If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.
If you are really paying attention to the Gospel today, and I mean REALLY, it will lay out for you everything you need to know about what it means to be Christ in the world, because this scripture does not address sin, but sin of omission.
It means something to see suffering and just walk by. It means something to be okay with letting poor people eat the food you toss in the garbage. It means something to hoard away video game levels‘ worth of money and ignore everything else because hey, you’re not one of them. We are all guilty of grouping together poor people in order to keep them at bay. It’s much harder to know someone and not help them than it is to lump them all in one category because then it’s not personal. They are wholly other, set apart in their apparent lack of work ethic and inability to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and grab on to all the things we have, as if it were just as simple in practice to do so as it is to say those words out loud.
Maybe that’s why this parable is the only one Jesus ever told where someone was given a name. He didn’t say “poor people.” He didn’t say “homeless.” He didn’t say “the sick, the friendless, and the needy.” He used a man’s name… and to GREAT effect.
The man’s name was Lazarus, a variation of Eleazar, which means “God is my help.” Every day he laid in front of the gate to a rich man’s house. The rich man is not named, but over time, theologians have called him “Dives,” which literally just means “rich man.” And we are not talking about just any kind of rich man. We are talking about somone who wore dyed purple robes, hideously expensive even by today’s standards. Someone whose gate was not just a wooden fence, but the kind you’d imagine at a celebrity’s house. Someone who ate Michelin star meals every day in a land where people were lucky to get meat once a week.
By contrast, Lazarus could not get up, so covered in sores that he could not even keep the dogs from licking them. In terms of begging for food, we are not just talking about the crumbs under the table. In those days, there were no napkins or utensils, and it was common practice for everyone to wipe their hands on pieces of bread that were then thrown out. If you’ve ever seen a homeless person taking a cheeseburger out of a trash can and wiping off the coffee grounds first, you get the picture.
The best part of the whole story to me is the first line… “Jesus said to the Pharisees…” It is the ass-kicking they so richly deserve, because these are exactly the people that Jesus is talking about when he mentions “Dives.” Whether or not the Pharisees picked up on the fact that Jesus was talking about them or not is moot. It brings an evil grin to my lips just thinking about it.
In the parable, both men die. The rich man is in hell, and Lazarus is in heaven, and they can see each other. What becomes immediately clear right off the bat is that “Dives” knows the man’s name. He knows Lazarus. He has walked right by him every day, so this was not an unknown person to him. Did “Dives” sin outright? I mean, he didn’t tell him to leave. He didn’t mind that Lazarus ate his trash. But Jesus clearly wants more from us than that.
“Dives” begs for water, and Abraham is unmoved. According to Jesus, Abraham says, “my child, remember that you have received what was good in your lifetime, while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.” “Dives” isn’t tormented for all the things he’s done, but for all the things he failed to do. He walked around with blinders on his whole life and it cost him dearly.
And here is the crux of the gospel that continues to this very day. Jesus preaches Abraham with words so sharp you could pierce steel. Write them down.
Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours. He (“Dives”) says, “Then I beg you, Father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them lest they too come to this place of torment.”
Abraham says that the brothers already have the Torah and the prophets, and “Dives” begs, “but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.”
Abraham’s reply is so chock-full of reality that the words resound today. If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.
The chasm between rich and poor is still here, and we are still so ignorant of it that mummies could dance before our eyes and even then, it might not change our behavior. Charles Dickens was the only person we know of that actually changed someone by making Jacob Marley resurrect, but let us not forget that Ebenezer Scrooge was a fictional character.
And, of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. Jimmy Carter is the first person that comes to mind. But there are so many more Christians that say the words rather than putting in a quarter of the shoe leather he does.
We are on a ledge with this election, not in terms of candidates, but in terms of issues. Republicans want to rip apart an already tenuous social safety net aimed to help poor people when they cannot help themselves, particularly the homeless who are mentally ill and often unable to hold a job because of it, thus continuing the problem of homelessness as they go untreated. Democrats support these legislations, but the problem still remains as to how to get money allocated efficiently so that resources go directly to the people they’re trying to help rather than being tied up in overhead.
Many people say that there should be no safety net under poor people by the government because charity organizations exist for people to give privately, but the truth is that they don’t. Charitable contributions are down across the board as the chasm between rich and poor gets deeper and the once great middle class has no extra to give… and the richest of the rich avoid paying taxes due to a series of loopholes so that all the Lazaruses of the world are just left out in the cold. There is no easy way to solve this problem, especially when there is no state in the union where working 40 hours a week leaves enough income to rent a two-bedroom apartment, and God help anyone who’s trying to buy a house.
Where is the hope in all of this? Where can we find succor?
It starts from the inside out, deciding what kind of people we want to be. Do we want to be the type people that think it’s ok for others to eat out of our trash, or do we want to be the type people whose eyes are open wide to the Lazaruses of the world?
Our choice is not to blanket stereotype “poor people,” and learn their names. Learn their histories. Learn what they need, rather than trying to guess.
Because of this chasm between rich and poor, our choice may not be to give money, but we can give time at local soup kitchens. We can see homeless people and buy an extra entree to give away on the way out of a restaurant. Tiny things add up, because what might be a widow’s mite amount of money to you might mean the world to someone else.