“The Heart Matters”

I’m pondering today’s parable alongside the story Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen. There’s a copy in the back on the kids’ table if anyone wants to follow along. The pictures are great! It begins like this:

On a cold afternoon, in a cold little town, where everywhere you looked was either the white of snow or the black of soot from chimneys, Annabelle found a box filled with yarn of every color. So she went home and knit herself a sweater. And when Annabelle was done, she had some extra yarn. So she knit a sweater for [her dog] Mars, too.

But there was still extra yarn. And when Annabelle and Mars went for a walk, Nate pointed and laughed and said, “You two look ridiculous.”

 “You’re just jealous,” said Annabelle. “No, I’m not,” said Nate. But it turned out he was. And even after Annabelle had made a sweater for Nate and his dog, she still had extra yarn.

At school, Annabelle made sweaters for her classmates and her teacher, Mr. Norman.  And she just kept on knitting sweaters for all the people and animals around her. Soon, people thought, soon Annabelle will run out of yarn. But it turned out she didn’t. So Annabelle made sweaters for things that didn’t even wear sweaters. Mailboxes, birdhouses, people houses, the village church. . . . News spread of this remarkable girl who never ran out of yarn. And people came to visit from around the world, to see all the sweaters and to shake Annabelle’s hand.

Extra Yarn is a story about how giving and sharing creates an economy of abundance. In contrast, today’s parable about the rich man and Lazarus portrays a society of harsh scarcity, in which one person’s feasting requires another person’s hunger. Reading this parable, I’m turning again to the expertise of Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, with gratitude for her unique voice as a Jewish scholar of the New Testament.

First of all, Levine reminds us that, in the Jewish tradition, the wealthy and powerful have a responsibility to care for the poor. In a just society, there may be inequality, but everyone has dignity, and everyone has what they need to live. (271) Analyzing multiple details of the rich man’s behavior, Levine draws the conclusion that his actions are not just offensive; they are ridiculous and obscene. He not only had incredible wealth; he displayed it. The cloth he wore—purple, and fine linen—was extremely expensive. The high priests put on such garments in the temple; this man wore them to his dinner table. Dressing up and feasting would have been appropriate on the Sabbath and at major festivals. However, such celebrations always included the poor. This man feasted alone on a daily basis. And he forced his servants and slaves to labor, day after day, to put on an extravagant party. (272–3) Levine concludes “The rich man is, like the Pharisee of Luke 17, a caricature; he is too rich even to be recognized, and outside any system of social responsibility.” (272)

The rich man’s terrible treatment of Lazarus is also exaggerated, cartoon-like. Lazarus only wanted the leftovers from the rich man’s feast. Why was the rich man, who has so much, too much, unwilling to share those scraps? The compassion of the dogs who licked Lazarus’ sores highlights the utter insensitivity of the rich man. And finally, when the man was in torment, he did not lament his own lack of compassion. He did not beg for forgiveness from Lazarus. He asked only that Lazarus be allowed to bring him water. Levine observes that the rich man

has failed, even in the pain of torture, to understand his sin. . . . He had the resources; he had the opportunity; he had the commandments of Torah. He did nothing, and he still does nothing. Instead, he continues to think of Lazarus as nothing more than a servant or a dog, who is to fetch something for the master. He fails to recognize the irony of his request. (288)

There’s a bit more to the story of Annabelle the extra yarn.

One day an archduke, who was very fond of clothes, sailed across the sea and demanded to see Annabelle. “Little girl,” said the archduke, “I would like to buy that miraculous box of yarn. And I am willing to offer you one million dollars.” “No thank you,” said Annabelle, who was knitting a sweater for a pickup truck.

The archduke’s mustache twitched. “Two million,” he said. Annabelle shook her head. “No thanks.” “Ten million!” shouted the archduke. “Take it or leave it!” “Leave it,” said Annabelle. “I won’t sell the yarn.” And she didn’t.

So that night the archduke hired three robbers to break into Annabelle’s house, and they stole the box and took it to the archduke, who set off across the snow, and sailed over the sea back to his castle. The archduke put on his favorite song and sat in his best chair. Then he took out the box and he lifted its lid, and he looked inside. [The box was, of course, empty.] His mustache quivered. It shivered. It trembled. The archduke hurled the box out the window and shouted, “Little girl, I curse you with my family’s curse! You will never be happy again!” But . . . it turned out she was.

We see the box floating across the ocean to the shore where Annabelle is sitting with Mars. She fetches it from the sea with a stick. And the last page shows Annabelle sitting with Mars in the branches of a sweater-covered tree.

True wealth comes to us through mutuality—receiving gratefully and giving freely. Hoarding and exploiting leads to torment for poor and rich alike. Sharing both our needs and our resources, we invest in the common good. That’s why our family gladly offers a tithe (an intentional portion of what we have) for the work of our congregations and other community organizations. Our pledges for First Church and University Lutheran Church of Hope in 2020 will be just over $5,000. I invite you to prayerfully consider how you can participate in God’s economy of hopeful abundance, in the context of your own particular financial situation and season of life.

Later, we’ll be having a discussion about the church’s finances, about the board’s sense that we need to live within sustainable sources of income, rather than continuing to rely on one-time funds to balance our budget. This change is painful, because however we approach it, it means letting go of something that is important, something that is a high priority for us. At the same time, we need not approach this time in the life of our church with a sense of scarcity. You are incredibly generous people. Every gift matters and makes a difference. This is, and will continue to be, a vital community because of your commitment. God’s spirit is alive among us and I have no doubt God will show us how to use the resources we have wisely, faithfully and joyfully.

Lazarus held in the bosom of Abraham is an image of a banquet, since in those days, people reclined when they ate. So the poor man feasts on both actual food and loving comfort in a way that he was denied during his lifetime. The rich man, meanwhile, lives in the torment of isolation. He neither offers, nor accepts, the nourishment of love. The point of this parable is not that we ought to fear hell if we don’t do enough to care for the poor. The point is that the heart matters. The divide between Lazarus and the rich man is not a divine punishment. That chasm was created by the rich man’s closed heart. It was there in life and it is there after death.

We can trust that God loves us and accepts us, as we are. No exceptions and no conditions. God does not wish torment for us. God longs for us to know abundant peace and joy. This morning’s parable reminds us; however, that love and judgment can, and probably must, coexist. God loves us in a way that calls us to account, that asks us to grow toward our best selves, toward who we really are. God does not love us separately. God loves us together with the whole of creation. God’s love is a saving love, a love that invites us all into wholeness and health, sharing and abundance, “in this life and the next.” Amen.