September 29, 2019
Luke 16: 19-31
I think we will all agree that the rich man does not end up very well in today’s gospel parable. He finds himself in torment, separated from Abraham, Lazarus, and his own happiness by a great chasm that no one is able to cross. But the important question for us is, “How did the rich man get there? What did he do or not do that resulted in his dismal fate?”
A casual reading of this parable might lead us to conclude that the fault of the rich man was that he did not share his wealth and his food with the poor man Lazarus. Although this is true, the parable has actually much more subtle point. When we read the parable closely, we cannot fail to notice that the rich man and Lazarus never meet. They never speak to one another. We know that Lazarus would gladly have eaten his fill from the scraps from the rich man’s table. But Lazarus never asks the rich man for any scraps, nor does the rich man refuse to give them to him. You see, the flaw of the rich man was not selfishness but ignorance. He did not refuse to help Lazarus. He did not even notice that Lazarus was there. “How is this possible,” you say, “if we know that Lazarus was lying at the man’s door?” The Greek word “door” can also be translated as “gate.” In this way we see that it was a gate in a wall that the rich man had built around his property to keep it separate from the rest of the city, to keep out all that was dirty, disgusting, and dangerous. This parable tells us that the rich man’s gate worked. It kept his comfortable life safe from everything that was disagreeable. Among those things, was the poor man Lazarus.
What this gospel parable is telling us is that we will never be able to understand Christ’s will for us or understand our responsibility to others unless we meet them. As long as we set up gates to keep others out, we are placing ourselves in danger, in danger of failing our responsibility to Christ.
Now how often, when we come here on the weekend, do we hear about the poor? It is hard not to hear about the poor because Jesus is always ministering to them in the gospels. But this parable asks us, “Have we ever met a poor person? Have we ever had a conversation with someone who is indigent?” Poor people are not hard to find. The Plain Dealer this week reported that one-third of the population of the City of Cleveland and one-half of its children are living below the poverty line. Cleveland is close. It is right at our gate.
Lazarus, of course, does not just stand for poverty. He stands for any segment of society that is marginalized, any group of people that we set up a gate to keep out. There is much discussion, as you well know, in our country today about immigration and who should be the people who are allowed to become a part of our country. This parable asks us, “Have we ever met a migrant? Have we ever talked to an immigrant?” How can we take a responsible political or moral stance about immigration without first hearing the story of immigrants—why they left their home and what they plan to contribute to ours?
In the media recently there has been a good deal of discussion about slavery and the way that this scourge in American history still impacts race relationships in our country. This parable asks us, “Have we ever had a significant conversation with an Afro-American? Have we ever socialized with a black person?” And, if not, how do we expect to follow the command of Christ to see those of different races as our brothers and sisters?
The parable in today’s gospel actually includes two chasms: the chasm of the netherworld that no one can cross and the chasm in this world by which we separate ourselves from those who are different and those who make us uncomfortable. The gospel asks us to cross that chasm today. Then, when the day comes that we face the chasm we cannot cross, we will find ourselves not with the rich man but with Abraham.