Eighteenth Sunday of Pentecost
September 29, 2012
First Christian Church
The first time I ever really saw a panhandler was when I lived in Washington, DC. I lived in the nation’s capital from 1992 to 1996 doing various jobs at nonprofits. I haven’t been to DC in years, so things might have changed, but back then Washington had a lot of homeless folk, living a hard life on the streets. There seemed to be a lot of homeless people near the church I attended in Chinatown. But whether I was in Chinatown or near the Capitol, you would see someone asking for money.
I remember one of the first times someone asked for money. I was getting ready to catch the subway to make my way back to my apartment in the Maryland suburb of Silver Spring. A man stopped at Union Station. He told me he was dropping off his sister to catch a train and needed money for gas for his car. As I heard the story, I felt bad for the many who seemed to have very little. So, I gave him $10 and he gave me his phone number with pledges to pay me back.
You probably know how this story ends. The next day, I call the phone number he gave me and of course, it didn’t work. I got played.
In the 20 years since that happened, I have done different things when approached by panhandlers: for a while I would by gift certificates at McDonalds and give them to people in leiu of money that could be used for drugs or alcohol. Sometimes I would give a little money. Other times I would simply look at the man or woman and say no, I didn’t have money or something like that. One of the thing I could never do was basically ignore them as I walked by. I’ve seen other people do that, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. I can understand why people might want to do that, but there was something that just didn’t feel right about that.
The church that I went to when I lived in DC was Calvary Baptist Church. The church housed a homeless shelter for women and while I never did go to the shelter, I remember coming to the front door in the evening for a meeting and seeing the person at the font desk. Also sitting at that desk was a baseball bat. My guess is that it was used more to scare people than to actually be used. But, this being a homeless shelter for vulnerable women, one had to be prepared to use it in order to protect the women.
Looking back, my time in DC was helpful in preparing me to be in the clergy and the challenges in taking care of the poor. For good or for ill, I had to learn that remembering the poor doesn’t mean that the poor are somehow noble; instead they are real people.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus in one the most well-known of Jesus’ stories. It also seems like the most simple to understand. It is a dramatic reminder of God’s care of those who are forgotten by society.
Here’s the story in a nutshell. There was a rich man, who is un-named in this story. He dresses in expensive clothing and eats only the best food cooked by some of the top chefs in Palestine. At the gates of his mansion was another man, named Lazarus. He is poor and homeless. He sees the rich man leave for work everyday in his Land Rover and shows his handwritten sign asking for some money. But the rich man ignores Lazarus, every single day. In fact, everyone ignores Lazarus except the dogs, who come and like the sores on his body.
Then one day, both of these men die. Lazarus is taken to heaven, while the rich man suffers torment in hell. The rich man can see Lazarus and this time, acknowledges him. He begs that Abraham send Lazarus with a drop of water to quench his thirst. But Abraham says no dice. Even if he wanted to there is a large chasm between heaven and hell that no one can cross.
So the rich man asks one more thing of Abraham. He asks him to send Lazarus to warn his brothers to not end up like him. Nope, says Abraham,. They have Moses and the Prophets and that should be enough. Just as the rich man is going to speak again, Abraham continues, if they can’t listen to Moses and the prophets than they won’t listen to someone risen from the dead.
There’s a lot to unpack here. The rich man is never named in the story, while Lazarus is named. This is a reversal of how the world would act, in that the rich are always named, while the poor are easily forgotten. Lazarus had a hard life, but now is resting in the “bosom” of Abraham. The rich man lived in the lap of luxury, but in the afterlife he now faces a life of pain. It also brings up questions: if he knew Lazarus’ name, why on earth did the rich man ignore Lazarus in life? Why in God’s name did he ignore him? Why was the rich man ordering that Lazarus come and save first himself and then his brothers?
All of these are good questions, but there is one that has been on my mind as of late: why is Lazarus so damn perfect?
Lazarus is seen as this saint who sat at the rich man’s doorstep asking for food and being ignored by the mean ‘ol rich man. Maybe in some alternate reality there are people like this, but there have been times when the poor that I’ve encountered are not such saints. You meet folks who are abusive or lie or do other things that don’t make them outstanding candidates for a Nobel. The problem with parables like this is that you never deal with the Lazarus that asks for $10 to get a cab home and who says they will pay you back and then never do. We never encounter the Lazarus with a drug problem, or the one that’s an alcoholic, or the one that beats his girlfriend at least not in this passage.
The poor are real people with real problems. Maybe the rich man didn’t help Lazarus because he didn’t want to be taken in again. Maybe it was better to just ignore Lazarus so that he would never have to be scamed again. The problem with how parables like this are preached is that they seem to take place in some idealized world where you have have poor people with chemical dependency issues or mental health problems. The call to care for the poor is not some romantic adventure- it is not easy and it can be quite frustrating.
But here’s the thing. Even if all of this were the case, even if Lazarus had problems, Jesus doesn’t let the rich man off the hook and we aren’t off the hook either.
I tend to think that God does understand that caring for people isn’t easy. Of course, we should be safe and not open ourselves up to danger. But this parable still tells us to care for the poor. It still tells that to bridge the gap between God and us is through helping the least of these.
A few years ago a movie came out called Precious. It’s the story of a teenage African American living in New York in the 1980s. Precious is poor and lives with an abusive mother. She gets raped by her father, who is HIV positive and is pregnant with their child. She was held back in 8th grade even though she was now in her mid teens. The movie is a realistic portrayal of poverty in America and it isn’t pretty to watch. Precious is dealt a bad hand in life, but she is also helped by caring people, an attentive social worker, a teacher and other people who try to give her some hope in a world that was chaotic. The movie ends with her finally saying goodbye to her abusive Mom and walking out with her two young children, one of which has special needs. It’s not a happy ending, but there is hope. She leaves bouyed by the help she has recieved and is heading for an unknown future.
The rich man was in hell because he didn’t try to bridge the gap between himself and Lazarus. Hell wasn’t as much a punishment as it was the end result of a life lived for self. As I said last week, what matters in life is not what we have, but the relationships we have with those around us.
I want to end with A Christmas Carol. The story was written in the mid-19th century by Charles Dickens. Ebenezer Scrooge is much like the rich man in that he ignores the poor around him. His visits by the three spirits show him his past, present and future. He awakes on Christmas morning realizing that he still has time to make things right. The story ends with him celebrating Christmas with the Cratchet family and with sumptous meal he had paid for.
Our story is still unwritten. We still have time. Yes, the poor will annoy us at times. But we can’t ignore the poor around us. We are called to be in relationship with the least of these as difficult as it is. So let’s close the gap. Let’s remember the Lazaruses sitting at the corners of our lives. Thanks be to God. Amen.
*The image of the Rich Man and Lazarus is by Jason Micheli.