Scripture Readings: Luke 16:19-31, 1 Tim 6:6-19
A folktale you may have heard begins like this: One day an old woman asked the Lord if she might learn for herself what heaven and hell are like. The Lord led her to two doors. Behind the first door was a large table, piled high with a sumptuous feast. It smelled delicious. But the people sitting around the table looked gaunt and thin. Each one held an awkward spoon, perhaps three feet long. Those who held them could reach the platters of food, but they could not bring the food to their own mouths. It was as if the length of the spoon were a boundary separating them forever from their own nourishment and comfort. Their cries of hungry frustration were pitiful.
The parable Jesus tells in Luke’s gospel twice features a similar boundary separating a character from nourishmenand comfort. At first, a man named Lazarus, dumped at the gate of an unnamed rich man, longs to satisfy his hunger with crumbs from that man’s table. But the verbs used indicate that Lazarus’ hunger is constant and never fulfilled. Separated by a gate, the rich man enjoys fine clothing and eats sumptuous feasts daily.
One day, both the rich man and Lazarus die. In the afterlife, everything is reversed. Things for Lazarus could not have turned out better. Now accompanied by angels instead of dogs, no longer starving “within the sound of elegant dining” he is seated in highest honor with Abraham. But the man who had been robed in luxury is now clothed with flames. He now longs to be satisfied with a mere finger-tip drop of water. One scholar remarks, “Having refused a beggar, he is now a beggar refused.”
What are we to make of this parable? Is it a straight-forward account of judgment, telling us what heaven and hell are like—and who goes either place? Of course, the rich man must have been “bad,” and the poor man “good,” so both get what they deserve, in eternity, if not in life. But what will we do with such an interpretation?
Generally speaking, we are privileged people, living in a country gated against poorer Latin American neighbors. Even the barely “middle class” in the U.S. are wealthy relative to people-made-poor around the world. World Bank statistics tell us more than a billion people live on a dollar a day. We’ve heard it before: holy poverty and the dangers of riches. Stopping there, we might nod in superficial agreement, but internally shrug and say, “if righteousness requires poverty, I’m just not up to being a “good” Christian.” And then what? We’ll go on feeding ourselves, grateful we weren’t born elsewhere, and leave it at that, until our false sense of self-sufficiency grows into a long, unwieldy spoon, and the whole world suffers a lack of nourishment.
Rather, let’s remember that Jesus’ parables intend to reorient us from the reality we assume to a radically different perspective. Any conclusion which confirms our usual assumptions, and requires no transforming decision, means the parable has yet to do its work. And if this parable has anything to say about eternal destinies, it has a lot more to say about who we are and how we are living right here and now.
A closer look triggers troublesome questions. Did you notice that there is no clear mention of what the rich man did to get sent to Hades, or what Lazarus did end up in Abraham’s bosom? This would have shocked Jesus’ audience. In popular folktales of the time, afterlife reversals depended on the sinfulness or righteousness of the characters. Jesus’ listeners would have assumed the rich man was righteous and the poor man a sinner. As in our time, many believed a “prosperity gospel”: those who were rich reaped just rewards, while those who were poor deserved their misery. If nothing else, this parable pokes a gaping hole in such self-congratulatory readings of scripture. But if the reversals initially seem unjust, we learn more in the dialogue which follows.
When the formerly rich man looks up, he sees Lazarus with Abraham. But his words reveal that he cannot really see in Lazarus anything but a lackey who can be sent to do his bidding. “Send Lazarus to comfort me,” he says to Father Abraham. “No,” says Abraham, “You have already received your good things, and there is a chasm which cannot be crossed fixed between us.”
It’s indicative that, even arriving on the downside of the afterlife does little to change the rich man’s attitude. Here’s what I wonder: Misperceiving his neighbor Lazarus to be beneath his attention, perhaps he also misperceives other things? What is now a chasm was once a gate. In life, that gate could have opened. Someone could have gone out of that gate, and welcomed another person in. But I think that what others saw as a “gate” in this life, he already saw as a chasm. Unfortunate for Lazarus, but there was nothing to be done. He had no need and no desire to cross the fixed gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Preacher Amy Richter puts it this way:
“The rich man thinks he can afford not to see Lazarus lying outside his gate. The rich man lives under the illusion that we are islands, contrary to John Donne’s wisdom, entire of ourselves. We are separated by gulfs, and we can only build so many bridges. The rich man lives with the illusion that we are intrinsically separate beings, our own possessions, and that to be responsible only for ourselves is enough. Like Cain in Genesis, the rich man shrugs, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” assuming it is a rhetorical question, not dreaming that the answer may be “yes.” Yes, you are responsible, and your choices – to see, to notice, to serve, to love, or not – matter.”
There is a chilling finality in Abraham’s refusal to help the now-tormented man. It echoes the finality of death to our earthly lives. Maybe it’s meant to cultivate in us a sense of urgency: if we don’t change our attitudes and our choices now, it will, at some point be too late. Maybe the rich man finally understands this urgency, shifting his attention, finally, away from himself. “I beg you,” he calls out, “Send Lazarus to warn my five brothers, that they do not also come into this place of torment,” But Abraham tells the man, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
Abraham’s reply sounds like a refusal and a warning, but it points us in a new direction. It points us to what is ultimately the grace in this challenging text. For, ultimately, we are the five brothers in this parable. The gate can still swing open at our house. We can go through it with God and respond to our neighbors’ needs, or we can let that gate remain a chasm we will never go through, because we are afraid of what it will cost us, because it seems impossible.
But here is the grace: we still live in the privilege of our heavenly father’s house, and he has already provided every good thing, including the Word of God revealed in scripture. Looking there, we’ll learn how to “see” as God sees. We’ll become aware of the suffering creation around us—and within us. We’ll observe with awe how God again and again makes a way where there is no way. How does God do it?
There is a common sequence in the scriptures. In Luke 7:13, Jesus “sees” a woman weeping at the death of her only son, “has compassion” and brings her son to life. In Luke 10, a Samaritan “sees,” “has compassion,” and crosses the road to help a man in need. In Luke 15, a loving father “sees” his prodigal son “still far off,” is “filled with compassion,” and runs to embrace him.
God’s way to us follows this pattern, as God sees us, has compassion, and embraces us while still far off. We see it most in the gift that exceeds them all—the Word of God in Jesus Christ, the man who rose from death on a cross. Knowing how reluctant we are to change our ways, knowing how much we fear loss and suffering, knowing how scared we are to put our trust in anything we can’t touch or see, God gave us a Savior, who not only goes before us, showing us the way through the darkest chasms of the shadow of death, but who also promises to walk them with us.
And so, we are all called to walk in Christ’s way, seeing, having compassion, and taking action. We can do it in small and large ways. See a neighbor in need of encouragement? Have compassion and share a word of hope and a hug. See a stranger in need of welcome? Have compassion and ask them to dinner. See a woman crawling across a road? Have compassion and find her a wheelchair.
My friends, the lesson of the parable is that we cannot, as Paul says, “take hold of the life that is really life” without opening our gates to the neighbor-in-need on the other side. For neither the beggar at the gate—nor the beggar in the mirror—will find true nourishment without helping one another share the feast of God.
Remember the old lady in the folktale? When the Lord opened the second door to show her what heaven was like, she was perplexed. At first everything looked the same. There was the same table, piled high with a sumptuous feast of delicacies. The people around the table held the same, unwieldy spoons. But their faces were rosy, and their bodies fit. They were smiling and laughing together in joy. And finally the old woman laughed as she saw for herself the difference between heaven and hell: the people in heaven had learned to stretch their long spoons across the gaps that once divided them, nourishing one another and sharing the feast.
May we also learn the way of Christ, crossing with him every chasm. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
 Adapted from Ben Witherington, http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2006/09/difference-between-heaven-and-hell-on.html and Elisa Pearmain, http://www.uua.org/religiouseducation/curricula/tapestryfaith/toolboxfaith
 Paul Duke Simpson, The Parables. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, 61.
 Paul Duke Simpson, The Parables. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, 59.
 Daniel Clendinnen, “Peculiar Respect for the Poor of the World: Imitating God, Nourishing Our Own Souls,” http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20100920JJ.shtml.
 Rev. Amy Richter, http://www.episcopalchurch.org/sermons_that_work_124345_ENG_HTM.htm
 Alyce MacKenzie, “To See or Not to See: Stepping Over Lazarus?” in http://www.patheos.com/community/mainlineportal/2010/09/19/to-see-or-not-to-see-stepping-over-lazarus-reflections-on-luke-1519-26/.