Once there was a rich man ... Jesus starts to tell a story and it sounds almost like a fairy tale. But quickly it becomes a harsh drama. The rich man in this story has no name. He represents all the wealthy who live like him. He is nameless because he is cold and heartless. He does not care about the one who is poor.
Outside his door lies a wretched, poor man. Lazarus. He has a name. He stands for all Lazaruses of this world. He stands for all the individuals who suffer, for all the deprived and forgotten, for all the losers of modernity, for the victims of uncontrolled globalization.
One resides in a villa. The other lives on the street. One celebrates lavish parties, the other "desires" only a mouthful of bread. Yet, the rich man won’t give it to Lazarus. An unbreachable gap between rich and poor becomes visible in this story. And this gap reveals a fundamental conflict that still exists today. Most people on our globe don’t have access to the high quality of life in modern industrialized countries. And even in Germany there are people that don’t have access to the wealth of our country.
Lazarus is poor, homeless, lame and ill. He is a leper. This is also a quite common fact in today’s world. Just like him, today’s poor and forgotten are often left behind in more than one way. And it is not just a few rich and heartless people that fail the poor. No, all too often it is the whole of a wealthy society that excludes people among them.
But interestingly, the story is not about the evils of wealth. It is never said that wealth itself is evil. It is the indifference to the plight of Lazarus, it is the heartlessness of the rich man as he watches the misery of Lazarus, that will lead the rich man finally to hell and not to heaven.
But how do you know what to do? In the biblical story of Lazarus reference is made to Moses and the prophets. There you can find everything that is necessary to know. People of faith cannot excuse themselves for not knowing or never having heard of charity.
Moses and the prophets testify the liberating God. The experience of the liberation from bondage becomes the persistent theme in the ethics of the people of Israel. It is the core argument for justice and compassion for the weakest members of society: God calls his people to justice and compassion because he has lead them from slavery to salvation. In the bible we can read: “You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.” (Deuteronomy 24: 17f). How we treat our poor, how we fight for law and justice are signs of faithfulness to the covenant of God.
And then, for us Christians, there is furthermore our encounter with Jesus Christ. In Jesus, God became man, became close to us. He is one like us, he eats and drinks and celebrates. Yet, he didn’t accept the realities of life that we often consider hard and fast. He dared to challenge them. He dared to change them. He accepted outsiders, shared with the poor, raised up the humiliated, gave dignity and rights to the lawless. Because we are disciples of Christ we do not have the liberty to deny hospitality to the people who are at our doorsteps. It is not up to us to decide if we want to give the poor Lazarus the piece of bread he asks for – or not. It is not up to us to decide if we want to share – or not – what we have so plentiful: money and bread, peace and freedom.
God liberated his people from slavery, God opted for the poor, Jesus shared bread with outcasts. Therefore, following the law of Moses and the prophets, following Jesus Christ, following God’s call for justice and love is not a neutral task. It is always biased (parteilich). It is biased in its “option for the poor”. And this option calls first and foremost all those to act that are strong and powerful, those who determine what happens with the scarce goods and resources in our world. They have to change.
Hard as it may be, it is my steadfast conviction that unlike the rich man in Jesus’ story, we can learn to change and take up our responsibility for justice and love in this world. There is unbearable horror and poverty in this world. And yet, we can see signs of hope. I am so grateful for all those people in countless parishes and diaconical initiatives in Germany that provide the piece of bread that the Lazaruses of today need and that open their hearts and doors to the refugees arriving at their doorsteps.
And the work of the Lutheran World Federation, which we German Lutherans are part of, gives me hope. Its World Service is driven by the vision to see people living in just societies, in peace and with dignity, empowered to achieve their full potential, claim their universal rights, meet their basic needs and improve their quality of life.
The Lutheran World Federation has an impact on the lives of people struggling to survive, for example in remote Saharan villages in Mauritania or areas heavily impacted by climate change in Guatemala in Central America. In other parts of the world, the LWF supports communities with land rehabilitation or it offers vocational training. The LWF has humanitarian operations in Uganda, South Sudan, Somalia, Northern Iraq and Colombia – just to name a few – where humanitarian needs have continued to grow in the last year. And we Lutherans are active in Jerusalem where the harsh cut of support by the US administrations threatens the medial services for thousands of vulnerable Palestinians.
Let me return to Lazarus a last time. The story Jesus tells is quite clear. We have a choice to make: We can close our eyes and ears to the miseries of the poor or we can be touched by them and try to act accordingly. We have to make a decision and this decision will decide our fate and that of the world. And for us Christians the option is crystal clear. We have an “option for the poor”.
What we do need is both: liturgy of humans and liturgy for humans! To love God and to love the neighbour belongs together. To answer God’s love means to love the neighbour!