Sunday, November 4, 2012

Lazarus and the Rich Man: Homily for the 22nd Sunday After Pentecost in the Orthodox Church


St. Luke 16: 19-31
    
            I bet that every one of us can name some famous people who seem to be famous mostly because they are famous.  Some people make the news simply by being who they are for reasons that are beyond us.  For whatever reason, the names of celebrities are always well known.
            But it’s not the same for the humble and poor, for people who live on the streets or in shacks and who do not know where their next meal will come from.  Hundreds of millions of children in the developing world today do not have safe drinking water, adequate shelter, or health services.  Many of them end up like the poor man in today’s gospel lesson, begging desperately outside the home of a wealthy person, only to be ignored and to die without any human comfort.  The names of those who live such lives are rarely known or recorded.  The names, like the people, are usually thought to be unimportant and rarely make the news.
            How completely shocking it is, then, that our gospel text gives us the name of the poor beggar Lazarus, but leaves out the name of the rich man.  This detail shows us that God’s kingdom is not like worldly kingdoms, not like human society as we know it.  For the kind of wealth that makes people famous in this life counts for nothing in the next.  And the kind of humility, the kind of complete trust in God that the poorest of the poor are in the best position to have, counts for little in today’s world; yet, it is only by that kind of humble trust that anyone will enter the kingdom of God.
            No, the point is not that the rich will be damned and the poor will be blessed.  Instead, it is that there are strong and deep temptations associated with wealth, possessions, and success in this world. For if we love ourselves, our riches, and our status more than God and neighbor, no matter how much or little we have, we will shut ourselves out of the kingdom.  The name Lazarus means “One who has been helped,” and those whose miserable life circumstances do not encourage them to trust in money, power, or success are in a good position to learn that their help is in the Lord, in His mercy and love.
            The rich man never learned that lesson, however.  He wore only outrageously expensive clothes and had a great feast every day.  He must have known about the poor beggar Lazarus.  He probably stepped over or around him every time he went in or out of his house.   Here was a desperately poor man, lying on the ground, whose only comfort was the stray dogs who would lick his open sores.  All that Lazarus wanted were the crumbs that fell from the man’s table, you might say his garbage. But the rich man was so greedy and thoughtless that he apparently denied him even that.   Our Lord is quite clear about the consequences of such a life.  This man showed no mercy; he demonstrated no love for his wretched neighbor. Consequently, he cut himself off from the mercy and love of God.
            Quite different from this selfish man were the saints we commemorated on Thursday, the Holy Unmercenary Healers Cosmas and Damian.  They used the money they inherited from their parents to provide medical care without charge to the sick and needy.  Imagine that:  doctors who refused payment.  God worked many miracles through them, for they became channels of the Lord’s mercy and love to those with whom the Lord identified Himself:  the sick, the weak, the stranger, “the least of these my brethren.” 
            St. Paul’s famous words about love in 1 Corinthians 13 were lived out by these great saints.  We remember them precisely because of their love.  The Lord said that the greatest commandments are to love God all our heart, soul, and strength and our neighbors as ourselves.  And what greater sign of love is there than patiently and selflessly to ease the pain of others, to lighten their burdens, to heal their bodies, and restore them to health.  No, these men did not take credit for their work or think that they healed by their own power.   Instead, their lives were transformed by the healing energies of the Holy Spirit; they became channels of God’s mercy to suffering, desperate people.
            Saints Cosmas and Damian were completely different from the rich man who disregarded Lazarus.  They would have provided him their best care free of charge and done everything possible to nurse him back to health.  Their selfless love for Lazarus would have been an icon of the Kingdom of God in which those who wait humbly upon the Lord will not be disappointed.
            But we have to go beyond merely praising the memory of Sts. Cosmas and Damian.  We must venerate them not only with our words, but also with our deeds; namely, by following in their footsteps for the Lazaruses of our world and or our lives.  No, we are not all called to become physicians; we are not all called to give everything away to the poor.  But we are all called to live out the selfless love that Jesus Christ has brought to the world, the love that is patient and kind and free of envy; that rejoices in the truth and endures all things for the salvation of the world.  That kind of love never fails, for it has conquered death through our Lord’s crucifixion and glorious resurrection.
            Such love is not a feeling, an emotion, or a sentiment.  It is a commitment, a sacrifice, an offering of ourselves to God in the service of the living icons of Christ whom we encounter every day, namely every human being with whom we come in contact.  Unlike the rich man in the parable, we are not to be so fixated on ourselves that we ignore the needs of others.  None of us is rich and famous in the world, but we all have the opportunity, at the very least, to share the crumbs that fall from our tables with those who are hungry for them.
            As we prepare for the Nativity or Advent fast, we should plan on giving the money that we save by eating a humble diet to those who do not have the basic necessities of life.  That’s what we do as a parish through the “Food for Hungry People” collection during Lent.  Stay tuned for details on a food drive for Thanksgiving and for our plans to help a needy family at Christmas.   Think also of the crumbs, the small bits of time and energy, that we are all able to give:   to the sick and lonely who need visitors or at least a note or a phone call; to neglected children who need tutors and mentors; to pregnant women in difficult situations who need our support to help them welcome their babies; and to the countless other people in our own neighborhoods who need God’s blessing in their lives in a tangible, practical way.
            The hard truth is that, if we are not sharing our lives and blessings with others in some way, we will become just like the rich man who was too caught up with his own pleasure to worry about poor Lazarus.  We know where that path leads.  The good news is that Saints Cosmas and Damien have shown us a better way, the way of our Lord, which is open to us in every generation, in every walk of life, no matter how rich or poor we are.  For the money and power of the world will fade away; they do not last.  Only one thing lasts, and that is the selfless love of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ Who has conquered sin and death.  And we all have gifts and abilities that may become channels of His blessing and mercy to a world of people like Lazarus, whether their wounds are physical or spiritual or emotional. 
            Of course, we do not have to save the world; Christ has already done that.  We just have to be faithful:  to trust, believe, and follow our Savior in how we treat others.  He turned no one away empty-handed and neither should we.  If we claim His mercy and love for ourselves, we must show them to all who bear His image and likeness.  Let us be Christians not merely in name, but also in how we live, even when it is inconvenient.  Then we will become living icons of the salvation that Jesus Christ has brought to a world of sin and death, and the Lazaruses of the world will know that they too are the children of God.  And together with them, we will all share in the mercy of a Lord Who raises the dead, heals the sick, feeds the hungry, and makes even the most miserable people His blessed sons and daughters.        
                

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