Did you hear the alarm go off? This is a wake-up call. Will you do something about it before it’s too late?
In today’s gospel, Jesus tells a parable about the afterlife, about a poor man and a rich man who die, one taken to be with Abraham and one who goes to Hades. It’s tempting to use this as an excuse to speculate about heaven and hell - but if we do, we will miss both the point and the urgency of the parable.
Sometimes I tell a story I heard once about the census in heaven. One day the auditors arrived in heaven to do a census. They were greeted by St. Peter at the pearly gates of heaven and were invited in to count the number of people there. It took them a long time, but eventually they had an accurate count. They came back to the pearly gate, and said “St. Peter, we have a problem. Your books have a record of how many people have entered heaven, but when we counted, we found that there are many, many more people than what your records show.
And St. Peter replied, “I know, I know, but look, it’s not my fault. Jesus keeps letting people in through the back door.”
When I tell that story, the point is not to teach people about heaven. I don’t really believe that St. Peter stands at the gate of heaven with a book in his hand recording the names. No, I tell that story when I want to give people an image of the grace of God that is revealed to us in Jesus. I tell that story to people who for whatever reason are having a hard time believing that God loves them.
Jesus is not trying to teach us about the afterlife in this parable. He’s trying to teach us about this life that we’re living right now. Think of this parable as being something like the health warning written on a pack of cigarettes.
Warning: Wealth is a grave risk to your spiritual health. May result in a chasm.
Who do you identify with in the parable? Do you identify with the rich man, the one who wears purple and feasts sumptuously every day? Well, most of us aren’t that rich! Do you identify with the poor man, Lazarus, who is covered with sores and lies at the gate? Fortunately most of us aren’t that poor. And besides both Lazarus and the rich man are dead. In the world of the parable, for them, it’s too late.
But not for the siblings, the rich man’s five brothers. “Father Abraham I beg you, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may warn them so that they may not come to this place of torment.” The siblings are still very much alive, and they need to be warned, urgently. We are the siblings. We are being warned. What will we do about it?
The problem for the rich man in Hades is that there is a great chasm between him and Lazarus. The rich man calls to Abraham to send Lazarus to dip his finger in water and cool his tongue, for the rich man is in agony. But Abraham responds that it’s just not possible, because between you and us a great chasm has been fixed which no one can cross.
Where did this chasm come from? Is it a feature of heaven, something put there by God to separate heaven and hell?
No. This great chasm is something that we make ourselves. There is a great chasm between rich and poor in our world. It’s a division of our own making, a chasm that gets deeper with each act of separation, with each act of negligence, with each act of violence, with each act of indifference.
As the story begins, the rich man and Lazarus are separated by a gate. I’m willing to bet that the gate was put there by the rich man, in order to keep poor people like Lazarus off his property. Maybe that was the beginning of the chasm which separates the rich man and Lazarus. Every morning, as the rich man leaves his home by the gate he has to step around Lazarus, and every evening when the rich man returns, the chasm gets a little deeper.
Perhaps, once upon a time, the rich man acknowledged Lazarus, he does seem to know his name. Perhaps he allowed his servants to give Lazarus some of the food leftovers. He hasn’t driven Lazarus away. But neither does he show him any respect or offer hospitality, or speak to him, or even make eye contact. By the time he’s in Hades, we see what the rich man thinks of Lazarus. “Father Abraham, send Lazarus to dip his finger in water and cool my tongue.” Even in death, the rich man talks right past Lazarus as if he doesn’t exist. As if he doesn’t matter. He regards him at best as a servant who can be sent to do this or that. The rich man has no regard for Lazarus, no compassion, no relationship with a man that he has walked past every day of his life. That is a great chasm.
If he’d thought about it, which he probably never did, the rich man during his lifetime might have acknowledged the chasm. He might have thought it was a good thing. Security and all that. He certainly would have thought that he was on the right side. But now in death it is revealed that the rich man is actually on the wrong side of the chasm and now, finally, too late, he knows it. And so he cries out, “I beg you, send him to my father’s house, for I have five siblings, that he may warn them so that they also will not come into this place of torment.”
We are the siblings. And so we have been warned, warned not to be on the wrong side of the chasm. Do we see the great chasms in our world? Think of the division that exists between rich and poor. We choose to live in different neighbourhoods. We go to different schools. We work in different places. We live in different countries. We create borders and we build fences to keep the poor on one side and the rich on the other. And when we can’t physically separate ourselves, we separate ourselves psychologically, by means of indifference and lack of concern, by means of fear and prejudice. And every time we look away, the chasm gets a little deeper and a little harder to cross.
That’s a problem for us. We have been warned. We have the scriptures which remind us over and over again that God is on the side of the poor, the oppressed, the widow and the orphan. We have Jesus, the one who rose from the dead, who showed us how we are to reach out to those who are marginalized, who taught us that when we have a dinner party we are to invite the poor and the lame. We have been warned. God is with the poor. Are we? Or are we separated by a great chasm of our own making?
In Paul’s letter to Timothy, he warns that being rich is a danger to our spiritual health. It’s not that riches are bad in and of themselves. But wealth opens us up to temptation, and two temptations in particular. The first temptation, to use Paul’s word, is to be haughty, to think that you’re better than other people. And the second temptation is to trust in your wealth, to set your hope on wealth rather than trusting and hoping in God. The rich man in Jesus’ parable has fallen to both of these temptations. And as a result, he ends up on the wrong side of a great chasm.
Often I hear people lamenting about increasing division and polarization in our world. There are indeed great chasms, between rich and poor, between us and the other, between people of different races and religions and sexual orientations and political views. These are chasms of our own making, chasms that get deeper with each act of indifference.
We’ve been warned. So what are we to do?
We are called to be people who cross the chasm. Instead of thinking we’re better than people that are separated from us, we go to the other side. Instead of trusting in our wealth, we become generous with whatever wealth we have. When we find ourselves divided from others, we go to them, respecting the God-given dignity of every person. We stand with the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized. We knock down barriers, and if there is a fence, we find a way to cross over. For Jesus that meant welcoming tax-collectors and sinners, and eating with them. He’s inviting us to do the same.
The work of chasm crossing can be summarized by the two great commandments. Love God, which means that we work for God’s justice and we stand with all of God’s children. Love your neighbour, which means all our neighbours, the rich, the poor, the one who is lying at the gate. Because this sort of chasm crossing love is what makes us truly human, the people we were created to be. This is how we live out our shared identity as children of God. Be a chasm crosser. Don’t let wealth, or anything else, get in the way.
Homily. Yr C Proper 26. Sept 29 2019 St. Albans Church
Readings: Jeremiah 32.1-3a, 6-15; Ps 91; 1 Tim 6.6-19; Luke 16.19-31
Image by chrisowenrichards, Creative Commons