Yesterday I went to the gas station at the HEB grocery store. As I pulled in there was a man under a tree in the corner of the parking lot sitting on a rolled up sleeping bag. He held a sign. It said, “Vet. Homeless and hungry. Will you help? God bless you.” Cars and trucks drove right past him without stopping. So did I. After all, I don’t know him. I don’t know what he needs or if his needs are legitimate. I don’t know why he is in the situation he claims or if it’s even true. Besides all that, I was in a hurry to go eat lunch and finish my errands.
You know how sometimes a thought sort of just comes to you? You didn’t think it on purpose. You don’t want to keep thinking it but it won’t go away. Well, as I was filling the truck with gas I started thinking about today’s gospel (the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Luke 16:19-31, Proper 21C). Then I began to wonder and even worry just a bit. Is that Lazarus? Am I the rich man? Will he one day be comforted in the bosom of Abraham while I am in torment? I don’t really think that’s what this parable is saying but, just in case, I stopped and gave him a ten dollar HEB gift card and said, “Here, you can go buy something to eat.”
So does that reserve me a place on Abraham’s lap next to this guy or will I see him from afar, separated by a chasm neither one of us can cross? Was ten dollars enough or should it have been twenty? Should I have invited him to lunch? Paid for a night in a hotel? Offered him a room in my house?
Those are the kind of questions that arise when we interpret parables literally, turning them into a story of historical fact. When we do that the questions are usually endless and unanswerable. Neither can we, however, treat parables as merely metaphor or symbolism that have no real life implications for how we live. So what about today’s parable? What is it saying to us and what is it not saying to us?
First, God is concerned about the poor and expects us to also be concerned. That is clear throughout scripture in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. We reveal God’s presence in our lives by sharing God’s concerns and by acting as God acts. That does not mean, however, that the poor are our ticket into heaven. We do not buy our way to heaven. We help the poor, feed the hungry, house the homeless, care for the sick, visit prisoners, and work for justice because that’s simply who and how God’s people are to be. The question isn’t what’s in it for me but what’s in it for them. What does our Christianity, our faith, our experience of Jesus Christ offer them?
Second, there is a relationship between this life and the next life. The choices we make, the words we speak, and the actions we take in this life have consequences in the next life. Now don’t push that too far with this story. Today’s gospel is not a systematic explanation or theological analysis of heaven and hell. The story is not a judgment that rich people go to hell and poor people go to heaven. This story isn’t so much about our future but about our present lives. It’s about how we live here and now. It’s a reminder that that our lives are connected and intertwined in this world and in the next world. In the words of St. Antony the Great, “Our life and our death is with our neighbor.”
Finally, maybe I was just a bit too quick, even arrogant, to judge myself as the rich man and him as Lazarus. Given what I saw those may be accurate labels or descriptions for today. What about six months ago? What about tomorrow? They may not have been accurate labels one, five, or fifteen years ago. They may not be accurate next week or three years from now. Circumstances and situations change. Stuff happens. At some point in our lives we have probably all been both the rich man and Lazarus. We can all name times when life has been good, full, and easy. Likewise we can name times when it has simply left us destitute, broken, and in sorrow and suffering. I don’t think this parable is asking us to make judgments about who is the rich man and who is Lazarus. Instead, it is asking us to acknowledge and deal with the gates and chasms that separate us from each other.
Throughout this parable chasms are the one constant. From beginning to end the parable is full of divisions and separations. Remember the gate at the beginning? On one side of the gate lies Lazarus, dressed in sores and dog spit, hungry, and unable to get up and walk. On the other side the rich man, dressed in fine linen and purple, sits at his table and feasts every day. Remember the chasm at the end? On one side of the chasm Lazarus sits comforted in the bosom of Abraham. On the other side the rich man stands tormented in the flames of Hades.
The gate and the chasm are the same thing. The chasm that separates Lazarus and the rich man in the next world is simply a manifestation of the gate that separated them in this world. The rich man carried it with him into the next world. It was a part of him. The gate that separates and divides us in this world is not a condition of circumstances or categories: rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, Muslim or Christian, or any other category you might add to this list. That gate is a condition of the human heart. The gate that becomes a chasm always exists within us before it exists between us.
That means we must each examine our own heart to find the gates that separate us from ourselves, our neighbors, our enemies, those we love, and ultimately God. What are those gates for you? For me? For this parish? For the United States of America? What gates do we live with? Fear, anger, greed, pride, prejudice, loneliness, sorrow, addiction, busyness, indifference, apathy, hurt, resentment, envy, cynicism. You get the idea. There’s a lot of possibilities for the gates within us. We all have them. That’s not how we are intended to live. That’s certainly not how Jesus lived. Gates destroy relationships. They unmake God’s creation.
I don’t know what gates you carry within you but I know this. Every time we love our neighbor as ourselves, every time we love our enemies, every time we see and treat one another as created in the image and likeness of God, gates are opened and chasms are filled. I can’t give you detailed instructions on how to do those things. It is something we must each live our way into. It’s a choice set before us every day. It can happen in our marriages and families, at work and school, on the corner of parking lots, and in our prayers for the world. It can happen in the most intimate of relationships, or with strangers, and even with our enemies. It is not easy work but it possible. Jesus demonstrated that in his life, death, and resurrection. Gates were opened and chasms were filled. Christ’s love, mercy, grace, and presence make it possible for us to open our gates and insure they do not become chasms.
Let your gates be opened and your chasms filled. This is our work and the salvation of the world. Its what the kingdom of God looks like. We already have everything we need. That was Abraham’s point in not sending Lazarus to the rich man’s brothers. Abraham was not denying them anything. Nothing was lacking. They already had everything they needed. The word of God that opens gates and fills chasms is the same word of God proclaimed by Moses and the prophets, the very same word embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the image of our opened gates and our filled chasms, the image of who we most truly are and who we are to become.