Pentecost 18: Crossing the chasm

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 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.' 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. 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.' He said, 'Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house — for I have five brothers — that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' He said, 'No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' 3He 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.'" (Luke 16:19-31)
Before I get going, I really need to apologize to the stewardship committee. You are all working so hard to bring this congregation an engaging and well-rounded stewardship and capital campaign, and are devoting faith, time, and energy to helping all of us become better stewards of all of God’s gifts. You are crafting a campaign encouraging people to give out of faith, not out of fear. And yet today, we get a gospel text where a rich guy ends up in hell for not being a good steward. Not quite the message you were hoping to send, right? So I apologize to you on behalf of Luke and on behalf of the lectionary compilers for throwing such a harsh message about wealth into the midst of such a great stewardship campaign.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way…

We have another parable today. Another challenging parable. While Jesus sometimes tells parables that are well-crafted, subtle stories, he also tells plenty of parables that pretty much smack you over the head with his message. Today is one of these parables.

The story begins with a chasm – a wide separation between a man of extreme wealth and a man of extreme poverty.

There is a rich man, Jesus tells us – a man dressed in purple and linen. Jesus includes these details about the rich man’s clothes to show his listeners just how rich this man really was. These fabrics were expensive, and worn primarily by royalty and priests. Jesus’ listeners would have understood that not only did this man have an excess of wealth, but he also had some delusions of grandeur, dressing himself as if he were of royal blood or holy.

In an extreme contrast, then, Jesus tells us about the poor man, Lazarus, who was lying at the rich man’s gate. Jesus tells us that Lazarus was not just poor, not just poorer than poor, but that he was poor and hungry and sick. When we hear that he would have been happy with table scraps and that he had to shoo away dogs who lingered about his failing body, we, like Jesus’ original listeners, know that Lazarus is a desperate case.

And so the lines are drawn.

In one corner we have a rich man and in the other we have a poor man. There is a chasm between them; a wide gulf between extreme wealth and extreme need, a deep ravine between extreme luxury and extreme desperation. Lazarus cannot cross this chasm, and the rich man does not cross it.

Both men die, and on the other side of death, their fortunes have been reversed. The poor man is carried up and away by angels and the rich man is cast down into torment. The chasm that existed in life now exists in death, upside-down and permanent. Where once Lazarus reached out and received nothing from the rich man, now the rich man reaches out, but despite his pleading, there is no comfort for him. We need to take ourselves out of our modern, Lutheran worldview for a moment, where it is disturbing to hear about people getting their eternal “just desserts.” We need to understand that Jesus uses this depiction of heaven and hell not to give us any particular clues about the afterlife, but rather to reinforce the enormous spiritual and moral bankruptcy of the rich man in his attitude toward Lazarus’s desperation.

Jesus tells this parable to drive home a point that is repeated over and over again in Luke’s gospel: God’s heart is with the poor, the suffering, the sick, and the oppressed. God is in the business of seeking the lost and of reversing fortunes. God is in the business of rewarding the unworthy and loving the despised.

This, of course, is good news for us when we are talking about God’s free grace and gift of salvation through Christ and the cross. But it is unsettling news when we are talking about the very real chasm, in Jesus’ time and in our own time, between the rich and the poor – the haves and the have-nots.

There’s a website called the Global Rich List, where you can enter your income into a little box and the site will tell you how wealthy you are relative to the rest of the world. Turns out that if you make $30,000 a year, you are in the top 8% of wealth, worldwide. And if you make $60,000, you launch yourself into the top 1% worldwide. Anybody cringing out there? I know that I am…

Things like the Global Rich List make today’s gospel particularly uncomfortable. For many of us, the Global Rich List gives us no choice but to identify with the rich man and not with Lazarus. And a list like this certainly sharpens the picture of that great chasm that Jesus talks about. Compared to the rest of the world, most of us are unfathomably rich.

Our comparative wealth automatically puts us on the wrong side of the chasm – we stand here with the rich man from today’s gospel, the rich young ruler who grieves Jesus’ message to sell everything and give the money to the poor, the crowds who slink away when Jesus tells them that discipleship means being willing to give up everything, and the Pharisees who throw a dinner party and only invite their rich buddies.

Sometimes God’s good news is news that soothes us and gives us hope. But other times, God’s good news is news that shakes us up and unsettles us. So if you are feeling unsettled, take heart. If you are squirming right now, take heart. If you find today’s hard gospel even harder to hear now that you know which side of the chasm you’re on, take heart. Jesus told this parable not to condemn his listeners, but to convict them.

Today’s gospel is good news, because it reminds us that God is behind all of our blessings, and not we ourselves. All of our blessings – our health, our money, our families, our talents – are nothing other than gifts of God. With our gifts, we receive the gift of sight to look out for the people at our gates who the world considers invisible. With our gifts, we receive the gift of compassion to care for the people across the world who are suffering, even when the world doesn’t hear their cries. With our gifts, we receive the gift of humility to put others’ needs ahead of our own in a world that preaches self-reliance and self-interest.

Today’s gospel is good news, because it reminds us that Jesus gives us a second (and third, and fourth…) chance to reach across the very chasm that stood between the rich man in his purple robes and the poor man at his gate.

Today’s gospel is good news, because it rekindles in us the fire of the Holy Spirit, who binds us together with all of God’s children in one family that stretches beyond borders and boundaries, across the ages. And as part of God’s family, we share what we have with one another because of what we share in Christ.

If we can challenge ourselves to hear today’s gospel as good news, then we can scroll down the page a bit on the Global Rich List website and learn about how we can make a difference with our wealth instead of either taking it for granted or feeling guilty about it. We can learn that while $8 could buy you 15 organic apples…it could ALSO buy 25 fruit trees for farmers in Honduras to grow and sell fruit at their local market. We can learn that $30 could buy you a season of your favorite TV show on DVD OR a First Aid kit for a village in Haiti, and that $73 could buy you a new mobile phone OR a new mobile health clinic to care for AIDS orphans in Uganda, and that $2400 could buy you a second generation High Definition TV OR schooling for an entire generation of school children in an Angolan village.

Bit by bit, with each choice that we make, we take another step across the chasm.

The truth is, I think that I may need to retract my apology to the stewardship committee. Because when we look harder at this parable, beyond its surface details, we find that it really isn’t a tacky, fear-mongering story about a rich guy going to hell. It is actually a good-news story that shoves us off-balance just enough to consider how each and every one of us might go forward in faith to be better stewards of God’s blessings. I’m ready to start crossing the chasm. Are you?

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