Today’s gospel reading, Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, pushes us. It pushes us by its very vivid, physical portrayal of heaven and hell. It pushes us by its portrayal of the rich and the poor. It pushes us by its description of the chasm between these two people and their final realities. It pushes us, by wondering about what could change this scenario of ultimate separation.
- HEAVEN AND HELL
I am repeatedly indebted to Dr. Mark Davis, who digs into the Greek of each Sunday’s gospel lesson. This week, Mark asked the same question I’d been wondering about: since the idea of heaven and hell isn’t a particularly Biblical idea, how did it show up here? What he uncovered is that about 3 centuries before Jesus, popular Judaism, influenced by classical Greek thought, started to shape ideas of an afterlife. In this parable, we see that as heavenly Father Abraham from the Jewish tradition, and eternally-scorching Hades from the Greek. It shows up as if it is referring to something from an earlier scripture, which it isn’t, but it is referring to an idea that people of faith were already wondering about.
So what do we say about this scene of heaven and hell? What I have found, in a vocation that has involved more funerals than I can remember, is that each journey alongside death points me to a continuity between life here and now, and an existence beyond life. In life we will experience times of fullness when love is primary, when God’s intention for peace and harmony are tangible. Those experiences of “heaven on earth” give a window into what the Hebrew Scriptures call ‘Shalom’ and what Jesus calls the ‘Kingdom of God’, and they invite and encourage us to live lives, right now, that are aligned with that powerful, glorious, love. If I open myself to embrace justice and kindness and God’s healing love, I am already accepting and experiencing a road that continues beyond my final breath.
In my experience, God’s desire for us to find harmony, to embrace shalom, draws me away from a heaven-and-hell framework. I do think there is accountability, but I cannot imagine that the God who leads us to right relationships with one another would draw life to a close with a simplistic, final reward-or-punishment such as we see in this parable. But there’s something here for us and I like the rhetorical question Mark Davis asks of this scripture, wondering “whether one can build a theology about life after death based on a parable. One approach…may be to determine whether the description of Hades, Abraham’s bosom, the great gulf in between, etc. are the point of the parable or simply a storied context for making a different point.” Although the heaven-and-hell question could probably take all our time, I agree with Mark that it’s not the main thing in this parable, so we move on to the “different point” that Jesus is making here, which is about equitable and just relationships, and begins with a profile of these two main players, the Rich Man and the beggar named Lazarus.
- RICH AND POOR: RICH MAN AND LAZARUS
What do we know about these two people? The rich man is described as living a life of luxury: “clothed himself in purple and fine linen…feasted luxuriously every day.” Some Bible translations say he “lived sumptuously.” Meanwhile, Lazarus lay at the gates of the rich man’s house. “Lazarus longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Instead, dogs would come and lick [the sores that covered his body]”. The Greek wording here implies that Lazarus was basically immobile, and needed to have somebody dump him at the rich man’s gates.
But notice, that only one of the two men has a name: Lazarus. One way to view this, was that in God’s eyes, only Lazarus was close enough to God to be known personally; while the rich guy chose to live separate from God, over there in the big place. A surprising thing to me in this parable, is that not only does God know Lazarus by name; so does the rich man! Perhaps Lazarus was so well-known in the neighbourhood that everyone knew his name, but I’m thinking that the rich man would only remember the names of cronies who could get him somewhere, or servants summoned by name to perform some chore. Did Lazarus perhaps have a historic connection to the rich man, maybe a worn-out servant who was allowed to stay on-property to finish off the last of the leftovers? One way or another, the rich man’s knowing Lazarus by name, makes his sub-human treatment of him in life & in death, even more reprehensible.
Back in 1987, Shannon and I were on our overseas Internship in the Philippines, and for four months had the great blessing of living with a lot of people living in or near poverty, who opened their hearts and homes to us. When we read Oxfam’s 2019 report that the richest 26 people in the world own as many assets as the poorest 3.8 billion people in the world, that’s appalling but not surprising, because we saw it first hand thirty years ago. We saw the huge haciendas of the rich, and the simple huts of their workers (and quite frankly preferred the nipa huts, which stayed so nice and cool in the summer heat). We saw the shantytowns, in the shadows of office buildings. And we learned that the disparity had not happened by accident. We experienced the joys of knowing and being known by people of meagre means, and were perhaps fortunate that the rich had no interest whatsoever in what we were doing.
In preparing for today’s message, I was looking for connections between the parable and the orange shirt story and I definitely see one in the way that the rich man treated Lazarus, knowing him by name but still treating him like a servant. A common experience of indigenous children, especially in the early days of the residential schools, was not only to have their clothing taken away but also anything that identified them: braids were cut off, indigenous languages forbidden, and in some cases, European names replaced the names their parents had given them. Students were systematically reduced to beasts of burden, whose only jobs were to learn the Bible and do what they were told. In essence, they were shown the gates and told to stay there and be happy with the crumbs, and for generations the oppressors thought they had won.
But there was always a degree of push-back, and in recent years the push-back has become stronger, as the adults who had been dehumanized as children proudly claim their name, and nearly-dead languages have found new life, and the traditions and spirituality are coming to be embraced again. The economic disparities between the parties that signed the treaties as equals, are being named and challenged. And we, as a Church, continue to seek a way that begins with apology and continues, we hope, with a new walk side by side.
- THE CHASM
The chasm separating the rich man and the poor man in the afterlife, presented as something that showed up then, wasn’t something new. The rich man had ensured a separation between him and Lazarus during their earthly lives, because it worked in his favour 100% of the time. Now that the chasm was working against him, the injustice of it all was unbearable and the rich man called out to Father Abraham to put things back the way they had been.
We hear this same kind of bellyaching every time a disadvantaged group takes a step toward equality. Black Lives Matter had to deal with this, the Me Too movement had to deal with this, Pride Parades have had to deal with this, and now in the Outlook we read about Exshaw school having to deal with it, as the funding for off-reserve indigenous education is being “re-thought.”
And Contemplative Christian author Suzanne Guthrie approaches this notion of a chasm between heaven and earth in a way that I think will speak to many of us, in brief essay entitled, My Own Chasm of Conscience. “I went to a party recently” she writes, “and all the drinks were served in non-recyclable plastic cups. I was shocked. Giant swirls of broken down plastic poison the world’s oceans and the creatures within it up and down the food chain. It’s raining micro plastics in the arctic, on mountaintops in Colorado, anyplace where such tests are done. Once you know this, your conscience is forever raw. Some plastic purchases I can’t avoid. But [this]? [And what about] the clothes I’m wearing right now? Who made them, and where, and under what conditions? And my wonderful computer and cell phone – have I made reparation [to] Central Africa for the coltan necessary to create my communication toys?” and she concludes, “The chasm between [the rich man] and Lazarus is in me.”
If you’ve had your conscience tugging at your sleeve about these inequities – especially those with environmental components – now would be an outstanding time to answer that. Being an informed consumer, refusing single-use products or products from sweatshops, builds mindfulness as you take concrete helpful steps. Letter-writing to companies you have a relationship with, whether as a shareholder or consumer, does more than you might think. Building connections with people who are directly involved in or impacted by social issues, helps to share changes that are accurate and empowering. You likely already know something that could be done, the key is to do it, and I encourage you in those things already being done.
- WHAT COULD CHANGE THE SCENARIO
So we move to the final section: What could bridge the chasm, so that nobody has to live the misery of Lazarus and nobody expects the luxury of the rich man?
One thing that is super-clear from the parable, is that it isn’t the responsibility of Lazarus to bridge the chasm. And as Mark Davis puts it, “note to self. Whatever the afterlife looks like, arguing with Father Abraham is not a winning strategy”. As much as every economic strategy seems to end up with the poorest of the poor shouldering even more of the brunt, that’s not how it works in God’s understanding of human dignity. A Bible commentator I read years ago quipped, “the rich man didn’t lift a finger to help Lazarus his whole life, but now expects Lazarus to dabble his fingers in cool water and hobble over from heaven to hell to bring relief to him”. That may be the perfect definition of someone – the rich man – just not getting it.
What the parable – and our reading of history – and our common sense, should tell us, is we don’t need heaps more evidence about whether there’s a problem or not. As you know, I love my baseball but I also know a certain outfielder with the Blue Jays is getting paid $10.4 million per year and he wouldn’t even be a starter on most teams. $10.4 million. One guy. Same as you’d pay about 150 or 200 teachers. And don’t get me started on executive compensation models, especially those that have added bonuses when a company or division gains profitability through layoffs and closures. When I compare the kinds of figures that line the pockets of CEOs, athletes and entertainers, to the meagre Gross Domestic Product of some entire nations, it falls somewhere between heartbreaking and evil.
When I was in grade ten, I remember doing a report about the effect of freon from aerosol cans, refrigerators and air conditioners on the ozone layer. That was 45 years ago, a teenager doing research from magazines at a local library, and the news was both shocking and readily available. How much more information do we need about the peril our atmosphere is under, and the responsibility borne by humans to clean it up regardless of who takes the blame for things getting as bad as they are? As high school students said two days ago, here in Canmore and around the world, the time for action is RIGHT NOW and one of the steps toward that, is to push candidates of all political stripes to be clear about this urgency, and then VOTE.
And to return to our Orange Shirt theme, the way forward in repentance and recovery from the Indian Residential Schools, a system set up as “a final solution to our Indian Problem” in the chilling words of Duncan Campbell Scott, has already been stated. The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has 94 Calls to Action, including #s 58 to 61 which are directed specifically at Churches (and posted on an orange sheet on our bulletin board). Things like our annual Indigenous Peoples’ Day service in June, the commemoration of Orange Shirt Day in September and, we hope, ongoing connections with the Stoney Nakoda people through relationship and worship and events, keep us accountable to a damaging past that must inform a shared future.
The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus may not be the happiest story that Jesus told, but it grounds us in the realities of the world and a sense that God is not blind to these realities. When making one final pitch, the rich man calls for Lazarus to become some sort of travelling evangelist to save his brothers from this same terrible fate. And after offering a terse, flat NO, Father Abraham concludes with these words: “‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, then neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’” In our Judaeo-Christian history, we have countless prophets calling for a levelling of society, for greater opportunity for and compassion toward the poor. We have the witness of Christ Jesus himself, in the words of pointed parables like this one, and in rising above all that oppresses people and diminishes life. What else do we need?
There is much to be done, to live in just and sustainable ways. The action, at this point, is up to individuals, and people of faith, and nations, and leaders. With God’s guidance, wisdom, compassion and correction, may this be so. Amen.
Davis, D. Mark. http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2013/09/mercy-withheld.html
Guthrie, Suzanne. http://www.edgeofenclosure.org/proper21c.html
Oxfam, cited in https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/jan/21/world-26-richest-people-own-as-much-as-poorest-50-per-cent-oxfam-report
Scott, Duncan Campbell, cited in https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/the-final-solution-which-government-used-the-term-first
Truth and Reconciliation Commission. http://trc.ca/assets/pdf/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf
© 2019 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.