Photo credit: Noelle Otto
Readings: Amos 6:1, 4-7, Luke 16:19-31, Secrets of Heaven #997:1 (see below)
I listen to a podcast on the lectionary texts each week, to get me going on sermon writing. One of the commentators pointed out that if last week’s parable about the dishonest steward was too confusing and/or impenetrable, this one runs the risk of being too simple(1). It is pretty darned clear what Jesus is getting at with this story.
We first hear about a rich man who reveled in his financial means while he lived on earth. We are told he was clothed in purple and fine linen. The color purple was a rare and expensive color in ancient times, and so traditionally indicated royalty and wealth. Lazarus, a poor beggar laid at his gate, clearly suffering due to lack of nutrition and care, covered in sores. I’m sure he was a sight to behold. Sadly, we can imagine the rich man holding his nose as he steps over Lazarus each day to go about his business.
After both have died the situation is flipped. Lazarus finds himself by Abraham’s side, safe in the heavenly company of the patriarch of their faith, and the rich man is tormented in hell, with a wide chasm in between. Even then though, in the midst of his suffering, the rich man treats Lazarus as someone who should serve him, asking that he first be sent to bring him some water, and then be sent to warn the rich man’s still living relatives.
The purpose of this parable is not to paint a literal picture of the afterlife. The purpose is to bring our attention to what kind of life we are creating and enacting right now on earth. The consequence is not so much that we will find ourselves cast into hell, but rather, that we will become the kind of people who in the afterlife still think that we ought to be served, rather than being willing to serve others. The discomfort for this week is not so much in trying to interpret what the parable is trying to say, but in trying to figure out how to deal with its implications in our real lives.
On one level, it’s pretty simple. When we see people in need, we should help them. Obviously, we each cannot solve suffering of the world but as Martin Luther apparently once said: You cannot feed every beggar in the world, but you can feed the one at your gate(2). We should do what we can. We believe in a God who loves us and wants us to extend and grow that love forward into the world, into the lives of people right in front of us, not only because God loves all people but because God knows that doing so, stretching us to do so, will help us become infinitely more loving. For this reason, Jesus speaks voluminously about the need to care for the vulnerable among us, especially in the gospel of Luke, and he doesn’t mince words about it. The kingdom of God necessarily includes the least, the last, the lost and the left behind.
We have all failed on this count, one way or another. We have all walked by someone on the street asking for money and not given it, we have all missed opportunities to give help when we could have. And, this is not the sermon where we analyze the complicated nature of homelessness, or the breakdown of our mental health infrastructure, or the efficiencies of charitable giving. Yes, the economy of need is very complicated, but that is not what this parable is about. This parable is about making sure we are the kind of people who see need when it is in front of us. It is so easy, feels almost necessary, when we (for example) pass person after person asking for money on the street, to steel ourselves, to close ourselves off, to learn how to habitually ignore them. This parable is warning against this tendency. Whether and how we choose to give in order to alleviate the world’s problems is not the point here, the point is rather, to ask: does it still pain us to see them, day after day. Or have we shut our hearts down because that is easier than having empathy for their suffering and grappling with the existence of need.
We heard in our reading today that Swedenborg’s vision of heaven is one that is based not in the notion of heavenly peace, joy, and satisfaction but on useful service out of which those blessings come. And I quote:
For with good spirits and angels useful service is the source of their delight; and the services they perform determine the amount and the essential nature of the delight they receive(3)…Such life pervades the whole of heaven, for the Lord's kingdom, being a kingdom of mutual love, is a kingdom of uses.(4)
This is a beautiful vision, of a heaven that is built upon the freedom and joy that comes from giving: giving love, giving hope, giving presence, giving knowledge, giving nurture. But what goes almost unsaid within this vision is the necessity that undergirds being able to give in the first place, and that is being able to see need. We cannot perform useful service unless we can identify where that useful service is required. And this means we have to be able to see and identify need. Help that is given indiscriminately, without any attention to need, certainly may well be called service, but can it be called useful? I’m not sure it can.
There are plenty of things that get in the way of us seeing and responding to need. Sometimes for myself, I’m not able to see what my children might need because of my desire to control their path and their outcomes. Sometimes I am not able to see my spouse’s needs because I am preoccupied with being right. Perhaps we might choose not see the need of some people, like with homelessness, or with climate change, because we feel overwhelmed and don’t know how to help in a substantive way. Or we might not see the need of some people because it makes us feel superior to blame them for their own circumstances. Or we might not see a real deeper need because it is covered up by other socially unacceptable behaviors. Or, like the rich man, we might just be so wrapped up and invested in our own worth, that the needs of others don’t matter to us.
And as unfortunate as it may be, our current administration has recently provided a clear example of such behavior. After expressing concern about the number of homeless people in Los Angeles and San Francisco, our president explained that the problem was ruining the “prestige” of those cities. He said in an interview that he had “personally heard complaints from tenants in the state, some of them foreigners. He expressed sympathy for real estate investors…whose property values or quality of life are threatened.”(5). In his own words: “In many cases, they came from other countries and they moved to Los Angeles….because of the prestige of the city and all of a sudden they have tents. Hundreds and hundreds of tents and people living at the entrance to their office building. And they want to leave…people in those buildings pay tremendous taxes, where they went to those locations because of the prestige.”(6)
As much as it pains me to have to bring up this example, to see our most important elected official characterize the problem in such a way, it so singularly relevant to this parable that I cannot ignore it. Yes, of course something must be done if hundreds of people are homeless and living in tents in our urban areas, but it is the why we choose to do something that is instructive. The important question becomes: In seeing the desperate circumstances of so many people, do we see their underlying need, do we have empathy for their suffering, or do we simply wish that they were gone because of how they desecrate our things of value?
You see, the enormous chasm between heaven and hell that we hear about in the parable is not so much a revelation about the spiritual architecture of the afterlife, but a symbol of the kind of life that the rich man had constructed in the world. He had literally put a gate between himself and Lazarus, and figuratively put a gate between his heart and the need of those around him. If heaven is a realm of useful service, how else would the rich man experience his relationship to such a realm after he died? He would experience it as something far away and incomprehensible; unsurmountable even, because he had never tried to reach past it, had never wished to reach past it, during his life.
He had forgotten a very fundamental truth, that we all are made in God’s image and likeness, and so all are worthy and deserving of love, even if figuring out how to show that love and care is difficult or inconvenient. That is what we are here for. Not to enrich ourselves but to expand in love, to learn that giving connects us more closely to God and each other than having. And we will never be able to appreciate that fundamental truth if we continually erect a wall or a gate around our hearts, if we continue to convince ourselves that we are separate and different and more deserving that other people.
Thomas Merton, an American Trappist monk, wrote of stopping at a busy intersection in the center of the busy shopping district in the city of Louisville. He said:
…I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. …It is because I am one with them that I owe it to them to be alone, and when I am alone, they are not “they” but my own self. There are no strangers. . . . If only we could see each other that way all the time. . . .(7)
Which leads us to the final level, the final necessity, the final acknowledgement that lies fundamental to even the seeing of need. When we are able to identify a need and fulfill it, when we are able to give what is needed when it is needed; what an amazing feeling! It is the joy and fulfillment we were created for. But, even this purposefulness can have its dark side. We can become overly invested in being the savior. We can become expectant and reliant on the ego-fulfillment that “solving problems” gives us. We can begin to think that we know better about what is needed than those experiencing the need. We can over-identify with a selfhood that is shored-up by being useful. And so finally, beneath the seeing of need we find that there must also be humility. We must be willing to listen. Need sometimes shows up in ways that we are blind to, in ways that we weren’t prepared for, in ways that we don’t feel ready for. And so we recognize how much a heaven of useful service requires not only activity but also sacrifice, the constant sacrifice of our sense of separateness, of believing that we are the one to know what is needed, so that we can truly be present to what is actually needed. So that we can be present to what each moment is calling us to, without our need to overlay our expectations upon it.
As Merton puts it: My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. What we have to recover is our original unity.(8)
When we recover our original unity, then the distance between is reduced, and we have nothing to gain from our selfhood. We can serve purely, simply, humbly, and freely. And this is heaven, wherever we are.
(7) Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Doubleday: 1968), 156-158.
(8) Thomas Merton, Address to International Summit of Monks, Calcutta, India (October 19-27, 1968), published in The Asian Journals of Thomas Merton (New Directions: 1975), 51.
Amos 6:1, 4-7
1 Woe to you who are complacent in Zion, and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria, you notable men of the foremost nation, to whom the people of Israel come!
4 You lie on beds adorned with ivory and lounge on your couches. You dine on choice lambs and fattened calves. 5 You strum away on your harps like David and improvise on musical instruments. 6 You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph. 7 Therefore you will be among the first to go into exile; your feasting and lounging will end.
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ 25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’ 27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ 30 “ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ 31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”
Secrets of Heaven 997:1
…People who are governed by charity, that is, who dwell in love towards the neighbor - from which love the living delight contained in pleasures derives - have no regard for the enjoyment of pleasures except on account of the use that is served; for charity does not exist if there are no works of charity. It is in the exercise of it, that is, in use, that charity consists. Someone who loves the neighbor as themselves never experiences the delight of charity except in the exercise of it, or in use. Consequently the life of charity is a life of uses. Such life pervades the whole of heaven, for the Lord's kingdom, being a kingdom of mutual love, is a kingdom of uses. Every pleasure therefore that springs from charity finds its delight in use, and the more pre-eminent the use the greater the delight. For this reason it is the very being and nature of a use which determines the happiness that angels have from the Lord.