Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Blind and Deaf

Blind and Deaf
Lk. 16:19-31[1]
  It’s so easy to grow complacent in our world of abundance.  At least for those of us who are comfortable and satisfied.  By that, I mean those of us who have a roof over our heads and food on our tables, and we have no reason to worry about whether we will have those things next month or even next year.  One of the inevitable side-effects of that complacency is an unusual blindness.  We find ourselves less and less able to even see those who are struggling in our community.  Eventually we become so accustomed to overlooking them that they become invisible to us.  A related side-effect of our complacency is a kind of deafness.  As we settle into the comparative ease of our lives, it becomes harder and harder for us to even hear the call of the Scriptures not only to care about those who are hurting, but to do something about it.[2]
  I believe this is the point of Jesus’ parable about a rich man and Lazarus.   Those of us who have enough tend to become blind to those around us who are in need and deaf to the call of Scripture.  What we have to understand about the rich man is that he is not only rich, he’s very rich.  He wears clothing that only kings could afford.[3]  He eats all he wants of the finest and richest foods.  And what is obvious to those who have any shred of human compassion is that Lazarus is not only poor, he’s completely destitute.  He is so hungry he doesn’t even want the food from the rich man’s table, he just wants the scraps that fall on the floor.  And he’s apparently been in this condition for so long that his physical condition has severely deteriorated. He’s so weak that he can’t even fend off the dogs that are looking at him as if they are preparing for a meal!
  In the story, their situations are radically reversed.  Both men die, and fate of the rich man, who was very likely a “pillar” of the community and a leader of the local synagogue, is shocking in the extreme.  Instead of being rewarded in the afterlife, he finds himself in torment.  On the other hand, Lazarus, who would have been despised by anyone who actually noticed him because they would have assumed that he was a “sinner” getting what he deserved, winds up in paradise, in the “bosom of Abraham.”[4]  I’m not sure we could imagine a more radical reversal of fortunes.  It is a dramatic illustration of the first becoming last and the last becoming first.[5]
  I don’t really think that was the point of this particular parable, however.  It seems to me one of the main points is the fact that this man who had incredible wealth ignored Lazarus, a man who suffered terribly right at the very gate to his household.  How many times did the rich man ignore Lazarus?  It’s hard to say.  Did the rich man ever find himself in a position of actually stepping over Lazarus.  I would say that’s very likely.  Do you think the rich man ever once actually looked Lazarus in the eyes.  I don’t think so.  The rich man had become so complacent with his wealth and his comfortable life that he could no longer even see Lazarus.  What a travesty of the mercy and compassion of God that this rich man doubtlessly saw as the source of his good fortune. 
  After the drastic reversal of the two men’s fortunes, the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers, to warn them not to make the same mistake he had made.  Abraham’s reply is simple and to the point: “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them” (Lk. 16:29).  The Scriptures have all the warning they need to learn what it means to truly receive God’s mercy and to share it with others.  But the rich man’s response is equally simple and blunt, “No, father Abraham” (Lk. 16:30).  The rich man knew that they wouldn’t pay any more attention to Moses and the prophets than he had.  And I think this is another of Jesus’ lessons in this parable.  This man would have been respected by his community, even by the synagogue, since wealth was viewed as a blessing from God for one’s personal righteousness.  And yet, in reality, his great wealth made him deaf to the clear and repeated call of the Scriptures to share what we have generously.[6]  This is a call that is not just an occasional feature in the Scriptures.  This call is woven throughout the Scriptures.  Those of us who have experienced God’s mercy are called upon to show that mercy--in real ways--especially with those who were poor, or hurting, or resident immigrants, or in any kind of need.[7] 
  Most of us don’t think of ourselves as rich, and so it’s all too easy for us to turn a deaf ear to the call to share what we have with those around us who don’t have what they need.  Even though we don’t think of ourselves as rich, most of us enjoy a standard of living that is comfortable.  And our comfortable lifestyle encourages a complacency that makes it all too easy for us to a blind eye to those around us who are hurting.[8]  That’s one of the most dangerous temptations of having all the “stuff” we have: it makes us blind to the people in need and deaf to God’s call to help them. [9]  And yet, being able to see a person living in poverty and hunger as a fellow human being is a necessary part of our own humanity. When we lose that ability, we lose a part of ourselves.  Being able to hear God’s call to put compassion and mercy into practice is  necessary part of our spirituality.  When we lose that ability, we lose a part of our very soul.  I think that’s why Jesus told this parable--to shock all of us who have become blind to the needy and deaf to the call to compassion into opening our eyes and ears.  When we do, we recover our humanity, we regain our soul, and we find life.

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/29/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. John Nolland, Luke 9:21–18:34, 833: “The parable suggests that there is a profound challenge to the social status quo to be found in the law and the prophets, and that there is a desperate need for the privileged to search out their stipulations and to act upon them.”  Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2.440, where he reminds us that even our “charitable” deeds can be infected with this blindness and deafness.  He says, “There is a form of love—mere charity—in which we do not love at all; in which we do not see or have in mind the other man to whom it is directed; in which we do not and will not notice his weal or woe; in which we merely imagine him as the object of the love which we have to exercise, and in this way master and use him. Our only desire is to practise [sic] and unfold our own love, to demonstrate it to him and to others and to God and above all to ourselves.”
[3] Cf. George W. Knight, "Luke 16:19-31: The Rich Man and Lazarus," Review and Expositor 94 (1997): 279, where he cites Josephus as describing this as the clothing of royalty (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 8.183; 11.256).
[4] Cf. Wade P. Huie, “The Poverty of Abundance,” Interpretation 22 (Oct 1968):404, where he observes, “Jesus certainly does not follow the line of the Pharisees who claim that wealth is God’s reward for righteousness and poverty is a sign of God’s judgment. ... Jesus does not find fault with one for being rich and the other for being poor.”  Cf. also Knight, “Luke 16:19-31,” 279.
[5] John Haughey, “There’s No ‘Them’ There,” Living Pulpit 13 (Oct-Dec 2004): 14.  Cf. also, Huie, “The Poverty of Abundance,” 406: On the surface Dives [the rich man] is a success, but beneath the surface he has rejected his ultimate responsibility: He has not loved his neighbor so he cannot be in love with God. The tragedy is not that he harmed Lazarus, but that he ignored him.”
[6] Mark Harris, “No Way Out” The Christian Century (September 12-19,2001):18.  He says, “The rich man doesn't get ... that he could not hear, or did not listen to, Moses and the prophets, who had a lot to say about justice, the poor and those in need.”
[7] Cf. Christine Pohl, “Building a Place for Hospitality,” in Christian Reflection: Hospitality (2007): 28, where she discusses the biblical commands to care for the resident aliens, the poor, and the needy under the heading of “Hospitality.”
[8] Huie, “The Poverty of Abundance,” 403 says it well: “Since I am not poor and do not feel rich, his words can easily hit me and bounce off.”
[9] Pohl, “Building a Place for Hospitality,” 33: “The church as a primary site for hospitality, and its important connection with the household, is overlooked. Rarely do we consider engaging in a kind of hospitality that helps people recover a place in the world and find healing within community.” 

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