Lots of us have imagined what it would be like to be invisible. And a variety of popular authors have helped us to run with that fantasy.
For instance, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter has an invisibility cloak. He wears it from time to time to fight the evil forces aligned with Lord Voldemort.
Sue Storm appears in the pages of Marvel Comics, or should I say that she disappears. As one of the Fantastic Four Sue possesses the super power to render herself invisible. While hidden from sight, The Invisible Woman does battle with criminals like Doctor Doom who have their own super powers.
H. G. Wells gave invisibility a sinister turn in his novel The Invisible Man. The title character plots to use his invisibility to conduct a reign of terror.
This sort of invisibility exists purely in fiction. Jesus, by contrast, tells a parable about a very real kind of invisibility. His parable of Lazarus and the rich man teaches us about our power to treat others as if they were invisible and about how this very power always turns against the one who wields it. (Luke 16:19-31)
I’m getting ahead of myself a bit here. Let’s take a step back and look at some key elements of the parable.
The Invisible Man
Jesus tells us that there was a rich man with an eye-popping wardrobe who threw lots of lavish parties. As it turns out, a homeless man named Lazarus had taken up residence right by his front door. He was dirty, ragged, starving, and obviously sick.
So, what does the rich man do about Lazarus? Nothing. It’s not just that he offers no help or that he feeds only his chosen guests or that he keeps buying new clothes while the beggar at his doorstep can barely cover himself.
The rich man doesn’t even tell Lazarus to go away or call the cops to run him off. There is no sign that the rich man is acting from some sense of compassion. Instead, Jesus crafts his parable in a way that suggests that the rich man simply takes no notice of Lazarus at all. He never gives the poor beggar a thought.
For the rich man, Lazarus is invisible. He looks right through Lazarus. Or more precisely, the rich man is so focused on his own comfort and status that Lazarus fades into the background completely. Lazarus is not important enough to the rich man to warrant any of his attention.
The rich man does eventually see Lazarus. It happens when he finds himself in hell and catches a glimpse of Lazarus in heaven sipping a Pina Colada with Father Abraham in heaven. He doesn’t actually speak to Lazarus, but he does notice him for the first time.
And just why he notices him helps us to understand more clearly how and why he made Lazarus invisible in the first place. Listen to what he says to Abraham: “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.” (Luke 16:24)
The rich man finally sees Lazarus because he thinks that Lazarus can provide a means to his own comfort. And there Jesus gives us the key to how the rich man made Lazarus invisible, and how we can fall into the same dehumanizing pattern.
Jesus has come to inaugurate the Kingdom of God. That Kingdom is not some far away place. Instead, it is a way of relating to God and to one another that has not become a full reality, at least not yet.
In the Kingdom of God, we never see someone else as merely a means to our own ends, as an instrument for achieving our own agenda. Instead, in the Kingdom we know ourselves and each other as God’s beloved.
We are each infinitely valuable, infinitely worthy of respect. That is why in our Baptismal Covenant we pledge to respect the dignity of every human being. We acknowledge that God already loves him or her, so that respect is already due each and every person.
Jesus teaches us to adjust our own lives for the sake of the well-being of others. The rich man adjusted his relationship with others for the sake of his own private well-being. His leading question was something like this. What’s in it for me?
The Empty Suit
And now consider just where this self-centered approach got the rich man. You might think that the message of the parable is that God punished the rich man’s behavior by sending him to hell. While it is true that the golden rule of hell is self-absorption, you will miss the point if you think in terms of moral rules and divine punishment.
Consider for just a minute the simple fact that only Lazarus has a name in this parable. The rich man has no name. Jesus is a master story teller. There is no way that this is accidental.
The rich man has no name because he has no enduring identity. Who he is derives from what he values. His clothes, his possessions, the various outer trappings of a materially wealthy life define who he is. And when he died, he had to let all of this go. There was nothing left by which the rich man could be distinguished from anyone else.
Paradoxically, the rich man makes himself invisible. His self-absorption left him a nobody from the perspective of eternity. He wore fine clothes in this life and made himself a spiritual empty suit.
By contrast, Lazarus is somebody for all of eternity. Again, Jesus teaches us by virtue of the name. The name “Lazarus” means “God is my help.”
Lazarus did not define himself by his achievements or his possessions. Instead, Lazarus identified himself with his utter reliance upon God. As it turns out, it is our relationship with God, and with each other through God, that will pass with us beyond the veil of death.
Making the Invisible Visible
The Kingdom of God is still a work in progress. There are many people who languish in the kind of invisibility that God wants no part of. Our mission as followers of Jesus is to make the invisible visible.
So how do we go about making the invisible visible? We begin by learning to see them for ourselves.
As a first step, learn to walk around. Listen to people. Discover what they need. Walk the neighborhood around your congregation.
Some parishes have started community gardens in response to what they’ve learned about their neighbors. Others have begun delivering meals to shut-ins and supplying groceries for those facing food insecurity.
Still others have adopted schools, organized regular health screenings, provided furniture for the displaced, and partnered with other denominations to offer low-cost clothing.
There are many problems facing our state, but let me bring to your attention just one about which I believe we can make a significant difference. A staggering number of our fellow citizens have inadequate access to medical care.
Here’s how a local newspaper describes our situation:
About 345,000 low-income people won’t qualify for federal subsidies to help them buy insurance, and most still won’t qualify for Medicaid because Louisiana isn’t expanding that program. Those people are the poorest of the poor, with incomes of $958 a month or less for an individual.
An additional 77,000 with a little more money in their pockets probably will spend their cash on living expenses, not insurance. Those people have income of up to $1,322 a month. (Shreveport Times, “State hopes those stuck between Medicaid and market fall into Louisiana’s safety net”)
Whether these people are named Lazarus, Ricky Bobby, or Boudreaux, we cannot allow them to be invisible.
Our own St. Luke’s Episcopal Medical Mission is working hard to expand its services, and they can use your support. We can tell our representatives and our Governor that the health of everyone is our personal concern and demand that they continue to find a way to make health care accessible and affordable.
Not one single person is invisible to God. But those who are hungry, sick, and lonely can feel out of sight and out of mind. God calls you and me to see with his eyes. To see his beloved as beloved, and to help them know themselves as beloved.
That’s the Gospel, and Jesus sends us out to preach that Gospel. Words are good, but hands and feet preach this Gospel best.
This sermon was preached at St. Michael’s in Pineville, Louisiana.