Hearing the Cry of the Poor
Critics of the faith often
contend that the gospel accounts are irrelevant and impractical because
they are stories from an agriculture based society that lose their
meaning a technology driven culture. They were also told to people with
a very different view of the supernatural. Without the benefits of the
Enlightenment, the critic argues, the ancients had an almost
superstitious religious view. While I disagree with the conclusions, I
agree that the challenge of preaching is to apply the message from one
culture to another. This is often times not easy. Today's Scripture
passage is a good example. It contains many symbols that seem
meaningless to the enlightened mind.
The most glaring is the
topic-heaven. In a Gallup Survey 71% of the respondents stated that
they believe in heaven but in the typical conversation, it is only a
casual reference. We may refer to it in the abstract or tell funny
stories about it.
Just recently, I read an
intriguing description of heaven and hell. It described
where the cooks are French,
the police are English,
the mechanics are German,
the lovers are Italian,
and everything is organized by the Swiss.
Hell is where the English are the cooks,
the Germans are the police,
the French are the mechanics,
the Swiss are the lovers,
and everything is organized by the Italians.
We can laugh about it and
refer to its celestial location but our daily conversations seldom
dwell on the topic.
In an article in
Christianity Today, Phillip Yancy notes that in the past four
annual volumes of the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature do not
record any articles on the subject. Topics such as old age, death, and
on out of-the-body experiences had several listings, but none are about
heaven.1 We may watch TV stories that mention our eternal home in their
title but the story is about life in the here and now. Yancy has also
observes that even on dying patients do not include the topic as they
work through the psychological issues to arrive at the serene stage of
acceptance. Yancy cannot understand why "holding up the prospect of
annihilation as brave and that of blissful eternity as cowardly?"2
Another element to the story
that is out-of-sync with our culture is the severe judgment upon the
rich man. The post-modern mind has removed the word from its
vocabulary, especially in reference to eternity. The pearly gates are
wide enough to allow easy access and are never closed. In my
preparation for this sermon, I search two data bases that were
specifically geared for sermon illustrations. I only found two.
Apparently, we even the church is not interested in the topic. Once
again, this is in contrast to the first century mind. Stories of
judgment were common. Even this story may have had its origin it a more
In a document, dating to 47
A.D. tells the story of a famous philosopher who is reincarnated and
born to a king. The son, or wise man, takes his father on a tour of the
dead to see what happened to both a rich man who had been honorably
lamented, shrouded in fine linen and sumptuously buried and a poor man
who had been carried out of the city unmourned on a straw mat. The rich
man was in torment with the axle of a door hinge fixed in his right eye
and the poor man robed in the man's fine linen.3
While the parable of the
rich man and Lazarus has many things that are dissimilar to our
culture, it also has many elements that still allow for a direct
application of its message today.
POVERTY IS SITTING AT OUR DOOR
After Jesus opens the story
with a brief description of the luxury of the rich man, he tells us
that Lazarus sits each day just outside his gate. The point is not
subtle. The rich man could not have missed Lazarus. The prospects of
social contact are affirmed when the rich man calls Lazarus by name.
Even in his torment and separated by a great gulf the rich man knew the
name of the man in Abraham's bosom.4 He cannot use the excuse that he
never knew anyone who was poor.
In the 1960s Bob Dylan asked
nine stunning questions in his poem, Blowing in the Word. He asks all
times must a man look up,
before he can see the sky?
Yes'n, how many ears must one man have,
before he can hear people
Jesus is asking the same
questions in his parable. Some may try to escape through a loophole.
They may claim that the only time they see people in poverty is when
they drive into Detroit. They do not have the times to discover how
best to help and they are reluctant to give for fear of the money being
Such a rationally is silly.
Jesus uses the style of hyperbole to convey his message. The rich do
not allow beggars to camp outside their door day after day. The rich
can afford security guards. The local police would have responded to
any request to remove such a beggar. The town council of Suffolk, VA is
doing just that. They are busily drafting a set of laws to outlawing
panhandling. The local bank manager has complained that beggars are
intimidating his customers after they leave the bank. You gotta give
those homeless credit, they may be poor but they are not stupid. They
know how to follow the money. However, this is not to completely
condemn the Suffolk, VA town council. The issue is just as problematic
in Colorado Springs CO and they already have a law on their books
prohibiting panhandling. The difference is that Colorado Springs has an
extensive network of social service agencies. The homeless and the poor
have a wealth of resources to draw upon. However, in CO the social
service agencies, not the local merchants, are the groups pleading with
the police to enforce the law. The social workers want the law enforced
because that will help them provide effective aid to the disadvantaged.
It will enable them to teach people how to become self-sufficient
rather than welfare dependant.
We may feign one excuse or
another about how we are not responsible for either the suffering of
the poor in this country or throughout the world but Jesus' hyperbole
reminds us that one day he will hold us accountable. We are without
excuse. How many ears must we have to see? And how many ears must we
have to hear their pain?
The second element in the
parable that strikes at the core of the problem is the arrogant
self-interest of the rich man. Notice what he asks father Abraham,
"Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water." Even after his
eternal punishment has been pronounced and Lazarus exalted, the rich
man assumes his superiority over Lazarus. The poor man is there to
serve, to meet his needs, and to respond to his beck and call.
The arrogance of the wealthy
nations, including and especially, the US is a severe hindrance in
ministering to the poor. We assume that we have answers. We are
reluctant to surrender are authority to control the disbursement of
funds and food supplies. We also bulk at taking decisive steps that are
not to our financial advantage. This attitude hindered the
international campaign to relieve the debt of Third World known as
Jubilee 2000. Borrowing from an ancient law in the OT, its supports
asked debtor nations to write off the debts of the Third World. Wall
Street bankers and corporate directors would not seriously consider it.
The prospect of a substantial loss in revenue was just too great. They
were able to draft a litany of sound financial reasons to justify their
inaction. To the post-modern ear that places a higher value on personal
security over helping another person, their reasons appear justified.
Forgiving financial debt just did not make sense, even if God told
Israel to do it every fifty years.
Even the rich man's final
request is saturated with self-interest. He is only concerned about his
family; everyone else could go to hell for all he cares. Maybe his
suffering would be just a little less if he knew that he saved someone
Some might argue that in a
capitalistic system, business executives are accountable to their
stockholders and the president and senators to the voting public. The
former must show a profitable return on their investment and the latter
must maintain economic prosperity. However, if we read the writings of
the OT and the ancients we would discover that the maximum profit
margin mentality of the Twentieth Century was once abhorrent to people
of faith. The OT is filled with commandments that if followed would
prohibit the accumulation of property and excessive profit. In 1635,
the elders of the church charged a Puritan merchant with defaming God's
name. The General Court of the Commonwealth convicted him of greed
because he sold his wares at 6 percent profit. The law only allowed for
a 2% profit margin.5
Before he can help the poor,
we must learn to become their servant. What will it take for us
individually and as a nation to cast aside are arrogant, self-interest.
NO SPECIFICS ENABLE CREATIVITY
The third important element
in this story is the lack of a specific response. Jesus does not tell
us exactly what to do; yet, the parable stresses the importance of a
response. We cannot hide behind a shield of ignorance. Procrastination
is never understandable. However, the lack of specifics should be seen
as the freedom for creativity. We should not feel guilty for following
or not following the lead of another person. Someone may choose to
support an orphan through Compassion International, another may decided
to serve through FISH while another may collect two cents at every meal
and deposit their weekly offering into the glass bowl on the bank
table. We must be careful to avoid legalism. However, the call to
respond is required.
On Tuesday, I seriously
considered walking down the aisle at this juncture passing out the CROP
WALK donation envelopes and insisting that each person make a pledge to
support someone who is walking or to join our team of walkers. I
decided that that tactic was too manipulative. It took away not only
your creativity to respond to the poor but deprived you of the
opportunity to respond freely to God's offer of grace.
Jesus never manipulated
anyone. That is why he told stories. Their were not very entertaining,
uplifting, or easy to understand but they always required a response.
His stories always demanded something from his listeners. What is going
to be your response? We have done a lot this year but we could do so
much more. When will you look beyond your depleted bank account, the
maxed out charge cards and the second mortgage to see and hear the cry
of the poor.
1 Phillip Yancy, "Heaven
Can't Wait," 6 June 2003 Christianity Today; [online] available from
http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/122/55.0.html, 24 September
3 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The
Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV, The Anchor Bible, (New York:
Doubleday, 1985, 1125.
4 Kenneth Bailey, "The
Clothes Horse and the Beggar," Studies in the NT, [on-line] available
from http://www.shenango.org/bailey_article.htm, accessed 24 September
5 Rodney Clapp, "Why the
Devil takes VISA," Christianity Today, 7 October 1996, vol. 40, no. 11,