Crossing the Chasm
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
“There is only one way to achieve happiness on this terrestrial ball, and that is to have either a clear conscience or none at all.” (Poet Ogden Nash) Having no conscience isn’t really an option for Christians. Eating and drinking the living Word of God ensures there will always be something gnawing at us. Whatever comfort and compassion we receive from all this turns right around to afflict and convict us in the face of others in need of comfort and compassion when we would withhold that very same grace from flowing through our hands.
Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus underscores the extreme urgency of now for grace. There is such a thing as being too late to stop the unnecessary and unjust pain of today from launching a thousand indelible consequences for what we must deal with tomorrow. A heavy conscience is God’s way of steering us toward greater peace and wellbeing for everyone. With our own hands, grace teaches how to span the chasm between the haves and the have-nots.
This time of year the classic tale, Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol warms our hearts as the days of fall turn to winter. Our gospel today tells much the same tale, except the characters receive no warnings. The angels carry Lazarus to Father Abraham while the rich man descends to Hades to live in agony among the flames.
There’s an old familiar African American spiritual based on this passage from Luke too. “Rock-a-my soul in the bosom of Abraham, Rock-a-my soul in the bosom of Abraham, Rock-a-my soul in the bosom of Abraham, Oh, rock-a-my soul.” Living like Lazarus, American slaves clearly understood the message. The grace of God is a great comfort for the afflicted but a terrible affliction for the comfortable.
Mary the mother of Jesus sang the same tune with the famous poetic words to a different song. The Lord God “…has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:52). How beautiful the Magnificat sounds at Advent. Yet how terrible and unfair it sounds in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor once famously said, “the more you poke the bible the more the bible pokes you back.”
Lazarus was chronically hungry. He wore rags. His body was covered with lesions. And as much of the art about this parable emphasizes, the dogs licked his sores. Our gospel today offers an indictment to inhuman indifference to suffering. We cannot be followers of Jesus and do nothing.
Yet to understand the plain meaning of our gospel we must understand the first-century hearers of Jesus’ parable would not have assumed that the rich man was evil and that the poor man was righteous. On the contrary, wealth in the ancient world was often viewed as a sign of divine favor, while poverty was viewed as evidence of sin. The rich man’s sin was not that he was rich, but that, during his earthly life, he did not “see” Lazarus, despite his daily presence at the entrance to his home. In fact, the first time he ever sees Lazarus is when, from Hades “he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side” (v. 23). (Daniel Clendenin)
As for Lazarus, we aren’t told he was pious but his name means “God helps,” which implies righteousness. Lazarus’s hunger and willingness to eat whatever was at hand remind readers of Luke’s gospel of the Prodigal son’s famished, desperate condition in the previous chapter. (Luke 15:16) God has a preference for the poor but not for poverty.
Thank God for the wealthy women who supported Jesus (Luke 8:2–3), for the rich man Joseph of Arimathea who tenderly buried him, and for all the wealthy saints today who follow their footsteps. “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (Luke 12:48b)
It may also be important to quickly point out today’s gospel doesn’t have anything to say about the topography of heaven or hell. Yet regardless whether you read it as a parable or a literal description of the afterlife, the point is the same. (Clendenin) To censure your compassion is to make God’s grace an exile.
We know many Lazarus’ in the bible. He is Elizabeth, whom ageism casts aside. He is Mary, whom classism deems unworthy. He is the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet, whom sexism makes sure to spend more time pondering the possibilities of her sin rather than the power of her tender and generous act.
We know many Lazarus’ in our own time. At this moment in our history, we are once again being confronted with the reality of racism to which we have been blind. Just this week, a report released by the Economic Policy Institute found the gap between what white Americans and black Americans earn despite having the same experience, skills, and abilities is larger now than it’s been in almost 40 years.
As the prophet Amos warns in our first reading, when we censor our grief for those whom the world passes by we censor God (Amos 6:6). We burden our conscience and sacrifice our own happiness. Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) once said, “A good conscience is a continual Christmas.”
Seeing the un-seeable, caring for the disenfranchised, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and setting the oppressed free are not only marks of discipleship or acts that contribute to the reality of the Kingdom of God in our midst (Psalm 146). These are moments of resurrection and new life for us. These are moments of joy. These are the moments that give us peace the world cannot give and that bring the dead to life. (Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, 2016.)
Just as Lazarus resides in the bosom of Abraham, we dwell right there with him in the intimacy, belonging and comfort only God can provide as we welcome one another in Christ’s name and especially all those whom others refuse to see. Together we become a living sanctuary of hope and grace. The cruel chain of indifference like the one Jacob Marley forged in life and was condemned to carry in death is broken. Our conscience is clear and the world is about to turn. Because Christ lives in us, we are made alive again as we reach for one another.