Wednesday, October 2, 2019

A Great Chasm

Proper 21C - October 2, 2019

Last week in staff meeting, a colleague wondered allowed what sort of chasm it must be in Luke 16:19-31 for Abraham to be able to converse across it from heaven with the rich man in Hades yet for no one to be able to cross it. What kind of divide, what kind of separation is close enough for people to speak across yet so deep, so wide that no one could reach from one side to the other?

On Sunday, Fr. Chuck noted that this parable isn't about the afterlife, and he's right. This isn't a story about heaven and hell. It's a story that uses heaven and hell to teach us something about this life. Death, after all, is the greatest attention-getter. And Jesus knows that it has a way of clarifying our perspective in this life. And so he asks us to imagine a scenario in which two men are separated by an uncrossable chasm, and he uses death to help us see it. But where did that chasm come from?

Every day during his life, the rich man, who dressed in purple and fine linen, feasted sumptuously at his own table. It must be exhausting to eat rich, luxurious, fatty foods every single day, never able to see beyond the next plate of decedent delights. At the same time, there was a man named Lazarus, so poor and hungry that he dreamt of eating even the crumbs that fell from the rich man's table. He lay by the rich man's gate, waiting and hoping. So lowly and desperate was he that when those dogs who ate the rich man's scraps came by and licked his sores, it was a source of comfort. And, between the two, there was a great, invisible chasm.

The separation was large to begin with--the rich man on one side and poor Lazarus on the other--but over the years it grew deeper and wider. Though in plain-sight, the poor man by the gate disappeared from view, falling out of the rich man's consciousness. It is painful, after all, to be that rich and behold someone that poor. And so the gap widened. Years passed, and no one noticed. The way it was became the way it had always been. The gap grew until it never could have been any other way--the incomparably rich on one side and the unfathomably poor on the other. The chasm, which was no broader than the distance between the rich man's gate and his table, might as well have stretched across light-years.

Finally, when both had died, everything became clear. The rich man saw not only how far away he was from Lazarus but also saw on whose side Abraham and the angels were to be found. Now able to perceive the gap that had widened every day of his life, the rich man wished for his poor counterpart to come and help him, to dip his finger in a bowl of water and cool the rich man's tongue, but a gap like that--a gap that would look at another human being as nothing more than an instrument for one's own relief--is one that cannot be crossed.

Jesus tells this parable to open our eyes not in the next life but in this one. In Jesus, God comes among us not at the rich man's table but beside Lazarus at the gate. The world looks for God's blessings amidst the rich and happy and powerful, but God is to be found within the poor and the desperate and the forgotten. A great chasm exists between us, and you cannot cross back and forth. You must belong on one side or the other. Our sin is what keeps us from seeing the widening chasm between us. Our self-centered, self-directed need for security and prosperity and comfort makes us blind to those who are lying at our gate, desperate for crumbs. God has always been found on the other side. We have Moses and the prophets to tell us that. If we can't see the chasm, how will we ever recognize which side of it we are on? Jesus didn't come to excuse your greed. Jesus came to transform it. Jesus came to open our eyes and show us what side of the chasm God and God's people are on. And he sent the Holy Spirit to make it possible for us to live where God and God's people are to be found. Will we be transformed?

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