Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Rich Man and Lazarus

Back in 1980 I worked in Washington, D.C., and I walked to work.

I started out in Georgetown on Que Street, crossing the Buffalo Bridge walking east to Dupont Circle, then down Connecticut Avenue to the corner of Lafayette Park, past Decatur House and Blair House, crossing at the light, then along Pennsylvania Avenue down to 13th Street N.W. As I crossed at that stop light I came onto the sidewalk in front of the White House.

There was an old lady who wore purple, who needed a safe place. She found it in front of the White House. As I walked by each morning on my way to work farther downtown, I would see her there, huddled against the fence, in the corner between it and the guards' station. She was there every morning that fall (1980).

I checked once, with the guard, an eye check, just a nod: yes, he knew she was there, and yes, they looked out for her, every night. And every morning I would walk by. She was cold but she was safe.

Lazarus lay at the gate of a big house too - but he was starving. He would have gladly gathered up the scraps discarded by the rich man's guests.

He was invisible - or more truthfully, ignored.

The day came when that rich man died - and discovered that he wasn't safe.

Fortunes were reversed. All of his life was built on the pleasure principle - he lived well and trusted to his wealth to bring him safety. But that was all gone now.

"Let goods and kindred go; this mortal life also" - he wasn't ready for that.

All that was left was what he could have always counted on - the justice and mercy of God - but he'd counted on something else: Mammon, that is, worldly wealth or power or status - any one of those things that people place between themselves and reality, themselves and the true God, themselves and the reality of the life that is really life - the life of obedience ot God.

Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, he says - did he still not get it?

His next request: send him to my brothers, my closest kindred, so they may be spared this agony. At least give me that.

But the estate tax is 100% - it's all gone and worthless now.

What lasts? What lasts but the promise of God?

Jeremiah discovered the promise held in the most desperate circumstances. Jerusalem was under siege - the mighty army of Babylon was encamped beneath its crumbling walls.

He had told the leaders of Israel there was no point - they had no chance to defeat this army. God would remold Israel, remake it - break it if need be - and only in God would they find safety. Certainly they would not find it in their own prowess.

Jeremiah relied on nothing less than God's promise when he insisted on buying a plot of land for full price, in full public view - when he could have driven a hard bargain, or just forgotten about it.

His city was under siege and he knew there was no hope to be found in the walls and troops defending those walls - the mighty army around them was bound to come in - and sure enough they did. (Jerusalem fell, and its leaders went into exile in Babylon for seventy years.)

But before that day the Lord sent a message to Jeremiah and through the prophet to the people: there will come a day beyond that day. Beyond defeat, the death of your hopes in common defenses, there will be a new era - and houses and vineyards, and fields will once again be valued and purchased here.

Bury that pot for now - it contains what must be preserved: the due dull formula of commerce of course but now commerce serves a holy purpose - not for its own sake but for something beyond human striving - it points, a sign of God's eternal faithfulness: there will come a time when all will be made right and all will be well.

Paul tells Timothy start living now like that day is almost here: anticipate the return from exile, the coming of the true king, the day of the Lord.

All things will be set right - put your trust in God.

What fouls people up is not wealth or poverty - what fouls people up is the eager striving, the craving, the wanton desire, the desperate need, to get more and then more again, that leads to destruction.

What you have - what you have been given - you have been given in trust, to use to the glory of God.

If you must pursue anything seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness, seek godliness, faith, love, and gentle endurance - it is in these that the path to true riches lies.

What you have before you is imperishable - take the transitory things as a way to work good in the world, be rich in good works, generously sharing God's abundance, so that you may grasp at last the true inheritance: the life that is really life, in God's presence.

Jeremiah bought the field his kinsman offered to show that the land of promise was going to see the fulfillment of God's purpose. You can live that way - it's not safe but it's good.

There is an old woman who lives in the desert - she sold her house in the foothills and moved far away from the city to a ranch outside a small mining town. It's near the border - the southern border.

Sometimes people come to her house out of the desert - they are sick, they are tired, they are poor, they are hungry, they are old - or young; and she takes care of them.

Lady, please, the Border Patrol says, don't - they are worried about her safety.

But she does - so far, safely.

But I think she know that it may not always be safe for her, but that is not what she is thinking about: it is not safe for them now. - and so she goes on loving, unstintingly.

It's a careless, reckless love - like the love of God for his people.

For we are the ones in the desert, crossing from desolation to hope.

We are the strangers who are welcomed, that are welcomed by God.

May God bless us in careless, reckless ways, in the abundant love of his Son, who gave his all for us - who, having more in his possession than the richest of rich men ever had, gave up his seat at the side of God and took on our humanity, and came to us, God in the flesh, that we could have life and have it abundantly.

Good and gracious God, all that we have comes from you; make us sensible of your grace in all our dealings with each other and with your whole creation.

Grant that we may reflect your generosity in our lives and do your will here on earth that we may come to rejoice in your heavenly kingdom,

through Jesus Christ our Lord who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.


Do good, be rich in good works, generous and ready to share, live in peace with all. The peace of the Lord be always with you...

Grace, mercy, and peace be yours from God who abounds in love for you and all people; and the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always.


Prayer, peace, and blessing by David Adam, from Glimpses of Glory: Prayers for the Church Year, Year C (SPCK, 2000).

Insights gleaned from Herbert O'Driscoll, Fred Craddock, Sharon Ringe, Tom Wright, and other sources.


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