Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
God of love and compassion: open our eyes that we may see. Amen.
Reading is always an important early step for me in the process of preparing a sermon. I read several commentaries each week, and from there, I’m usually put in mind of some story or experience that relates to the gospel or the themes of the week. This week, the different perspectives of the commentaries I read spoke to the larger theme.
The first commentary I read began with these words: “As parables of Jesus go, this has to be one of the least familiar.” Then, an hour or so later, still researching and considering what I might say today, I turned to another commentary that began like this: “We come now to one of the most famous parables attributed to Jesus.”
How interesting how our perspectives shape our various understandings of Jesus’ words, isn’t it? Two well-respected scholars of biblical literature. One sees this parable as obscure, while the other sees it as famous.
When I read the Gospel appointed for today, my mind instantly turned to the musical Godspell. This parable that we read today is one of the stories recounted in that show. When I hear the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, that’s where my mind goes. I’m now sort of pre-programmed to see that story as sort of melodramatic, mostly because that’s how it’s presented in the musical – as an over-the-top, overly-dramatic and exaggerated expression of the relationship between the rich and the poor as understood through the wisdom and grace of God.
While the Broadway version goes out of its way to try to highlight the melodrama, it is sort of baked into the story, if, for no other reason, because of the fact of how its characters are named. There is the poor man, Lazarus, and then there is the rich man – whose name we never know.
Throughout their earthly lives, the rich man never seems to really see Lazarus – perhaps willfully so. But on the day of judgement, he shows his guilt in calling his name. It’s an admission that he knew who Lazarus was and what he was and where he was, all along.
Last week, Michael and I went to annual awards ceremony for the New Jersey Association of Community Theatres. It was a really fun night celebrating local, amateur theatre and the people who give so generously of themselves to make it possible. And it was made even more fun by the fact that it hadn’t been able to happen in-person since before the pandemic.
One of the highlights for us was when an actor in Michael’s production of A Chorus Line won an award for her performance in the show. Aside from the joy and pride of seeing her win, I was impressed by what she said in her acceptance speech. She described herself as someone who’d always longed to feel seen – as if she were used to fading into the background. And she thanked Michael for seeing her and lifting her up in the production. And she celebrated the award as a tangible sign that she had indeed been seen.
One of the powerful concepts of the Christian faith is the idea that God wanted to be seen. God wanted a tangible, real-life, earthly relationship with the people God is creating. In theological language, we call it incarnation, but really it’s about making the ideas we hold real and tangible in our bodies.
It’s one thing to say that everyone is welcome. It’s another thing entirely to find someone on your doorstep whom instinct tells you doesn’t fit in; someone whose values differ from your own; someone whose choices you don’t agree with, and then to welcome them, then to include them as a member of the family.
It’s one thing to say that we care for the poor. It’s another thing entirely to live that care in our lives – to go out of our way to see those people that it’s easy to overlook, to see their needs, and to act to meet them.
The sin Jesus describes in this parable is willful blindness. It’s the conscious choice of the rich man to look the other way when he has the power and the ability to make meaningful change in the life of the suffering.
The parable tells us that Lazarus’ dreams weren’t unreasonable. It says that he longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table. He didn’t want to steal the rich man’s wealth or power or position. He just wanted crumbs as sustenance. But the rich man looked the other way. He refused to see him.
There is power in being seen. People whom society holds down often feel ignored, unseen. Whether it be from social standing, ability or disability, gender, race, or whatever else – the simple act of being and feeling seen can mean the world.
That’s one of the key features of incarnation: it’s harder to feel distant from someone you can actually see. It’s harder to hate someone you actually know. It’s harder to ignore the suffering that’s right in front of you.
Where is our willful blindness? What is it that we choose not to see? More importantly, who is it that we choose not to see? And what would it mean if we did see it? What would it mean if we opened our eyes?
It could mean the world.
In the end, Lazarus, the poor man whose sores the dogs licked and who longed for crumbs for sustenance was the one who was seen. He was the one whom Abraham, the judge, sided with. The rich man, in the end, was nothing. Just an iconic representation of how we should do better – not even deserving of a name.
It’s time for us to see what we’ve been missing. When we do, we’ll almost certainly find