By: Eleanor Wellford, Priest Associate
Have you ever been at a party or large family gathering and noticed how one person in particular seemed to be attracting a lot of attention? If I had to guess, I would say that that person was someone who could tell a good story. In my family, that person happens to be my brother-in-law. He comes into a crowd, finds a chair somewhere in the corner, sits down and waits for people to notice him – which, given his large size, isn’t hard to do. He gets food and drinks brought to him as he carries forth with story after story. He thrives on all the attention he gets.
Jesus was a good storyteller, too – an amazing storyteller. He also could attract a crowd of listeners – but it wasn’t because he wanted or needed the attention. It happened naturally as his reputation for teaching, for healing and for controversy spread. People were naturally curious about him.
As you know by now, so many of his stories were parables; and many of them were told in the company of Pharisees, who prided themselves on being keepers of Jewish rituals, tradition and liturgy. Jesus would draw his listeners in with an ordinary beginning to his story such as: “There was a man who had two sons…” (Luke 15:11) which is the beginning of the parable of the Prodigal Son; or “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho..” (Luke 10:25) which is the beginning of the Good Samaritan; and “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple…” (Luke 16:19) which begins today’s parable.
But then there would be some kind of twist or ironic turn of events targeted at an offensive social practice or in the case of the Pharisees, targeted at their religious pride. Jesus also told plenty of stories that disparaged the rich and favored the poor. This morning’s parable about Lazarus and the Rich Man is no exception.
Lazarus, whose name in Hebrew means “God has helped”, was not the same Lazarus as the brother of Martha and Mary. This Lazarus was a beggar who sat day after day at the gate of a rich man’s estate, hoping to get just a few crumbs from that man’s abundance. Although the dogs knew he was there, the owner of the estate did not. And as far as we know, he didn’t harm or abuse the beggar. Lazarus was simply invisible to him – as good as dead.
Well, soon, both Lazarus and the rich man, who ironically remained nameless, were dead; and Lazarus headed north where he was comforted in the arms of Father Abraham, while the rich man headed south where he was overwhelmed by the heat and humidity. He was so hot, in fact, that he gazed up to heaven where he finally noticed Lazarus, and where he told Abraham to get Lazarus to come down and wait on him by getting him something to cool his parched tongue – to which Abraham replied: “Too late! There’s too much distance between where Lazarus is and where you are for that to ever happen.”
It’s as if an hourglass had been turned completely upside down and the rich man who lived like royalty during his time on earth, was left with nothing but agony in the afterlife while Lazarus, sitting on top now, had it all.
As much as I’d like to judge the wealthy man for not noticing and helping Lazarus when they were both alive, I can’t. How many times have I been stopped at a red light at the intersection of Patterson and Three Chopt, and found myself side by side with a homeless person camped out on the corner there? And how many times have I prayed for the light to hurry up and turn green so that the person could remain invisible to me? Too many to count and the conversation that I usually carry on with myself is like a broken record.
“Don’t make eye contact with him. Don’t read whatever cardboard sign that he’s holding. Don’t notice the dirty rags that he’s wearing or that he’s not wearing shoes. Just keep looking straight ahead. Maybe he cant see me through my tinted windows. What’s wrong with this stoplight? I could certainly give him some money” I say to myself, “but wouldn’t he just squander it on cigarettes and beer and wouldn’t that be enabling? I’m not getting succored into that. Oh look – the driver behind me is giving him cash. Maybe I should, too. What’s wrong with me?” And mercifully, the light turns green.
What is it about an encounter with the face of poverty that stresses me out so much?
In June 2006, at the National Cathedral in D.C., I took a vow as a deacon to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick and the lonely in the name of Jesus Christ. Six months later when I was ordained priest, I took a vow to build up the family of God and to care for the young and old, alike, the strong and the weak, and the rich and the poor. I was serious about taking those vows, but I still struggle to know what to do for the least among Jesus’ flock. I have yet to feed, clothe, give shelter or show hospitality to any of the strangers who inhabit that corner of Patterson and Three Chopt or any street corner for that matter.
If any of you face the same dilemma that I do, it’s probably too late to do anything about what we have or haven’t done in the past. Or at least that’s what Father Abraham would lead us to believe in Jesus’ story when he said that the rich man’s brothers, or we by extension, would have trouble believing what even a man raised from the dead would say. How ironic is that?
The question is: what do we do going forward to prevent it from becoming such a dilemma? When I keep running into Lazarus street corners, I don’t want to think about what to do, because thinking is what gets me into trouble in the first place. I want to act in a way that is consistent with who I am and what I promised to be.
That person on the street corner has a story to tell, and I do want to hear it, even if it is hard to hear. I do want to see him, even if he’s too hard to look at.
A couple of weeks ago, I told the children gathered for Children’s Chapel that Jesus taught us to love our neighbor as ourself. Although they insisted that a neighbor is someone who lives next door to them, I tried to explain that a neighbor doesn’t have to be someone living next to them. It could also be someone who doesn’t look like them, act like them or sound like them.
I’m not sure they believed me but it didn’t matter. The lesson was about preparing to follow Jesus. And the truth is, children need far less preparation to do that than we adults do. (For 11:00 am. Children like beautiful little Sadie McDaniel are all born with a heart for loving all of God’s creatures). We adults are the ones who have trouble, or at least I have trouble, looking beyond what might be different and even offensive about someone, and recognizing the humanity of that person – and to respect that person as every bit a child of God as I am.
It has taken some preparation and work on my part to change the way I think about the least among us. Jesus went out of his way to exalt them – not because it made him feel good about himself, or that it made for a good story, but because he loved them when it seemed that no one else did. Now when a red light stops me at a corner where there is a homeless person, I give that person something from my abundance. Is that a foolish thing to do? Maybe. But I am always thanked with a “God bless you.” And that’s the bridge that connects my story to his story, insuring that we have both been seen and heard by one another.