I began one of the class sessions at this weekend's confirmation retreat with the question,
Where do we see God?
There are multiple right answers to this.
Martin Luther's answer is that we see God most clearly at the cross.
This is not where the world trains us to look.
If we notice the half naked criminal corpse at all, if we stop or dare to look, our
first thought is likely not, "Here is the creator of the universe, here is the power
that holds all things together, here is the one I want to worship and follow."
The cross startles us out of trusting our eyes or settling for surface conclusions, and so
does the explosive story Jesus tells his critics today.
A rich man dressed in purple is obviously rewarded by God and respected by others, to
the exceptionally rare degree that the empire permits him a royal wardrobe.
Lazarus is obviously cursed by God, too lazy even to avoid the tongues of unclean dogs,
who accomplishes a sum total of nothing throughout the entire story.
This poor slob is elevated to the bosom of God's friend Abraham, a very rich man, in a
story told by God's Messiah, a very poor man.
Beware of making assumptions.
God sees things, including us, much differently than we do.
Which is why Moses and the prophets continually point to needy neighbors and force us
to face them and respond with generous mercy.
It is the foundational lesson that the tragic figure in Jesus' parable, the man cursed with
the misfortune of wealth, never learned.
He clearly recognized Abraham as his father, but it never clicked that Abraham's child
Lazarus was therefore his brother.
By the time he was in hell, he saw Lazarus, knew his name, was even willing to let his
dirty, dog-infested finger touch his lips, but he still viewed Lazarus as a lackey,
raised by the angels, but only from waif to waterboy.
The nameless man tells father Abraham that he as has a father and five brothers; yet still
says nothing to his brother sitting there at father Abraham's side.
He pleads for Lazarus to be relocated by the authorities—this is probably not the first
time—this time to leave paradise to serve as his personal errand boy to those he
recognizes as brothers.
John Shea astutely paraphrases Abraham's response:
You lived a life of luxury, deafened yourself to Moses and the prophets, and
numbed yourself to the needs of the poor.
So now you are on the other side where the consequences of actions reach fulfillment.
You find yourself isolated and tormented.
Is this a surprise?
Our entire people began as poor and exploited.
Everything in our history has urged us to welcome the poor and exploited.
You have not done this.
Do you really think you can ignore and resist God's purposes and succeed?
Did you miss that teaching at synagogue?
Now you want a spectacular sign for your brothers.
Is this an excuse?
Are you saying there wasn't enough evidence for you?
If you just had a little more certainty, your self-interest would have kicked in and
you would have "anted up."
I don't think so.
That's not the problem.
If your brothers, like yourself, do not heed the whole history of their people, they will not
listen to a man come back from the dead. (John Shea, The Relentless Widow, p. 277)
There are family expectations for Abraham's children, outlined clearly and repeatedly in
Moses and the prophets, chief among them to care for the poor and the vulnerable
like family...because they are family, because they are us.
It is an expectation shared by children of God in Christ, who says that whatever we do or
fail to do to the hungry and thirsty and sick and unclothed and incarcerated we do
or fail to do to him.
We dare not risk passing someone on the street or ignoring someone on our fancy, factory
direct doorstep because chances are they are our brother, our sister, our Savior.
God overruled skeptical Abraham, said maybe the tormented man's idea is a worth a try.
Lazarus was sent back from the dead, under the assumed name "Jesus."
Revelation says he stands at the door and knocks, but really he sits at the gate and waits.
His poverty is not a shame to him, but to us.
Now we live in a country that has more than enough to feed the world, I suspect even
enough to satisfy all who hunger with the waste that falls from our tables and
fills our garbage trucks.
The people who ache with need may or may not be homeless, or mentally ill, or drug
addicts, or welfare cases, or drains on the system, or capable of finding a job, or
lazy, or shiftless, or irresponsible...they may or may not be judged to deserve their
fate in the courtrooms of opinionated political hearts...but no matter what we think of them or how we respond to them, they are family.
They are us.
They are children of God.
They are our brothers and sisters.
They are Christ in our midst, come back from the dead for us, open sores and all.
And on this side of our own inevitable death, there is still a chance to be called, in the
prophet Isaiah's words, the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
The chasm here between rich and poor has not been eternally fixed; we can still cross
over, we can still close the gap, we can still open the gate.
And when we do, and we encounter our suffering siblings who are poor and miserable
and rich and miserable, we encounter the one who crossed the fixed chasms
between death and life, and between heaven and human, to reach us with mercy.
He longs for us to open the gates between the world and our eyes.
Look around and see the faces.
Pay attention to the stories.
Open your heart and your hand and your gate.
Be kind and attentive and generous, even when it feels more comfortable not to be.
The face you would rather avoid is family.
The neighbor who compromises your property value is your brother.
And the beggar with the hollow, desperate eyes is a face you will see again when
the angels carry you away to his throne.