Text: Luke 18: 19-31
The Beetles sing, “Eleanor Rigby died at the church and was buried along with her name. Nobody came.”
Eleanor Rigby was one of the lonely people, the type of people we don’t normally look at twice. The kind we go out of our way to ignore. The sort of person whose name we don’t know.
Except in this instance we do know her name. Those around her might have seen her on the fringes, but they probably didn’t know her name either. At the end she was buried along with her name. A small service with only Father McKenzie present, speaking words that no one will hear.
We know Eleanor Rigby’s name because we’ve heard the song. We know that Eleanor had a name, just as we know that Lazarus had a name. In all of the parables that Jesus tells he doesn’t name anyone. He doesn’t name the guests at banquets, the prodigal son, his brother and his father are not named. In today’s parable the rich man is not named, but the poor man is. We know that his name is Lazarus.
The fact that Jesus names this character in a parable at the end of this string of parables is significant. It tells us something very important about the kingdom of God. Christian tradition has given the rich man a name, he is commonly referred to as Dives which is Latin for rich. But in the parable he goes without a one. It is his counterpart, the poor beggar who is covered in sores who is named by Jesus.
It is interesting to note that as the parable is being told the rich man indicates that he knows Lazarus’ name. He asks Father Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his family. The rich man never speaks directly to Lazarus, but he is aware of his name and knew he was. To me this is a shocking revelation. The rich man knew who the beggar living at his gate was. How often did he laugh when he watched his dogs licking Lazarus’ sores?
Did the rich man think to himself what a poor soul, he’d be better off dead? Did he make jokes with his friends, pointing and ridiculing the poor beggar? The rich mans attitude is deplorable. He ignored the suffering that was at his doorstep. He knew the mans name and did nothing to alleviate his suffering, he did nothing to improve his quality of life. In no uncertain terms Jesus makes it clear that this type of an attitude simply isn’t good enough. The rich man’s attitude towards Lazarus is one of outright neglect.
Today our parable from Jesus is straight forward. We get the message; the poor are important, they matter as much as anyone else does. It is not wealth in this world which will carry us through to heaven. It is our action or lack of action towards the poor, the meek and the powerless which has a direct bearing on us.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is the culmination of a series of parables which teach us what the kingdom of heaven looks like. The vision of the kingdom of heaven is not found in Lazarus resting in heaven at the side of Father Abraham. In fact, Jesus does not describe the kingdom nor do we see it in action. The kingdom of heaven is found in what does not happen in this parable. The rich man does not care for Lazarus. Actions found in the kingdom of Heaven are opposite from what we find happening in the gospel story today.
The deliberate actions of the rich man in ignoring Lazarus are the opposite of what God desires for us and the world. At times we too are also guilty of ignoring the poor and their plight. Yes, we participate in the Soup Kitchen program running in Cobourg. The Mission Branch is looking at how we can partner with Transition House. I’ve recently joined the 20,000 Homes Advisory team. We do our level best to live out what Jesus has taught us. We seek to enact the kingdom within our own lives and make it a reality in the world that God created.
We are good at the big picture but sometimes we forget or neglect aspects of poverty that are right beneath our noses. We are inundated with images of suffering on television and social media. Images of war, famine, flood and other natural disasters. As one commentator put it, “The more we become voyeurs upon the faraway sufferings of others, the more impotent we feel to do anything about pain and injustice. Despair and cynicism tempt us to close our eyes to suffering and shut down our overloaded sympathies.”
It is regrettable and yet it happens. Often we try to pretend that everything is alright to alleviate the need to do anything because we feel we are doing enough already or that everything is under control. The reality is that it is not under control. Within Cobourg we have our own problems and we work diligently through faith to bring change that reflects God’s kingdom.
However, throughout the world we know that people live in abject poverty. Through cycles of economics people are kept in poverty. There are some locations in the world where profit is made off of the poorest of the poor.
Guatemala City is famous for one thing: The Guatemala City dump. A real living personification of poverty in our world. Before the government came in and set some regulations people used to live in the dump. Not just looters, but families, children. People pick through the trash looking for treasure and in many cases a meal. Garbage trucks are numbered and the people who live in the dump know which truck picks up garbage from affluent neighbourhoods. I said before the government stepped in. The government now sells permits to the people who live in the dump. They didn’t move them out, they just want to know roughly how many people are there and a profit is made from it. Rather than taking concrete steps to lift the impoverished out of their condition they are being taxed to make a meager living in an environment we would never willingly enter. How many permits you might wonder, the information I gathered indicated about 5,000.
The parables and teaching of Jesus that we have found in Luke’s gospel these past few weeks have been leading us to one eventuality. Luke’s gospel is reminding us that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law. These stories and parables emphasis what the law was meant to accomplish. If we can’t read scripture and see that we are lost. The law was provided for us to help usher in the kingdom of God. Instead of living out the spirit of the law we have codified it and in doing so have interfered with God’s spirit of grace.
Throughout Luke’s gospel and the teaching of Jesus we are constantly reminded that it is the poor, the meek, the powerless who get ahead. Yet, we create economies, governments and other systems which exploit or further marginalize the people Jesus asked us to protect. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus flips on its head our current social order. It has echoes the Magnificat found in beginning of Luke’s gospel.
This is not a one off story that we can forget about. This is part of the theme that runs straight through Luke’s gospel and is central to the narrative about the life and death of Jesus Christ.
In his letter to Timothy which we heard this morning Paul writes, “As for those who in the present age 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. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”
These words echo those of Father Abraham. We have the witness of scripture to guide us. The words of the prophets, the gospels which teach us about God’s son. We need to hear the message, to make every effort to bring it about. We need to ensure that there are no more Eleanor Rigby’s. Amen.