Tell me your story

An unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world have been forced from home (that’s approximately the population of Great Britain). Among them are nearly 21.3 million refugees who have fled their countries. Over half of the refugees are under the age of 18. More than 10 million children in the world are refugees. We live in a world where nearly 34,000 people are forcibly displaced every day as a result of conflict or persecution.[1]

The numbers are hard to imagine. But they are people; they are families; they are men, women, children, not a bowl of Skittles. They have lives and dreams they left behind. They have stories to tell. They have names. The question is not, “Can you imagine 21.3 million refugees?” The question is, “Can you imagine being one of them?” Can you imagine being forced to leave your home with little more than the clothes on your back ? Can you imagine, for a moment, for mercy’s sake, being the mother who lifts her child into a rubber dinghy to cross the ocean? Can you imagine having lost everything and everyone? Can you imagine being the poor man at the gate?

In Jesus’ story, the world is very small and very divided. There’s a rich man in the house and a poor man at the gate. And the rich man is dressed in purple and the finest linen, while the poor man is covered in sores that only the dogs show any interest in. And the rich man feasts sumptuously every day, while the poor man hungers and longs to eat the crumbs that fall off the rich man’s table. It’s a world sharply divided into rich and poor, a world separated by a gate. And surprisingly, as though to remind us that the poor are not merely statistics in the rich man’s world but people, Jesus tells us the poor man’s name, Lazarus. Jesus paints a world with just a few strokes.

In the next frame, Lazarus dies. Did he starve? Did one of his sores get infected? Or was it one of those nights when temperatures dropped into the 20’s? Apparently those are details that don’t matter in Jesus’ story, but he’s careful to tell us that when Lazarus died the angels came to carry him away to rest at the bosom of Abraham.

The rich man also died and was buried. Somebody else might have told us how long the funeral procession was and how exquisitly carved the headstone. Jesus tells us that the rich man was buried. Period. No angels came. Just a few simple strokes and we can see that death doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor.

In the next frame, we see again a very divided world. Only now it’s the rich man who is in agony and Lazarus is the child at home, the guest of honor feasting at Abraham’s banquet.

Let’s pause here for a moment. The prophet Amos, in the days of King Jeroboam, composed a song of sorrow and grief:

Woe to those who are at ease in Zion ... Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who drink wine straight from the bowl, and anoint themselves with the finest oils—but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! [2]

One scholar has called the prophecy “a lament over people who can see nothing about which to lament.”[3] Is that what had happened in the rich man’s world? Had he not seen Lazarus in his agony? Had he only had eyes for life this side of the gate? Now he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.  And now he responded, calling out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” You have to wonder how long he had known that name – Lazarus – and had he ever spoken it before? And the cry, “Have mercy on me!” – had he heard it before? Had he heard it or had it remained unheard, part of the white noise occasionally wafting in from beyond the gate?

The man in agony didn’t ask for much, a drop of water, not a seat at the banquet, and Abraham heard him. And he said, “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” It had been a small world, divided by a gate, only now the great divide was permanent. The time to reach across with kindness and generosity was over. Opportunities to see and hear and respond once had abounded, but now it was too late – for the rich man, that is, not his siblings.

“Send Lazarus to my father’s house to warn them,” the man asked, and Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” Yes, we should, but our track record is not very impressive, and the man in Hades knows it and he intercedes one more time, not for himself, but for us, telling Abraham, “If someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He has great confidence that we will change the way we live once we are told of the great reversal where the Mighty One has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly, has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:52-53). Abraham is a lot less confident. Will we listen to Moses and the prophets and to Jesus whom God raised from the dead?

We live in a vast and complex world, a world that awes us with its beauty and terrifies us. Only we don’t really live in a vast and complex world, but in small worlds, divided worlds, and beyond the gate, in each of our little worlds, are the things and people we’d rather not see, because we don’t know what will happen to us when we do. Jesus invites us to imagine ourselves, for a moment, for mercy’s sake, on the other side of that gate and to let the view from the other side of the great divide shape our actions. We might decide to open the gate. We might decide to jump the fence. We might begin to take down the wall.

Jesus’ story is rather blunt in pointing out that our time to reach out across all that divides us – and God knows there’s a lot – our time to reach across the great abyss is limited. We only have a lifetime to practice compassion and mercy. But we do have a lifetime to practice compassion and mercy, to cross from here to there; countless opportunities to let love and courage lead the way. I’m reminded of words written in a letter from jail by one of America’s saints, “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham,” wrote Dr. King. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”[4] I cannot sit idly by on this side of the gate and not be concerned about what happens on the other side. I cannot sit idly by in Tennessee and not be concerned about what happens in Syria, Turkey, Afghanistan, Somalia, and South Sudan. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And because we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, every step of courageous love any one of us takes toward another moves us all one step forward.

Last week, President Obama addressed the Leaders Summit on Refugees at the UN. At the end of his remarks he said,

We can learn from a young boy named Alex, who lives not far from here in Scarsdale, New York.  Last month, like all of us, Alex saw that heartbreaking image – five-year-old Omran Daqneesh in Aleppo, Syria, sitting in that ambulance, silent and in shock, trying to wipe the blood from his hands.

Alex, who is just six years old, saw that picture, sat down and wrote a letter to the president. And in his letter he said, he wanted Omran to come and live with him and his family. “Since he won’t bring toys,” he wrote, “I will share my bike and I will teach him how to ride it. I will teach him addition and subtraction. My little sister will be collecting butterflies and fireflies for him… We can all play together. We will give him a family and he will be our brother.”

We are moved by this little boy’s words and actions; we recognize an impulse we too have felt – before we learned to be cynical, or suspicious, or fearful of people from the other side of the gate. We see compassion that opens the door and invites the stranger in. We see the love that draws us all into the beloved community. The President said,

Imagine the suffering we could ease, and the lives we could save, and what our world would look like if, seeing a child who’s hurting anywhere in the world, we say, “We will give him a family and he will be our brother.”[5]

Imagine the rich man getting up one morning, opening the gate, and saying to Lazarus, “Come on in. Tell me your story.”



[2] See Amos 6:1, 4-6

[3] Donald Gowan, NIB, 398.

[4] Martin L. King, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963


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