A Great Chasm

Luke 16:19-31 NRSV


19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He 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.’ 25But 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. 26Besides 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.’ 27He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’31He 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.’”

There are some that want to spiritualize this text.  They want to say that Lazarus was saved and the rich man was not a follower.  It fits with some theologies that those who have been blessed with riches are so blessed because those riches come from God.  It doesn’t fit that those who seem to be blessed in this life might be cursed in the next. 

But in the waters of my own baptism and the countless baptisms I’ve been witness to, its never been promised that life as a Christian would be easy.  The false gospel that calls upon Jesus to enlarge your territory and have great personal gain is a seductive lure.  But that inward focus and self-obsession is what got us to this parable to begin with. 

This parable is not about a realistic view of the afterlife.  It’s not a picture into the weather of a hell enflamed by fire or a tropical oasis in heaven.  It’s also not a story telling us that everyone who has money is doomed to an after-life in agony. But this story is about money.  And it’s about a lot more than that too.  It’s not about feeling guilty that you have too much money in your bank account.  It’s about having money in your bank account because you purposely manipulated the financial tables at the expense of those who are already the “least of these”.  It’s about squandering what God has entrusted to us and not recognizing that the Lazerus’ of the world are a part of that trust.  It is a message sent to the rich man’s brothers begging us to see.  To really see Lazarus.

Jesus’ last words are a poke in the eye from 2000 years ago.  As if to say, I have risen from the dead and still you do not see.  We fail to see every day.  We confess of those things that we have done, but also the things that we have left undone. It’s easier to live a sterile existence in which we don’t think about the ripple effects of our habits.  But just because we don’t see them doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.  That great deal that we are getting on a sweater may seem really awesome.  But it seems less awesome when we hear news stories of garment factories collapsing because of decrepit conditions.  And that diamond necklace you had your eye on?  Yes it’s beautiful unless it came from a war torn country.  Slave labor found this gem and our money financed the invading army that enslaved those workers.  And it might be good to think twice before your next cup of coffee.  In over 13 countries children or forced labor harvested those beans.

Being awake to God’s grace and forgiveness means being aware of our connectedness to each other and all of God’s creation.  We don’t get to choose who God’s children are.  God does, and they all have a place at the table. 

While I was at a text study this week one pastor asked the question, “What if the rich man were to have invited Lazarus into the house to sit at his table.”  A good question.  But one that may not go far enough.  What if the rich man were to have used his vast wealth to create an environment where Lazarus had the opportunity to build his own table?  

That is a big culture question.  It makes us take a step back and look at the financial philosophies that have created this vast chasm.  Today, profit at any expense seems to be the norm.  We see this played out on a national and global scale.  And I do believe that the Pope may have been dwelling in these culture questions as he was dwelling in this parable a few days ago.

After hearing stories from the jobless on the Italian island of Sardinia, the Pope threw away his prepared text and denounced galloping globalization that impoverishes the masses of people worldwide. “We want a just system, a system that lets all of us get ahead.  We don’t want this globalized economic system that does us so much harm. At its center there should be man and woman, as God wants, and not money.”

He told the crowd in the port city of Cagliari that the present worldwide economic crisis is the “consequence of a global choice, of an economic system that led to this tragedy, an economic system centered on an idol, which is called money. He said, the global economic crunch led to an increase in “inhumane work, slave labor, and work without fitting security or without respect for creation.” That’s “creation” as in the creation of human beings in God’s image.

These are pointed words that speak truth.  But here is the challenge.  When we begin to think about these big culture changing issues it’s easy for us to start thinking of ourselves as Lazarus.  In the face of a global economic conversation, little old us, gets lost.  It’s easy to feel like David against the Goliath of corporate superpowers.  The individual can be easily swatted down like we are pesky mosquitoes. 

But the beautiful thing about being a member of the body of Christ is that we are not an individual.  Guided by this life giving word we can raise our voices together so that we can be heard.  And good things are happening.  Fairly traded goods are making a huge difference in people’s lives all over the world.  People are starting their own businesses through micro lending.  They are getting paid a fair wage for the products that they produce.  For many, this means that their children don’t have to go to work too soon.  They can stay in school and continue to improve their lot.

In our neck of the woods the winds of change may be moving.  Last month saw the first time that low wage fast food workers band together to ask for a living wage.  This is a movement that just may begin to find some footing as we all wake to the great chasm between the haves and the have not’s in this country.

We have more power than we think.  When we think about the ripple effects of our own actions and habits we become aware.  We do this not because this is a matter of future salvation.  This is a matter of salvation today.

That we are Christian should be good news for all we encounter.  We too are in the life-giving business. I firmly believe that when Jesus spoke to his disciples at the last supper and said, “do this” that he was speaking about more than gathering together and drinking wine and remembering the good ole times. 

The “this” that he speaks of is the witness of his entire life.  A life that was spent breaking down the barriers between who was inside and who was out; a life that was dedicated to overturning the tables in temples and the obstacles in people’s lives; a life that was spent making it known that everyone has worth and that God’s love is for all.  Nobody said that this would be easy.  But it is worth it.

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