Seeing in a Wealthy Age

It’s been nearly 140 years since Mark Twain wrote the novel, The Prince and the Pauper, about the chance encounter of two young men on the street — one the future king of England and the other the beggar son of a thief. Edward, son of Henry VIII, and Tom Canty, the boy living a life of poverty look identical and even share the same birthday.  They become fast friends, and the  two decide to switch places for a time to see how the other lives.  While they are pretending to be each other, King Henry dies and the court officials come to make Tom king.  In the end, it all works out with Edward interrupting the near coronation of Tom, but Edward is changed.  He becomes more merciful realizing how the justice system of his day was rigged against the poor after spending a stint in jail.  The story that Twain wrote was meant to expose the stark inequality in class that existed in his day.  He hoped that people would see those differences through his story, and begin to change in the way Edward did.

Seeing.  That is what this parable from Jesus is truly about.  He tells those assembled—whom, Luke tells us, loved their money a great deal—Jesus tells them about the disparate lives of these two men.  The one, a beggar named Lazarus, and the other, an unnamed rich man.  Lazarus has an awful life, always hungry, no home to call his own, and a body full of open wounds.  It’s so bad that the only comfort he has is when the dogs come and lick those sores, likely infecting them more.  He lies outside the gate of the rich man’s palatial home. Lazarus sees him and longs to have just a few crumbs from the feasts the rich man enjoys daily. 

However, the rich guy doesn’t even notice poor Lazarus.  He doesn’t see him there by his gate—or chooses not to see him. They go about their separate lives until the time when they both die.  Jesus tells us that Lazarus is carried up to Paradise by the angels.  The rich guy is buried and ends up in Hades.

He’s tormented there in the flames.  And off in the distance he notices the beggar that had previously lain outside his gates standing next to none other than Abraham.  “Father Abraham,” he says, “have pity on me and send Lazarus”—ah, so it seems he did at least know the poor man’s name—“send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.”  This rich guy still thinks he’s all that and a bag of chips, and asks the founder of his faith to send that beggar to do something for him.  He hasn’t stopped ordering others around.  And while noticing Lazarus off in the distance, he still doesn’t really see him.  

Not gonna happen, Abraham tells him.  “Remember, Son, how in your earthly life you got all the good stuff, while Lazarus got all the bad? Now he’s the one being comforted and you’re in agony.  Besides, there’s a great chasm between us, and none can travel from there to here or vice versa.”  “Wait,” the rich guy shouts.  “I’ve got five brothers that are still alive.  Send Lazarus off to tell them so that when they die they don’t get the same treatment as me.”

Abraham replies, “Son, they have all the scriptures before them, and there are others others telling them the right way to respond to those in need. If they don’t listen to those words of instruction which they already have, they won’t listen even if someone comes back from the dead.”  And with that Jesus ends his tale, and we’re left to ponder how to respond ourselves.

When I walk in Boston on my way to an event for our Diocese at the Cathedral, it’s easy for me to look away from the needy as I pass them on the sidewalk.  I don’t make eye contact at all,  and even though I notice them—I don’t run into them of course—I don’t see them for who they are.  A number of years ago our family took a trip to Washington DC. As we walked along the National Mall we passed a man with a cardboard sign telling us he was homeless. I kept right on walking and got about 30 feet away when my son Noah stopped me and asked for some money for the nice man so he could get a home.  I pulled out my wallet and handed him some money which he promptly ran back and gave it to the man. They spoke for about a minute, and it was clear that Noah truly saw him.

Theologian John Donahue writes, “One of the prime dangers of wealth is that it causes blindness.” Professor Charles Cousar follows up, “The rich man is not pictured as inherently wicked. He doesn’t persecute Lazarus, nor does he refuse him food, nor does he sponsor legislation to rid the gates of poor people like Lazarus.”  He just doesn’t see him.  He continues, “In modern times Lazarus corresponds to the person who begs, but one dare not look into his or her eyes, lest a claim is made upon one’s compassion. It is acceptable to give aid to the worthy poor, but it is also socially permissible to regard some as not worthy.”

The worthy and the unworthy poor.  Could there be a more incriminating distinction? 

As a priest my instinct is to try cover for Jesus, try to make him sound less harsh.  To say that even though he was talking to the Pharisees who loved money, we’re different now.  We’re some of the good ones, you know.  We’re generous and we make a difference and we really see people.  I want to say that, but I know it’s not always true.  I was more than happy to walk past a homeless man I deemed unworthy of my attention on a chilly spring day in Washington DC.  It’s easy to bypass the news stories about the migrants at our southern border that our government has concentrated into tents as we process their claims seeking new life in our country that is home to many who have migrated before. Life is complicated.

Perhaps our best way forward is not to ponder if we’re like that nameless rich guy whose life is already spent, but imagine ourselves as his still living siblings.  What would it take for us to really see people in front of us? There are so many that are poor spiritually, emotionally, physically and yes, financially.  I don’t think that the only goal is to make sure the ones like Lazarus have their needs met and that’s it, but rather to see them, to be in relationship with them.  To get to know them for who they are, and to share a bit of ourselves too.  To engage with them and view them not as worthy or unworthy recipients of charity, but as equals.  As friends.

That’s what Tom and Edward did in that novel by Twain. They became friends.  They learned about each other, and lived each other’s lives for a bit, and it changed them both.  That’s what happens when we see others.  We are all changed for the better.

This morning we are baptizing Adelynn, and Theodore into this way of life.  Let’s not sugarcoat it for them: Following Jesus is not always easy.  He asks an awful lot of us.  But through his transforming power, our lives can become more and more like his.  We can see the inequality in our world between the haves and the have nots and do something about it.  We can pause to speak with a person sitting on a bench to hear a little of their story.  We can reach out to the ones who feel alone and let them know that isn’t true.  We can share our money with those who need a hand.  And we can open up our tables—and this table—to all who long to be fed.  

Friends, let us share out of our abundance.  Let us comfort those who are afflicted in this world of ours.  Let us see them and learn their names.  When we do, it will be as if one came back from the dead to lead us toward a better way of life.  May our eyes be opened to truly see, and let us share Jesus’ currency of love and hope for all.  Amen.

Photo Credit: Alex E. Proimos Flickr via Compfight cc

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