The Chasm at the Gate

Sermon for Pentecost +19, 26th Ordinary Year C, on Luke 16:19-31, September 29, 2013

Luke 16:19-31

[Jesus said:] “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”

I heard someone joking about having a “scratch and sniff” bible.  Believe me, if there were ever such a thing, we would not be scratching and sniffing this

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story.  At least not poor Lazarus.  He is a homeless person to begin with.  And then there are those open sores that the dogs are licking.

Yes, we may be tempted to scratch and sniff the lavish banquet going on inside the gate (Luke referred to it as “extravagant”)  – that would probably get our mouths watering – but outside the gate, it would smell disgusting.  Luke doesn’t mention flies swarming around, but it’s hard not to imagine them there.

The Disgust Mechanism

We turn away from things that disgust us, like rancid  meat rotting vegetation.  We feel nauseous driving behind the garbage truck, on a warm day.

We are told that this disgust mechanism we have is an adaptive advantage that we evolved.  It increases our chances of survival if we stay away from nature’s rotting bacteria farms, like carcasses, corpses and spoiled milk.

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It’s hard to look at the ugliness of poverty.  It’s natural to be disgusted by the  smells and flies that go with it.  When was the last time you saw a picture of one of those poor African children with flies on their faces that neither they nor their mothers bothered to bat away?  Did you feel compassion or revulsion, or maybe a combination?  Nevertheless, you didn’t want the camera to stay on that scene too long.

It’s hard to hear this parable of Jesus.  Lazarus is not sentimentalized at all.  He is not a sight we want to look at.  In this respect, we sympathize with the man who ignored him as he lay there at the gate surrounded by mangy dogs.

Disgust and Family

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There is of course one enormous exception to this disgust response.  We do not feel the same about our family members.

When our children were babies, we cared for them.  Sometimes they did not smell so good.  Sometimes they got sick and we had to clean it up.  We were not offended by their sores, even their blood.  Family love is stronger than disgust.

And so it is amazing to look at how family membership forms such an important part of the fabric of this story.

Now, of course the rich man is not named, so we don’t know his tribe or his family.  Lazarus is only given a first name, so there is no reason to connect the two of them.  They are not family.  You could say they are separated by a chasm at that gate.

But in this fantasy afterlife parable, one of the realistic elements is that family is important.  Most of the specifics of the parable – the way the rich man goes to a place of torment, the way he can see Lazarus across the chasm, the conversation with the long-dead Abraham, is all pure fantasy (in fact, common stock fantasy – this “reversal of fortunes” kind of story was not unique nor original to Jesus).

Abraham and his kin

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But did we notice what the rich man called Abraham?  He called him “father Abraham.”  The rich man was kin to Abraham – a descendant; part of the Abrahamic family.  He thought Abraham would have sympathy for his own family.  He says,

“Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.”

And father Abraham accepts the title. He replies, calling the rich man his child:

“But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things;”

There are family ties here, but there is also a problem.  The family ties are not strong enough now to undo the harm that has been done.  Not even father Abraham can help his errant child at this point: the chasm is too wide.  There is no crossing it.

Family Concerns, Family Heirlooms

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But family remains a top-level concern.  The rich man, it turns out, has his own living family to worry about.  He has brothers.  He cares about them.  He does not want his own family to have to endure his fate.

“He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.”

Abraham makes a reply that again brings up family relationships.  The rich man’s brothers have something unique to the family of Abraham, the Jews.  They have Torah.  They have the words of Moses, and the prophets.  Only Jewish people share that gift.  They even celebrate that fact in religious poetry.  Psalms 147 praises God saying,

“He has not dealt thus with any other people; they do not know his ordinances. Praise the LORD!”

So, this family of Abraham is a unique family that alone celebrates the wonderful gift of Torah as a treasured family inheritance.

Moses and the Prophets

And that is precisely the problem here.  Father Abraham knows that this part of the family has held their precious inheritance of Torah in utter contempt.  They have disregarded its message.  Let us remind ourselves of what is going through Abraham’s mind at this point in  the story.  He is recalling the words of Moses and the prophets.

From Moses, in Deuteronomy, for example out of dozens, maybe hundreds of such verses is this:

“You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge.  Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.”   (Deut. 24:17-18)

And from the prophets, one example among so many like it:

“Thus says the LORD: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;  because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals— they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way”  (Amos 2:6-7)

Father Abraham’s family were all connected.  They shared a common history: they had been all poor, miserable, desperate slaves in Egypt, and together, they were redeemed.  Moses led them to become a free people – a connected family of former slaves.

This family then received the Torah from Moses.  It told them to practice justice, and to show special concern for those family members who were in greater need, like widows, orphans, and resident non-citizens.   Of course; that’s how you treat family.

And when they didn’t treat family like family, prophets like Amos came and held their feet to the fire.  To “trample the head of the poor into the dust” and to “push the afflicted out of the way” was to court the wrath of God.  It’s a serious thing to refuse to treat family like family.  To treat family like objects instead of as subjects.  To treat family no better than slaves.  To treat them as if they lived on the other side of a chasm of indifference.

Send a Servant

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So, with great concern for his family, his brothers still alive, the rich man tugs on Father Abraham’s sense of family duty, asking him to send a message of warning.

But there in Hades, the rich man shows his true colors again, as he did on earth.  He has made a fatal mistake.  He has not acknowledged and treated poor Lazarus as family.

In fact he views Lazarus as a slave.  The rich man is thirsty; he appeals to Abraham:

“send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.”

Yes, “send Lazarus” – since he should serve me, even here and now.  (!)

Family or not, Abraham declines.

“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.”

Moses and the prophets had told that rich  man that Lazarus was his brother.  He treated him with disgust in life, and wanted to treat him like a slave in death.  His brothers were up there ignoring Moses and the prophets too.  They would meet the same fate.

Us, God, and our Family

We all help our families.  We nurse our children, we feed, house, clothe and give generous gifts to them as they grow.  We worry about them.  Their needs are our needs.   We grieve for them when they suffer; we advise them, coach them, pray for them, and sometimes we come to their rescue.  We would do anything for them.  They are family.   This is hard-wired in us.

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This is exactly how our heavenly Father looks at his children.  This is how he feels about us.  This is how he cares for all his children.  Or picturing God as Isaiah does, this is how She looks down with compassion at the child She is nursing.  This is the Good News.

Question: what human being on this planet is not God’s concern?  Whom does God look away from in disgust?  Whose cries do not move him?  The cries of Canadians?  Estonians?  The French?  The English? The Irish?  What about Mexicans or Guatemalans?  Japanese?  Chinese? Lebanese? Syrians?  Saudis?  Libyans?  Kenyans?  Sudanese?

What does it mean to confess God as the creed says, “Almighty, maker of heaven and earth”?  If every creature under the sky he made is formed in his image, male and female, who are we not kin to?  Who can we overlook at the gate?  Whose sores are not our children’s sores?  Whose danger is not our brother’s danger?

Being the Brothers

Who are we, in this story?  We are not Lazarus in the dust, but we don’t think of ourselves as the callous rich man either, do we?  I think Jesus would not have expected his original audience to identify with either of these characters.  Rather, we, like the rich man’s brothers, are still alive, still in possession of Moses and the prophets.  We know God as our Creator, and therefore our Father.

That means Lazarus is family.  And every Lazarus is family.  Their hunger is our concern.  Their sores are our problem.  They are family.

What would it mean to live among a large group of Christians who all took this to heart?  What would the world look like if we American Christians saw family in the faces of all the people of the world?  What would we do differently if we had our eyes open to the God and God’s family that the rich man was blind to?   What is God calling us to do and be for our family – for God’s family?

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