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What did you see this morning on your way to church?
Did you see the clothes you picked out to wear, your pets as you fed them, your car as you got into it?
What about on your drive? Could you tell me who you passed on the way to church? What did they look like? How old were they?
How about this, if you came to church with a friend or family member, without looking at them, could you tell me what they were wearing today?
We open our eyes when we wake up in the morning, but we can go through an entire day without seeing anything. Especially something upsetting.
The rich man in today’s parable had a hard time seeing. While he was inside his fabulous house, dressed in the finest fabrics he could buy, eating a sumptuous meal; a poor man named Lazarus was sitting outside the gate, covered in sores.
The rich man walked by Lazarus every time he left and entered his home, but he did not see him. Sure, if you asked him, he could have told you he was there, but Lazarus was not someone he thought much about. He certainly never considered offering Lazarus something to wear or to eat.
In the culture of the time, abundance was a zero sum game. There were a limited number of resources, spread between people. If one person had riches, it means another person did not. If a person had riches, they were obligated to give alms to the poor, to balance out the distribution.
We don’t know whether the rich man gave alms, but he certainly did not give any to Lazarus. To him, Lazarus was the lowest of the low. For heaven’s sake, the text tells us that dogs licked his sores! You can’t get much more pathetic than that. Lazarus was not worth the rich man’s time.
Well, imagine the rich man’s surprise when they both die and the rich man finds Lazarus with Abraham in heaven and he in Hades! Even death is not a strong enough force to help the rich man see his situation clearly. Even though he is in Hades, he still thinks Lazarus is a lower order of creature. He does not address Lazarus directly, but instead tells Abraham to send Lazarus down to bring him a drop of water to help cool him off. He sees Lazarus now, but only in terms of how Lazarus can be helpful to him.
When Abraham refuses the rich man’s request, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers, so they might not suffer the same fate. But once, again, the rich man is not seeing the situation clearly.
Abraham tells the rich man that even if Lazarus was sent to his brothers, back from the dead, they would not be impressed. If they could not see the truth by reading Hebrew Scriptures, they would not see the truth if it was standing in front of their faces in the form of a resurrected Lazarus.
The implication here is devastating. Abraham implies that by not seeing Lazarus, the rich man also did not really see the scriptures. Or maybe it is the other way around, because the rich man did not understand the Scriptures, he was not able to see Lazarus.
This story asks us again, what do we see? What do we understand?
When we read stories like this from Scripture, do we think they are directed as someone else? Can we see ourselves in these stories?
I just finished a fascinating novel called The City & The City. It tells the story of two cities, Ul Qoma and Beszel, that are right next to each other. In fact, large parts of them overlap, so that one side of a street belongs to Ul Qoma and the other side belongs to the Beszel. Because of past political tensions, the inhabitants of the cities are forbidden to see the city in which they do not live, even if that city is only feet away. There are terrible penalties if a person breaches, and interacts with the other city. So, from a young age, residents in each city learn to unsee. Citizens are taught to look upon the other city without registering its activities, inhabitants or architecture. The city remains a total mystery, even though it is close enough to touch.
In a lot of ways, I think we learn to unsee in our own cities, as well. We learn not to make eye contact with beggars. We learn to not drive through certain parts of town.
We learn to avoid certain bars and restaurants that host people different from us. Like the rich man, we wear our fancy fabrics—our suede and cashmere. Like the rich man, we dine on sumptuous food at Eno Terra and Blue Point. Like the rich man, we read the scriptures, but we don’t always apply them to our lives.
Unlike the rich man, there is still hope for us. Jesus shows us a new way of interacting with the world. Jesus saw everyone. Jesus went up to the weirdest, poorest, smelliest people and looked them in the eye and treated them with respect. He listened to their problems and offered them healing.
Jesus transformed what it means for people to really see each other. Jesus stripped away the hierarchy of what it means to be worthy and unworthy. Jesus gathered people of all walks of life and expected them to dine together, to live together.
We learn to unsee because we are afraid. We are afraid of getting hurt. We are afraid of being embarrassed. We are afraid of saying the wrong thing.
But when we are in relationship with Jesus, when Jesus is looking right at us and seeing us for who we are, we gain courage. Jesus sees inside our fancy cars, and through our fancy clothing. Jesus knows who we are underneath all that. Jesus knows our shallow hopes and big insecurities and he loves us anyway.
And when we realize the kind of love Jesus has for us, we are freed to love others, to look others in the eye, even if they are different from us, even if their poverty makes us feel uncomfortable and threatened. Because, when Jesus looks at us and really sees us, we understand that there is no us and them. We are all the same in Jesus’ eyes. We are all loved. We are all Lazarus. We are all seen.