by David Baer, March 26, 2017
Text: Luke 16:19-31
My mother and I loved to go hiking when I was a kid. There was a park in Princeton Township, not far from where we lived. It was an active farm once, but for almost a century now the property has been given up to the woods. So as you walk the trails you come across these odd human artifacts in the middle of the forest–an abandoned building, the remnants of an orchard, and a number of stone fences. In some cases the trails run right across the tumbledown stones, so they’re hard to miss. And my mother, every time we crossed one of these long-abandoned boundaries, would recite a line from Robert Frost: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…”
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, / That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, / And spills the upper boulders in the sun…” Frost describes meeting a neighbor on a spring day to walk the boundary line between their properties, repairing the stone wall as they go. It seems silly to him, since there are no animals that need to be penned in; there are only trees on both sides, and those trees aren’t going anywhere. But his neighbor insists on building up the wall, repeating a saying he learned from his father, “Good fences make good neighbors.” But the wall isn’t natural. It takes effort to maintain, because the forces of nature are constantly trying to tear it down. “Before I built a wall,” Frost writes, “I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offense. / Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, / That wants it down.”
In the story Jesus tells in today’s gospel lesson, there are also two neighbors separated by a wall and a gate. But this is not a wall they build together. This is a wall built by the rich man to create a space for him to feast and enjoy his luxurious clothing at a safe distance from his poor neighbor Lazarus. Lazarus can only look on longingly, wishing in vain for just a few crumbs from the rich man’s table. Outside the gate, he’s vulnerable to animals like the stray dogs that come to lick the sores that cover his body. There’s a barrier between these two men, a barrier built and maintained by the rich man. It’s not a permanent barrier, and it has a gate that the rich man could come out of, to see Lazarus, or to invite him in. But it seems he never does this–he just ignores the beggar at his gate.
Both of the men die, and they find themselves in the next life, where they are still separated. Lazarus, who endured hunger and pain and loneliness in this world, is comforted in the presence of Abraham, the righteous ancestor of all the Jewish people. Meanwhile the rich man is in a place of torment. Now he’s the one outside looking across the barrier to Lazarus. Still, the rich man’s suffering doesn’t move him to feel sympathy for the life Lazarus lived. He doesn’t apologize. He doesn’t even acknowledge, however belatedly, the humanity of Lazarus. No, instead he dares to treat Lazarus as a servant, someone who’s there to tend to his needs: Father Abraham, send Lazarus to bring me a drop of water! Father Abraham, send Lazarus to warn my brothers! Buddy, Lazarus is not your errand boy! In life the rich man chose to wall off his poor neighbor, to live apart from him physically and spiritually, refusing to see Lazarus’s need or even his dignity as a fellow child of Abraham. And now Abraham explains that the barrier the rich man built and maintained in life has been ratified and made permanent in the afterlife: “between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” Abraham is saying, You read the scriptures, you heard everything they say about your duty to care for the poor, sick, and hungry, and yet you chose to live apart from Lazarus and his poverty, his illness, his hunger. Now that it’s time for him to be repaid for his suffering, you will continue to be separated from him.
You could see it as a punishment. Or you could see it as a bad choice becoming permanent, once it’s too late to change.
I struggle with this parable. I don’t think everyone who heard Jesus tell it struggled with it, and I don’t think everyone who has heard it in the two thousand years since has struggled with it. If you’re a Lazarus, if you struggle to scrape together you’re daily bread, if you’ve got nowhere to call home, if your body is shot through with disease and pain, then there is profoundly good news in this story. Your hurt, your hunger, and your homelessness aren’t going to last forever. One day God will wipe away every tear from your eyes, and you will be comforted. Remember that one of the things Jesus said in his first sermon at the synagogue in his home town was that he had come to bring good news to the poor. And this story is definitely good news for the poor.
But that’s not the place I’m sitting in when I hear this story. I have a roof over my head and food to eat. I have clothes to wear and access to health care I can afford. I have more than what is necessary to meet my basic needs. What’s more, because of my citizenship, my gender, and the color of my skin, the world I live in has more security and opportunity than it does for others. I don’t doubt that there are folks in this world who, like Lazarus, would be happy to get by on the table-scraps of my lifestyle and my privilege. Like the rich man, I know that in this life I receive many good things that are denied to others. And so when I hear this story with its reversal of fortunes—the insider now on the outside in agony, and the outsider being comforted—I feel as though Jesus is putting me on notice.
In the story, though, that chasm that forever separates the rich man from Lazarus and Abraham is only permanent when life in this world is past. We do build barriers between ourselves and people in need. It takes effort to build these walls, because they’re not natural. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…”
In a recent interview, Pope Francis talked about how he responds when he encounters a panhandler. Giving something to a person in need “is always right,” he says, but he adds that it is just as important to look the person in the eye, take them by the hand, and speak to them. Even the person’s flaws have to be honored, Francis says. After all, aren’t we all flawed? If you’re worried that a panhandler is going to spend what you give him on wine, what does it matter? Don’t you have vices that you take comfort in as well?1 At every turn Francis invites us to find points of contact between our own humanity, fragility, and value and that of the person asking for help.
Who is on the outside, looking in at us? Whose need and humanity do we try to push out of our sight, because it’s uncomfortable to see? Where is God inviting you to solidarity and friendship with those sitting outside your gate, so to speak?
I’ll never forget this one gentleman named Peter who came into a soup kitchen where I was serving on a spring break work trip when I was in college. He was definitely someone who was difficult to help. He always seemed to be getting in fights with the volunteers and some of the other guests. I think he occasionally got kicked out for disrespectful and threatening behavior. But on this one day he strolled into the fellowship hall where people were assembled to eat. (The volunteers, after serving, would sit down and eat with the guests.) He got a big smile on his face as he looked around. And then he shouted, at the top of his voice, “Friends, don’t you feel blessed?” I think everyone was a little stunned by the outburst, but I remember thinking, “He’s right.” We were blessed. We had food to eat in a warm place on a chilly spring day, and company to share it with. At that point I had a hard time holding onto a sense that I was there out of charity, that I was holding a vessel full of blessings to dispense to others. Instead, I was a fellow guest with Peter at a feast God had provided for both of us and the others.
That sense of solidarity with the poor, with Lazarus at his gate, was missing from the rich man’s life. And I have to confess that it’s often missing from my life too. But what I hear from today’s parable is that so long as we live this life, the boundaries we set up between ourselves and others aren’t permanent. I hear the good news that God promises blessing and comfort to the poor, and that it’s in solidarity with them that we hear a promise of blessing and comfort for ourselves too. What if the rich man and Lazarus had been able to walk out of this life hand-in-hand, inseparable? Something there is in God’s grace and providence that does not love the walls we build around ourselves, that wants them down. Thanks be to God that for us there is time to break them down, and to discover God’s mercy and consolation with friends outside our gate. Amen.
Carol Glatz, “Don’t worry about how it’s spent, always give homeless a handout, pope says.” Catholic News Service. 28 Feb 2017. <http://www.catholicnews.com/services/englishnews/2017/dont-worry-how-its-spent-always-give-homeless-a-handout-pope-says.cfm>. Accessed 3/25/2017.