Ubuntu, the Rich Man and Lazarus





What is the magic of seeing someone? What is the function of empathy? Recently I heard a TED talk by a psychologist named Dr. Goleman who wrote a pretty popular book on Emotional Intelligence. He reflected on our increasingly self-absorbed society and the lack of empathy. Over the course of his studies he came to learn that our rush, our busy-ness, keeps us from seeing those who are most in need. This surprised him because, as he put it, we are hardwired for empathy. Our brains are geared for empathy and compassion. It’s one of the reasons people slow down at traffic accidents. It’s why we feel so heartbroken over the news sometimes, powerless, hurt, and angry. We are hardwired to feel for each other.


The African philosophy of Ubuntu states that “I will not be well, if my brother, if my sister, is not well.” It reminds us that we belong to each other and while we might rush right by those who are hurting and hope that it won’t impact us, eventually, it always does. In our scripture today the rich man, who interestingly enough and counter-culturally enough, doesn’t have a name, he’s the one who rushes right by Lazarus who has been knocked down by life and left at his gates. We know that, on some level, the rich guy knew who Lazarus was, his plight did register at some level, after all he knew Lazarus’ name, but mostly he was busy with his schedule and his fancy parties and social climbing and there was always business to attend to, actually seeing Lazarus as a fellow human being who suffered, wasn’t on the agenda.


It’s as if he simply had no clue how Lazarus lived. Perhaps he was just too busy or preoccupied, but he missed seeing Lazarus, missed connecting with him. And this isn’t to say that he was an evil man. At least I hope not, because Princeton Seminary, a good Presbyterian seminary if ever there was one! Did a study where they challenged their seminary students to study a text, and then go to another building to preach on it. On the way from one building to another each student would encounter a man seemingly bent double in pain, moaning and clearly in need of help. Now half of these students had been given the text of the Good Samaritan and half had been given other texts. You might think, you might hope, that these good and kind students who are devoting themselves to scripture and hope to be of service to the world and who have just been studying the example of the Good Samaritan would stop and help this man, but many didn’t. What they discovered was that if the students felt rushed or anxious, they barely even noticed the man, even if they had just been reading the text of the Good Samaritan.


Isn’t that something? We can contemplate the good and righteous thing we most want to become and see in the world and still miss the opportunity to realize that-literally make it real- when it shows up. I gotta tell you that is not good news for a preacher! Because it suggests, or states, that no matter how good this sermon, or the text we share, no matter how deep our understanding of the scripture, it will not change our behavior. We can do all the intellectual processing and it will not necessarily change us.


So what will? Where is the good news?


Dr. Goleman didn’t just leave us at this low point, like a good lecturer or preacher even, he found the good news and he didn’t give up until he did so. He said that, as a psychologist he was brought into close contact with lots of people who suffered from mental illness and he began to notice as he walked the streets that many of the homeless people had a particular look on their face, in their features, that resembled the more fortunate patients he had worked with. Now the thing is, he knew his patients. He knew their stories and their pain, he had great empathy and compassion for them, so when he saw strangers who he did not know, who nonetheless resembled people he did know, some of that veil of indifference, of preoccupation, was pierced. He began to feel compassion for those he was passing on the street. It shifted his focus. His compassion for his patients drew him into compassion for those who now took on a familiar look.


One day, when he was headed home and went down to the subway. It was a Friday and there were lots of people headed home and headed into the city and he noticed that there was a man collapsed on the steps. People were stepping over him and around him and didn’t even seem to notice, but Dr. Goleman stopped and when he did, a small but kind and loving crowd stopped with him. He discovered that the man was Hispanic and didn’t speak English, that he was lost and alone and hadn’t eaten in days. He discovered that the man had actually fainted from hunger and as he learned these things, people began to move, one came back with orange juice, another had a hot dog, one had a clean shirt for the gentleman. All it took was for one person to see this man, to step forward and hold out a hand, and the humanity, the compassion, the empathy in everyone else was drawn out.


Amazing isn’t it?


But let’s look at another example. Two years ago the middle school football team of Olivet Michigan did something unusual. For weeks they planned an unusual play, well two plays if you listen to them talk about it. One member of their team was a young developmentally delayed boy with some boundary issues. He was always too quick to hug, too sensitive, too easily overwhelmed, but always loving, always had his heart on his sleeve. Now you might expect with the culture of middle school that he would be a target for teasing and ridicule. We’ve sort of come to expect that. He was one of the “least of these” but at that particular time the team decided to do something different. The quarterback took the ball, made the run, all the way to within a yard of touchdown…and then he took a knee, stopped, halted, planted that ball one yard from the finish line. The crowd was a little crazy over this! They must have wondered why he was throwing the game, or at least the touchdown, but the next move, the next move stunned everyone. The team gathered around the receiver, who was not the quarterback, but this developmentally challenged boy, and they surrounded him, and they escorted him in true mid-game, football fashion, right over the finish line.


But that’s not the end of the story. It might seem easy to focus on this boy and his parents and their shock and surprise at how this team cared for and loved on their most vulnerable member, but there’s more. In the telling of this story one of the young men was asked, “Was this your idea?”and he responded with genuine humility as he said “No sir. I was too self absorbed. I never would have thought of it. I didn’t even notice him.” And the tears began to trace their way down his face as he admitted this, an on-air, live confession. “But it changed you,” the reported said, and the boy smiled, “Yes, I never thought I could make such a difference to anyone.” His life was changed by the invitation to be a source of grace. Let that sink in, the invitation to BE a source of grace to another, is grace. We are blessed that we might be a blessing.

Olivet Michigan Eagles football team, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Ejh_hb15Fc


So I titled this sermon Ubuntu, because it is one of my favorite philosophies and it comes from Africa and it was popularized by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It speaks to what it means to be fully human and it is often summed up by the phrase, “I cannot be well if my brother, if my sister, is not well.” It points to our interconnected nature. That no matter how hard I might try to be an island and need no one, I am still connected to you, and you, and you. When I think of ubuntu I am reminded of a hermetic monk who resided at remote hermitage that Henri Nouwen visited. I am reminded of this nameless man because he ran up to Mr. Nouwen and said so very earnestly to him, “please, let them know we are out here, and that we are praying for them.” Even the hermit monk, who spends days and days in prayer, feels and responds to our interconnected nature.


In our scripture today the nameless rich man violates the spirit of ubuntu and goes about his daily life as if his actions and his being did not in fact impact others, others such as Lazarus sitting at his gate. You see, I believe that Lazarus was a blessing that this man needed very badly in his life, and he missed it. And our parable goes on to say that sometimes, sometimes these lost opportunities are just lost and we must mourn their loss and we can’t make it right. We have a tendency to go about our daily lives focused on the bright and beautiful, because that is where we are taught blessings come from, but that may not be where we will find the blessing we most desperately need.


If we are suffering, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other. The CEO of Energy Transfer, Kelcy Warren, lives in his 27,000 square foot mansion in Houston Texas, and like the unnamed rich man, he doesn’t seem to recognize the native people of North Dakota, even as they sit outside his pipeline project and beg for clean water. He has insulated himself from their demands, from their humanity, and he acts as if he is unaware that we all belong to one another, and when he acts as if he could possibly do well at the expense of others, he damages his own humanity.


This is what the philosophy of ubuntu recognizes. If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten, we belong to each other. We are all a part of the body of Christ and the hand cannot despise the foot, the head cannot despise the heart. If our country is in turmoil of late, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other. White folk and black folk-we belong to each other, police and the communities they serve-we belong to each other, those whose ground water and soil have been contaminated by chemicals and the manufacturers who spilled out those chemicals- we belong to each other, we will have no peace while we pretend we can do well or be well, at the expense of our brothers and sisters.


We have been blessed that we might be a blessing…and the astonishing thing about that is how very deeply we are blessed by the act of blessing others. Those who seek to do well at the expense of others, or even in defiance or ignorance of our interconnected nature, injure themselves. They deny themselves the incredible opportunity to bless others, and in so doing they diminish their own humanity.


For generations this parable has been seen as a warning. It has been read and reread to see if we can understand the afterlife and what hell might await us, but I am hopeful that we can read it as a signpost pointing us to a heaven on earth, that we might see how incredible and wonderful it might be if we loved each other as if we belonged to each other, because I believe this to be true.

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