A Blind Eye and a Dry Tongue

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 26
September 25, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: We accept faith, or grow our faith, not by dramatic events or fear of punishment, but by responding in our everyday lives through study, devotion and care for others, to the revelation that God has given us.

How does it affect our understanding of scripture if we read a story through the eyes of different characters? Gary Yamasaki, a Canadian biblical scholar, has written about the point of view through which we read a biblical narrative.1 Any experience of a narrative works the same way. When we watch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid , we see that a large chunk of the movie shows Butch and Sundance running from a posse. They try every trick Butch can think of to get away, but nothing works. Finally, they end up on a cliff. Straight down from the cliff is a raging river. At the top of the cliff stands the posse. The situation looks hopeless. In an iconic scene, Butch convinces Sundance to jump into the river. During the jump, we laugh at what Sundance shouts out. When they land in the river, we breathe a sigh of relief. Two train robbers get away from the lawmen who chase them. We cheer for the criminals who steal other people's money.

In this instance, we watch the movie from the perspective of the criminals. Everything comes at us from their point of view. We never even see the faces of the lawmen in this scene because the camera never gets close enough. We don't see the disappointment on their faces when Butch and Sundance make their daring escape. Seeing the movie from the point of view of Butch and Sundance makes a difference in terms of how we experience the narrative.

Point of view affects how we read scripture as well. When we read the David and Goliath story, we always identify with David. Does anyone else see us as Goliath? Do we have power over anyone else? Even on a national level, are we Goliath to anyone? When we read the so-called parable of the Prodigal Son, we always identify with the younger son, who receives the father's love and forgiveness. What happens when we read the story from the point of view of the older son? Do we realize that we have withheld forgiveness from someone? Through whose eyes do we read the narrative?

Two characters

In the narrative for today, Luke presents us with two main characters. We could not find two more different people for a narrative. The first character has it all: rich, well-dressed, well-fed, secure in a gated home. Ironically, the narrator never gives him a name. The narrator defines him only by his wealth and possessions. He calls this character "a rich man." Outside of the gate lay Lazarus (not Mary and Martha's brother). We do not know why he has no money. We don't know how he ended up at the gate of the rich man. The Greek word translated by the New Revised Standard Version as "lay" implies that someone threw him at the gate. The Message translation says he was "dumped" at the gate. Did someone want to get rid of him? Was he dumped once, or did someone dump him every day?

We know his stomach growls from emptiness. Life has so stripped him of dignity that he longs for the scraps that fall from the rich man's table. Perhaps the rich man is a sloppy eater. Dogs also hang around the gate. We might assume these are wild dogs, waiting for the rich man to throw out his trash. The dogs lick Lazarus' sores. We should not see this as comfort. Lazarus feels too weak and sick to fight them off. The narrator gives him nothing but a name: Lazarus, the Greek form of Eliezer, God is my help.

Death, the great equalizer, hits them both. We read that the rich man was buried, but the narrator does not say that about Lazarus. Was his dead body "dumped" somewhere to get it out of the way? Many churches hold a service once a year for all of the people in the city who die on the streets but have not had a funeral. Those churches might recognize Lazarus. In the narrative, even in death he cannot find dignity.

Within Luke's narrative world, after death, everything flips. Lazarus, the man who was dumped at the gate is carried by angels up to Abraham, the great patriarch. After experiencing no dignity in life, Lazarus receives a place of honor in death. The rich man, who lived a life of comfort and indulgence, ends up in a place of torment. We don't know exactly how Lazarus experienced this great reversal. He utters no words, and the narrator does not share his thoughts. We might assume he felt gratitude and comfort for the end of his misery. We do know how the rich man experienced his punishment. Even in punishment, he had a sense of entitlement. He thought Lazarus should come take care of him. He wanted at least the smallest relief from his agony, and he expected Lazarus to provide it. He gave nothing to Lazarus before death, but thinks Lazarus should meet his needs after death.

Whose point of view?

With whom do we identify? From whose point of view do we read the story? The two men live in the extremes. The rich man has everything, and Lazarus has nothing. Do any of us identify with the ends of the spectrum? If you identify with the rich man, please come see our finance chair, we want to talk to you about our budget. If you identify with Lazarus, we will help you. Likely, however, most of us do not identify with either the rich man or Lazarus. We learn from them. From the rich man, we learn that God judges what we do not do. From Lazarus we learn that God cares about the poor, and those who have nothing, not even dignity. If God cares about them, so should we. Even though we learn from both characters, we probably can't identify with them.

Strangely, the characters with whom we might identify play only a small role in the narrative. They remain off-stage for the whole drama. We know about them only because the rich man mentions them. We should see the passage from off-screen through the eyes of the five brothers. We know almost nothing about the five brothers, but we should read the story from their perspective. We do not know about their faith, their wealth, their moral character. The rich man cares about them, however. He fears that they will come to judgment also. Can we infer from that the likelihood that they act as selfishly as the rich man? We don't know. What we do know is that they still have choices to make.

We can choose either to accept faith, to grow our faith or to turn away from faith. What will help us to choose faith or to grow our faith? According to the narrative, experiencing some dramatic event will not produce faith in us. The passage ends with a bit of irony: the five brothers will not be convinced if someone comes back from the dead, like the rich man. We know that Jesus already has risen from the dead. We grow our faith by reflecting and responding to what that means. Despite the descriptions of the flames in which the rich man finds himself in the narrative, and the reference that he is stuck in his situation, the passage does not use the threat of punishment after death as a motivation. Even in his punishment, the rich man does not become a better human. He still does not see Lazarus as a person in his own right. He sees Lazarus as his servant. He has not grown or seen the error of his ways. The threat of punishment may get our attention, but it does not grow our faith.

Growing our faith

We grow our faith by our decisions every day. The narrative tells us what the characters did every day. The rich man feasted every day. He could have fed his soul, but he fed his body. We feed our faith by our prayer life, our scripture study. We feed our faith by reaching out to others. We grow our faith by noticing and caring about the Lazaruses of the world.

The five brothers have the Pentateuch and the prophets to study. They have what they need to choose faith or to grow faith. We have the New Testament - the witness to Jesus' resurrection - and the witness of the church. We have the needs of people like Lazarus to awaken our love. May we choose to respond in faith, in gratitude, and in love to what God has given us.


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