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Visions from The Catacombs Week Before September 25, 2016

Luke 16:19-31

19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He 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.’ 25But 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. 26Besides 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.’ 27He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He 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.’”

What I Am Learning:

Once again we see Jesus telling a parable – a story intended to surprise the original hearers and open the possibility for a new way to live with God, self and others.

It is important to say that the point of this story is not to tell us the geography of the afterlife, or even to answer questions about what happens when we die. Rather it upended the common belief, then and now, that those who are rich became rich because God has favored them and the poor because they are not favored. This way of seeing the world always blesses the status quo. It assumes that the reason why there are inequities is because some people are more righteous than others, and thus are blessed with more riches.

Today we often accomplish this without God, by saying that the rich have worked harder than the lazy and shiftless poor who leech off of the system, deserving only our scorn and less equal schools for their children.

Lazarus is the only person named in one of Jesus’ parables. The name means “God has helped.”

The story starts out with the rich man and Lazarus living near each other, but worlds apart. The rich man does not even seem to see Lazarus, and does not offer him hospitality, aid or comfort. Lazarus would have love to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. But in this story, he was given none.

Both men die. The rich man is in Hades – named for the Greek god of the underworld, the realm of the dead. This may be a way to say that the rich man was more Greco-Roman in his way of life than Jewish. To be rich in Jesus’ day meant that you had to actively support Roman colonial economics. Again, the Romans were basically the Mafia with a palace and an army. To get rich or stay rich in Jesus’ day meant you had to participate in the exploitation of most of the rest of the population. We call this a “culture of domination.”

The gulf between them in everyday life is exposed in the story as Lazarus is now by the side of Abraham. His wounds are healed and he was being comforted by the leader of his family, Abraham, in contrast to the rich man who went to his father’s house.

The rich man asks that Lazarus be sent to with some water to ease the rich man’s torment. Lazarus does not answer, but rather Abraham. He responds firmly but with kindness to the man that Lazarus cannot cross the great gulf between them.

Even in death, the rich man sees Lazarus as someone to be ordered around all the while not seeing him at all in life.

Then the rich man asks that Lazarus be sent back to warn his five brothers so they might not share his fate. Abraham responds that they have the teachings of Moses and the Prophets. If they won’t listen to them they won’t be likely to change their ways if a person where to come back from the dead.

A great chasm existed between the rich and the poor in Jesus’ day. Jesus story exposed the chasm.

Sheryl and I went to vacation for 5 days at a friend’s condo on Lake Coeur d’Alene. It is near a resort called “The Gozer Ranch”. You have to buy into very expensive property and into the club, which gives you access to resorts around the world. The beach house and restaurant are surrounded by a fence and marked with many signs to keep the riff-raff out.

Now Sheryl and I are very rich on the scale of human beings in this world. We are probably in the top 3 to 4% of the world’s richest people. We have a house with about 12 years left on our mortgage. We have two cars. We have pension and stock funds for our retirement. Further we know we are rich and that no matter what happens we will probably not ever starve. We will probably never lack for decent health care. Lazarus had to rely on the dog-lick plan, we will not.

Yet, I could feel the great chasm between myself and the wealthy who were hanging out on the beach at the Gozer Ranch. Practically, this is primarily an emotional distance. The key word on the website is the word “private.”

But for the poor of the world this is not simply an emotional distance, but a gulf that threatens their daily bread, their health care, their very survival.

According to the ratio of wealth for white households to black households in the US was 13 to 1.

In a chart in a Washington Post article on wealth inequality, the top 1% owns 35% of the wealth in this country. The top 20% owns 90% of the wealth.

Yet it is all too easy to think of the rich in this story as “people with more wealth than me.” This lets us off the hook in this story as we envision Jesus’ story challenging “those people.”

At this point we can feel paralyzed. What can we do to change our economic system? If we could change it, what would we do? Even if we gave all our wealth away, what difference would it make?

Jesus is not asking us to individually fix the entire economic system, but to recognize the vast gulf between rich and poor, to see them and to know and relate to them as our neighbors.

The Gozer Ranch exists to keep social distance between the richer and the less rich and the poor. How many of our behaviors have the same effect?

This may not sound like Gospel, as we feel the discomfort of it.

But I remember seeing a person inside the Gozer Ranch fence looking out at Sheryl and I one evening. This fence keeps them in, as much as it keeps others out. The desire of relatively rich white people for social distance from people of color and the poor keeps them comfortable on one level but serves to sever them from their full humanity.

Jesus is asking us to reduce the social distance between the poor and the rich, between ourselves and one another. His story reminds us that economies were meant for human thriving and are envisioned by God to benefit everyone. He is challenging the use of the Bible and theology to excuse the great gulf of social distance between the rich and the poor.  He is calling us to recognize our common humanity with each other.

Social distance is great gulf which produces torment for those on each side. Jesus seeks, in this challenging story, to heal us from the wounds it produces. He is a savior/healer not just in some afterlife but this one. Healing often hurts, but is healing nonetheless and that healing is Gospel.