not know how to read the field. He made the wrong moves and, at the end of his life, he discovered he had lost the game. Now, there’s nothing in the parable that indicates that the rich man was a bad person. He is not said to be evil or selfish. His flaw was one of maturity and understanding. He could not see the big picture. He was not able to define ultimately what success is.
Jesus gives us this parable as a wake-up call. I actually think it’s meant to scare us. He wants to shake us out of our complacency, to remind us that God expects more from us than a few good actions and a pleasant personality. We can honestly say: I’m a good person, I never hurt anyone. But, the parable asks us: Are we winning the game?
You see, Jesus wants us to understand what life is about and how we are to define true success. When we really listen to his call, some very good things in life become less important. The size of our house or the depth of our bank account are good things, but they are not game-changers. The position we have in the corporate structure, the number of people who know our name, the influence we can exert to achieve what we want, these are all affirmations and blessings. But they do not, in the end, determine the final score.
When we listen to Moses and the prophets and the teachings of Jesus, what true victory is becomes rather clear. It is the ability, at the end of our life, to look and say that we have at least one deep relationship that has lasted for decades and is honest enough and faithful enough to have really changed us and made us more alive. It is the ability to look at a son or a daughter or someone we have mentored and to see in that person confidence or generosity or a faith in God, and be able to say, “I helped to put that quality there.” It’s to know of someone who was lost, or a situation that was broken, or a dream that was diminished and be able, honestly, to claim, “I contributed to make that person or that situation whole.” It is to live a life being able to see in the world—in its beauty, in its energy, in its contradictions—the the hand of God, leading us and directing us, and to live each day in thankfulness.
These are the things that define true victory and Jesus wants us to know their importance. He wants us to understand that life is more than kicking the ball, or getting on the score board. The goal to which we are directed can only be reached with integrity, and faithfulness, and love. This, then, is the game in which we are engaged. Play it so as to win!
September 29, 2013
Luke 16: 19-31
As Christians we believe in heaven and hell. But it is not that often that we stop to understand them. Heaven is the easier of the two. It makes certain sense that if we have a loving and caring God who guides us in this life, then that same God would extend life and joy after death. Hell is a stickier issue. How can we explain a loving and forgiving God who condemns his creatures to eternal torment? Is not God all merciful and forgiving? Then how can we explain eternal damnation?
It is an honest question, and one on which today’s gospel can shed some light. Today’s story of the rich man and Lazarus is one of the few times in the New Testament when we are given a glimpse of the afterlife. What we see is instructive.
The thing to notice in the story is that the rich man never changes. While he is alive he is completely absorbed in himself, in his purple clothing, fine linen, and sumptuous dinners. After death he is the same way. Even though he is in torment, what he is most concerned about is securing a drop of water to cool his tongue. It is all about him, from start to finish, in this world and in the next. What this story is telling us is that if you are filled up with yourself, if you are completely self-absorbed, there is no room for love. There is no room for heaven. Complete selfishness is hell.
The great chasm in the story that the rich man cannot cross and that people from the other side cannot cross has not been put there by Abraham. It has not been put there by God. That great chasm has been established by the rich man, himself. His heart is so closed in on himself that he can neither give nor receive love and mercy. The rich man wants to be happy. He sees happiness far off. But he does not understand that his condemnation is the result of his own selfishness. His isolation results from a chasm he has created through his own choices.
Now, Jesus tells us this story to warn us, to remind us that the choices we make today have eternal consequences. We are, today, shaping the person we will be for all eternity. Whenever we make choices to spend our time and energy only on ourselves, we increase self-absorption. When we fill our minds with obsessions about how we look, or what other people think about us; when we waste time surfing the internet or viewing pornography; when we make decisions that are based only upon our own comfort and pleasure; with each one of those decisions our heart closes in a bit more on itself.
On the other hand, when we open ourselves to service, when we reach out to help our children, our friends, our neighbors, when we give of what we have to those in need, or are willing to stand up and defend those whose freedom is endangered; through that generosity and service, our heart opens a bit more to love.
A glass that is already full cannot receive anything more. The rich man’s heart was so full of himself that he could not accept mercy and love. The joy of heaven is that we will be able to take in God’s presence and God’s glory. That invitation to heaven is being offered to every creature at every time. God cannot be blamed if some people so fill their hearts with themselves that they cannot take in what God offers. God does not send anyone to eternal torment. But we can choose to go there. We are making choices today that determine how much room we will have in our own hearts to accept love. So choose carefully. Because if we so fill up our lives with ourselves that we become completely full, we can keep all love out. And that would not only be a disaster. That would be hell.
The Door and the Chasm
September 25, 2016
At first glance, the parable in today’s gospel seems to be about heaven and hell. A rich man feasts sumptuously every day, ignoring a beggar named Lazarus at his door. Then both men die. The rich man is in torment, whereas Lazarus is blessed in the presence of Abraham. This parable, however, is about much more than the afterlife. It carries an immediate message for our lives today.
I would describe this message as a movement from the door to a chasm. At the beginning of the parable, the rich man is happy and blessed. He is free to do what he wishes, to live as he will. Lazarus sits at his door. It is a door that the rich man can open. The rich man can go through that door and bring food to the hungry Lazarus. Or he can bring Lazarus through that door, into his home to bind his wounds and feed him at his table. Yet even though the door at which Lazarus sits can be opened, the rich man does not use it. He seems oblivious to the opportunity he has to connect with others, to do what is right.
In the second half of this parable, all this changes. The rich man is no longer free. He is imprisoned in torment and now he wishes to connect with Lazarus, who he sees in the bosom of Abraham. He asks that Lazarus come to him, but Abraham explains that it is impossible. Between them there has been established a huge chasm, across which no one can pass. What once was possible is now impossible. The door has become a chasm.
This parable invites us to look around at our own lives. We might be happy and content, but are there doors that we should open while we can? For a time might come where opening them is no longer possible. We might be happy in our marriage, content with our life, moving from one thing to the next, but not noticing that we are drifting away from our spouse. We no longer talk about important things. Our love is dying. Today we could still open the door and reconnect. But if we wait until divorce papers are filed, that door might be locked.
We may have had a falling out with a close friend or family member, and we are still smarting because of the injustice of it all. But we say to ourselves, “He’ll get over it. She’ll come around”. Today, we could pick up the phone and ask to talk. But a day might come where the other person is no longer willing to talk. The door will have become a chasm.
We might be dismayed as we watch the news reports about protests in our cities over police shootings. But we say to ourselves, “Our city is calm. My home is safe.“ Today we could choose to act, to become involved, to promote programs and political leaders who are committed to dialogue and reform of the relationship between police and the communities they patrol. But if we wait until there is rioting in our streets and our families are threatened, that door may no longer be open to us.
The rich man in today’s gospel does not appear to be mean or wicked. He simply does not recognize the opportunities that are present to him in order to connect with other people, to do what is right. He feels that his life is fine. But it is ready to collapse. The parable in today’s gospel asks us to be wiser than the rich man. It asks us to open the doors that we can, to provide love, forgiveness, and justice to others. Waiting could be fatal. For a time may come when, like the rich man, we discover that a step that was once possible has become a wide expanse, over which no one can cross.
Crossing the Chasm
September 29, 2019
Luke 16: 19-31
I think we will all agree that the rich man does not end up very well in today’s gospel parable. He finds himself in torment, separated from Abraham, Lazarus, and his own happiness by a great chasm that no one is able to cross. But the important question for us is, “How did the rich man get there? What did he do or not do that resulted in his dismal fate?”
A casual reading of this parable might lead us to conclude that the fault of the rich man was that he did not share his wealth and his food with the poor man Lazarus. Although this is true, the parable has actually much more subtle point. When we read the parable closely, we cannot fail to notice that the rich man and Lazarus never meet. They never speak to one another. We know that Lazarus would gladly have eaten his fill from the scraps from the rich man’s table. But Lazarus never asks the rich man for any scraps, nor does the rich man refuse to give them to him. You see, the flaw of the rich man was not selfishness but ignorance. He did not refuse to help Lazarus. He did not even notice that Lazarus was there. “How is this possible,” you say, “if we know that Lazarus was lying at the man’s door?” The Greek word “door” can also be translated as “gate.” In this way we see that it was a gate in a wall that the rich man had built around his property to keep it separate from the rest of the city, to keep out all that was dirty, disgusting, and dangerous. This parable tells us that the rich man’s gate worked. It kept his comfortable life safe from everything that was disagreeable. Among those things, was the poor man Lazarus.
What this gospel parable is telling us is that we will never be able to understand Christ’s will for us or understand our responsibility to others unless we meet them. As long as we set up gates to keep others out, we are placing ourselves in danger, in danger of failing our responsibility to Christ.
Now how often, when we come here on the weekend, do we hear about the poor? It is hard not to hear about the poor because Jesus is always ministering to them in the gospels. But this parable asks us, “Have we ever met a poor person? Have we ever had a conversation with someone who is indigent?” Poor people are not hard to find. The Plain Dealer this week reported that one-third of the population of the City of Cleveland and one-half of its children are living below the poverty line. Cleveland is close. It is right at our gate.
Lazarus, of course, does not just stand for poverty. He stands for any segment of society that is marginalized, any group of people that we set up a gate to keep out. There is much discussion, as you well know, in our country today about immigration and who should be the people who are allowed to become a part of our country. This parable asks us, “Have we ever met a migrant? Have we ever talked to an immigrant?” How can we take a responsible political or moral stance about immigration without first hearing the story of immigrants—why they left their home and what they plan to contribute to ours?
In the media recently there has been a good deal of discussion about slavery and the way that this scourge in American history still impacts race relationships in our country. This parable asks us, “Have we ever had a significant conversation with an Afro-American? Have we ever socialized with a black person?” And, if not, how do we expect to follow the command of Christ to see those of different races as our brothers and sisters?
The parable in today’s gospel actually includes two chasms: the chasm of the netherworld that no one can cross and the chasm in this world by which we separate ourselves from those who are different and those who make us uncomfortable. The gospel asks us to cross that chasm today. Then, when the day comes that we face the chasm we cannot cross, we will find ourselves not with the rich man but with Abraham.