Sabbath Day Thoughts — Luke 16:19-31
October sixteenth is World Food Day, an international day of awareness celebrated every year to commemorate the founding of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization in 1945. We remember those who died on the battlefield during the second world war, but we do not always realize that many people lost their lives to famine. In 1943, famine in the Bengal Province of British India killed an estimated 3.8 million Bengalis. During the winter of 1944-1945 in the Netherlands, a German blockade cut off food and fuel shipments from farm towns, threatening 4.5 million people with starvation. In the far east, great famines occurred in Vietnam and Java in 1944–1945, claiming the lives of some 3.4 million people. To address the crisis of a hungry, war-weary world, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization was formed to address the root causes of hunger and improve and develop agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and land and water resources around the globe. On World Food Day, we acknowledge that we are a global community of neighbors, called to alleviate the suffering of those who hunger.
Despite the efforts of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, hunger is again on the rise globally, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, war, and soaring inflation. Although there is more than enough food produced in the world to feed everyone, hunger affects about ten percent of the world’s population. What does that look like? 829 million people go to bed hungry every night. Since 2019, the number of people with acute food insecurity (who are malnourished and wasting) has surged from 135 million people to 345 million. 14 million children under the age of five suffer from acute malnutrition, think of the ashy skin, dull eyes, and bloated bellies of famine’s children in sub-Saharan Africa. Here in the United States, one in five children live in households that struggle to put food on the table. Here among our North Country neighbors, those numbers are higher. One quarter of our children in Franklin County live in food insecure households, where families have more month than money. On World Food Day, we are challenged to consider what we will do in response to hungry neighbors, near and far.
In our lesson from Luke’s gospel, Jesus shares a parable about a rich man with a poor neighbor. It’s a study in contrasts. The Greek word for “rich man” is plousios, and it means a wealthy landowner who does not labor for a living. Lazarus, on the other hand, is ptoxos, the poorest of the poor, a beggar without the stabilizing resources of property, friends, or family. The rich man lives behind the gate in a lavish home while the poor man Lazarus has fallen down or been left outside the gate. There he relies on the charity of those who pass him by. The rich man is clothed in a splendid robe of purple cloth and a fine inner garment of the purest linen. Lazarus is clothed in filthy rags and festering sores. The rich man rejoices in feasting sumptuously every day, yet Lazarus is hungry, longing to eat his fill from the refuse that falls beneath the table. The rich man would be respected by all. Lazarus is so powerless that he cannot even prevent the dogs from licking his scabby wounds.
As Jesus tells the story, death brings a great reversal. Lazarus finds himself seated at the heavenly banquet in the place of honored, next to his patriarch Abraham, who comforts and encourages him, while the rich man is endlessly tormented by flames in a shadowy underworld. Even in Hades, the rich man presumes that he can command Abraham and be served by Lazarus. The parable gets really uncomfortable when we hear that the rich man’s suffering cannot be relieved because it is a consequence of the choices he has made in life. With his indifference to his suffering neighbor, the rich man dug a great chasm that separated him from God and his neighbor. Lazarus had been at the gate, entrusted by the circumstances of his life to the care of his affluent neighbor, and the rich man never even noticed. Lazarus at the gate had been an opportunity to love generously and provide for the common good from the bounty with which God had blessed him, but the rich man could not be bothered.
The Bible scholars tell us that Jesus’s story about the rich man and Lazars is an apocalyptic parable, a vivid description of the afterlife that is intended to change our behavior, here and now. It’s a wake-up call that reveals a truth that Jesus wants us to see. Our failure to heed the warning can have the direst of outcomes. Jesus reminds us that Lazarus is at our gate, but we must open our eyes to see him, and we must be ready to love him. Our failure to engage the suffering of others has terrible consequences for our at-risk neighbors—and, according to Jesus, it has terrible consequences for us.
On World Food Day, we acknowledge that in the grand scheme of things, we may not be Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates, but we are the rich man. Lazarus is at our gate. Our hungry neighbors need our care and compassion. For about forty years, we have shown our passion for feeding hungry people with the CROP Walk, taking to the streets to raise awareness and funds to address the reality of hunger around the world and right here in Saranac Lake. CROP Walk is an initiative of Church World Service, which seeks to address the root causes of hunger by enhancing the capacity of people to feed themselves. I’ll share a couple of examples.
In Honduras, the Miguel family has been subsistence farmers for generations, growing three crops: rice, beans, and coffee. But then they enrolled in a program through Church World Service and learned how to diversify and grow new crops. The program transformed their small farm as they added vegetables, fruit trees, and grain. Next, they were taught how to raise barnyard animals like chickens and rabbits. Most recently, they have created a pond on their land to farm tilapia. Over the years, the Miguel family has been able to cultivate more land and add corn, squash, bananas, onions, cabbage and tomatoes to their fields. In fact, they have become so successful at growing produce and raising animals that they have been able to sell their surplus at market and put money in the bank. Their daughter Lesly is the first person in the family to attend school. This fall, they sent Lesly to university where she is studying to be a social worker.
In West Timor, Indonesia, Church World Service has launched a Zero Hunger Initiative that seeks to provide seeds, tools, chickens, and clean water access for all. One beneficiary of the program is Yabes. Her daughter Sifrallili was chronically sick and malnourished, due to contaminated water and lack of fresh fruits and vegetables. CWS helped Yabes with a protected source of clean water and provided seeds and training to help her start a home garden. Things really turned the corner for Yabes and Sifrallili when they were given the gift of a rooster and three hens. Now they are collecting eggs and raising enough chickens to turn a profit. The chicken manure is used, too, to fertilize the garden and boost their veggie crop. Yabes reports that she has saved almost enough money to build a latrine for her family.
When we raise funds through CROP Walk, we are helping global neighbors like the Miguel family and Yabes to feed themselves and escape the cycle of hunger and poverty. Yet when we participate in CROP Walk, we are also taking a bite out of hunger right here in Saranac Lake. One quarter of the money that we raise returns to the community. This year, we have designated the Wednesday evening Community Supper as the local beneficiary of the walk. The supper offers the opportunity for neighbors who are hungry or hungry-of-heart to gather weekly for a hot, nutritious meal. Families with children, single folks, seniors from the DeChantal, and more are served, free of charge. The supper provided meals throughout the COVID pandemic with a team of volunteers delivering take-out to people in their homes.
On World Food Day, we remember that our care for vulnerable neighbors is good for them, but according to Jesus, it’s a moral imperative that is also good for us. We dream of the day when Lazarus no longer languishes at the gate, a day when all truly have enough. Let’s lace up our walking shoes and make it happen. Amen.
Barbara Rossing. “Commentary on Luke 16:19-31” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 25, 2016. Accessed online at workingpreacher,org
Lois Malcolm. “Commentary on Luke 16:19-31” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 29, 2013. Accessed online at workingpreacher,org
Church World Service. CROP Walk 2022 Resources and Activity Guide. Accessed online at CROP Hunger Walk Resources
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Home | Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (fao.org)
19 ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called 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.” 25 But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, 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.” 27 He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” 29 Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” 30 He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” 31 He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”’