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There Was a Rich Man: Part II
Dr. David Evans
September 25, 2016
We are in our second week of immersing ourselves in the 16th chapter of the gospel of Luke. Last week we considered the strange story of the dishonest manager and I want to than you for the conversations that we have had all week as you reflected on that disturbing text. That story began with the phase: “There was a rich man…” Interestingly enough, our text for today also begins with the same phrase: “There was a rich man…” Hear the Word of God:
A Reading from the Gospel of Luke
‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’
The British neurologist Oliver Sacks died last August. He spent his entire life fascinated by and researching the functions of the brain. He once commented that the human brain is “the most incredible thing in the universe.” In his beautifully titled book An Anthropologist on Mars, he tells the story of Virgil, a native of Kentucky who had been blind since birth. When he was 50, doctors came to him and told him that they believed his condition could be reversed.
Now Virgil was faced with a decision to make. Should he undergo the delicate operation to restore his sight? Or should he continue as he is? It seems like a “no-brainer.” However, it was more complicated than that for him. He had lived all his life without vision. Yet he had learned to function quite well. His other senses were highly tuned. His sense of touch, for instance. And his ability to hear. And even his sense of smell. Touch, sound, smell. All these he had learned to use to compensate for his inability to see. So his decision was not as automatic as you might expect.
Eventually, however, he did decide to undergo the operation. The surgery was performed and all went well. His eyes were swathed in bandages after the operation. The doctors were confident that it had been a success. Now it was just a matter of waiting. Waiting for the surgical wounds to heal sufficiently so that the bandages could be removed.
The bottom line is that Virgil could see when the bandages were removed, but he never adjusted to life as a sighted person. He continued to live as he always had—relying on touch and sound and smell to guide him. It is a powerful story. From this man’s experiences, cognitive psychologists reinforced what they already knew. Sight, like language, is a learned behavior. Seeing is more than having perfectly functioning eyes.Seeing is a complicated set of physiological connections that translate what the eyes are seeing into meaning in the brain.
You might be wondering what all this has to do with Jesus’ parable of a rich man that legend names “Dives” (because that is the old English word for rich) and a poor man Jesus calls Lazarus. I’m not exactly sure myself what the connection is.
Except. Except for this. It strikes me that the eyes must be trained to see. We do not just see automatically. An infant learns to see the world around her. And isn’t it true that sometimes—even when our eyes are wide open—there are things we see and things we ignore? We have, I guess you would say, selective vision. Oh, we all know about selective hearing, that’s what Linda accuses me of when I am engrossed in a good book. We see what we want to see. We see certain people. And others, we ignore.
Like Dives, if you will allow me the liberty of using the rich man’s legendary name. The story, as Jesus tells it in the gospel of Luke, is very simple and profoundly complicated. There is a rich man and there is a poor man. The rich man lives a life of conspicuous consumption. And the poor man lies on his front step in plain view. Yet the rich man never really sees him. The rich man’s eyes have never been trained to see the poor man that sleeps on his porch. He simply steps over him day after day, and though Lazarus is starving to death and his best friends are the rich man’s mongrel dogs, Lazarus is never really seen.
Perhaps Dives is protecting himself from Lazarus’ pain. Perhaps Dives has convinced himself that Lazarus is only getting what he deserves. Perhaps Dives has fallen prey to the great American myth: that anyone who works hard can be a success. When I lived in Corpus Christi, our congregation was deeply involved in a ministry to the homeless and hungry in the Coastal Bend. The director of the ministry told me one day: “Most of us American are born on third base and spend the rest of our lives convinced we hit a triple.”
Maybe Dives is convinced that God has something to do with the difference between him and Lazarus. Because, of course, it always makes the argument stronger if we can find theological or biblical justification for what we already believe. Who knows why Dives could not see Lazarus? What we do know is this:
“It is human nature to find some reason why people are the way they are, so that we can get on with the business of being the way we are without too much drag on our consciences.”(Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels, p. 109).
So Jesus told this story about a rich man and a poor man. Dives and Lazarus. It is not a pretty story by any stretch of the imagination. The picture of Lazarus lying on Dives’ doorstep full of running sores. The picture of mongrel dogs slobbering over Lazarus. The picture of Dives’ torment when he realizes that nothing he can do can reverse his life in torment. The picture of Dives’ pathos when he stands before the judgment throne of God and realizes that he cannot warn even his brothers so that they can change their ways before it is too late. That really rends the heart.
What would it take for us to truly see the people we look at day after day? In his memoir Same Kind of Different as Me, Ron Hall tells of meeting Denver Moore. These two men, like Dives and Lazarus, could not have come from more different worlds. Ron was a graduate of TCU who lived in a Georgian mansion in Fort Worth and owned a large ranch on the Brazos River in West Texas. He and his wife had everything money could buy and thought nothing of calling up the airport at the last minute and jetting to Europe for a week long vacation.
Denver Moore, on the other hand, was born on a plantation in Red River Parish Louisiana, and because he was a black share-cropper, he was a virtual slave in the 20th century. Ron’s wife brought these two unlikely friends together at the Gospel Light Rescue mission in a rough neighborhood east of downtown Fort Worth. Ron was serving the food and Denver was one of the homeless men who depended on the food served there for his life.
Over the course of months, Ron and Denver began to form a relationship. One day Ron Hall asked Denver Moore to be his friend, and Denver Moore said he would think about it. A whole week later they sat at a Starbucks by the TCU campus, and over coffee, Denver said to Ron: “I been thinkin’ a lot about what you asked me.” Ron Hall said: “What did I ask you?” And Denver replied: “’Bout being your friend.”
Denver then looked over his coffee and said: “There’s somethin’ I heard ’bout white folks that bothers me, and it has to do with fishin’. I heard that when white folks go fishin’, they do somethin’ called ‘catch & release’.” Ron nodded and Denver continued again: “That really bothers me. I just can’t figure it out.’ Cause when colored folk go fishin’, we’re really proud of what we catch, and we take it and show it off to everybody that’ll look. Then we eat what we catch…in other words we use what we catch to sustain us. So it really bothers me that white folks would go to all the trouble to catch a fish, then when they done caught it, they just throw it back in the water.” Do you see where this is going?
There was a long pause while Denver made sure Ron understood what he had just said. Then he fixed Ron with a “drill-bit” stare and said: “So, Mr. Ron, it occurred to me: If you is fishin’ for a friend you just goin’ to catch and release, then I ain’t got no desire to be your friend. But if you is lookin’ for a real friend, then I’ll be one. Forever.”
Here is my deep conviction. We do not worship a “catch and release” God. We worship a God whose steadfast love is forever. We do not follow a “catch and release” Jesus. Our life-long calling you see, is to train our eyes to see the world through this God’s eyes, through Jesus’ eyes. To train our eyes to see those whom Jesus loves. To develop relationships and to discover that relationship to those Jesus loves is not just a “catch and release” relationship, but a forever relationship. To that I say,
THANKS BE TO GOD.