The Man with no Name
SIXTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST 2019 LUKE 16:19-31
So, it’s been a tough week at the Rectory. There’s been an atmosphere – a feeling in the air that someone has become just too big for their boots. The other residents of the house are feeling unsettled, like the arrogance of the guilty party has gone too far. Now if you think this is me about to launch into another rant about our cat Oreo, you are absolutely correct. As you will know if you were at the Town Council meeting last Tuesday, Oreo chose that important public forum as the venue for his latest crime of trespass. Go to TAP into Westfield’s Facebook page and you will view photos of him swaggering into the packed council chamber, oozing entitlement.
So, he got what was coming to him, and was bundled out of the chamber and taken next door where he was locked in a police cell. Let’s just get this right. This is the third time that I have gone across the street to literally get him out of jail. And just like the other two occasions the duty sergeant unlocked the cell door and out he came all attitude. Only now he’s even worse because he’s a celebrity. He seems to know that for a few hours on Wednesday morning he went viral. I don’t know how many likes the posts about him on that Facebook page have received as of today, but he is displaying the air of a cat who knows he is a social media sensation. It’s like he’s waiting for a contract from Dancing with the Stars. There can surely be nothing worse than living with an entitled cat. Actually, ending the day in jail was a spectacular fall from grace because just that morning I had retrieved him from a lawyer’s office on St Paul Street, where he’d gone to scrounge food. And unbelievably, the lawyer had taken him in and given him half his lunch, thereby adding to his sense of entitlement.
That’s the problem with fame. It can go to your head. It’s also the problem with money. Unless they are daily reminding themselves of their humanity and their mortality, people with large fortunes can be seduced into thinking they are invincible, untouchable, unaccountable. That sense of entitlement, can be so seductive that before long they can lose all their empathy, their concern for other people is slowly suffocated by apathy. Of course, they are not unique in that – this is a danger for all of us, no matter our bank balance. But those blessed with fortunes face temptations and dangers that the rest of us don’t. We can all allow apathy to overwhelm empathy, but it is easier when you have enough wealth to insulate yourself from the suffering of the world.
Paul put it so brilliantly in that reading from First Timothy just now: “Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”
That’s what the rich man in Jesus’ parable did. He insulated himself behind a wall of comfort, isolated himself from the experience of those for whom he had a responsibility – for with great resources comes great responsibility. As Jesus says elsewhere, “Those to whom much is given, of them much is expected.”
Welcome to a world of magic and mayhem created by Jesus The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, we call it. Not for the first time this month we are left puzzled and anxious by one of Jesus’ stories. It’s truly shocking, and it is possible to completely misread it and end up forming some quite harmful opinions about God.
A tale of two men. For one it is the best of times, for the other the worst. One has everything, the other nothing. One lives in a mansion behind walls, the other lives on the street outside his gates. One possesses power, because in every culture money equals power, the other so lacks it that he can’t even stop the dogs licking his wounds.
But they have other differences too, and actually, these other differences are more important. One has a name, the other does not; one has a legacy, the other does not; one has destiny, the other does not. Your name, you see, gives you dignity, value, honor. It means you are a person, not an object, made in the image of God. If you are anonymous you leave no legacy, you have no relationships, you survive in a cold, gloomy world with no love or meaning. Lazarus the homeless, has a name – a good name, a magnificent name. Lazarus means ‘God has helped’, and in the context of the parable it is full of ironic glory. The rich man, well he is just the rich man. Really, is that all you’ve got? Just money? No friends, no dignity, no real worth, no name?
When Gelind and I visited Savannah, Georgia, a few months ago, we went to a Museum called the Owen-Thomas House and Slave Quarters, and it is, as you’d guess, an early 19th century home owned and occupied by a well-to-do Regency family. It has been solemnly restored to how it looked two hundred years ago as a memorial to humanity’s inhumanity, the evil trade that made Savannah rich in money and in sin. It is impossible for anyone with a conscience to visit this home without being stirred by empathy and by anger, particularly, for me, when I viewed an exhibit at the start of the tour, where the names of many of the African people that had been taken to Savannah were recorded on a wall. Most of the names were biblical and some of them descriptive of the people who bore them, but there was one that moved me more than I can describe – because it wasn’t a name. Written on the wall was just ‘Boy’. As if being born into servitude, and with the certainty that you would live and die with no hope of freedom, were not enough, this child was not even given a name. Even the family’s dog had a name.
And so, asks Jesus, who is the dignified one in the parable and who is the wretch? Who is enslaved by their wealth and who is truly free? Who has been dehumanized by their circumstances and who is destined for greatness? Well, the Great Reversal gives us the shocking answer.
Both men die and Lazarus is carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man goes in the other direction. In torment, he looks up and sees Lazarus next to Abraham, and he calls out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to give me some water.” But Abraham replies, “I can’t do that. During your lifetime you received good things, and Lazarus had a terrible life. But now he is here in comfort, but you are suffering.” But the rich man bargains, “Even if he can’t come and give me a drink then please at least send him to my father’s house, and warn my five brothers to start living right and avoid this awful place.” But Abraham responds, “They have the Bible – if they won’t listen to that, then they won’t listen even to a dead man who comes back to life.”
Now, what are we going to do with this parable? This story raises big problems for modern thoughtful Christians like us. It seems that Jesus is saying, “if you’re poor in this life then you’ll have an amazing time after you die, and if you’re rich you’ll end up being tortured.” Hands up everyone who is happy with that interpretation. Well, relax. That’s not what Jesus is teaching. Here’s the thing about parables. They only have one point to them, and in this parable the point is not the nature of life after death or that having wealth is a sin and being poor is a virtue. It is about one thing, and one thing only. ‘The soul-destroying disease of apathy.’ Especially, apathy in the face of human suffering and injustice. As Edmund Burke put it, “All it takes for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing”. Apathy is one of my favorite sins, because I don’t have to try very hard to show I mean it.
Maybe many years ago, perhaps when Lazarus first showed up at his gates, the rich man noticed him. Perhaps he even took pity on him. It’s possible that when he glanced out of his window he saw this pathetic figure of a man huddled in the street his heart was moved. Maybe there was a pang of empathy, a fleeting solidarity with his fellow traveler. But instead of acting on what his heart was saying he turned away. Listen carefully and you’ll hear him, “It’s a tragedy, I know, but it is what it is. The poor will always be with us. And helping is risky. When we reach out to the disadvantaged they may exploit our goodness. Some bad types might slip through the net. What’s the point of helping one unfortunate person when there’ll be another one along to take his place? And in any case, if you do help such people you will actually be harming them – it will only encourage them to live off charity rather than take responsibility for themselves.”
The first thing that goes is your heart. It becomes closed, hard, calloused. Then, into some tight little crevasse a seed falls. The germ of apathy. And when it takes root and sprouts, its shoots reach up from the heart to the eyes, and you are blinded to the suffering of others. The rich man is trapped in such blindness that even as he endures the torment he feels entitled – the purpose of Lazarus, he thinks, is to serve him. He still doesn’t get it. “Send Lazarus to give me a drink, send him to warn my brothers” he demands of Abraham.
Entitled cats. Entitled humans. Let’s finish with an entitled God. God who is truly entitled to receive all worship, honor and obedience, and yet who gave it all up to become a human being to show us the way to a humble life of service, and to die and rise so that we might have the freedom and the power to overcome our natural apathy and grow hearts that beat with passion and compassion. In the truly entitled God we find the key to unlock our prisons of apathy and plant the seed that grows empathy.