Sunday, September 26, 2010

Waking up...

Stephen Colbert has my deepest thanks for helping me to find the point of the parable in this week's Lectionary reading. He spoke before a Congressional subcommittee humorously, and in the end passionately, about the plight of migrant workers.

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him.

Jeremiah said, The word of the LORD came to me: Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, "Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours." Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the LORD, and said to me, "Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself." Then I knew that this was the word of the LORD.
And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard.

In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

1 Timothy 6:6-19
Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time-he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

Luke 16:19-31
"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.'"

This is the Word of the Lord.

On September 24, a very strange thing happened. The Congressional Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship and Border Security held hearings, which were televised on C-SPAN, and they asked, of all people, a fictional television character to testify.

Stephen Colbert (which is, by the way, the actor’s real name) plays an opinionated, conservative anchor for a satirical news program on Comedy Central. In the course of producing his program, Colbert worked for one day as a migrant farmhand, picking and packing corn. It was this experience about which the subcommittee wanted him to testify.

Mr. Colbert read a statement, and answered questions, making a solid case in support of legal rights and protections for legally resident migrant farm workers, all while staying in character as an opinionated, largely clueless, wealthy network anchor. If you haven’t seen the video, look it up on YouTube, because it’s quite funny in places.

It was only at the very end, the final question, where things changed.

Representative Judy Chu asked Colbert, “You could work on so many issues. Why are you interested in this issue?” Colbert appeared taken aback, stammered, and broke character. For the first time, he spoke not as his television character, but as himself: “I like telling about people who don’t have any power, and this seems like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work but don’t have any rights as a result… y’know, “Whatsoever you do for the least of these my brothers,” and these seem like the least of our brothers right now. A lot of people are “least brothers” right now because the economy’s so hard… but migrant workers suffer, and have no rights.”

When Jesus spoke in parables, he used scenery, items, situations and characters which were familiar to the people who were listening to his words. There are scholars who believe that our parable this morning is an adaptation of a Jewish folk tale, for example. But Jesus does something in this parable that he does nowhere else, in any parable at any point in any Gospel in the entire New Testament in any translation: he gives one of his characters a name.

Oh, it sounds normal enough, like all of Jesus’ parables. Here’s the rich man, enjoying the fruits of his wealth, while right outside his doors, at the gates of his compound, a sick, starving, forgotten man slumps weakly, wracked with hunger, eaten with sores. But alone among every story Jesus ever told, this poor, suffering man has a name: Lazarus!

Now, I’ve heard a lot of sermons about this parable: I’ve heard preachers who used it as a way to describe the afterlife, for example. Once, I even heard someone suggest that the rich man and Lazarus were actual people that Jesus knew, and that the parable had actually happened.

Those kinds of interpretations frustrate me, because the point of the parable isn’t any of that. The parable isn’t even about money, believe it or not. The point of the parable is found in one small word.

What Stephen Colbert attempted to do, using his celebrity and humor to speak for the powerless, to give a suffering and misused segment of society a face and a name, is admirable, and it should be emulated. Jesus did all of that with one small word: Lazarus. No longer is he a loosely-defined character in a larger story, he is a person, an entity, for us he has flesh.

For us, but, sadly, not for the still-nameless rich man.

Imagine: this rich man would have gone in and out of his house regularly; even if he conducted business in his home, he would have gone to synagogue meetings, would have visited relatives, he would have gone to meet with other powerful people. The point is that he would have walked past Lazarus every day, should have noticed him, should have seen him. What is stunning about this parable isn’t simply that this rich man did not help Lazarus, did not send out a plate of food or offer to have his wounds treated or give him a place to sleep or even some bedding to soften the ground he lay on, it’s that it apparently never crossed the rich man’s mind to do so!

It seems an impossibility, doesn’t it? To, every day of his life, stroll nonchalantly by someone starving to death, huddling in stinking rags, and not even notice! How is this possible? The words he uses when he speaks to father Abraham across the abyss offer us a clue.

Notice that he never addresses Lazarus directly. He speaks to Abraham, and expects Abraham to command Lazarus to act as the rich man’s servant: bring him some water, be his messenger.

Beyond utilizing Lazarus in some way to serve him, for the rich man, Lazarus doesn’t really exist. He has no face, no voice, no name. In this rich man’s world, people exist to be used. To serve, to come and go at his bidding, to fulfill his desires. They are not his equals, not even really human beings. They are tools, objects, things.

In short, the rich man is not dealing with reality. He is disconnected from the world around him. He has lived his life in a fantasy world, where he is the center of the universe, and everything lives and moves and has its being by his power and for his pleasure. And by the way he speaks in his torment, he never wakes up from this terrible dream, even after it’s too late.

I’ve been privileged to know some pretty rich people in my time, folks who are wealthy enough to get their names on buildings, business owners, executives, folks like that. None of these comparatively rich people have acted like the rich man in our parable today. They at least appeared to care about others, they were charitable and engaging, seemed to be committed to helping others, compassionate, all of that.

Having money isn’t the problem. It’s a thing, a tool, in some ways money isn’t even real, it’s nothing more than a set of figures on a balance sheet or a bit of data on a bank’s computer. To say money is the problem, that money is evil or lacks compassion or refuses to give the poor a name, to give the powerless a voice, is a ridiculous statement. It’s like blaming a table for climate change.

We live in a world where, right now, the UN estimates that hunger could be completely eradicated for thirty billion dollars a year. We live in a nation where bonuses to Wall Street executives totaled twenty point three billion dollars in 2009. The problem is not money. The problem is us. Our priorities. Our focus.

The focal point of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, like the focal point of the words from our Epistle reading, the letter to Timothy, is a simple, yet razor-sharp, question: what, or who, is the center of our universe?

If the center of our own universe is ourselves, then everything else, and everyone else, including the love of money, becomes a means to an end, and that end is our own self-fulfillment.

I know people who have no more money than I do, yet act like that rich man in the parable. If I’m honest, there are times when I have acted like that rich man in the parable. I ignore the needs of those around me, walk past someone who is hurting because I’m in a hurry, or in a bad mood, or don’t want to be bothered. At those times I am the center of my own universe.

Our readings today call us to abandon our fantasy world, to wake up from the dream where we are the center of the universe. Give the poor a name, yes. Give the powerless a voice, yes. But even they are not the true center of our universe, are they?

The writer of Timothy instructs the young man to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.” The center of our universe, the heart of all we pursue, our focal point and foundation, is, and always must be, Jesus Christ.

In Christ, the poor have a name. We all have a name. In Christ, the powerless have a voice. We all have a voice.

It’s as simple as waking up.

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