Somehow, interestingly, this parable often shows up here in the fall, when many of us preachers are navigating our way through stewardship season. We want to speak of the joy of seeing your gifts shared with others in a way that changes things.
But we're also stuck. We preachers have a budget to raise, our own salary included. Some of this money goes out to organizations that feed and clothe and house, that are on the ground with hurting people in ways our churches hope to be yet so seldom are. But these are anxious times. Regardless of glimmers of hope amongst economic indicators, we don't feel free. Folks in our pews are still worried about their jobs. Too many churches, even good, strong churches, are hedging bets as they build the budget, asking those who run programs to run them on less, neglecting raises for staff, again, letting the budget anxiety nudge them into making decisions that lead to more keeping, more hoarding, less giving. We don't feel free.
And Jesus hits us on the head with this parable. As best I can tell, the immediate context begins on the way to dinner at "the house of a leader of the Pharisees" in chapter 14. The conversation continues, the crowds gather, and by 15:1, "all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him." Chapter 15 holds the parables that build upon each other--lost sheep, lost coin, lost brother. Luke 16 begins a discrete unit, Alan Culpepper argues, that begins and ends with a parable, both of which start with, "There was a rich man...."
This theme doesn't appear out of the blue. The warning that one's wealth must be handled wisely has been a recurring theme in the travel narrative. At dinner Jesus denounced the greed of the Pharisees (11:39-41), the rich fool forfeited his soul (12:13-21). The prudent steward was praised (12:42-48), and warnings are given throughout chapter 12 regarding how to prepare for the final accounting. No one can be Jesus' disciple who will not give up all his possessions (14:33). And, despite the insertion of sayings about the law, kingdom, and divorce in between 16:1-13 and 16:19-31, it is likely that they will still hear the preceding parables' final words, "You cannot serve God and wealth," ringing in their ears.
Hopefully, by now you have figured out that we are the rich man. I am Presbyterian, and we bounce back and forth with our Episcopalian brothers and sisters as the some of the wealthiest churches in the country. The number of folks with graduate-level education in our pews is really high. We--you and I--the kinds of folks who tend to listen to Day1, particularly in the US, are among the richest and most-well educated religious people around. Yet, according to US Government figures, in 2011, 46.2 million people (15% of our population) lived in poverty, including 16.1 million children under the age of 18. Urban Ministries of Durham, NC, where I live, tells us that their shelter served 1,255 different individuals in 2011. They housed 32 homeless families with 71 children. You've all got these stats within easy reach in your own communities. We sit in our homes and churches and feast, sumptuously, Luke says, while folks sit at the gates picking their sores. If we are so rich and so smart, why do these families not have somewhere to stay? What else is going on?
My father was searching through an old storage closet in Montreat, one of our denomination's national conference centers, in the mountains of western North Carolina, a handful of years ago and came across a recording. It was a tape from Anderson Auditorium in Montreat from a weekend late in August, 1965. The speaker, one Martin Luther King, Jr., begins his speech at a church retreat by apologizing. He was supposed to have spoken Thursday night, but was in Watts, Los Angeles, meeting with government officials, on the streets, trying to quell the riots there. In this speech, King challenges the church on issues of race, pushing them to be more than clear on their stands on segregation. And then he moves into the connection with issues of poverty. He takes some time and points the assembly to our text.
"There is nothing in that parable," King says, "that says Dives [the Latin name for the rich man] went to hell because he was rich. Jesus never made a universal indictment against all wealth." King names the story of the rich young ruler, but says that in that story, when Jesus tells the man to go, sell all he has, and give his money to the poor, Jesus was "prescribing individual surgery, not setting forth a universal diagnosis." King moves on, pointing us toward the kind of symbolic long-distance call that takes place between Dives in hell and Abraham, with Lazarus, in heaven. King claims that, "Dives went to hell not because he was rich, but because he passed by Lazarus every day and never really saw him." He moves on to say that, "Dives went to hell because he allowed Lazarus to become invisible...because he failed to use his wealth to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus. In fact, he didn't even realize that Lazarus was his brother."
If King is right, this may not be, ultimately, a text about poverty, about our wealth, or about the proper allocation of resources. This is a text about vision. This is a text in which Jesus calls us to confront the reality that every day we pass by people who are in desperate need--in obvious ways, and in far deeper less obvious ones--and we walk right by. Most of the time I genuinely don't think we do this on purpose. But the results are the same. Needs are not met. Children remain homeless. Adults, people you know, even, remain trapped in desperate fear and loneliness. It seems to me that one of the reasons that poverty is so difficult to confront is because it forces us to look into the eyes of people who are not as different from us as we would like to believe, and hear their stories, and walk with them in their struggles, and see, really see, the pain living in their eyes.
To what are we blind? Make your list. You all have your own contextual distractions, and we are all busy dealing with our lives and our ministries and our families. So many people heading in so many different directions and everyone is tired all the time. And another man asks us for change on the street and we put our blinders on as we head to Home Depot. We have paint samples to match, after all.
On Spring Break in high school, Black Mountain Presbyterian Church, where I grew up, went to the Church of the Pilgrimage in Washington, DC. One evening they brought in a handful of homeless and formerly homeless men to tell us their stories. I still remember clearly a moment when one of my friends asked a man what to do when a person on the street approached him asking for money. He said that we should do what we felt like doing. If we give them money, be fully aware, he said, that it may be used for food, but just as well may be used for something else. He said to follow your gut as you make that decision. Then he added the critical point: Say, 'yes,' or say, 'no,' but treat me like a person, he said. We spend our whole day not being seen. Do not act like we aren't there.
In that same speech in Montreat, King continues: "I submit this is the challenge facing the church, to be as concerned as our Christ about the least of these, our brothers and sisters. And we must do it because in the final analysis we are all to live together, rich and poor, lettered and unlettered, tutored and untutored. Somehow we are tied in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality." "And for some reason," King says to us, "I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God made the world...we must all learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] or we will all perish as fools."
So, past poverty, past vision, it's about community, and the key to how community is formed. Ask someone who digs deeper to give a sacrificial gift or packs up a bunch of clothes and takes them downtown. Ask someone who has spent the night with homeless families volunteering at a shelter, who has slept in a car or on a hard floor on the Gulf Coast doing disaster relief, who has really sat down at the shelter over dinner and listened. Because once you do something like this, and so many of you have, you cannot go back. You cross over a gulf, a chasm, and see, and understand human need differently from that point on. Your vision is forever altered, and you see the world in all its richness and brutality and immense complexity; but you also see the person in front of you as a beloved, beloved child of God.
Culpepper writes: "The parable is addressed to 'lovers of money.' At the beginning, hearers or readers may assume that they are expected to identify with the rich man or with Lazarus, but the parable is far more subtle than that. By the end of the parable we realize that we stand in the place of the brothers, and the question is whether we will hear the Scriptures and repent."
These are hard days, to be sure. But Lazarus is in front of us, at the gates, every day. And we still have the chance to change things, if only we are willing to see.
Let us pray. Christ of vision, clear our eyes. Challenge us, we who love what we have--our money, our things, our identities--with a vision of Your beloved community, a community that includes all. Amen.
 The New Interpreter's Bible, Volume IX, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p 306. Luke section by R. Alan Culpepper.
 http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf This really thorough study is a great place to start on some of this data.
 from "The Church at the Forefront of Racial Progress," by Martin Luther King, Jr., preached at the Anderson Auditorium, Montreat, NC, August 1965. Recording courtesy Bob Tuttle.
 NIB, 319.