LUKE 16 There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.
A few years ago, I was working in a wealthy, upper-middle class church in downtown Atlanta. Each night, homeless men and women would sleep on the steps of the church or in the courtyard. With not much choice in where to safely lay their heads, they made their bed of cardboard at the gates, hoping for a few hours of refuge from the reality of their life on the streets. That summer, I was leading service day trips with youth from all over the country, who traveled to Atlanta to experience first-hand issues facing urban populations. The church was gracious enough to let us host anywhere from 40-60 youth per night. The church members donated food for us to eat each night, which in turn meant a lot of spaghetti casseroles.
It is not unfamiliar for churches to have a strict policy on how their members interact with the men and women sleeping outside on their property. For liability reasons, we were not allowed to give out any food, in case someone were to get sick. The irony of it all- was that the church’s mission was to feed the hungry and expose these impressionable youths to the hardships of urban poverty and we were throwing away pounds of un-touched food each night because we had eaten our fill and not even so much as questioned this policy that prevented us redistributing our abundance.
In other words, Lazarus was laying at our gate, hungry and longing to satisfy himself with what fell from the table but we were too blind to see the parable unfold around us.
One just has to flip through the Gospel of Luke to notice that Christ’s concern was for the poor. He made them his priority in teaching and he often spoke of a day when they would experience an alternative to their current status. Christ himself was poor- born in a manger. At the beginning of his ministry, he stood up in the synagogue and claimed, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because GOD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” At the Sermon on the Mount Jesus preached, “Blessed are your who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God. Blessed are those of you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” He also instructed his disciples, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” And let us not forget his haunting, and forthright directive, “Go sell all your possessions and give them to the poor.”
Jesus is calling us out!
Constantly directing our attention to the destitute, encouraging us to not slip through the gate without first taking notice of Lazarus.
The Rich Man asks for two things while being tormented by the flames: a cool drop of water to wet his tongue, and after he is denied that, a messenger to warn his family about their future if they continue to not see the needs of others. What would it look like for us to place ourselves not as either the Rich Man or Lazarus but as the objects of his simple requests? What does it look like for the Church to be a satisfying, healing drink of water to someone who is desperately thirsty? What does it look like for the Body of Christ to be a messenger to a world consumed by opulence and selfish greed? The welfare of all depends on the needs of even the lowliest. What does it mean to be stuck right in the middle of the great divide between Lazarus and the Rich Man- to act as the Gospel beckons us to open our gates a little wider and allow for other’s to sit at our table and be filled, just as we are?
The wealthy church in downtown Atlanta had very good reasons for not distributing food to the folks who persisted at their gates each night but I felt haunted by the nauseating feeling of hypocrisy and guilt each time we threw out another pan of spaghetti.
Now, I am not typically one to break rules or challenge authority But one night, Will and I decided that we should try to sneak the food out the side door and down into the back parking lot. He agreed. Soon after, we started making small meals for the men and women outside. We would put a large serving of leftover food in a brown paper lunch sack and leave it by their makeshift bed’s as we left the church for the evening. No one spoke to us or even asked where the food came from. We received a few smiles or small nods for our generosity but nothing more.
The Rich Man, though wealthy in material possessions, refused to see his own poverty until it was too late but how would things have been different if he had lived in recognition of his poverty and dependence on the goodwill of others? Would he have been more generous towards Lazarus? Our commonality is much greater than our difference and often times the chasms that divide are circumstances and not due to anything we have, or haven’t done.
Will you act as the messenger of mercy to the person in need who might be laying at your gate because your recognize yourself in them? We are all poor, reliant upon God’s grace. Reliant upon the grace and mercy of a good God, who is most clearly present among us when we take care of one another’s needs.