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Seeing the Other's Humanity

A sermon on Luke 16:19-31

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Kelli McClintock on Unsplash.]

Last week’s lectionary challenge was that the gospel parable was so very confusing!

Where in the world are we supposed to see God or righteous models in a story about a dishonest manager cheating his way into favors and getting praised for it? (answer – maybe nowhere? Not every story is a “be like this” story)

This week’s lectionary offers us the opposite challenge.

The meaning of this parable seems so obvious: be generous or face eternal torment.

The call to care for those in greatest need is hardly surprising from Jesus, but there are still a number of problems raised by this very straight-forward reading.

For one thing, the description of the afterlife in this parable is NOT something we should read as “straight-forward.”

That should be clear from the moment Jesus makes reference to “Hades.”

The idea of Hades is an artifact of Greek mythology and has no place in Jewish scriptures.

While there is some evidence that Jewish thinking about the afterlife developed somewhat during the few hundred years between the closing of the Hebrew cannon and the time of Jesus, the images in the parable are not that.

Jesus talking about Hades is equivalent to him saying “once upon a time” or “in a galaxy far, far away,”… it’s a verbal flag that he is telling an imaginative tale that is NOT located in our reality.

As the SALT Commentary explains this week:

“This isn’t a treatise on the afterlife. On the contrary, it’s a graphic morality tale meant to focus our attention, and if necessary, to rouse us from slumber.”[1]

But if the afterlife images are not meant to be read literally, is it possible that the “morality tale” in this parable is a bit more complicated too?

Quick answer: yes!

In fact, it almost has to be… otherwise, why the parable?

Let me be clear: It’s not that the call to care for the poor is off-message. It’s not! Jesus absolutely teaches this.

It’s just that there would be nothing NEW if that was all that he was saying here.

The economic and practical responsibility of the rich to care for the poor is an unquestioned given in Jesus’s cultural context MUCH MORE than it is in ours.

In our culture, this responsibility sometimes gets debated in questions around individual responsibility, enabling dependency, and the so-called worthy or unworthy poor.

But for Jesus and his contemporaries, there was no debate.

The houses of the wealthy in the Ancient Near East actually had benches built outside of them for the poor to sit and wait for food.[2] That’s how much of a given this arrangement was for the society. The rich man’s responsibility in this story is obvious and unequivocal.

Making his behavior utterly shocking.

But that’s not the kind of thing that Jesus uses parables to teach.

Parables call us to lean into questions, and to explore our call to discipleship from different and unexpected angles.

They aren’t just imaginative ways of saying obvious things. There’s ALWAYS more to it than that.

[[Also, if this parable were nothing more than a hit-you-over-the-head message to take care of the poor, the message would basically be a works righteousness call to buy your way out of Greek-mythology-hell, so… that’s problematic too.]]

So, for all kinds of reasons, there HAS to be more to this story. But what?

Well, we have one clue in the fact that this parable has the ONLY named character in ANY parable that Jesus tells in all four gospels.

That kind of thing does not happen by accident. Jesus gives the character of Lazarus a name in order to draw attention to him as a person. He is an individual, not just a non-entity playing a role.

And this decision shines a glaring spotlight on the way that the rich man in the story FAILS to recognize Lazarus’ humanity.

The rich man’s error in the parable is not JUST that he ignores Lazarus’ physical needs in life, despite his social and religious obligation to do the opposite. This failure has a deeper root – he has failed to see the HUMANITY of his neighbor.

The rich man’s interaction with the Abraham-character in the parable shows how completely he views Lazarus as existing only for the ways he might be of service.

From his tortured position in the afterlife, he sees Lazarus and clearly recognizes him from their interactions in life (since he calls Lazarus by name).

But this knowledge of his name is ironic, because the man does NOT recognize Lazarus’ humanity. He does not recognize that Lazarus could have any purpose other than serving the rich man’s own needs.

First, he assumes that Lazarus has no agency – trying to negotiate with Abraham for Lazarus’ services, rather than speaking to Lazarus himself.

Then, he proposes that Lazarus should be sent from him place of rest to Hades, in order to offer some negligible source of comfort to the rich man. (Seriously, what actual use would it be for Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool the man’s tongue?)

Finally, when Abraham raises practical objections about the mythical chasm dividing them, the man tries to get Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers.

Never in the conversation is Lazarus addressed as an actual person who has anything to say about where he should be or what he should be doing. He is treated as an object to be sent and used to meet others’ needs.

And this is the twist of the parable that Jesus wants to catch us on… the strangeness of a named character being treated like an object… the insight that our failures to love our neighbors stem from our failure to see them as human beings, with lives as whole and as valuable as our own.

In the mythological setting of the parable, the rich man tries to argue that the only chance for his brothers to be saved from his fate is for something extraordinary to happen – for someone from the dead to rise and warn them.

But the response he receives is a reminder that his brothers already have all that they need – they have the teachings of “Moses and the prophets.”

The truth is right there in front of them… just like a REAL human being was right there in front of the rich man, sitting at his gate…. The problem is that neither the teachings nor the man are recognized.

This is the simple but reorienting challenge of the parable: the subtle teaching that our task is to see what is in front of us… to really see the full humanity of those around us and to recognize our obligations to them on that basis.

Which means that we should ask ourselves what human need is right in front of us that we are failing to recognize, and – specifically – whose humanity are we failing to see that is making us blind?

This can apply to people in poverty, absolutely, but it is a much broader challenge than that. It can apply to any group whom we find it easier to stereotype, or ignore, or reduce to an “issue” rather than living, individual human beings.

Because the insight of this parable is that our failure to care STARTS with our willingness to dehumanize.

At the Vigil for Peace that I attended this past Wednesday night, Dr. Aly Chaudry, from the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, argued that true peace requires us to reject the tendency to cast people and groups as “other.”

He shared about his work in interfaith contexts around New Jersey, and how he has come to understand that peace and justice can ONLY be nurtured when we recognize our responsibility to advocate for those who are different than us…

Defending only the people in our own groups leads to divisiveness, distrust, and violence. It leads to seeing other people NOT as people but as objects to be used, or threats to be defeated.

The only healing, restorative solution is to stand up for the other… to carry this parable’s message to its logical application and to commit to affirming the other’s humanity and needs as something that we cannot ever ignore.

Dr. Chaudry invited all present at the vigil to join in making a pledge to Stand Up for the Other, which I have made, and which I invite you to ponder as I read it now:

“While interacting with members of my own faith, or ethnic, or gender community, or with others, if I hear hateful comments from anyone about members of any other community, I pledge to stand up for the other and speak up to challenge bigotry in any form.”

If the rich man’s heartlessness starts with his denial of Lazarus’s humanity, then our life of love starts with our recognition of other’s humanity. And we can make a pledge to stand up for that.

I am going to repeat that pledge now, and I invite you to join in repeating these words, as an affirmation of the humanity of all the “others” in your lives.

“While interacting with members

of my own faith, or ethnic, or gender community,

or with others,

if I hear hateful comments from anyone

about members of any other community,

I pledge to stand up for the other

and speak up

to challenge bigotry

in any form.”.

Thanks be to God.


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