While parables can be tricky to interpret, the meaning of this one seems pretty clear: God very much cares about the poor – the people like Lazarus, who have nothing and no one – and God will bring justice, if not in this life, then in the next. That’s why the rich man who didn’t help Lazarus ended up in Hades, while Lazarus himself found his place in the bosom of Abraham.
Obviously, this is a parable about wealth and the proper use of it. That shouldn’t surprise us here in this section of Luke’s gospel, where we’ve already heard Jesus talking about inviting those who cannot repay us to feast with us and the extreme cost of discipleship, and then Jesus’ final stark words from last week’s lesson: “You cannot serve God and wealth.” So it’s not particularly surprising that Jesus has more to say on the subject of wealth and how to use it, and it’s even less surprising to hear that we are supposed using our resources to take care of the poor. But what I notice about this parable is that it’s not just about what we do with our money. It’s also about who we see. Because before we can do anything just or merciful or generous with our resources, we actually have to see the need. For all we know about the rich man in the parable, he could have been a philanthropist, paying his tithe to the Temple and making substantial contributions to worthy causes. Jesus doesn’t tell us how he uses his money in the public sphere. But what Jesus tells us in this story is that the rich man either couldn’t or wouldn’t see poor Lazarus, right outside his gate.
For me, this is a terrifying parable. Because here’s how I read myself into it: There was a financially comfortable woman who dressed in L.L. Bean and ate fresh produce and lean meats every day. In her regular travels, she drove through busy intersections (like Parker Street and Boston Road, for example) where panhandlers regularly stand on the median with cardboard signs asking for help. They would gladly have taken the spare change from her center console. But she studiously avoided making eye contact with the beggars, and sometimes even changes her route to avoid coming face-to-face with these unfortunates souls. . .. That’s me. Am I no better than the rich man?
Don’t come to my defense – I know what you’re going to say, and I’ve already had the self-justifying conversation with myself. It’s not good to give money to panhandlers because they might use it for drugs. Or alcohol. True. I choose to feed the hungry of Springfield by making donations to the Survival Center. Yes. I try to make a difference through faithful giving to charitable organizations within and beyond the church. Also true. But still, this parable makes me squirm because I know that I am guilty at times of choosing not to see what makes me uncomfortable, either by averting my eyes or by re-routing my drive altogether. And as long as I purposely do not see, then an invisible wall is built between me and that panhandler, a boundary that lets me believe that we are more different than we are alike. And the longer I do not look, do not see, the more likely the chasm that is fixed between us will become permanent. By denying their humanity, I risk losing my own.
The issue of panhandling was in the local news this week. According to an article on MassLive published on 9/20, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno is reportedly directing the Law Department to review what the city may legally to do curb panhandling on city streets and at major intersections. This request of the Law Department is in response to an increase in complaints from the public. From a legal perspective, the city wants to go after panhandlers as a public safety issue; it is dangerous when people walk into traffic to collect donations. But my guess is that the public complaints haven’t just been about safety. The Supreme Court has ruled that asking for money is a form of free speech and therefore protected under the First Amendment – but I doubt that that opinion holds much water with the complainants. While I was on MassLive’s Facebook page, I found another post on the same topic from 2017 – and the comments that people made about panhandlers . . . they were ugly and angry, way uglier and angrier than people just concerned with safety. It would seem that many of us resent being confronted with – having to see – extreme need. And others, like myself, who may not resent coming face-to-face with extreme need still are uncomfortable with it.
So how do we respond to this parable about the rich man and Lazarus? Should we be more generous in our giving? Probably. Should we do more to help our siblings in need? I believe the answer is always yes. But I believe that a faithful response to Jesus’ parable isn’t just about giving more money. It’s also about being willing to see, really see, our sisters and brothers. It’s about seeing them as connected to us through our common humanity, but also connected to us in the family of God.
I’m still not going to give money to panhandlers. But I will try not to look away. I will endure the discomfort that seeing them brings and try to learn from it – to discern why it makes me uncomfortable and what Jesus is calling me to do about it. I will pray that God will move my heart to respond to victims of poverty and illness and injustice. I will thank God that I have a Savior who sees me in all my need, and loves me. And I will try to be more like him.