In the parable of “the rich man and Lazarus” (Luke 16:19-31), Jesus describes a scene where the poor man, Lazarus, now in heaven by Abraham’s side, looks over the chasm at the rich man who now stands in the flames of Hades.
The rich man begs Abraham to have Lazarus, who once ate the leftovers from the rich man’s table, to come and relieve his suffering.
Please, he says, “send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames” (Luke 16:24).
Leonard Sweet, in his book “From Table to Table,” notes how the rich man, at the beginning of the parable, is “dressed in purple and fine linen” and “feasted sumptuously at his table every day” (Luke 16:19). According to Sweet, he is the Bill Gates of his day.
He nonetheless allows Lazarus, a homeless person with an advanced case of leprosy (“the dogs came and licked his sores,” Luke 16:21) to reside at his highly secured front gate, to eat of the food leftover from his table.
The leper, a pariah of his day, is allowed to sit comfortably at his front door where undoubtedly the movers and the shakers of society made daily passage.
In so doing, this extremely rich man was doing more to take care of the poor than most of us are willing to do.
Sweet asks, “How many of you have homeless people living on your front porch?”
So what landed the rich man in hell? Sweet takes note that the poor man’s name is Lazarus, the namesake of Jesus’ best friend whose home was Jesus’ favorite place on earth. For Jesus, this story is about kinship.
Note the detail Jesus gives in the parable concerning the rich man’s five “brothers.” The rich man is urgently concerned for the damnation of his own five “brothers.” But he wasn’t equally concerned for Lazarus, a man closer than a brother to Jesus.
Sweet concludes that the rich man is not in hell because he didn’t take care of the poor. He actually did take care of the poor better than most.
In Sweet’s words, the rich man is in hell because he thought he had five brothers, when God had actually given him six.
While he helped Lazarus, he failed to see him as his brother. He failed to embrace him as family. As generous as he was, the rich man failed to invite Lazarus to his own dinner table.
Often we seek to make the poor into a program, someone we seek to distribute resources to. We in essence make space for them at our doorstep.
Churches dedicate whole ministries to do justice and mercy as programs for the poor. They organize them so people can volunteer for them. Such ministries alleviate immediate suffering.
However, they inevitably keep the poor at a distance, at our doorstep. They keep the poor from being a part of our lives. They prevent us from being present with the poor at our tables.
In so doing, justice programs (done singularly) undercut God’s work for justice in the world. They work against the new socioeconomic order God is creating in his kingdom.
Remember the parable of the final judgment found in Matthew 25:31-46, where the son of man, having returned to gather his kingdom, goes about separating the sheep from the goats, those who inherit the kingdom from those who don’t.
The sheep are welcomed into the kingdom based on the fact they are the ones who gave the son of man food to eat when he was hungry, a cup of water when he was thirsty, welcomed him when he was a stranger, clothed him when he was naked, visited him in prison.
The ones who did not do these things were sent into the eternal flames (Matthew 25:41).
The reaction of the righteous ones is to say, “Huh? When did we do that? We have no recall?”
To which the king replies, in verse 40, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
Jesus seems to be making the point that the righteous ones are unaware they were doing anything special when they were with the hurting. It appears that being with the poor was just part of their everyday life. No big deal.
And so, with no pretention, no worldly power or mammon, just out of their everyday life, these people gave food to the hungry, a cup of water to the thirsty.
They were with them. They were doing things they would do naturally for any friend or relative. They were in essence with kin. This is what it means to become present to the poor in our lives.
David Fitch is the Betty R. Linder chair of evangelical theology at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. A version of this article first appeared on his website, Reclaiming the Mission, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @fitchest.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here. The article is an excerpt from Fitch’s forthcoming book, “Faithful Presence,” scheduled for release in 2016.