Bridging the Gap
While attending a synod meeting, I talked
with another minister from Alaska about the expectations churches had
looking for a new minister. We both wondered if any of them actually
a real person who matches all of their advertised pastoral skills,
and personality traits. He shared that one church wrote in their ad,
your congregation say WOW! at the end of your sermon? Then we want to
to you." While I am not, sure what most people say at the end of my
I am really nervous about what you may say after this one because my
is that uncomfortable theme of money.
My anxiety level increased when I read during
my sermon preparation that people who attend church are less likely to
talk about money than the general population. In one survey, only 5% of
the people who attend a church or synagogue said that they had ever
their personal finances with a friend. But in the general population,
12% stated that they had discussed the matter with another person. The
same tend holds true when both groups were asked if they had ever
with a friend how much money they actually earn.
This tendency toward silence also applies
to our major purchases. We would be startled if someone approached us
the church parking lot and said, "Wow, nice SUV. How much did that cost
you?" In contrast, we almost enjoy complaining, in general, about the
costs of goods and services, we just do not want to say publicly the
price that we paid for our house or car or new boat.
So, you can see why I am a bit nervous about
this sermon. I suppose that I should simply follow the advice of the
to the hospital chaplain. The minister was new and had never delivered
a sermon on a psych ward. To compound his anxiety the lectionary
that day was the story of the healing of a man with a demonic spirit.
chaplain did not want the patients to believe that he thought an evil
possessed them. They psychiatrist tried to calm the chaplain's nerves
telling him not to worry, "The patient's are just like everyone else,"
said the psychiatrist, "They will assume that you are talking about the
other patients." So if the sermon becomes too convicting, just assume I
am talking about the other patients, er, people.1
A PARABLE OF REVERSAL 2
Like so many of his stories, Jesus tells a
parable of reversal. Someone low is going up; someone high is being
low. Bob Dylan captured the thought in his song The Times They are a
The ballad came out of the turbulent 60's; an era of dramatic social
In poetic rhyme, Dylan warned that
The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin'
And the first one now will later be last
For the times, they are a changing3
Mary also warned us to expect such radical
reversals in her song, that we now call the Magnificant.
My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my
He has performed mighty deeds with his
he has scattered those who are
proud in their
He has brought down rulers from their
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away
This was the great hope of the Jewish nation.
They had become the scorn of the world. They had been invaded and
by Nebacanezzar and the nation of Babylon. Several centuries later,
the Great marched through their land. Then came the Romans. The Jewish
nation hoped that one day God would bring a great reversal. Jesus
the crowd by telling them that the turn of events may come in
THE PAINFUL REALNESS OF THE GAP
Jesus begins the parable by sketching the
gap between the rich man and Lazarus in very vivid and stark terms-the
poor man sits outside the city gates with dogs licking the sores on his
body while the rich man enjoys the comfort of elegant attire. The
goes hungry each night, while the affluent man enjoys sumptuous
The rich man remains oblivious to the suffering and degrading condition
of Lazarus. One commentator has even suggested that the dogs belonged
the rich man himself.4 The imagery is one of real, painful suffering by
a poor man.
Although people will argue about its cause
and cures, no one will argue about the painful reality of poverty in
Even in a time of economic prosperity and welfare reform people face
suffering. In 1998, the poverty threshold for a family of four was
in annual income and $12,802 for a family of three. 35.6 million people
live below those levels5. The American Catholic bishops addressed the
by warning that our economy "seems to be leading to three nations
side by side; one growing more prosperous and powerful, one squeezed by
stagnant incomes and rising economic pressures and one left behind in
poverty." A former Secretary of Labor described these segments as the
the anxious class and the underclass." Economists tell us that we have
greater economic disparities in the US than in any of the developing
The gap between the rich and the poor has
not always existed in America. In the 1830's, a Frenchman visited our
and wrote a book about his impressions of the American experience.
de Tocqueville was a member of the French nobility. He noted that one
characteristic of our young nation was the pervasive sense of equality.
Few were very, rich and few were terribly poor. If our nation is to
its strength, its people must discover ways of bridging this gap.
By telling, the story of the rich man and
Lazarus Jesus places the responsibility for this gap at the foot of
believer. The story brings even our finances under his lordship. He
us accountable for every child who cries in hunger. We will be
for every person who dies alone. We will responsible for every person
walks the streets in despair and without hope because they cannot find
affordable housing or a job that will pay enough to feed and cloth
THE POOR ARE NOT TO BLAME
Another aspect of the parable that is worth
noting is the absence of blame. Jesus does not indicate why Lazarus was
poor. Was he born into poverty? Did he suffer a great financial loss
to unforeseen conditions? Was he poor due to the mismanagement of his
gifts, or resources? Those questions are not on the table for
Jesus appears to be saying, they do not matter. Whether the person is
due to a moral flaw or lack of effort is not the issue. The issue is,
will be our response.
I was reminded just how easy it is to misjudge
someone and blame them for their own problems while driving back from
after a meeting. I exited the freeway to get something to drink. I
two people hitchhiking on the entrance ramp that I would be using to
to the highway. They were pretty disheveled looking. One was lying on
ground asleep. I knew that I would have to pick them up but I did not
to. By their appearance, they looked like two people who really had
a mess of their lives, but I was soundly convicted when I heard their
They were long distance haulers from Detroit.
Their truck had broken down in Seattle and they did not have enough
to get it fixed. They hoped to get a ride to Spokane and contact some
so that they could regroup and get back on their feet. They never asked
for money, or complained about their misfortune. They were making due
a bad situation. Before we can truly minister to the poor, we must see
them with new eyes. Rather, then cast blame upon them, or look down
them for not working hard enough, or for foolishly spending their
we must see them as people in need, who need to experience the grace
compassion of Christ through our lives.
WE HAVE BEEN WARNED
The rich man reveals the typical attitude
of people who repeatedly ask for a sign so astonishing as to compel
to believe, to change, and to obey. Abraham tells the rich man that if
a person is so full of unbelief and worldly-mindedness that they do not
listen to the Word of God or the prophets they will not even believe if
someone were to rise from the dead. Today God still raises up prophets
to remind us to care for others. After Mother Theresa's death the New
Times offered this eulogy:
Mother Teresa, who had been a school
administrator in a suburb of Calcutta, began working in the slums of
poverty-ridden and densely populated city in 1948.
She had received what she described as a divine
"call within a call" two years earlier while riding on a train. "The
was quite clear," she recalled. "I was to help the poor while living
them. It was an order."
In 1950 she established the Order of the Missionaries
of Charity, becoming its Superior General. She went on to organize
and far-flung programs for the impoverished, eventually reaching more
Her chief task, as she defined it, was to
provide "free service to the poor and the unwanted, irrespective of
creed, nationality or race."
In predominantly Hindu India, she made sure that
the priests of her order gave last rites, the Roman Catholic sacrament
for the dying, only on request, and that they dealt with the dead
to the practices of the individual's own religion. For the living,
Teresa set up orphanages, schools in slum areas and what were known as
Pure Heart Homes for sick and dying homeless people.6
Her life was a true prophetic witness to awaken
us out of our self centered slumber and hear the cries of the needy.
we hear her voice? More importantly will we hear the cry of the poor?
APPLYING THE TEXT
The message of today's Scripture lesson is
easy to understand, but difficult to live. In the suburbs, we can
avoid seeing poor people. We can sooth our conscious by saying that we
buy gifts for FISH at Christmas. Or we donate each month to the United
Way. But I wonder if of that is enough. I wonder, if there is a
program in which you could become involved? I wonder if there is a
for Humanity project in which you could participate? I wonder if there
is jail ministry in which you could join? I wonder if you would be
to join the Crop Walk or support someone who will be walking? I wonder
if you could redo your family budget and give more generously to an
ministering to the poor?
Organizationally, we have much to do. Our
mission budget is quite low. I wonder how we can expect God's blessings
when we as a church spend more each month to pay off the interest on
building loan than we do in helping others? Over the past year, the
committee has been one of the least active committees in the church. We
need someone who would be willing to moderate the committee. We need
who are willing to spend time developing ministries that touch people
One idea that we should give serious consideration
to is the use of our land. A woman with a real vision and heart for the
poor used the vacant land owned by the church to plant Christmas trees.
When the trees matured, they were cut and donated to the Salvation
That is only one idea. Someone may have a different idea. What we do is
not as important as doing something.
Whether this parable is good news or bad news
depends to a great extent on which end of the escalator you find
At the beginning of the parable, we see our world, the world where
is a great chasm fixed between the rich and the poor. By the end of the
parable, Jesus encourages us to see God's world, the world as God
it. My hope and prayer are that we who are now on the top learn to
the gap between the poor and ourselves so that we do not find ourselves
sitting with the rich man, outside of the kingdom of God.
1 I have long since forgotten
the source of this story.
2 William H. Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol.
26, No. 3, p. 51.
3 Bob Dylan, The Times They Are a-Changin,
1963, M. Witmark & Sons.
4 Joesph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., The Gospel According
to Luke (X-XXIV), The Anchor Bible, (New York: DoubleDay, 1985), 1132.
5 Census Bureau, Poverty Rate Down, Household
Income Up -- Both Return To 1989 Pre-Recession Levels, September 24,
6 Eric Pace, Mother Teresa, Comforter of
the Poor and Afflicted, Dead at 87, New York Times, September 9, 1997.