The Bishop and Lazarus

You’ve heard about the bishop in Germany who’s been suspended? He’s now spending some quiet time in a monastery in Bavaria. Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst “was said to have let the cost of renovating his residence and other church buildings balloon to more than $41 million. The projects drew ridicule in the German news media for luxuries like a $20,000 bathtub, a $1.1 million landscaped garden and plans for an 800-square-foot fitness room — as well as a cross to be suspended from the ceiling of a personal chapel, which necessitated the reopening of a renovated roof.”[1] The bishop has been suspended by his brother in Christ from Argentina who took the name of St. Francis when he became pope; and the expensive residence in Limburg may be “turned into a refugee centre or a soup kitchen for the homeless,” according to several European news outlets. Jesus needs better PR, some say, and the pope is doing a fine job.

I thought about Franz-Peter the bishop of Limburg, imagined him reading the gospel for All Saints day, Jesus looked up at his disciples and said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” I imagined the bishop reading this beatitude in his lavish personal chapel with the cross suspended from the ceiling and I wondered what happened in his heart when his lips formed those words. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled” – did he think about his own hunger and how different it was from that of the members of his flock who were waiting for the soup kitchen to open? “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” Did the bishop weep? I hope the bishop is weeping now after he had some time to think about how he turned from a servant of Christ into a prince of the church.

When Jesus spoke these words to his first disciples he was looking at a group of men who had left everything – house and land, nets and boat and kin – they had left it all behind for the sake of God’s reign, for the sake of a family big enough for all, for the sake of him who brought good news to the poor, for the sake of a promise that life was meant to be different from the poverty, the hunger, and the tears they knew. When the bishop learns to weep, will he be counted among the blessed again?

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.[2] And Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor.” Those who heard him were astonished and said, “No one has ever spoken like you. How can you call him blessed? He has no house, he has no family, he is sick, he must beg for food, and dogs are licking his wounds. Certainly he is the most cursed of men.” And again Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of God. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”

Jesus’ life and words turn most available wisdom on its head. To some of us, Jesus sometimes sounds like he is completely out of touch with the way things work around here—and then there are moments when we notice that he is entirely in touch with a reality more promising and desirable than what is “around here.” Jesus flips our world upside down and shakes things up until we begin to see that it is not necessarily the top of the ladder that touches heaven.

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

It is obvious what the bishop could do to offer mercy and justice to the poor man at his gate, but what gift has blessed Lazarus to offer the bishop? The more I think about it, the more I believe the gift is the same for both: the mercy and justice of God’s reign, the blessings of a family big enough for all, the peace of community redeemed and restored, the joy of heaven in the valley of tears.

Jesus spoke these beatitudes, the words of woe, and many other teachings while standing on a level place. Not from a mountain, but standing on a level place. I like to think of is as the level place where every valley has been filled and every mountain and hill has been made low, where the crooked has been made straight, and the rough ways smooth.[3] The level place where the powerful have been brought down from their thrones, and the lowly lifted up.[4] On the level place; face-to-face with us, all of us, the whole company of saints and sinners, hungry beggars and weeping bishops.

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.

It may be important to point out that Jesus didn’t say that poverty is blessed, or hunger, weeping, hate or defamation. He said, Blessed are you who are poor now, for the logic of the world does not apply in the kingdom of God. Everything is turned upside down and mercy reigns.

“God has a preferential love for the poor,” says theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, “not because they are necessarily better than others, morally or religiously, but simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God’s will. The ultimate basis for the privileged position of the poor is not in the poor themselves but in God.” [5]

In the world the poor and hungry are pushed to the margins of attention and influence, but Jesus embodies and proclaims God’s reign in the world. The good news proclaimed to the poor is that the kingdom of God is theirs, and not the property of those who think they own everything worth owning in the world. The good news proclaimed to the poor is divine solidarity, the assurance that God is for them and with them, and not some day, but now.

The good news is not just a word spoken with conviction, but a word lived, a word lived by the community of saints who bear the name of Christ. The good news is a word lived by those who have gone before in faithfulness and hope, and by you who follow Christ today. The good news is lived by you who understand that Room in the Inn is not just an emergency winter shelter program, but blessed moment after blessed moment of Christ the host welcoming Christ the stranger, and in each encounter a seed is planted for a different kind of city, a family big enough for all. The good news is lived by you who begin to ask why so many individuals and families are homeless and why it is so difficult for so many of us to see our brother Lazarus at the gate and not just a poverty statistic.

Speaking of brothers, what about Franz-Peter, or as some have begun to call him, “the Bishop of Bling”? Is “Woe to you” Jesus’ last word for him or is he blessed?

He is blessed. How?

He is not alone in his episcopal palace, sitting in his $20,000 bathtub all by himself like some rich fool, thinking about what kind of wall to erect around his million dollar garden. He is not alone but has a brother who told him to take a sabbatical and go on a prayer retreat in Bavaria. He has sisters and brothers who remind him that the church is about power of a different sort.

He is blessed and we are blessed, every last one of us, in that we are not alone but made for communion, made for each other. We have a brother and Lord who will not leave us alone until God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. He speaks to us on the level place where those from the top of the ladder and those from the bottom of the heap meet face-to-face. He speaks to us on the level place where together we can imagine a future no longer shaped by greed and arrogance but by divine solidarity and compassion. He speaks to us on the level place where the weeping bishop and Lazarus come face-to-face and mercy builds a house and both are blessed.

What might Jesus say to them? “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”[6] Thanks be to God.



[2] Luke 16:19-21

[3] Luke 3:5

[4] Luke 1:52

[5] Quoted in Culpepper, Luke (NIB) 145

[6] Luke 19:9-10