Listening to Jesus

The Rev. Dr. Kenneth Carter is pastor of Providence United Methodist Church in Charlotte, NC.

"It's not what I don't understand about the Bible that bothers me," someone once remarked. "It's what I do understand!" That comment could be about today's scripture, a story about an anonymous rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. In the story one has a feast, the other a famine. One's life is a party, the other misery. As Jesus tells the story these two are interdependent, although they live in different worlds.

As the story is told, the poor man dies. And then the rich man dies. This is the "moment of dreadful equity. The rich and poor are very different in life, very alike in death," according to the biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann. A reversal takes place, the first is now last, the last first. The poor man sits next to father Abraham at the table; the rich man is in Hades, or Sheol, the place of the dead. And there is no getting from one side to the other.

The rich man recognizes this; he says to himself, "I blew it." But maybe he can salvage something out of his experience. "Send someone to warn my brothers, so that they don't end up like me!" Abraham replied, "They've got the law and the prophets, they should listen to them." And then the rich man responds, "Maybe if someone rises from the dead they'll listen." And Abraham's reply again, "If they won't listen to Moses and the prophets, they won't listen to someone who rises from the dead."

You don't get it, Jesus seems to be saying. You're not listening. And one way of responding to the word would be to ask, "Why don't' they get it, why don't they listen?" But then, we have to ask, don't we: Do we listen? There is a word for us in this story, and I want to listen for that word with you. It is a simple, difficult, necessary word, but if we will listen for it, there is good news.

How we are judged has to do with how we treat the poor. There is absolutely no ambiguity about this point in the Bible, it is clear from Moses to Amos, Hosea to Micah, Jesus to Paul. And it is clear in this story: We, the rich, have received our reward; the poor will be blessed. How we will be judged depends in large measure on how we relate to the poor. The law and the prophets have prepared us for it, if we will listen. And in this teaching of Jesus we are confronted with the matter yet again. Where are the poor in our world, and how do we treat them?

It is ironic that we live in a nation that is receiving a steady flow of immigrants, and there is some outcry about that, some resistance. And yet isn't it true that we began as a nation of immigrants, that there was wave after wave of the poor coming here, the Irish and the Italians and the Polish, and now the Guatemalan and the Indian and the Sudanese?

And isn't it true that in our Bibles we are taught not to harvest everything but to leave some so that the poor, the alien might eat and be filled. "Why?" Because, God says, "You were aliens in Egypt, and I heard your cries." And so there they are, the rich and the poor together in this story of Jesus. We are given a choice, and that is to connect with the poor or to separate from them.

The most powerful image in this story is of a big chasm, a giant ditch, that separates the rich and the poor. Our calling is to strengthen the connections between rich and poor.

* Every time one of us serves in a homeless shelter, that chasm becomes a little less significant;
* Every time one of us visits the prison, that chasm becomes a little easier to cross;
* Every time one of us tutors at an under-resourced school, that chasm becomes a little less important.
* Every time a physician gives her time to an immigrant community, that chasm is erased.

And here is the good news. In this life we can cross the chasm that separates us from the poor. In the life to come we cannot, but in this life we can make that connection. And if we seek to make that connection, we will discover that many of the poor are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and that they have something to give us. And, yes, we will also, sometimes, meet the Jesus of Matthew 25, just as he promised: I was a stranger and you welcomed me, hungry and you fed me, a prisoner and you visited me....

The fundamental lesson for us is that there are no surprises in this story. Many of the teachings of Jesus-the good Samaritan in Luke 10, the prodigal son in Luke 15, the dishonest steward earlier in Luke 16, the Pharisee and the tax collector to come in Luke 18-many of these passages have surprises for us. But here there are no surprises. We have been warned.

I was thinking this week about some of the ways we are warned in this life. Some are subtle, some more obvious. Think about the pharmaceutical commercial. A child running through a meadow of flowers in bloom, a couple dancing in the kitchen, a football coach smiling into the camera. The message is all about the good life that will come to us if we take this medication. Our very existence will be changed. And then what happens?

We hear these words: The side effects may be heart irregularities, you may experience nausea or headaches, not for women who are pregnant, may cause anxiety or insomnia or agitation or...I could go on. In other have been warned. And even though this last message comes in a calm, low and soothing voice, it is good that we listen!

Yet most of us recoil in listening to any kind of judgment about us. The story implies a judgment, and the preparation for that judgment is how we listen to the scriptures, to the law and the prophets. If I break the laws of God, I bring judgment on myself; if I become deaf to the voice of the prophets, I am in spiritual danger. The prophets spoke out against two evils: false worship and neglect of the poor. Jesus stands squarely in the tradition of the prophets when he cleanses the temple and when he tells a story like this.

The law and the prophets are there to warn us, Jesus says. There are no surprises here. The warning of Jesus is consistent with the law and the prophets. For some reason, Jesus knew, we don't want to hear about the poor. It is still true today.

I received a call a few years ago while I was at an annual conference of United Methodists, the call came from a local television affiliate. Could they interview me when I got back to town about what had happened at the meeting? Having an inkling of what they might be after, I said, "I don't think there is really a story here, we have reaffirmed what the scriptures and the tradition have said about sexuality. The focus of the annual conference has been on Children and Poverty." We understand; we just want to talk with you when you get back. And so when I returned, we met. Here was our dialogue:

  • "What did the conference say about changes in its teaching about sexuality?"
  • "The agenda of the conference was children and poverty."

  • "Did the messages reflect changing attitudes about sexuality in the local church?"

  • "The agenda of the conference was about the poor, who, for the most part, are children."

  • "Do you see any changes in the church about its view of sex?"

  • "Sex is important, I said. But for every one reference to sex in the Bible there are thirty references to the poor."

This went on for about twenty minutes. Then I asked her, "Is this a news piece about the church, or is it a news piece about sex?" She really didn't want to hear about children and poverty. And that evening at 11 o'clock, the lead story was "Sex and the Church." They know that someone is out there, channel surfing, and they're likely to stay if the topic is sex. If it is Jesus and the poor, the remote button're on to something else. Maybe some of you are in the process of doing that right now. But as the announcer used to say, "Don't touch that dial!"

Jesus says, "Listen." I believe this is a word of God for us. Jesus wants us to listen to the poor. I have a friend who serves a large church in New Jersey. She is an African-American woman minister. Around election time, her congregation receives inquiries from those seeking office. Can we visit your church? Can we speak to your church? Can we lead a prayer in your church?

Here is what they do. They introduce the candidate seeking office to the whole congregation. Then they invite about six members of the church to stand with the politician. And then the preacher says, "Mrs. Jones is a senior citizen on a fixed income. Your voting will affect her life. Mr. Ellison is truck driver, with no health insurance. Your voting will affect his life. Mrs. James worked at the plant that has now closed. Your voting will affect her ability to provide for her family. And this went on. Then they would pray for the candidate.

We are called to listen to these people, in this life and in the life to come. Why? Because you and I cannot get to heaven unless we are connected with the poor. John Wesley commented, "Oh that God would stir up the hearts of all those who believe themselves his children, to evidence it by showing mercy to the poor." The gap between rich and poor is not only economic and sociological. It is biblical and spiritual.

At its best, the church of Jesus grasps this truth. As people, we are at our best when there is a connection. And yet it is not all about what we have to give others, especially the poor. Surely they have something to give to us...maybe even our salvation? The poor are not only beneficiaries of grace, they are often channels of God's grace toward us!

The rich man is there, in torment, wanting to get this message to his brothers, this message that we are judged in how we relate to the poor, that we can connect with them, that we can cross that chasm. "How can we get this message to them?" he wonders. And then it occurs to him: "What if someone rose from the dead with this message?" They would listen then, if someone rose from the dead they would listen, if someone rose from the dead, we would listen then. Wouldn't we listen, if someone rose from the dead to tell us?

Let us pray.

Lord, help us to hear the cries of the poor. Help us to listen for your voice. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.