Seeing Lazarus

Homily, Seeing Lazarus
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21C, 2022
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
Tequesta, FL

The Rev. Derek M Larson, TSSF

Today’s Lectionary Readings:

Amos 6:1a,4-7
Psalm 146
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A couple years ago, on the morning of October 12, 2020, in the City of Bay Village, Ohio, a wealthy suburb of Cleveland, a resident was passing by St. Barnabas Episcopal Church on their walk through the neighboring park when from a distance they saw what appeared to be someone homeless sleeping on a park bench. 

Perhaps nervous for their own safety, or perhaps nervous for the safety of the sleeping person, or perhaps frustrated by the disruption to the park’s beauty, they immediately called the police. But when the police arrived to investigate they approached the sleeping person only to find…that it was Jesus. 

What had appeared to be a homeless person sleeping on a park bench was in reality a sculpture of Jesus by artist Timothy Schmalz, which had been installed just 20 minutes before the call. The sculpture, called “Homeless Jesus”—is a life size depiction of someone sleeping under a blanket on a park bench with only nail marks in his feet to identify him, and is inspired by the words of Jesus in Matthew 25 where he says, “When you care for the least of these, you care for me.”

There are a number of these sculptures around the world now and evidently this occurrence of mistaking the sculpture for a real person sleeping on a bench is very common. In fact in almost every place the statue has been, the police have been called, only for them to arrive and find a sculpture of Jesus. 

It turns out that people don’t expect to see sculptures of a homeless Jesus sleeping on a park bench. People might expect to see a sculpture of the resurrected Jesus in his beautiful flowing robes with arms extended. They might expect to see a sculpture of him as a cute baby being held by his glorious mother. They may even expect to see a sculpture of a courageous Jesus on the cross taking our sins upon him, but people do not expect to see Jesus alone without shelter or home sleeping under a blanket on a park bench. And so the sculpture invites people to see Jesus in a new way. 

Our gospel passage this morning also invites us to see in a different way. We’re presented with the image of a rich man and a poor man. The rich man lives in the comfort of his home and the poor man lives in the streets with the dogs. But years down the road when they both die, there is a great reversal and it is the poor man who finds comfort beside the great patriarch Abraham and it is the rich man who suffers in Hades.

Now we could approach this passage in a few ways. We could talk about the failure of the rich man to love his neighbor. We could talk about how he hoarded his wealth rather than living generously, but I think we covered that pretty well last week in another parable Jesus tells about a rich man.

We could also talk about the ancient cosmology present in this passage. What is Hades? Isn’t that Greek God? Why is it mentioned here? Where is Abraham? How can the rich man talk to Abraham across the vast chasm? And while I am happy to talk with you more about those questions, this parable is not really about heaven or hell or the afterlife. It’s not a story about what happens to people when they die, and we shouldn’t read that into it. It’s a story. It’s a parable only using these images to teach us something about life, not death.

But what interests me the most about this parable is Lazarus, the poor man. Who is named in this passage. In fact, this is the only character in all of Jesus’ parables that has a name. The rich man has no name. But Lazarus, he has a name. And it is Lazarus who is given the honor of joining Abraham in death. We don’t hear much about him, but we know there was something holy and special about Lazarus.

But the rich man missed it. He must have passed by Lazarus at his gate more than a thousand times but never saw in him someone to take notice of. He passed by but never saw in him holiness or the presence of God. He passed by but never even saw in him another human person. Instead, all he saw was rags and wounds and dogs.

And sadly, even in Hades, the rich man while physically looking upstairs at Lazarus, in his heart looks down at him, expecting Lazarus to fetch him water and be his messenger—to be his servant. 

It seems then, that the sin of the rich man is not only that he neglected to offer charity to Lazarus, but that he neglected to see Lazarus. To really see him. To see him as a neighbor. To see him as a potential friend. To see him as someone holy. As someone made in the image of God. The rich man refused to see Lazarus. 

He refused to hear his story. And share his own. He refused to be in mutual relationship. 

The tragedy of this story is not what the rich man experienced after death, but what he missed out on in life. He missed out on a beautiful relationship with a fellow human being and a holy man of God. There was so much more to Lazarus than his poverty. 

I think today in our society most of us are somewhat uncomfortable with poverty and homelessness. It makes us uncomfortable. That’s why we might find ourselves calling the police when we encounter it. 

But this gospel passage is doing something very interesting. It’s saying there is holiness in places of poverty. It’s saying there is a special home for the poor in the heart of God. It’s saying that we can find sacred neighbors among those with profound financial need. If only we look for it. If only we see. 

If only we see a person with a name, rather than just rags and wounds. If only we see a neighbor to be loved, rather than a problem to be fixed. If only we see Jesus, rather than a sleeping stranger on a park bench. If only we see.

And of course charity is an important step towards that, but it is only a step. We can give all kinds of money without ever knowing another person’s name. 

So how might we take our discomfort around poverty—our discomfort around seeing a homeless Jesus—and allow it to point us to something deeper? How might we foster the ability to notice holiness and humanity where previously we had only seen poverty and problems? How might we reach out and meet our neighbor, learn their name, and share one another’s stories? How might we see Lazarus?

What profound and sacred beauty awaits for those who open their eyes to see. Amen.