When I was in junior high, I remember a girl named Ruth Olsen. Every time I saw Ruth I would think to myself “Boy, that girl is so ugly.” Of course, it was a very unkind thing to think but, in my defense, I was a kid very unsure of my own appearance. I wondered, a lot actually, if anyone was looking my way and thinking the same thing about me. Kids being kids, I shared my opinion of Ruth with all my friends. It gave us something and someone to laugh at and helped us all feel more secure about ourselves. Or, so we thought.
I didn’t pay much attention to Ruth other than to notice, she didn’t appear to have many friends. She was usually alone, which from my limited and unkind perspective, made sense. Good-looking kids had good-looking friends and a lot of them. In contrast, ugly kids either didn’t have any friends or hung out with other ugly kids and not many of those. In my world, those were the parameters of being a kid. We accepted the spoken and non-spoken rules of growing up and assumed this was just the way things were. So, it made sense not to be seen with ugly kids or weird kids, eggheads or nerds, the kids who dressed funny or acted strange. Close association with these unfortunates might be very unfortunate indeed…at least for those of us who thought we were somehow better than they.
Now, I don’t know how it happened or even, when it happened but one day Ruth and I became friends, good friends and suddenly I stopped thinking of Ruth as ugly. In fact, it wasn’t too long after we became friends I wondered how I could have ever seen her as ugly. She had become my friend and once I took the time to get to know her for who she really was I no longer thought about looks – hers or mine. I just found her to be a really nice person, a person I liked and someone with whom I wanted to be seen.
Now I’m telling you this story, embarrassing as it is, because I never forgot the lesson I learned that day, the day I became Ruth’s friend and she became mine. It was on that day that I recognized the great sin I had committed, the sin of indifference. Prior to really getting to know Ruth, I hadn’t bothered to see her as a person of value, someone who had many good qualities and who was a beloved child of God just like the cheerleaders I envied or the scholars I admired and wanted to be like. Ruth was a person God loved. Who was I to think less of her than I had thought of myself?
Jesus’ parable has a lot to say about indifference. There is no indication that the rich man in the parable is cruel to Lazarus. He is not sending Lazarus away or refusing to let him sit by his gate each day. But on the other hand, the rich man really doesn’t see Lazarus at all. If he did,
than he might be moved to feed him, to tend his wounds, and to send the dogs away so they would quit pestering and harassing Lazarus. He might even invite Lazarus to join him at his table. But the rich man doesn’t do any of these things. His indifference keeps him from recognizing Lazarus’ value as a person and keeping Lazarus at a distance. To the rich man, Lazarus is simply one of the unfortunate ones whose situation has been determined by the fickled hand of fate. Some people get all the breaks, some get none. It never occurs to the rich man that he may be able to change the situation.
Jesus was telling this parable to a Jewish crowd who, much like a pre-teen measuring her worth by how many friends she might have, measured their worth in God’s eyes by counting their earthly wealth. The Jewish hierarchy thought if one was rich, one was blessed, if poor, than cursed. So it was a great surprise to those listening when Jesus turned the tables upside down yet again. In the afterlife, the rich man and the poor man would trade places. He, who was rich, would suffer while the poor man would rest in ease. Then, the question for those listening to Jesus was “who are God’s favored?” Could anyone be assured of their ultimate fate if such a fate did not rest on what one had accumulated in this life?” Jesus was changing the rules in the middle of the game.
Well, Jesus is always changing the rules in the middle of the game or so it seems. More likely, we have yet to learn the rules so we don’t know when or even, if those rules are changed. That’s part of growing in faith…understanding Christ’s way and not just living our way. It’s been said that this story was the spark that touched off the revolution in Albert Schweitzer’s life. After reading this parable, Schweitzer concluded that Africa was the beggar lying at Europe’s door, and in response, he founded
the Lambarene Hospital. Schweitzer, to his credit, could not be indifferent to Africa’s hurting population. He once wrote: “Only through love can we attain communion with God.”
Love seems to be the key to any interaction we have with God or God has with us…Love. Learning to live out a commitment to love others in Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake is the call on our hearts and brings us closer to a fuller understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. Love initiates our response to stand with rather than not apart from those
God puts in our way. It’s love that breaks down the barriers that make us indifferent and disinterested. It was love that made Schweitzer turn from one understanding of life to another, to recognize the call God had placed on his heart. He heard the call and then he followed making a difference not only in his own life but in the lives of countless others.
Like most of Jesus parables, there are moments in which we are sure we don’t want to know what comes next. This is certainly one such story. Perhaps the most frightening moment is the moment when Abraham speaks these words: “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.” It suggests that there is time on this side of life to make a better choice and embrace discipleship. But at some point the chasm will be fixed and one will not be allowed to make amends or
change their ways. In this life we can hold ourselves accountable and choose another path. We can follow as those touched by a Lord that loved us enough to give everything for us. We are invited to see Christ in the poor, dispossessed, the disenfranchised, the hungry, the homeless, the lost, the frightened, and the needy among us and to do what Christ, in his life on earth, taught us to do. But our response comes now. Once the chasm is fixed; once life on earth ends, the time to take a positive step forward is past.
So, we are invited to give our lives in profound ways – it’s not always easy. We may be called to make sacrifices, giving our lives in ways that fulfill a deep, gratifying sense of purpose and meaning. The sacrifices are real; Dietrich Bonhoeffer called them “the cost of discipleship” – but the rewards are awesome. Pushing aside our natural or even unnatural aversion toward someone who may be a bit awkward or different in some way from us can be most rewarding. Not only may we see people differently, we may just find how much better we come to understand ourselves and Christ.
How Jesus wanted his listener to hear this truth! There is no salvation for those who rely on material goods rather than human interaction. There is no hope for those who leave this life less than it was before they enter it. There is no place to run to, no way to escape for those who make choices, which harm rather than heal. We spend our lives learning how to invest ourselves in one another and our model, our witness, our example and our hope rests in Christ who invested his whole life in us. There is a cost to discipleship but there is also a wealth of blessing. Amen.