Jesus once told a story about a rich man and a poor man.
The unnamed rich man enjoyed fine clothes, good food and a spacious house. Just outside his gate, a hungry man named Lazarus laid around suffering with sores licked by dogs.
The implication is that every day the rich man walked by and ignored Lazarus’ need.
Both men died. Lazarus was carried by the angels to heaven by Abraham’s side, while the rich man was “buried” and went to Hades. Now, the formerly rich man was suffering while Lazarus was comforted.
“Father Abraham,” he cried out, “have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue because I am in agony in this fire.”
Abraham would do no such thing. Lazarus wasn’t a tool. Even in death the man could not acknowledge Lazarus, instead calling on Abraham.
Plus, while the dogs had responded to Lazarus’ suffering, the wealthy man walked by again and again.
“Son,” Abraham replied, “remember that in your life you had many good things while Lazarus suffered. Now the tables have been turned” (my translation).
“Besides,” he continued, “there is now a great chasm – a great distance – between the two of you, that no one can cross” (Luke 16:19-26).
Some have interpreted this story as a diatribe against wealth and excess. It’s used to defend God’s preference for the poor and to encourage people to give so that suffering in others can be alleviated.
I believe this story is primarily about relationship. The rich man missed the mutuality between himself and Lazarus, between his wealth and another’s need.
For certain, elsewhere, Jesus warns against the dangers of wealth (Matthew 6:19-24; Mark 10:17-25; Luke 12:13-21).
But the accumulation of wealth through just work is not condemned in the Bible. What is taught is generosity and the care for the poor rather than storing up treasures on earth.
The rich man’s greatest failure was found in not acknowledging Lazarus as a human being and seeking a relationship when the distance between the two was short.
Jesus demonstrated that people cannot be loved from a distance. He went to where the people lived and worked, touching people, including lepers and women and children and old people.
Healing happened in proximity as he opened his life to others.
If we want more of God’s power, we need to care about the things that God cares about.
God cares about the lost being found, the disconsolate comforted, the suffering helped, and the poor lifted up. Amazingly, in Jesus, the God of the universe welcomed mutuality and connection.
I heard Father Greg Boyle recently talk about his work with Homebody Industries in Los Angeles.
As a young priest, he believed his calling was peacemaking. So, he developed programs to bring gang members together and helped write cease-fire contracts.
These worked for a while, but over time he realized he couldn’t stop the violence because there wasn’t really any reason for it. It was senseless and pervasive.
Instead, he began to create jobs that would bring gang members to work side by side. He made T-shirts that proclaimed, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”
He has counseled, loved and supported thousands of gang members over three decades. He sees the neighborhood as full of sons and daughters, not gang members.
Here’s the heart of his method: “You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship. You stand with the belligerent, the surly and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear.”
You cannot love people from a distance. You have to learn their language and their burdens. You have to look for the enduring imprint of God. You need to see that you need healing and help too.
Many people are setting goals for 2020. But how many include some goal that involves care for the poor?
Jesus said we will be judged by how we fed the hungry, clothed the naked and visited the sick (Matthew 25:14-30).
He echoed prophets, such as Malachi, who called for fair wages for hired workers, care for widows and love for the fatherless (Malachi 3:5). That will be the measure by which our lives are judged.
There’s nothing more important. This will reverberate through eternity long after our selfish, small goals have been realized.
Plus, we need to act now before there’s a great distance that separates us.
Set a goal for 2020 to care for the poor. But whatever your plan, make sure it involves relationship.
Brent McDougal is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.