When I was working at Columbia University, I was leading a mission trip to build houses in Tijuana. As we were waiting for our flight from New York, I busied myself with some reading. At one point I said aloud and to nobody in particular: "What an amazing word--ignore ance--do you all know that word-ignore-ance?" When I looked up, my students had a familiar facial expression of sympathy and patience.
But ignore-ance. Ignorance. Honestly, it was as if I had never heard or read the word before. Ignorance has always seemed to me to be a passive condition--oh well, it's just ignorance, it's not my fault--I just haven't had a chance to learn that yet. And knowledge, if it is to come at all, is something to be bequeathed by one to another, always eagerly given and graciously accepted. However, what if ignorance is not so neutral? What if ignore-ance is an active and intentional stance towards the world which censors that which is inconvenient or uncomfortable? Ignore-ance, in that case, either consciously or unconsciously, judges what is or is not worth knowing and acts accordingly.
I work in the university setting; and in that arena, hopefully, most of us are willing to admit that we are ignorant--meaning that we lack knowledge--to varying degrees on different subjects.
Curing our ignorance is the reason we come to university--to seek, to share and to create knowledge. We come with curiosity--a desire to know. So ignore-ance as I described it earlier, is the enemy of the university. Ignor-ance decides a priority that some things are simply not worth knowing and, well, ignores them, even avoids them, and perhaps distains them. Ignore-ance produces poor intellects and academics, as it separates us from knowledge of the world and of human experience that extends beyond our own.
But ignore-ance has profound implications for the church as well. Hopefully, we come to church with hearts and minds and spirits open, in order to truly understand and accept the Good News. Yet many of us, either consciously or unconsciously, assume that we already know everything that there is to know about God and close ourselves off to that which does not fit within our neat formulas. There is a deep temptation in the church to be ignore-ant. As our scripture today warns, ignore-ance makes us failures in our attempts to be Christians and puts our very salvation at risk.
Our Gospel lesson today takes place at a gate. On one side of the gate we have the lavish life of the rich man. We don't know his name; but we know he has a beautiful home, feasts on extravagant banquets, and wears fine purple linens--a sign of the upper classes. Directly on the other side of the gate, we have a desperately poor man. If the rich man notices the poor man at all, it is perhaps to be disgusted by his grubbing for scraps that would normally go to the dogs or repulsed by the sores on the poor man's body that the dogs lick.
We can imagine the rich man passing by the poor man at the gate several times a day, never once addressing him. Mind you, it is not that the rich man wishes the poor man harm in particular; he probably doesn't feel anything for him at all. To the rich man's point of view, they live in two entirely different worlds with a huge divide between them--one has nothing to do with the other. There is a gate between them that is used to keep them apart.
Eventually, of course, both men die. And the parable describes how the poor man is taken to heaven and is at Abraham's side while the rich man is tormented in hell. The rich man begs Abraham to send the poor man to give him water, even just a drop from the tip of his finger, yet Abraham informs him that the chasm between them is fixed across which no one can pass. The rich man's fate is sealed. For him, the gate is shut for eternity.
This parable is meant to startle us, and I think it succeeds brilliantly. It is especially stark because the picture we have of the rich man is not particularly villainess. He was assuredly respected and given honor in his own circles, and the text does not say that he was a sinner or that he was evil. He probably considered himself a righteous man, yet he ends up being tormented in the afterlife. So what is the sin for which he is being punished? The rich man ignored the poor man in life, and therefore he is being punished in death. His sin was ignore-ance, especially because his ignore-ance caused the continuation of such visible and avoidable suffering. The wages of the rich man's sin are indeed death.
What must be difficult for the rich man languishing in hell is the memory of how many times he passed by the poor man in life without realizing that the poor man at the gate was crucial to his own salvation. The poor man has a name--Lazarus. Lazarus is the only named person in any of the parables of Jesus. All the other parables refer to "a man who," or "there were two sons who." But Jesus names Lazarus in this parable and the name is significant. The name Lazarus comes from the word Elexar--which means God helps. God helps Lazarus in death when the angels come and take him up to heaven. But the name also indicates that Lazarus--that God helps--was there for the rich man, but he couldn't see it on account of his ignore-ance.
Lazarus sits at the rich man's gate, as the text says. Most towns and important buildings in Israel were surrounded by walls that kept intruders out, yet gates were the places where those walls were permeable. Gates are the points where entrance can be gained or denied, and gates hold a deep spiritual significance in the Bible. In this parable God's help is at the gate; this help is in the form of the most poor and desperate beggar whom God loves. In the afterlife, Abraham informs the rich man that the gulf between him and Lazarus is now set forever and cannot be bridged. Yet this only serves as a reminder that while on earth the gate was open as Lazarus waited for some recognition from the rich man. It is too late for the rich man in this story, but not too late for you and for me.
Our place in this parable can be understood as the brothers who are still alive back at home, perhaps unaware or ignorant of the serious nature of their predicament. The rich man, understanding that his fate is sealed, seeks to help his brothers to avoid a similar one. He begs Abraham to send back Lazarus in order to warn them that their ignorance or ignore-ance has consequences. Abraham shrugs and said if they did not listen to the prophets, they will not listen to the one who has come back from the dead--referring to Lazarus and also, of course, to Jesus. But there remains a question mark in the story. In expressing his dismay, Abraham also leaves a lingering hope that, in fact, the brothers and that you and that I will listen and move towards the gateway of knowledge represented by Lazarus in order to stave off the fate that awaits those who dwell in ignore-ance.
Jesus is teaching us the interconnection between our eternal spiritual life and how we serve and treat our neighbors at the gate. Abraham's reference to the prophets is important because they were the messengers of God who understood and proclaimed God's demand for justice. They did not ignore the poor and the oppressed--just the opposite--they knew that we could not be right with God and oppress our neighbor and leave the poor in misery. We cannot claim knowledge of God while being ignore-ant of our neighbor. We hear this in the words of the prophets Jeremiah, Amos, and, of course, Isaiah who in chapter 58 tells us of God's will for our piety:
"The Lord asks: 'Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and to not hide yourself from your own kin?'"
Service to others and working for justice is not only the right thing to do, but it's also integral to our spiritual salvation--not only in the life to come, but right now in this life. Isaiah promises that when we obey the ethical mandates of God, then we receive God's help saying: "Then your light shall break forth like the dawn and you shall call and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and the Lord will say, 'Here I am.'"
Over one hundred years ago, my great grandfather Walter Rauschenbusch was a pastor in a slum of New York City known as hell's kitchen. He was confronted by poverty in his own congregation and buried the babies of families who had lost their children only because they were too poor to afford medicine. Lazarus was sitting on Walter's own doorstep and was even inside his own church, and Walter could not remain in ignor-ance. Rauschenbusch credited his congregation in hell's kitchen for helping him to truly know the Gospel and with igniting in him a deeper commitment to Jesus. His new faith no longer allowed him to dwell in ignore-ance of the social crisis of poverty; instead he had to work to stop it.
Today Jesus is inviting all of us to repent of our ignore-ance of God and our ignore-ance of the suffering of the world and to step through the gate of knowledge and radical love into the kingdom of God, where God's will for justice and peace is done on earth as in heaven. May all of us see God's help at the gate and be blessed with the knowledge of the Lord and the knowledge of one another and be saved.
So be it.
Please join me in the spirit of prayer. God, we ask that you would move us from ignore-ance into knowledge and bless our lives as we bless all of your children. May you continue to create and sustain and redeem everyone of us, on this day and evermore. Amen.