Scripture: Luke 16:19-31
It was a busy day in heaven as folks waited in line at the pearly gates; the line was even longer than the line at the Apple store where people are waiting for the iPhone 7. Peter stood as gatekeeper, checking each person’s name in the Lamb’s Book of Life. But there was some confusion because the numbers weren’t adding up. Heaven was a little overcrowded, and a bunch of folks were unaccounted for. So some of the angels were sent to investigate. And it wasn’t long before two of them returned. “We found the problem,” they said. “Jesus is out back, lifting people up over the gate.”[i] Gates are meant to keep clear lines, drawing boundaries between who is in and who is out. Most often gates define property lines. As Robert Frost says in his poem “Mending Wall,” “Good fences make good neighbors.” But Frost wrestles with the irony of neighbors who desire to have clear boundaries on their neighborliness. He says, “On a day we meet to walk the line and set the wall between us once again.” He provokes us to think about what it means to be a neighbor while at the same time erecting walls, and prompts us to think about who is affected by our gate-keeping: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out.” We might take it a step further, asking that most important question that Christian disciples should ask: What Would Jesus (Have You) Do? Or maybe who would Jesus keep outside his gate?
In our text for today Jesus tells the story of a rich man who had a gate. His gate was probably an ornate, rod iron gate, made by the best ironworkers around. He dressed in purple and fine linen. The Romans had specific rules about who could wear purple and how much purple they could wear, so he clearly measured up to their standards of the very rich and well-respected. He had that gate built for the privacy and security of his own family and property. With clear boundaries in place, he could be isolated from the undesirables in the city – the poor, the homeless, the loiters, those involved in petty theft. He feasted sumptuously every single day on the best cuts of meat and the most exquisite dishes. His life was filled with the finest of things and the most important of people. On the other side of his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, whose name means “God helps.” And thankfully for him God helps because no one else was interested helping him! His body was covered with sores; his stomach ached to be filled with the scraps from the rich man’s table. But instead the dogs, who probably ate the scraps from the rich man’s table, licked his sores. These unclean animals drooling over his unclean body made him more unclean and more unfavorable in the eyes of religious people. Both men die – an ending that is certain for all of us. The rich man has a proper burial, but the poor man is carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.
When the rich man wakes up in Hades, the greatest of reversals has taken place. While he is being tormented, he looks up and sees Abraham far away with poor man Lazarus by his side. The bosom of Abraham is the highest seat of honor! You have to wonder if he recognizes Lazarus. Does it all finally click? Does he realize that this is the man who was thrown on the outside of his earthly gate? He must recognize him because he calls Lazarus by name as he cries out for Abraham to have mercy on him. He thinks he has been a faithful son as he calls upon Abraham as father, but he still sees Lazarus as someone who is beneath him, as other. He asks for Lazarus to be his servant; he is only interested in what Lazarus can do to relieve his suffering and agony. He longs for his own relief though, while on earth, he never understood Lazarus’s hunger.
Abraham calls back to him saying, “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.” The gates erected on earth have produced a chasm in the afterlife. The rich man’s fate is sealed. Clarence Jordan, known for translating parts of the New Testament in the idiom of the American Old South, retells Abraham’s response this way: “Lazarus ain’t gonna run no mo’ you’ errands, rich man.”
No matter how hard we want to get away from the finality of judgment of this text; it is staring us in the face! There are consequences to our actions, and when we keep erecting gates, sometimes we put so much distance between us that there is no coming back. As Richard Lischer says, “This parable teaches the poverty of abundance, for wealth establishes its own insulation from the poor and therefore contains the seeds of its own undoing. The rich man cannot buy his way out of hell.”[ii] Investing in earthly treasures can yield eternal poverty. The rich man didn’t commit some specific act of evil towards Lazarus, but his sin is one that we’ve called the sin of omission. He neglects the poor and needy. He chooses to ignore, to walk by, to keep shutting his gate. He chooses not to see and because he does not see, he cannot have compassion; he is not moved towards empathy. The rich man only sees those who are just like him. He has empathy for his brothers and is concerned that they not suffer the same awful fate. So, he again solicits Lazarus to be his servant, asking Abraham to send him to warn his brothers. He still only sees Lazarus as someone who can help to meet his needs.
This story about the rich man and Lazarus calls us to do more than share our wealth. It calls us to become attentive to the poor and suffering persons who are before us. We first have the challenge of seeing and then the challenge of making visible. The gates we erect make us blind. Just like the rich man, we often don’t intentionally hurt anyone but the way in which we live keeps us from seeing the poor and the vulnerable. Theologian Scott Bader-Saye points out the irony that we are more connected to global crises than ever before, but we seem to be less able to feel empathy. He says, “Our global network of communication allows us to be more aware of the world’s suffering than ever before, but we have become adept at ignoring the suffering that is right at our doorstep. Maybe these things are connected; the more we become voyeurs upon the faraway sufferings of others, the more impotent we feel to do anything about pain and injustice. Despair and cynicism tempt us to close our eyes to suffering and shut down our overloaded sympathies. Our capacities for global communication [have made us into] spectators who are invited to feel sorrow but are ‘not moved to offer help.’ Instead, with one click we navigate to a new site or a new channel.”[iii]
This voyeuristic way of looking upon suffering erects gates in our hearts that are not easily torn down. We sit back and decide from the safety of our computer screens who is really suffering and who is not. This past week we all sat back and read about Terence Crutcher who was killed in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Keith Lamont Scott who was killed in Charlotte. We’ve argued at dinner tables and on Facebook walls about which parts of the story are true, who we believe, and declared our judgments on people’s actions. Was he reaching for a gun or were his hands up? Did he have a gun or was he holding a book? I think our text for today calls for a different set of questions that we might consider answering as the violence creeps closer and closer to us, as the chasm threatens to be fixed. What gates have we erected in our society that are blinding us? Who is dressed in purple and fine linen and feasting sumptuously every day? And who is poor, covered in sores, and hungry for justice? What chasms have we fixed in this life? Are we going to continue to criminalize the poor or will we decide it’s time to tear down the gates? And perhaps, the most pressing question of all is are we going to see the suffering in our world? If we keep erecting gates, we will continue to be blind. And if we can’t see, we surely can’t figure out how to be faithful. So instead of sitting behind our screens with our mistrust, judgment and so-called righteous indignation, will we choose to see those who are suffering? Will we go to the ones who have received evil things? One of the pictures that has gone viral this past week was a picture that a protestor took of a black Charlotte-Mecklenberg police officer in riot gear with tears streaming down his face. I imagine he was weeping because we keep building gates and keep creating chasms. I imagine he was weeping because he feels caught in the tragedy of the consequences we have created for ourselves by upholding systems that prey upon the poor and perpetuate racism.
If there’s one thing that’s clear about this parable, it is this: God sides with the poor. God doesn’t side with the poor because they are good or because they’ve done everything right. As Richard Lischer says, “God does not love the poor because they are good but because they are low. Lazarus gains favor in the eyes of God by means of his poverty. His poverty is not a virtue but a condition that violates something in God or in God’s creation.”[iv] What Would Jesus (Have You) Do? Side with the poor who are covered with sores and who long to satisfy their hunger. The fact that this word is directed towards the Pharisees, the lovers of money, challenges us to examine what we love. Do we love purple and fine linens or do we love who Jesus loves?
We are not the rich man in this parable or poor man Lazarus. We are the rich man’s five brothers who still have a decision to make. As C.S. Lewis has said, “The doors of hell are locked on the inside.” The decision is up to us. A great chasm has not been fixed yet, so the biggest question we have to answer is will we listen? Will we listen to Moses and the prophets? Or will we listen to Jesus who has actually risen from the dead? A great German preacher and theologian, said, “So there will be no one appearing from the dead, no voice from heaven will sound, nor will there by any miracle in the clouds. None of this will come to you – you who are one of the rich man’s five brothers. We have only the Word, the Word made flesh and crucified, that namelessly quiet Word which came to us in one who was as poor and despised as his brother Lazarus. For he really wanted to be his brother.”[v] Can we see the face of Christ in those who are suffering in our midst? Jesus is indeed always out back lifting people over our gates! Or better yet tearing down our gates! Will we choose to really see the suffering enough to let our hearts break? Before a chasm is fixed among us, please God, Father of Abraham, help us to tear down our gates!
[i] As told by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw in Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals, 290.
[ii] Richard Lischer, Reading the Parables.
[iii] Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4.
[iv] Richard Lischer, Reading the Parables.
[v] Helmut Theilicke quoted in Justo Gozalez, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible.