The Best of the Best
Proper 21, Year C, RCL, Track 1
1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31
Names are important. In the Bible, names are often a symbol of personhood, authority above someone else. This power is demonstrated by Jesus as he exercises demons. We find the demons don’t know Jesus’ name. They know him by his title, Lord of the most high. Yet Jesus knows their names, and with the name, he can exercise them. In some cases, we see this in our society, where two people of the same age might address each other differently based on status. The subservient person uses terms like ma’am or sir, Mrs. or Mr. While the person of higher status would only use that person's first name. The use of someone’s name can set up a hierarchy of power. So, when it comes to today’s gospel, I find it fascinating that the wealthy man has no name. In most biblical stories the wealthy people or people who have authority are the ones who are named. It’s the women and the poor who are often left nameless. Subtle distinctions like this reinforce the deeds of the powerful and privileged while others are dismissed as less important. Yet, today, just the opposite is true. The man dressed in the finest linen, who eats the best food, is left unnamed. And it is the poor beggar, Lazarus, who is named.
This parable, like most, demonstrates how the kingdom of heaven is rather upside down from what we expect. The cultural norms of subservience, in which lower class people serve the upper class, are reversed. In this story, the people in hell can see clearly what is going on in heaven. Even though there is a huge chasm between them, they seem to be so close to heaven that they can speak or yell at one another. And I wonder if the wealthy man was close enough to smell the cool water flowing in the heavenly streams.
In this parable, we find the wealthy man, suffering the torture and heat of hell. He can see Lazarus in a place of privilege, standing next to Abraham. Yet, he still wants lowly Lazarus to serve him, to bring him cool water. He commands, “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” He still doesn’t see Lazarus as an equal. I guess, while in the earthly realm, the rich man walked past Lazarus so often that he no longer saw him. He was just a bump in the road. And he never crossed that road to give him something to drink, eat, or heal his wounds. He knew Lazarus by name but still treated his dogs better than a fellow human in need. And this makes me wonder how many people in our community are unseen, walked by, or avoided.
Sure, there are violent or aggressive people, with whom we shouldn’t get too close. But that’s not the majority of the people we take for granted. And I’m not just talking about the homeless. I’m speaking about our attitudes, and actions toward the clerk at the grocery store or the wait staff at a restaurant. Do we regard them as we do our loved ones? Do we address them as we would a friend? Would we even know them by name if we walked passed them on the street? I’m not saying we need to do anything more than build the most basic of relationships. Offer kindness and a generous heart. Show concern for their wellbeing, especially if they seem to be having a bad day. Most importantly, read their name tag, remember their name, and use it. Everyone wants to be recognized by name. Everyone wants to be seen as a person.
We often think of this story as one about wealth and poverty. And money and wealth indeed are one of the most talked about topics in our holy scriptures. We hear that it would be easier for a rich man to enter through the eye of a needle than to enter the kingdom of heaven. But what we more often hear is that wealth, in and of itself, is not bad or sinful.
Wealth becomes sinful when we become more attached to it than the other more important things in life: our relationships with people, God, and the church. It is about being content in life. Blessings abound no matter what financial state you are in. Our epistle to Timothy states this directly and it goes on to pronounce that those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by harmful desires. For example, when you were in high school or college, you probably didn’t care what kind of car you had. Sure, some were better than others, but anything was better than nothing. But as we have done better for ourselves, that secondhand Toyota Corolla may not be as appealing as a new Lexus. Maybe at this point in life, you can’t even imagine driving such a car to your friend’s house, to work, or even to church. Again, I’m not saying having nice things or a nice car is bad, but wealth does change our perception. When we have nice things we often want nicer things. And when wealth changes our perception to a point where we do not see other people as equal, then we begin to get into trouble spiritually. God does not see us based on what we have but on our relationship with him and our neighbors. “For those who . . . are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”
Wealth isn’t bad, but we are shown the outcome of a person who has a good life yet ignores the plight of humanity. Christ tries to tell us that seeing others with love and kindness is more important than the wealth we build. The sin that is brought to our attention is living a life focused on the things we have while ignoring those who struggle, those who have less, and those who, for whatever reason, are not making it on their own.
We don’t know what led Lazarus to be on the streets, begging for a living, covered in sores. And whatever the reason is, it doesn’t seem to be important to Christ, who is telling us this story. What is important is the lack of care, empathy, and concern that this man has for Lazarus’ wellbeing and dignity.