A Lectionary Blog
The Rev. Leslie M. St. Louis
Sunday we encountered the story of the rich man and Lazarus. It is, I think, impossible in this country to read this text and not feel somewhat of a Biblical finger being pointed at us as the “rich man.” There is truth to that finger pointing for many of us. We have more than most in the world by a large margin. But the text is not condemning because of the riches of the rich man. We know that because Lazarus ends up at the bosom of one of the richest men in scripture. Abraham!
In the book of Deuteronomy, Abraham is humbly described as a Wandering Aramean (Deuteronomy 26:5), but the writer of Genesis describes him as a man who has in his possession “sheep, oxen, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels.” Not a man who has given everything he owns away to support the poor. Not a man who, like Lazarus, has nothing to his name. Clearly the possession of wealth isn’t what rules out salvation in Jesus’ view.
But there is more to our discomfort with whether we have or have not that gets triggered by this text. I had a very brave parishioner say to me after we had studied this text “you know, I get frustrated because I don’t feel very rich. I feel as if I have less and less and yet I am expected to do more and more.” I think it is true that, in spite of being the ones’ with “sheep and oxen and donkeys and camels” so to speak, we feel impoverished. I think it is especially true for folks who live on fixed incomes and for those of us who find that our precious dollar buys less this week at the grocery store than it did last week.
I think that sense of feeling impoverished, of having lost something or worse yet having something taken away from us, is exactly the button that is being pushed by so much of the rhetoric of this year’s presidential campaign. We live in this space of certainty that if we don’t have something it is because someone else got it; someone got what we should have. We seem eternally convinced that everything is a zero sum game. We live in fear that we will not have enough, and therefore hold on with both fists to everything we have.
Therein lies challenge of the rich man. You see, it is not really that Lazarus’s poverty is what gets him to his eternal resting place in the arms of Abraham. We find the answer in understanding what his name means. Lazarus is the Latin form of Eleazar, which means God is my help. What should catch our attention about Lazarus is not his poverty nor his poor health nor the fact that he has lain at the gate of the man clothed in purple his entire life. No what should capture us is his ability to look to God for help. Lazarus, in life and even more so in death, embodies of us the knowledge that our true help is in God’s grace and power.
So, this is the struggle for the rich man and for each of us. Is it wrong to have wealth? Certainly not. But wealth has a tendency to be all consuming, doesn’t it? We become convinced that our possessions have the ability to protect, fulfill, and preserve us from all manner of things. We come to believe that we can depend solely on ourselves and in so doing turn inward away from each other and away from God. In short, our focus is drawn away from that careful attentiveness to God’s presence in our lives that our journey in faith demands.
We have all heard the saying that the more we hold on to something the less we can receive what is coming our way. Many years ago as I was preparing to move from Tennessee to Rochester, I was faced with the knowledge that my elderly German Shepherd would not be able to make the move should I be offered a position in Rochester. I was heartbroken to think that I might have to put her to sleep in order to continue the journey to ordained ministry, which she had accompanied me on thus far. I clung tightly and tearfully to her day after day as I waited for both the church, St. Paul’s, and God to provide me with answers to my next steps. In the wisdom of creation, my beloved girl’s health failed to the point that I had to put her to sleep and in those precious moments as I let her go from my hands to God’s arms, St. Paul’s called and the arms of a new community opened to embrace my broken heart.
My prayer for each of us is that we never cling so tightly to what we have in this life that we lose hold of what God has for us in the next.