The parable in our Gospel reading seems simple at first. A rich man wore fine clothes and feasted sumptuously every day, while poor Lazarus sat at his gate longing for scraps from his table. The rich man ends up tormented in Hades. Clearly the rich man failed in his duty to help Lazarus.
The parable gets more interesting when we ask why the rich man failed to help Lazarus. We sometimes assume that the rich man was weirdly greedy or hard-hearted. If that is true, I am good. I am not weirdly greedy or hard-hearted. I am only about average greedy and hard-hearted.
The problem is, Jesus doesn’t say the rich man is weirdly greedy or hardhearted. And it turns out that my behavior is a lot like the rich man’s.
On my way home this afternoon, I will probably see a homeless person standing at my exit off I-91. I usually do. Think of him as Lazarus at the “gate” of Northampton. I will be wearing my special priest clothes, and I will have just feasted pretty sumptuously at coffee hour. That sounds like the rich man.
Today, given our Gospel reading, I’ll probably give the homeless man a little something. But most Sundays I drive on by. So when I ask the question why the rich man in our reading failed to help Lazarus, I could just as easily be asking the question why I so often fail to help homeless people, why most of us so often fail to help people in need.
There are no doubt many reasons why we ignore the Lazaruses languishing at our gates. But the main one, I think, is that we develop a peculiar kind of blindness. We learn to take our privileges for granted—to not see them for what they are—and to overlook the needy people around us.
This parable cautions us to recognize our blessings and to see, really see, the people who do not share them.
Last weekend we screened the film “A Promise to Astrid.” (For those who didn’t see it and would like to, we purchased a copy of film for our library.) Astrid is the better alternative to the rich man in our parable. Astrid inherited some money and decided to use it to help people in need.
What was most relevant about the film for our purposes this morning was Astrid’s determination to see the need around her. As she went about her day, she made a point of paying attention to the people she encountered and helping wherever she could.
I assume that Astrid did not help every needy person she met. But unlike the rich man in our parable, she wasn’t blind to her own privilege or to the needs of the less privileged people around her. She could see.
Our parable is an invitation to each of us to practice that kind of seeing.
And our privileges are not limited to money. One way I am privileged is my whiteness. I was totally blind to my white privilege well into my adulthood. But as a young man, it gradually dawned on me that my experience of the world differed in important ways from the experience of Black men my age. It really hit me during a conversation about banks with a Black friend I’ll call Robert. Robert helped me to see, to be a little more like Astrid and a little less like the rich man.
When I was twenty-one, I moved to New York City and opened a bank account. A week or two later, I went to the bank to withdraw some cash. Unfortunately, I had forgotten my wallet, and I didn’t know my account number. So I told the teller my name, and I asked her to look up my account number, make out a counter check for me, and then give me money, all without seeing any identification. I repeat, that was in New York City, and on a brand new account. I had worked as a teller a few summers before, so I knew just how outrageous my request was. But she did it. I walked away cash in hand.
Robert’s experience with banks was very different. He told me that virtually every time he walked into a bank, the security guards would unhook their holsters. My story astonished him. He couldn’t imagine getting money out of a bank without identification. For him it was hard enough even with identification.
Now, if that kind of thing happens once, it doesn’t much matter. But neither his experience nor mine was an isolated event. Not all of my encounters ended as well as the time when the teller gave me money. But I routinely received the benefit of the doubt. And the lesson I learned was that banks and other institutions like banks are there to help me. That makes my life a lot easier than it would otherwise be. That is a privilege, and it comes partly because I am white.
Robert learned a very different lesson. He learned that people didn’t trust him, that they wouldn’t do him any favors, that he might experience humiliating harassment at any time.
This story has a sad ending. Robert and I lost touch after I left Atlanta. But a mutual friend told me a few years later that Robert eventually snapped. He got into a dispute with his insurance company, and he became totally paranoid, convinced that they were spying on him all the time. I am confident that his many unpleasant encounters with banks and other institutions played a factor in his eventual breakdown.
Robert helped me to see a privilege I enjoyed without even knowing it. He helped me to become a little more aware of the struggles he experienced as a Black man who didn’t have white privilege and suffered as a consequence. Robert taught me the same lesson with regard to race that our parable teaches about money.
In Christ, there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. In Christ, we are all one (Galatians 3:28). That is the Christian vision of how the world should be. But in our world, privileges are distributed unevenly, and that unevenness divides us from our neighbors.
Our parable invites us to reflect on the gap between God’s will for the world and the world as it currently is. Our parable asks us what we will do about that gap.
Now, I don’t feel guilty for the privileges I enjoy. I am glad that teller gave me money. But our parable reminds us that privileges come with a responsibility to help the less privileged. Sometimes that means sharing the wealth. Other times it means supporting those who demand equal rights. No doubt it means other things too. What we cannot do is ignore the fact of our privilege and the needs of the people around us.
The rich man in our parable ended up in Hades. That is already sobering. And from Hades, the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them so that they will not suffer the same fate. Abraham replies that his brothers have Moses and the prophets to warn them. That should be enough. But the rich man knows from his own bitter experience that Moses and the prophets are not enough. Maybe, he says, if someone rose from the dead, that would persuade them.
We have Moses and the prophets. We have Jesus’ own teachings, including our parable for this morning. And a man has even risen from the dead.
Is that enough for us? Can we listen? My prayer is that we can. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan