In Search of An Asterisk
Jeremiah 32:6-15 Luke 16: 19-31
Well, last Sunday, we heard a parable of a rich man, too. We came to understand that Jesus didn’t speak in parables so we feel puzzled or paralyzed by the confusing details of the text. Jesus spoke in parables so that over time we would learn how to extrapolate the core truth from each parable, interpret theological arguments in general and be emboldened to act to reverse the great injustices of the world.
This Sunday, we hear Jesus’ most difficult parable. Through this week’s parable, we learn how to place ourselves within a story and determine how to adjust our ways of being in order to live in the world more faithfully alongside Christ into eternity. Put more tangibly, this parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus tells us that when we turn our backs on caring for the poor – when we ignore or deny the plight of the least of these – it is an unambiguously damnable offense.
In Luke’s gospel, to ignore or deny the plight of the poor is the only expressly damnable offense Jesus gives us. Other don’ts (such as “don’t divorce” in the verse immediately before our gospel lesson this morning and conveniently left out of our revised common lectionary) are not aligned with dire consequences at all. If Jesus is holding out on hell except for this very specific offense, what does it mean? I suspect that it means that we’d better pay attention and act accordingly, lest we find ourselves in the fiery pit.
Yet too many of us are looking for an asterisk. Too many of us are looking for an out, a rationale for how societal systems of which we are a part are constructed, or a reason to dismiss the parable altogether. Maybe you’re looking for an asterisk, too.
If you’re inclined to look for an asterisk in a footnote that says metaphor, you might be one who’s concluded that this is simply a lesson in contrast and how it feels when we don’t take care of one another. Your interpretation may be sealed in the fact that you, like so many reasonably good and educated people, don’t buy into the idea of a flaming, irreversible hell for anyone but a very tight list that certainly doesn’t include either one of us. (Then, again, maybe I’m being hopeful J.) If you’re inclined to look for an asterisk beside metaphor, you probably believe that this parable is a rather extreme interpretation of what might be possible and either doesn’t pertain to us at all or is easily categorized as hyperbole.
Asterisk number three is as quickly debunked as it is described. This asterisk says that the rich man didn’t see poor Lazarus by his gate all of those years. But if this were true, then how does the Rich Man know to call Lazarus by name when he asks for Lazarus to jump to his or his brothers’ aid?
Leading me to query if asterisk number 3 might be beside the good protestant word “justified.” We do a lot for the poorest of the poor. We see evidence of our generous extensions of our resources on Western’s sidewalks if not in our weekly bulletins. We’re justifiably proud of what we do, and determine that what we do outweighs what we don’t. Relative to the rest of the world, you might say that we’re doing more than our share. We’re justified in occasionally walking past the poorest of the poor: just as if we hadn’t sinned. Since we also have faith in God’s eternal grace – leading too many of us to conclude with confidence that in this parable, Jesus doesn’t mean “me.”
For all of us in search of an asterisk, maybe the only asterisk that has validity is the one that tells us from the start that we’d better pay attention. Because, you see, for all of us looking for an asterisk, for all of us who believe in the kind of salvation that includes tremendous latitude for the ways you and I might disregard the needs of the wanton sadness just beyond our gate, this parable of the Rich Man tells us that ignoring the poor is a pathway to hell.
One commentary I read gives us some interesting food for thought. Lazarus is a name from the Hebrew that means “God helps.” In the ancient Rabbinic tales, the Hebrew parallel to Lazarus was a man who walked the face of the earth reporting back to Abraham on how the people were following the law to treat the widow, the orphan and the poor. So, if we take this image to its logical end, remember those bad jokes about St. Peter at the Gate, telling God who’s in and who’s out? This parable tells us that it’s really all of those Poor Lazaruses – all of those deeply hurting, hungry people nearby and around the world who spend so much of their lives sitting just outside the gates – who are whispering in Abraham’s ear, “Yes, he gave me some food.” Or “That guy wouldn’t give me the time of day.”
Relief is in sight. The Rev. Dr. Barbara Lundblad, Engle Professor of Preaching at Union Seminary in New York City, once said that “Jesus didn’t tell this parable to scare the hell out of us. Jesus told this parable to change the way we are living this side of heaven! We’re feasting sumptuously and Lazarus is still hungry.” What can we do about this today?
You may’ve read the story that went viral this week – at least among clergy circles – about a family and an “upper crust venue” that looked beyond their gates to offer a feast to the streets. According to ABC News, a bride cancelled her wedding 40 days before the date. At that point, the family was within the “no returns” period. But after a prayerful night, the family decided that it wouldn’t cancel everything and lose their substantial deposits. They decided instead to change the guest list – to 200 homeless people. According to ABC News, when the family called a local homeless shelter and extended the extravagant invitation to its guests, the shelter thought it was a prank. The family persisted. Several phone calls and planning meetings within a few short days and a new event was planned.
On September 15th, 200 homeless women and children and families were transported to a swank reception spot for outdoor appetizers and a place for the kids to play. Then, they moved it inside for fine dining followed by face painting for the kids and a motivational speaker for their parents. All are hoping to make it an annual event.
The director of the shelter said the guests were working families that for whatever reason found themselves without a place to live and starting over. The family that donated the day described themselves as “regular, working people” too, saying “anybody can do this. This is not star stuff.”
So, once we’ve stopped searching for the asterisk that fits us best – once we’ve debunked the popular excuses for how and why this parable isn’t meant for us, the only question remaining is, “Where do you place your gate?”
Is your gate around your home? Do you hold your world close-in? Take time to think for yourself who you have yet to recognize sitting on a bench, or lying in a hospital room, or wandering aimlessly around a neighborhood park who might be in need of financial or medical assistance or maybe some experience or wisdom in searching for a job or an affordable place to live. If your gate is around your home, what District or town legislation is precluding the poorest of the poor from finding adequate shelter and sufficient nutrition? If your gate is around your home, how does your public school system help to serve the basic needs of children just beyond your gate? Does it serve free healthy breakfast and lunches? If not, how might you influence a change? How can you intervene in the policy practices of your community to insure a more viable future for the people just beyond the gate that is right around your home? Which of the many shelters just beyond the gate of your home can you support?
Is your gate around your city walls? Is your opportunity to look beyond DC? If so, what oppressive, statewide systems need to be interrupted in order that men, women and children receive protection from the cold and starvation and sickness this winter? Do you feel like you’re giving all you can? Maybe your greatest gift left to give will be to influence others to help the poor sitting just outside of all of our gates.
Maybe your gate is somewhere on the other side of the world. If your interests span the globe, how do even your clothing purchases reinforce poverty in dark pockets of less regulated countries? I think back a couple of weeks ago on Chipotle’s animated short promoting sustainable farming. It was flying around Facebook, too. In 3 ½ haunting minutes, it reminds us of how the poorest of the poor are often taken advantage of by wealthy, international corporations that pay foreign laborers pennies a day for picking tomatoes that end up on our $6 burgers or tacos. There are investment decisions that can be influenced to redress wrongs such as these.
Yet, even still, your gate just might be right around your heart. Maybe your poverty of spirit precludes you from acknowledging any need beyond your own. If this is you, hear this parable of our Lord today. Because while it is true that the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus tells us that that when we turn our backs on caring for the poor – when we ignore or deny the plight of the least of these – it is an unambiguously damnable offense, the good news shared from our parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus tells us most important of all that the story doesn’t end here.
Jesus taught in parables – and this one, in particular – not only to tell us that we need to act on another’s behalf, whether they’re just beyond the gate to our home or well beyond the border of our nation, but to tell us all that we have a chance to write our own ending. Our future it not wrapped up tight like a fatalistic Hollywood movie. Our future – the world’s future – depends upon our persistent self-examination and reflection on who we’re blocking from our view. Whether your gate is around your house, or around your town, or somewhere on the other side of the world, may each one of us look beyond ourselves with acts of love that support those who are in need to bring the beloved kingdom of God near for their sake on earth today and for our own, eternal sake as well.
Thanks be to God.
 McKenzie, Alyce M., LeVan Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology. The Rich Man and Lazarus: Reflections on Luke 16: 19-31,”