Some look at the chasm that is fixed between the rich and poor of this world, and are motivated to make a difference. Some look at the poor in this world and are glad there is a difference! How do you feel about the chasm between rich and poor? And how does that change you? How do you begin now to live your life?
I am not a big fan of Pearly Gate jokes. I’m probably just a scriptural snob. But some just don’t seem that funny, and others strike me as an abomination to the kingdom and realm of God. But I have to admit, they are popular, and once in a while, they really are humorous. I don’t think Jesus was a big fan of them either. He mainly sticks to parables about the realm of God that reveals the nearness of the kingdom here on earth, in his presence. But Pearly Gate, and heaven and Hades jokes, were also around in Jesus time. And this story today is a riff on that genre. He uses it, not to educate us on what heaven or hell might be like, but to use this popular form for his own purposes.
‘Once upon a time, there was a rich man and a poor man who died, and one went to Hades and the other to Abraham’s bosom,’ might be how jokes like this, started back then. But the way Jesus tells it, it would have been pleasurably scandalous to some, and not funny at all to those “lovers of money” he’s denounces. It was commonly held that, riches and wealth were signs of God’s blessing. And so, a well off and successful person’s reward would be, favor with God in the afterlife, or being carried away by the angels, or going to the bosom of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. While the poor, and those afflicted with incurable disease, would receive their due, basically to die and be buried forever.
So in this parable, Jesus unexpectedly changes things around. Not unlike how this gospel starts out in its first chapter, when Mary discovers that she will be the God-bearer, and so sings her song of God’s greatness, that, “[the LORD] has lifted up the lowly; and has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” In like manner, Jesus shakes up his listeners with the parable of how a rich man is sent away to the agony of Hades, and Lazarus, the poor man is lifted up and celebrating at the heavenly banquet with Abraham.
A recent study of attitudes about the Great Recession we’re in, looked at the differences between the rich and poor. They found that, counter intuitively, the rich more often complain about what has happened to them, than the poor and middle class. And so a reporter from NPR’s This American Life went to interview three Wall Street traders that had lost a bunch at the fall of the stock market, but were still millionaires, to find out their attitudes on the Great Recession. They were happy to speak out about how resentful they were of the bailout of Wall Street banks, even though they couldn’t deny that the bailout had saved their jobs. Digging deeper still, it turned out that they believed that the reason they thought they were so deserving was, because they were just smarter than others. They deserved to be rewarded and to succeed because they were specially gifted. As one said, ‘it’s the survival of the fittest!’ In other words, those who come out on top are meant to be there – it’s their just reward. The gods have spoken! Some look at the chasm that is fixed between the rich and poor of this world, and are motivated to make a difference. Some look at the poor in this world and are glad there is a difference!
Of course these are just three relatively inexperienced traders, and don’t represent all of Wall Street. But in a crass way, they represent the views of our society as a whole. Which includes ourselves, to the degree we believe or participate in an economy of competition that tolerates winners and losers, and to the extent that we tend towards tunnel vision, and we don’t want to see that guy lying at our gate covered with sores, because ‘we’ll always have the poor with us’ anyway, the chasm is overwhelming, and s/he probably did something to deserve where they’re at. We may not complain as much as the truly rich, but how do we live out the kingdom and realm of God among us?
Clearly the parable, as Jesus uses it, is not really about the afterlife. It’s about us here and now. And our situation is closest to the five children back at the rich mans house, with gates and chasms we are well familiar with. An open ended question remains. Will the kids wake up? Will they listen to Moses and the prophets? Will we? Jesus shows us the cartoon characterization of heaven and Hades, and a chasm over which no one can pass, after death, and begs us to see ourselves here, before the reversal, where the bridge can still be crossed – where forgiveness is possible and where compassion is our calling, our work, and our joy. “You cannot serve Compassion and the bottom line,” to paraphrase from last week’s gospel. Being faithful to God is being faithful to God’s reign of compassion and mercy, which is not possible to envision if we have capitulated to the ‘bottom line’ mentality of hoarding and squandering, blithely following the god of, ‘the survival of the fittest.’
So, in addition to the role reversal of Lazarus and the rich man, their ways of living before death, come to ‘eternal consequences.’ It is our lives of humble service: showing hope, goodwill, comfort, counsel, aid, and peace, that draw us closest to the bosom of Abraham. Whereas the rich man, who couldn’t help but see Lazarus lying at his very gate, did not even lift a finger to help, even the dogs were more merciful, coming to lick his sores.
Not that Jesus wants us to turn this into a new, hard and fast rule, for how to get to heaven. There is no quid pro quo in the realm of God. But we enjoy the sumptuous feast already when we follow the path Jesus calls us to, the way of compassion and ‘eternal consequences.’ All our joy in serving humbly, like Jesus, comes from beginning again today in following the way of the cross and resurrection. We do it, not because we have to, not even because it seems like the right thing in an unrighteous world, but because we give thanks for all we have, a gift that is multiplied, by our giving it all away again. Humble service rejoices, knowing that it is the invisible things – faith, hope, joy, and love – that are eternal and lasting.
And so, on the one hand, there is the sumptuous feasting of a compassionless squandering partier. On the other hand, there is a sumptuous feasting, celebrating the gift of salvation, forgiveness, and fullness for all. Some look at the poor in this world and are glad there is a difference! We look at the chasm that is fixed between the rich and poor of this world, and are motivated to make a difference.
We are not convinced of the way of compassion, because just anyone has risen from the dead, but we are strengthened and convinced of the way of compassion for the poor, and ‘that all may be fed as Jesus feeds us,’ because the one who came and died on the cross, took on our suffering, sin, and lowly position, has been raised! And now he lives a new life, to give away his body and blood in the bread and wine of the feast that never ends. So, come to the banquet of compassion, forgiveness and joy. There is a place for you at the sumptuous feast!