September 25, 2022, Sermon preached by Rev. Mary Lee Wile

The stranger at the gate

Jesus concluded last week’s complicated parable with the simple statement: “You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Today’s parable is also about wealth, but it takes a somewhat different path. Perhaps we cannot serve God and wealth, but one could serve God with wealth. Instead of a retelling of the eye of the needle parable where no rich person can enter the kingdom of heaven, today’s parable instead harks back to the Good Samaritan. Certainly in the parable of the Good Samaritan, money isn’t a cause for damnation, but a blessing that pays for the care and healing of the abused and beaten man – which the rich man in today’s parable absolutely refuses to do. So it’s not the man’s wealth that’s the problem, but his luxurious squandering of it on himself, and his deep contempt for the destitute stranger lying outside his gate.

Jesus begins: “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.” Now when my youngest granddaughter was three years old, she refused to wear anything that wasn’t purple, down to her underwear and socks. One didn’t need a fortune to purchase purple clothes in 2019, but in the time of Jesus, the Romans had standards about who was allowed to wear purple – a royal color, expensive to make – so the purple robes were significant, as was the rich man’s underwear. The words we translate as “fine linen” refer to an Egyptian flax so fine that the cloth made from it was referred to as “woven air,” and it was primarily used to make undergarments. So here is this rich man wearing woven air underwear topped with elegant royal robes, who “feasted sumptuously every day,” refusing even to share his crumbs. Sounds a lot like the billionaires of today, doesn’t it?

Arwa Mahdawi recently wrote in The Guardian, “Remember when there was a smidgen of hope that the collective trauma the world was facing would reshape people’s priorities and the pandemic could be a portal to a better, fairer society? Well, two years on, precisely none of that has happened. People clapped for essential workers for a bit but didn’t stop exploiting them. Meanwhile it’s boom time for billionaires, who saw their already obscene wealth grow exponentially during the pandemic…..” She concludes, “The rich haven’t just gotten richer, they’ve also gotten a lot more selfish.”  And it’s not just the billionaires who have become increasingly selfish in these contentious times. In the news this week, we learned that a group of people in Minnesota stole $250 million dollars in Covid relief funds. And then there are those politicians in the news who deliberately exploit immigrants and “others” for political power and personal gain.

That’s the kind of privilege that Jesus is pointing to in this parable. The problem isn’t wealth and power, but the grotesquely self-serving use of them solely for oneself.

Now in the same way that Jesus isn’t specifically condemning wealth in this parable, he’s also certainly not glorifying poverty. It’s clear that being destitute isn’t a blessing; Jesus knows that poverty can lead to illness and starvation, both of which Lazarus suffers. But Lazarus is even worse off than that. When we’re told that the dogs come to lick the puss oozing from his open sores, the original language actually says “other dogs” come. The implication is that Lazarus himself is a dog, “dog” being the common insult for outsiders at the time. It makes me think about the hate speech and racial slurs used against anyone considered “other” in this country. Those of us who’ve taken part in Sacred Ground have become well acquainted with centuries of systemic abuse of the “other,” all those left to die at the gate, at the border, in our prisons, on our streets.

It’s actually a relief when Jesus tells us that Lazarus dies, and deeply satisfying when we hear that Abraham gives this poor diseased stranger the place of honor next to him. But that’s not the end of the story. The rich man dies, too. And when he sees Lazarus, there embraced by Abraham, does he prostrate himself and express shame and remorse for failing to see that the beggar who died outside his gate was a fellow child of God? No, instead, he tells Abraham to tell Lazarus to fetch him some water.  He still doesn’t get it.  When Abraham gently refuses, the man then asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them to change their ways. Again Abraham says no – like all of us, they need to work out their own salvation.

And that is the real heart of this parable: we’re not actually supposed to identify with either the luxuriously dissolute rich man or the diseased and discarded Lazarus, but with the brothers. The parable serves as both a warning and an invitation to all of us who still have life and breath, no matter how much (or little) wealth or privilege we might have, to look around and see where we can help. There are, of course, those few billionaires who use their wealth and privilege in the service of others. Dolly Parton, for example, gave a million dollars towards the development of Covid vaccine, helping to save the health and the lives of millions of people. Former president Jimmy Carter has continued his work for the unhoused and the poor well into his 90’s, insisting that “our greatest blessings come when we are able to improve the lives of others, especially when those other are desperately poor or in need.” And, in this season of creation, we have just heard the news that Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, a company dedicated to quality outdoor clothing and gear, has given away his company’s entire worth of $3 billion dollars to fight climate change, saying it is “the only way Patagonia’s values could be preserved.” These are the Good Samaritans, people of wealth and privilege who use their resources to help the poor, to tend the sick, to care for the earth. How different from the rich who keep it all for themselves!

So the message Jesus leaves with us is to use whatever resources we have – whether it’s time, or talents, or finances – for the wellbeing of others and not just for our own pleasure. Not to ignore the needs God puts outside our gates, or in our town, or on our hearts. It’s fine to buy purple, or green, or polka dot clothing for our grandchildren, to buy comfortable underwear for ourselves, to fix delicious meals for the family – but Jesus calls us beyond that into the broken world: to see, really see, the suffering that is out there, and to heal and help what is in our power to do, in whatever ways we can. 

As our young poet laureate Amanda Gorman concluded when she spoke at the U.N. last week:

I only ask that you care before it’s too late,

That you live aware and awake,

That you lead with love in the hours of hate….

I dare you to do good.