Scripture: Luke 16:19–31
Once upon a time, there were once six brothers, who will remain nameless for the point of our story. They were not the richest brothers on the planet, but they sure had enough money to live comfortably. All six brothers made sure that they had the “right” clothes, ate at the “right” restaurants, drove the “right” cars, and lived in the “right” neighborhoods. They never were quite ostentatious with their money, but always found subtle ways to remind people that they had it.
All six continued to live in the community in which they had been born. A few of them lived in the same neighborhood where they had been raised as children. Again, they didn’t live in the nicest houses on the block. But they paid lawn services to keep their yards the greenest around. They proudly displayed their security system signs to ward off would-be thieves and remind everyone else that they had things worth stealing. And they spent plenty of money on landscaping and decks and backyard oases so that the backyard parties that they hosted would impress all who showed up.
Everything seemed fine and dandy until one day, when one of the six brothers received a knock on his door. It was a worker from the city government, assigned to visit all of the homes in their boyhood neighborhood with some news: a developer had bought the property adjoining the neighborhood and had plans to build several units of affordable housing. The city commission, fearing blowback from neighbors, assigned this intern to knock on all of the doors and hand out information sheets with a phone number to call. The brother smiled graciously and took the information. Within the hour, he had made six phone calls: one to each of his brothers and the final call to the city number on the bottom of the sheet. How dare the city shift the demographics of their neighborhood?! How dare they lower the property values of their homes?! How dare they consider allowing “those people” into the streets that they would have to drive every day?! The city number rang off the hook that day and into the next week, including separate calls from all six brothers.
Within a month, the city had called a special meeting for the purpose of listening to the concerns of the neighbors. The room was packed and overflowing that night, as neighbor after neighbor told stories of how much work they had put into their homes for over a generation. They shook fists at city leaders for their insensitivity. Some of them gave some version of what they thought was a generous response: “we know that there is a need for affordable housing, but can’t it be somewhere else?”
But the city leaders were insistent. The need was great. The options were few. The neighbors were getting desperate as they began to see that they had no recourse. Finally, one of the six brothers came up with a solution: “what if we build a wall? There is already a bit of a drainage ditch that runs along the border between neighborhoods. What if we widened that ditch, and alongside of it built a wall? The wall could extend around this new affordable housing, allowing an entrance on the opposite side, but eliminating vehicle and foot traffic through our neighborhood? Anyway, wouldn’t those people love the neighborhood all to themselves?” The rest of the neighbors at the meeting, seeing this as they only shot, jumped at the idea. The city leaders said that they would take the idea under advisement, and release a plan soon. The next week, there came another knock at that same brother’s door. It was that same city intern, this time with a new city information sheet with a new plan. He was sent to ask all of the neighbors for their permission to build a wall around the new development; if any neighbor opposed the idea, it would not go through. The brother smiled, gave his wholehearted approval, and went inside to make six phone calls: one to each of his five brothers and one to the city to thank them for their wisdom. Within a week, every neighbor had approved the plan.
This same brother smiled every time he saw the construction on the wall and drainage ditch over the next months. It meant that he had to drive the long way around to his favorite coffee shop, but it was worth it for the peace of mind that it would give him. Eventually, the housing was built, the wall and ditch were completed, and the brother made his way to meet some friends at the coffee shop. As he sat by the window, he watched the quality of cars that pulled in and out of the new neighborhood. Many were sensible, if not older models, but some were in pretty rough shape. The brother smiled to himself that he did not have to see them drive through his neighborhood. Occasionally, he would see people walking by the shop, or even sitting nearby, near the gate of the community.
One face began to look familiar to him. A Latino man would often sit near the entrance of the neighborhood, and hold a sign: “Injured in an accident. Anything helps. God bless.” The brother began to recognize him because of his horrible disfigurement. His face seemed to have burns and open sores, and even on the hottest days of the year he would wear long sleeves and pants; the brother guessed it was to hide the skin of his arms and legs. The only creature who would come close was an old and mangy dog. The brother felt his stomach turn every time he saw the pair of them. He wasn’t sure if the man owned a house in the neighborhood, or was couch surfing with someone there, or perhaps even slept outside within the walls. He asked his friends if they had seen the man. Some had not noticed, though he had been there for months. Others had noticed and felt equally disgusted. One actually piped up that he had felt sorry enough for him that he had hired him to do some work one day. The man did the work well, but he never asked again: let someone else offer the charity next time…he had done his part. That day, he happened to ask the man his name. It was Lazero.
Unbeknownst to either of them, this brother and Lazero became ill at the same time. Both had a rare form of cancer with no known treatment. The brother, with excellent health insurance, found out through a routine screening. He immediately began expensive and complicated treatment, but it did not work. He died in the hospital, with his family and friends around him. The funeral was one of the biggest that the preacher remembered at his church.
Months earlier, Lazero had begun to suffer with the same symptoms, but had no health insurance and no medical care. He was never diagnosed, and never treated. Months before the brother died, Lazero passed out and slumped over at his spot by the coffee shop. No one paid any attention except for the mangy dog, who sat by his side until the next morning, when the coffee shop employees noticed. He had died in the middle of the night, alone and afraid.
Both the brother and Lazero were ushered to the Land of the Dead. The brother found himself in immediate torment. The god that he had worshipped when he was alive, the god of prestige and position and possession, had no power in this place. He thought that he would be given a position greater than that which he had on earth, in a neighborhood paved with streets of gold and a mansion built just for him. But instead he shuffled among those like him, rewarded on earth, in a place that looked like row upon row of colorless, drab government housing, leaving him in a constant state of emptiness and shame. Black, ugly concrete melted in the unbearable heat that surrounded him. Meanwhile, when he had the strength to look up, he could see in the distance a beautiful land filled with flowers and trees and amazing mansions. But between he and those mansions, he saw a chasm: a vast expanse filled with rocks and snarled trees, and beside it, a wall. Towering above him, separating him from the beauty and peace he saw beyond.
One, he chanced to look up and see a face he knew: it was Lazero! The man still had his scars, but in that place they seemed to be ignored or even rewarded as symbols of survival of a world that had not cared for him, had not protected him, had not loved him. Here, he was loved, and the angels carried him from place to place as his servants. The brother, flashing back to the memory of his friend who had hired Lazero for a day, had an idea. He called out to Abraham, who protected Lazero and guarded the wall to keep the two sides apart. “Abraham, send Lazero to me! Let him come to me, and bring just a drop of water to refresh me in my agony.” Abraham, incredulous of the brother’s arrogance, attempting to order Lazero around even in death, rolled his eyes and brushed him aside: “you received your comfort in life. He receives his in death.” Even though it looked as though Lazero would have done it, out of the kindness and grace of his heart, the chasm was too wide and the wall was too ominous. The brother remained in agony for an eternity.
The funeral was over and the five brothers grieved the loss of their sixth brother, and put his house on the market. When they gathered in his home to go through his things, they were impressed by the number of possessions that he owned. Such a beautiful home, with all the bells and whistles. One noticed how the fridge still held bottles and bottles and bottles of expensive, sparkling spring water. Only the best. The house was snatched up in a hurry, and the five brothers went back to their lives. Each took a bottle of water with them, not only to quench their thirst, but to remember their brother who had the right priorities, who valued the good things in this life.
The next Sunday, they all agreed that they would go to church together at their brother’s congregation. It was another way to say goodbye. Little did they know that at that moment, in the Land of the Dead, their brother was agonizing over their eternity. He even tried again to send Lazero as a holy messenger to warn them. But again, Abraham rolled his eyes and left the brother in agony. Unwarned, the brothers listened to the sermon from Luke 16. Or maybe “listened” was a generous term. As the preacher droned on about the “law of love,” and the “prophet’s call for justice,” most of them checked their phones and their fantasy baseball rankings before the game started in a couple of hours. They were there to see friends, and be seen as loyal and supportive brothers. As the preacher delivered the final line—“they will not be convinced, even if someone rises from the dead!”—they checked the time and wondered when it would all be over.
Except for one. One brother found himself that afternoon sitting alone, at his kitchen table, staring at his bottle of water. He had in mind to pour a glass and drink it in his brother’s memory, while he watched the game. But next to that bottle on the table was the morning’s paper. On the front page was a report on the heat wave that had gripped the city. Several older residents had been hospitalized due to the heat and the fact that they could not pay their air conditioning bills. One homeless man had died in the heat the day before. As the brother looked at that cold bottle of water, he wondered what had happened to his priorities. He and his brothers had “oohed and ahhed” over their dead brother’s possessions, but what good were they to him now? What legacy had he left, besides an awesome man cave and a green yard? The words of the preacher and the law of love haunted him, as he remembered that last line, “even if someone rises from the dead.” What would his brother tell him now, if he had the chance?
Before he knew what he was doing, he had grabbed that bottle of water and walked out the door. As the first pitch was thrown at the game, he was walking through the neighborhood, looking for someone who could use a bit of refreshment. As he passed house after house, all he heard was the whir of air conditioners. Finally, he happened upon a group of kids bouncing a basketball. They were walking dangerously close to a busy road. He remembered a story from the year before, in which a young teenager was killed on this very road…a distracted driver had swerved over and hit the child. He stopped the kids and asked them, a little more accusatory than he had meant, “why are you all walking by this road? Don’t you know it’s dangerous?” All of the kids froze in their tracks, clearly afraid that they were in trouble. Only one had the courage to answer, “we were going to the school, sir, to play some basketball.” The brother was incredulous. “But why would walk this way? Next to this busy road?” Again, shifting and nervously looking at the ground. Until the youngest boy piped up, “there’s this wall, and we can’t get over it and have to go around.”
Of course. The same wall that he had fought for, and petitioned the city for. His brother’s wall. Those kids went to the school in his neighborhood, the same one he had gone to growing up, and every one of them had to walk the long way around every day to get to school, and in this Sunday afternoon heat, just to play a little basketball. The man didn’t know what to say. He felt a little stupid holding a bottle of water, like it was going to make all the difference. But he gave it to them anyway, told them to share it, and asked them to please be careful. The next morning, 8 am on Monday, he was standing at the front doors of City Hall to petition that a gate be built in the wall, and a bridge over the drainage ditch, so that kids could make it safely to school. He wasn’t the first to petition, and parents had been begging for a year for the same thing. But now someone cared who could make a difference. He called his friends on the city commission. He talked to his brothers, who all said that he was crazy. He himself went door to door, asking the neighbors to approve the building of the bridge. And he went door to door in the walled in neighborhood, introducing himself as someone who had messed up a lot in his life, but wanted to help. He listened to the needs of the neighbors, his neighbors, and learned how dangerous that wall had been. Not only had it kept kids and parents from the school and parks, and made it hard for people without cars to get to work, but it had been a symbol of shameful separation. They internalized the message that they were somehow less than…something to be feared. He learned more about the man named Lazero. “San Lazero,” they called him…”Saint Lazero.” Disfigured and unable to get a job, who had sat on the corner, asking rich passers-by for money. He learned that he had never kept a cent of the money he collected. Every penny went to the families and children of the neighborhood.
Before long, the man didn’t care about the gate anymore…he had bigger plans in mind. He was back on the front stoop of City Hall the next day with a new plan: the wall must come down, and in its place a park. The drainage ditch would be cleaned out and landscaped and more bridges built across. His old neighbors threw a fit of course, but the brother didn’t care. He persisted. He gave his money for the project. He knocked on more and more doors, hand in hand with his new neighbors. He argued for more affordable housing for the city, and insisted that it be built close enough for kids to walk to school.
A year later, on the hottest day of the summer, the city held a dedication for the new park. The wall was gone, the bridges were built, and the trees were planted. It was named the San Lazero Garcia Memorial Park, in memory of the man who sat by the gate because he had to. And on a table in the middle sat a hundred bottles of his brother’s favorite sparkling spring water, giving it away to all who were there. He knew this was only the beginning. But he also knew that today, his friends would find their thirst quenched by one who had finally learned the law of love.
And somewhere, beyond the grave, Father Abraham smiled.