My friends, think with me for a few minutes about the two people in today’s Gospel lesson. First, meet the rich man, clothed in purple and fine linen. Write in the imagination of your minds “rich.” He was aristocratic, entitled, but here in the Gospel passage from Luke, a nameless individual. In fact, how ironic in the parable that the man of great affluence and status is nameless; wealthy, but anonymous.
Now, meet Lazarus. Lazarus is dressed in rags glued to his body by the pus oozing from his sores. He is hungry. He is always hungry. All he has besides the rags hugging his body is his name. His name is Lazarus, meaning in the language of that day, “He whom God helps.”
Now imagine with me two places. The first place belongs to the rich man. It is a palace, a villa, a mansion. Excavations in Israel, in places like Jericho and Jerusalem, have uncovered mansion after mansion, palatial villa after villa from the time of Jesus. See in these villas marbled walls and steam baths, even indoor plumbing and mosaic floors.
And what of Lazarus’ place? All we know is “the gate.” Lazarus is at the gate. What is this gate? A gate denotes access; a gate means security, boundaries. People build gates not so much to keep themselves in as to keep others out. You know, we human beings are master gate builders. We have spent the whole history of our human species building gates. Who’s in and who’s out, who’s acceptable and who’s unacceptable, who’s worthy and who’s unworthy. Go through the rubble of cities ancient and modern and there, you will find gates. Lazarus exists at the gate.
My sisters and brothers, I want you to struggle with me as we see Lazarus at the gate, existing there in the shadow of such plenty. What if the gate in the story is not so much an iron door guarding a palatial villa long ago, but any barrier we put around our lives? And what if Lazarus is someone with sores, dressed in rags, not so much someone who lived back there, but someone wounded and destitute, needy and hungry, sitting just outside our self-made, carefully watched gate?
One thinks immediately of the poor, the homeless, indeed all dehumanized human beings. I don’t know how you read the New Testament, but I can’t read the teachings of Jesus and overlook that our Lord was proactive when it came to the poor. Jesus was the one who ate with the poor, who touched the poor, who put his loving hands on those whom no one else would ever touch.
No, I am troubled today because so often, so many of us put gates around our lives that keep us from the poor. I don’t think we consciously install these gates, we simply allow them to be built. We don’t see the poor. But, like Lazarus, they have names. We simply don’t know them or see them.
Lazarus is at the gate.
I think of the countless immigrants that are escaping their homeland because of violence or exploitation. I think of the divorced, the widowed, the abandoned. I am haunted by these others, all with names but who are nameless to me and to you. We do not see them. We may not want to see them, those who wait at the gate. There are folks you and I pass by every day who are sitting at a gate who need good news. But our gates are there, keeping them at bay, out of reach, out of sight, out of mind. And the gates go by several names.
We can build gates framed by an intolerant religious fundamentalism that carefully monitors our faith and the faith of others. Why? Supposedly to keep the Christian faith pure, undefiled – an orthodoxy so often of our own narrow making. Sad to say, however, much of that religious fundamentalism has little to do with the richness of our faith and it can be a gate that separates, even isolates us from others. Lazarus is still at the gate not in need of a religious ideological system, but a Savior. In a word, Lazarus needs Christ’s presence, offered him or her with generous grace.
I am thinking of other gates we construct called “tradition,” “bigotry,” and all too often, “ignorance.” We inherit old gates from well-meaning elders who, in our formative years, told us to keep certain kinds of people at a distance. For some, those consigned to the gate were people of color, or those who speak another language, or, in some communities, those who lived “on the other side of the tracks.” Such gates are not so much built as they are passed on from one generation to another in a vain attempt to keep us safe.
And yes, perhaps the thickest and highest gate erected outside our lives, keeping Lazarus at a distance is boredom, what the mystics used to call, acedia, which is ennui, disinterest, the idea captured by the phrase, “Who cares?” We who now see that it is Lazarus at the gate must ever be vigilant against the toxic and numbing virus of our own apathy.
A long time ago, the One who told us this story saw the gate from a long way off. God the Father had a conversation with God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. It was decided that God the Son would come in human flesh and walk among us. God not only saw the gate, God became the gate so much so that Jesus said in the Gospel of John, “I am the gate and whoever comes and goes through me will have everlasting life.”
My friends, we can build barriers of intolerant religious ideology and class, race or social status, economics or neighborhoods, and delude ourselves into thinking we are okay. But we would be wise to listen again to Jesus who said, “I am the gate.” The only gate that matters is not some flimsy thing you and I make. Rather, God gives Jesus as the Gate through whom all come to life everlasting. There are men and women, boys and girls who sit at that gate today who need us to tell them that there is a Gate that is not a barrier, but a gift through which they can walk; a Gate whose name is Jesus, the living presence of God, who can change their lives and make them whole.
And, so friends, let us listen attentively with our ears and our heart today. If you think this message is hard to hear, know for a fact how difficult it is to say. Lazarus is at the gate. And we of faith who feast at God’s table are called by the Lord who gave us this feast to meet Lazarus and to invite him or her to come through the Gate that is Jesus and to join us at this table. Such is the work to which our Lord calls us. Amen.