St John’s Episcopal Church, Kirkland
Proper 21C, Sept 25 2016
Today Jesus gives us a whopper of a parable. A parable is a story that seems simple on the surface but actually is so filled with meaning and mystery that it can be read a hundred different ways. A good parable never gives up all its secrets, never allows for a simple answer. Jesus is good at parables.
Today’s is very long by Jesus’ standards. Perhaps because the issues it tackles are so complicated, so deeply entrenched in the fabric of human society. There are two men in this story, one rich and one poor. And anywhere else we’d know the rich man’s name. But we don’t, we know only the name of poor man Lazarus.
Lazarus and the rich man could live in modern day Seattle. The rich man lives in a gated community with lots of food and fancy clothes. He is never outwardly cruel or evil in Jesus’ parable: but if you notice he never sees Lazarus.
Lazarus of course is poor, so poor he comes every day to the gate of this wealthy community hoping for even the crumbs that fall from those tables. He seems to have no one to care for him, he’s so sick and weak he can’t even stop the dogs from licking his wounds.
And as happens in the world both die. The rich man who has family and friends and a community, is buried. Lazarus doesn’t even get that.
And even in death, their worlds never touch. Lazarus is carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham, a place of comfort and rest. While the rich man finds himself in Hades (a Greek place meaning the grey realm of the dead, ruled over by the god Hades in Greek myth.) And there they will stay, each in their own world, and never the two shall meet.
There are so many good details to dig into, this parable begs for weeks and weeks of discussion. But a seminary classmate of mine broke open an amazing seed in this story. His name is Seth Olsen and he began digging into the language of this parable. I suspect he remembered our shared New Testament class and knew that the mention of Hades was out of place and odd, because Jews at the time didn’t hold with the Greek belief in the underworld and there was no real comparable concept in Jewish myth. When you go back to the original Greek that word that we usually get in English as “hell” or “Hades” is neither. It is quite literally “the unperceived place.” And that seems strange at first until it hits you…
The rich man, in the whole of Jesus’ parable, never perceived Lazarus. He never saw him outside his gate, starving and sick. After death the rich man speaks to Abraham, and poor Lazarus still remains an unacknowledged tool to be sent to fetch and carry, not a human being to be seen and known.
I think my friend Seth has hit on something incredibly important. If that rich man could never see the kingdom of God in life, what exactly did he expect to be able to see in death? If we are blind to the suffering of our fellow human beings, to Christ in them, how can we possibly expect to follow Jesus?
Can we see the black father walking down our street as a man going to get the mail and hoping his son passes his driver’s test, not a “suspicious person” we need to call in to the police? Can we see the person on the corner with the sign asking for money as a fellow human being, crushed under the wheel of capitalism, not just “crazy or drunk?” Can we really see the people around us as human beings just like us, stumbling through life and doing the best bit they can with what they’ve got, instead of competitors in the way of us getting whatever it is we want?
None of it is easy to see. Our whole world is built to keep us from really seeing one another. The theologian Augustine said he found himself drawn to tragic plays because it was so much easier to get the emotional release of watching something tragic, feeling bad, and then going home than it was to actually see real suffering around us and do something about it. If I didn’t know he lived in the 400s I’d have thought he was talking about cable news.
Of course behind that TV we’re watching is a child in a sweatshop who made it, and behind that iPhone is a Chinese worker paid slave wages to work 16 hour days. But we don’t perceive those people, our world is too full of carefully constructed gates outside which the suffering sit, hoping for a scrap. It’s not that we want to hurt people, not really. It’s just that it’s a lot more comfortable to stay inside our walls.
Jesus of course gets in the way of all that. Because Jesus saw all people. The inconvenient people, the “extra” people, even the ones we’d call evil. He really saw them, and he saw the original light inside them. And today he pretty much demands we do the same. It takes a lot of courage, to look at someone and see a beloved child of God no matter who they are. To look at someone and really see their suffering, and to unwind all the twisty-turny ways the world got them to this place. But that’s our job.
As followers of Jesus that’s our job. To really perceive one another. To see in rioters in Charleston people pushed beyond hope, people who haven’t been listened to for hundreds of years who really just can’t anymore. And to see our part in their suffering, the way society is arranged to keep us safe and dumb behind our walls. To own how scary it might be to tear down those walls, and unlock the gates and really change things. It isn’t easy.
But God still looks at us today, every one of us and sees the light God made at the start. God believes in that light: in the black man stopped by police who just wants to go home, in the police who somehow have been convinced that an unarmed black man is terrifying enough to shoot. God sees the light in the teenage Syrian girl who swam in the cold sea for three hours pulling a boat full of 18 other people to safety, and in the fighters who caused her to flee.
Maybe that’s the hardest part. God looks at all of us, and sees light, and loves us.
Jesus calls us to the same: to really see, to really perceive. The chasm between us has to be bridged, the walls have to come down, the gates have to be scrapped, if we’re going to see the Kingdom of God.