"You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you."
These encouraging words offer a promise of protection. The Psalmist continues with more bold promises of God, he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways, concluding with perhaps the most hopeful words of all, With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.
The Psalmist reveals to us more than just the extent of Gods promises. He explains who these benefits are for: Those who love me and who live in the shelter of the Most High. He also explains why these benefits are given, because you have made the LORD your refuge. Lastly, the Psalmist also declares when these benefits will be given: When they call to me. Thus, as we reflect on the Psalmists words, we can see that Gods gifts of protection and health are conferred on those who have faith - who love God, who take refuge in him, and who call on his name.
While such promises may be reassuring, they also leave a very important question unanswered: What do we do when things around us are not going well? If the grounds for our belief is what God will give us, what happens when present blessings seem to dry up? How would, how could such a Psalm be read to the Tsunami ridden areas? Surely there were many believers on whom such pestilence fell, many who cried out to God whose prayers went unanswered.
This Psalm is still a beautiful and meaningful Psalm, however, like all texts in the Bible, it, by itself, is incomplete. There are many blessings of faith and this Psalm well describes them. However, it does not address how we can love the Lord our God, how we can have faith, especially in times of trial, when the blessings seem to have dried up.
Turning from such comforting words, were are greeted with quite harsh words in Pauls letter to Timothy: Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed. Ouch. This first sentence from Timothy strikes us modern readers as anachronistic, if not offensive. This condoning of slavery, furthermore, seems inconsistent with the story of Exodus and the Christian message of Freedom in Christ.
Consider though the next sentence, rather they must serve them all the more, since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved. Paul at one point proclaimed to the early Church that in Christ, there was neither slave nor free. Here it seems though, that in the early Church, there was both slave and free. There is no evidence that distinctions at the communion table were ever tolerated in the early Church. Indeed, Acts points out examples where such distinctions were condemned. Thus, Paul's letter would be read aloud to a group that contained slaves and masters along side one another, in and among one another.
How then could such slaves do it? How could slaves go to work in the morning, sweating and toiling for someone else's profit and then go and praise God with such a person? Here can we even see our neighbors as similar to ourselves, much less love them as ourselves when they are our masters who profit from our labor?
While Pauls letter may challenge, even upset us with its message, the Gospel lesson today does more than upset us, it indicts us. 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; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. Such an acute description of poverty makes empathy nearly impossible. In spite of our daily difficulties, it would be a stretch for any of us to identify with Lazarus, covered in sores that dogs lick, looking on at a neighbor who feasts every day. Sadly, as we read this story, we more likely see ourselves as the rich man, dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.
I recently took a trip to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The poverty on the reservation is staggering. The unemployment in the county has been above 80 percent for decades. Alcohol abuse and addiction is so rampant that it not only cripples lives, but families and even generations. At one point during an elementary school Pow Wow, an 11 year-old leaned over to his brother to indicate why he was there: Uncle is drunk. The words alone were painful enough, but his tone struck me. He mentioned this fact so causally. This was not some unusual big event. This was a routine occurrence.
I viewed the children on the reservation as modern-day versions of Lazarus. No reason for Lazarus' condition is given; it is merely portrayed as inhumane. This is indeed what the conditions of the children here. As one child told me, his house had two windows without glass. I would not have believed him, but for my own daily runs through the surrounding area where I saw shack after shack with open windows, surely making for a cold night on the Dakota prairie.
I have rarely been more painfully aware of my wealth. Artisans always came to the retreat center hoping to pedal their work. Soon our purchases became less for the sake of friends back home and more for the sake of those from whom we bought, many of whom came with sob stories of why they needed money. I had no idea whom to believe and on whom I should bestow my humble petty cash. Would it go for alcohol? Would it be better to give to the community college? I felt like the rich man in hell, aware of the brokenness and unable to do anything about it. Where was God? How could I love my neighbor?
Jesus concludes his parable with the despairing words, If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead. After such a parable, these words might seem like the final straw, the final nail that killed hope. Jesus seems to predict his own failure here: Even after his resurrection people will still not get it. These words, although seemingly depressing, are ultimately empowering. Jesus tells us here that his resurrection is not some miraculous display of power which will be used to convince us to obey the law. Jesus knows we will never be able to obey the law. Jesus tells us here that his resurrection is a miracle which has a power which the law does not, namely, to forgive us and make us right before God.
Jesus resurrection is what allows us to have this faith the Psalmist praises. Even if things in the here and now are difficult, the resurrection of Jesus lets us know that we have a heavenly home. The resurrection grants us full security, knowing that we may get sick or suffer setback, but the true pestilence, that of death, will never be ours. Jesus death and resurrection is what proclaims to us the words of Psalmist-- we will have salvation and long, indeed, eternal life.
Furthermore, before the cross, we all know that we are humble sinners, unable to achieve this salvation on our own. Thus, we can look at our boss, our modern master or our lying colleague and realize that before Christ, we are just as unworthy as he or she is. I may have a lower economic position; I may have taken the high road; but this does not impress the cross. Before the cross, we are in the same position: unworthy. Before the cross, the person next to me is no longer my master, but my brother. He deserves my best and I deserve his best.
The parable of Lazarus surely points to Jesus concern for the poor. Indeed, the reign of God does not consist of justifying current social relationships. However, the last line of the parable points us toward what enables us to care for people who are poor: the love of the resurrected Jesus working in our hearts. Working in impoverished conditions, hope can seem small. At these times, we can feel the terror of the night surrounding us and the words of the Psalm seem vague and distant. It is precisely at these moments though that we need to though, as the Psalm says, call on God. We need to invite Christ to bear our earthly sufferings. We need to look to the empty tomb and see our heavenly home.
However, if we look to heaven for help before we see the depth of Lazarus despair, we are like the rich man. We cannot ignore social problems, dismissing them as temporal cares. For when we look at the difficulties of Lazarus we realize the need of a God to work on our side. Our faith in God allows us to fight for the poor; fighting for the poor shows us how much we need God. And the Good News is that when we are fighting for the poor, and we are forced to our knees in awe of situation, and we call on Gods name, he will answer.