Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren
Jesus told a bunch of parables. The gospels are full of instructional stories about how to live faithfully – stories that Jesus told to make a point, to hit a soft spot in his listener’s heads and hearts, to translate whatever deep spiritual truths he knew about existence into palatable, bite-size narratives suitable for human ears. Jesus was a master storyteller. His parables are exquisitely structured, using an impossible economy of words, tiny, little punch-packing stories about the meaning of life.
Jesus told a lot of parables. Our parable this morning is unique in a very interesting way: in the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, LAZARUS is the one single character in any of Jesus’ parables. In the Gospel of Luke, there are 24 parables – 24 short stories by Jesus, and each parable has multiple characters. Usually, the characters are “a man,” “a rich man,” “a Samaritan,” “a woman,” “a sower,” “a servant.” In all his story-telling, this is the one and only time that Jesus gives a character a name.
Why IS that? Why does Jesus choose to name this poor wretch in the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man?
Well, first of all, let’s think about the story a little.
This parable has two worlds within two worlds.
There’s the world of the living and the world of the afterlife – 2 worlds.
And in each of those 2 worlds, there exist 2 worlds: the world of the rich and and the world of the poor man.
In the world of the living, the rich man wears fine linen clothes, throws elaborate banquets and feasts every day of his life. The rich man wasn’t just rich, he was uber-rich, ostentatious, a member of the 1%.
In the world of the living, the poor man has to have a friend pick him up and carry him to the rich man’s gate, hungry, unclothed, covered with sores. The dogs come and lick his sores and he is so poor and sick that he cannot even yell at them to leave. The poor man wasn’t just poor, he was poorer than poor, destitute, wretched.
In the world of the afterlife, the poor man is taken up – carried by angels – right into Abraham’s bosom, to the center of the universe, the most protected and secure place in all the universe.
In the world of the afterlife, the rich man is buried and ends up in Hades, tormented and tortured, as far as he can imagine from the comfort and luxury with which he lived his life.
The parable doesn’t tell us anything about either man other than their economic situation. We don’t know if the rich man was stingy or generous, a charitable giver or a hoarder of every penny. We don’t know if Lazarus was ‘working poor,’ ‘deserving poor’ or a ‘lazy welfare recipient.’
What we know, in the world of the parable, is that Lazarus, wretched and in need, found comfort, care and nurture in the afterlife. What we know, in the world of the parable, is that the rich man, ostentatious and swathed in luxury, ends up in Hades, tortured and confused in the afterlife.
Two worlds within two worlds.
This idea is a trope in folklore – it’s a classic story of reversal, one we know and identify with – the rags to riches reversal, the ugly duckling to beautiful swan reversal, the underdog becoming the champion story, the last becoming first and the first becoming last kind of story.
But this idea is so familiar because it is not just folklore – it is reality.
The last few years in America have been filled with news reports of racism, police brutality, riots in the streets, movements like Occupy Wall Street and #blacklivesmatter.
We’ve heard about the 99%, we’ve learned about CEOs making 1,000x the average worker in their stores, we’ve been barraged with news story after news story after news story of black people being shot and killed by police in their cars, in their neighborhoods, in their homes.
We’re beginning to understand that even here in America, in our home, in the place we know the most intimately, the land of the free and the home of the brave, the country that provides us with safety, security and endless opportunity, there are also worlds within worlds.
Langston Hughe’s classic poem, “Let America Be America Again” is one starting point for understanding these two worlds:
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Langston Hughes was, of course, a black man. His poetry speaks to the world within our world, the experience of America for people of color. Too often, the existence of this other world, this other experience, this completely alternate understanding of our country and our society is hidden from those of us who live in the other America – the one where liberty, freedom, justice and opportunity flow freely.
These last few years, if we’ve been paying attention, it’s become increasingly hard to ignore the fact that there are two worlds within our America – that the way I experience the economy, the way I relate to the police, the way I move about on public sidewalks, the way I save and spend my money, the way I am assured of my worth – is not necessarily the way my neighbors do.
A couple of months ago, I walked from my house on the east side of downtown Durham to the farmer’s market on a Saturday morning. On my way home, my re-usable bag filled with expensive local cheese and happy local flowers, the picture of young adult professional hipster strolling through her perfectly gritty urban streets, I noticed four young women on the sidewalk in front of me.
The young women were teenagers – definitely not out of high school, definitely not yet adults. They stood in front of a government building with hand-made cardboard signs. As I got closer, I could hear them shouting out the slogans they’d inscribed on their signs:
I gave the women a smile and a thank-you as I walked past, but as soon as I got out of earshot, I started crying. I cried the rest of the way home. These young women – these girls – were literally standing on the sidewalk shouting to the world that their lives had value. They were screaming in the street about their existence. They were using all they could muster – their presence, their bodies, their voices and their pluck – to insist that they belong, that they are human, that they deserve respect, that they ought not be ignored, oppressed, walked by, silenced, shot, murdered.
I have never – not once, not ever – felt that my life was in such danger of being disrespected, disregarded, abused or snuffed out that I needed to literally stand on a street corner and declare my own worth, assert my very existence.
I have never – not once, not ever – felt that my country didn’t value me, that the police were not for me, that the systems of economy and justice in my nation would not favor me or do right by me.
I have never – not once, not ever – been fearful of law enforcement, been shut out from renting a particular apartment or opening a particular bank account or applying for a particular job or attending a particular church.
No one gives me untrusting stares when I enter a store, no one moves to the other side of the street when I pass them. No one assumes I am a criminal. No one arrests me for being in a bad mood.
No one would mistake a book in my hand – a posture I assume every single day – for a gun, which is what Keith Lamont Scott’s family says happened on Tuesday when a police officer shot and killed him in Charlotte.
People with my skin color are not disproportionately impoverished, disproportionately ill, disproportionately arrested, disproportionately imprisoned, disproportionately murdered by the agencies ostensibly created to protect us.
I am oblivious to the other America. I am far too often ignorant of this other world within my world. But I am beginning to pay attention. I am beginning to listen to people who are not like me, who experience this world differently. I am trying to open my eyes and see what is literally right in front of me.
My friends who inhabit this other world within our world call this process of opening one’s eyes and finally seeing what’s been in front of our noses all along the process of ‘getting woke.’
The rich man in the parable never got woke. He never opened his eyes. He never saw the other world that was literally in front of his nose – lying there on the pavement at his very own gate. Even when he dies and goes to Hades, the rich man doesn’t get it. There, being tortured in the afterlife, he can see Lazarus reclining in the bosom of Abraham from afar.
The rich man, thirstier than he has ever been in his life, calls out: “Father Abraham! I am so thirsty! Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water and cool my tongue!”
Even in the afterlife, even in the midst of the flames, the rich man doesn’t get woke. He still refuses to open his eyes and see that Lazarus is not a commodity, not a creature there to slake his thirst and meet his needs. He refuses to see that Lazarus is a person, a human, a fellow man with needs and desires and wounds just like his own.
Abraham answers the rich man: Don’t you see, my child? You received all the good things in your lifetime and Lazarus only received agony. Now he is comforted with good things and you are in agony.
Besides, Abraham goes on, can’t you see this great chasm that exists between us? You are there and we are here and the chasm is so great that no one can cross it. That’s that world and this is this world and never the twain shall meet.
But the rich man, still SO resistant to getting woke, SO oblivious to what has happened, SO unable to process the reality of the two worlds within two worlds, won’t give it up.
“Okay, then, Father Abraham,” he says, “if you can’t help me, at least send Lazarus back to the world of the living to tell my brothers about this whole agony thing!” Do you hear that? Even now, even having given up on the possibility of being saved himself, he still wants to use Lazarus as a prop, as a servant, as a less-than-human slave and messenger to help out his rich, living brothers. He still does not get it. He still refuses to get woke.
Abraham reminds the rich man that his brothers – and, by implication, he himself – do not need messengers from the beyond to get them to start looking around, opening their eyes and crossing the chasm from one world within a world to another. “They have Moses and the prophets,” he says, “and if they won’t listen to what I have already given them, why would they listen any more to Lazarus, the wretched poor man you despised and ignored all your life?”
Here is the irony of this story: the rich man, unwilling to open his eyes and breach the chasm between his world of comfort and Lazarus’ world of agony in the world of the living, is rendered unable to cross the chasm between his world of agony and Lazarus’ world of comfort in the world of the afterlife.
Here is the irony of our story, the brilliance of Jesus’ parable for us: if we are unwilling to open our eyes and breach the chasm between our world of comfort and our neighbors’ world of agony in the world of America, the world of North Carolina, the world of Durham…
if we are unwilling to pay attention to what is literally in front of our noses, at our doorsteps…
if we are unwilling to listen to the voices of those who experience the world differently than we do…
if we cannot bear the pain of getting woke and choose to hide our heads in the sand, choose to ignore the suffering of our sisters and brothers, choose to argue with their experience of the world, choose to chastise them for failing to cooperate, choose to dismiss them as guilty before proven innocent because of where they live or what they look like…
if we are unwilling to GET WOKE,
Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms that there are dire, agonizing, unavoidable and irreversible repercussions for us, not just in this life, but in whatever world there is to come.
If we do not attempt to breach the chasm between our two worlds in the land of the living, we will experience an even greater, even more un-breachable chasm in the world to come.
That’s why Lazarus, among all the characters in Jesus’ dozens of parables, is the one who has a name. It’s because the rich man knew him, saw him, literally stepped over him whenever he left his house, knew his name, knew his condition, knew his need and STILL failed to understand.
There are names we know and do not understand today. The list is long, but this week, may we know and understand the names of Terrence Crutcher – killed by police in Tulsa on Monday and Keith Lamont Scott – killed by police in Charlotte on Tuesday. May our prayers for them, for their families, for their cities work to open our eyes and our hearts, work to help us breach the chasm between our world and theirs, work to awaken us to this reality, work to draw us more in line with Jesus’ vision of a world without chasms.