Hollowed Out Humanity
Week of Sunday September 29 - Pentecost 19
Gospel: 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.” ’
I was only eight or ten when I found a great chasm between me and meaning. Meaning and purpose, peace, and in the end, God, were far distant and unreachable. I couldn't articulate all that, of course, only that something was wrong with life, badly "out of joint."
I have spent my life slowly learning that what closes the chasm is relationship with people. God is not out of the picture; God underlies it all, but that sublime experience we call God is incarnate— made present to us— mostly through people. Without the mediation of people, something of God is always inaccessible to us.
This has been a hard lesson for someone who is inveterate introvert, and because of early life experience, deeply mistrustful of people.
But I have learned enough to know that to be separated, to have a deep chasm between people and me, is the same as a deep chasm between God and me. If that chasm is dug out then I may as well be in the place of the dead.
I am a white anglo Australian male. I live among the rich, yet am driven constantly towards the gate of the house by the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Mark, in particular. For we who are rich, it is 'seeing' the poor which preserves us from the fate of the rich man. It is not enough simply to be friends, and build bridges, with those who are like us.
This seeing is not a matter of sheer mechanics. Brian Stoffregen includes these words in his commentary this week:
The story offers no support to the glib assumption that [the rich man] would have fulfilled all duty had he dressed Lazarus' sores and fed his hunger. True charity is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not spasmodic or superficial. Ameliorations such as food and medicine are necessary, but there is a more fundamental neighborliness. [He is quoting Culpepper, who in turn, quotes from George Buttrich's The Parables of Jesus]
Then Culpepper adds: "'Fundamental neighborliness,' therefore, is the barometer of the soul, an indication of the attitude of one's heart that is prized in the sight of God" [p. 320].
This neighbourliness is also required of the poor! If I despise wealthy parishioners for their wealth I am digging the same chasm, and building the same barrier, that assigns worth to people on account of their position, status, and wealth, rather than treating them and valuing them as people.
The rich man's sin was first of all indifference to Lazarus, but finally that he did not value him as an equal; that is, as another human being. Even in Hades he still regards Lazarus as something to be used: "Oh Father Abraham, send me my water boy! Water boy! Quick! I'm just about to perish down here. I need a drink of water!" (Cotton-Patch Gospels, Clarence Jordan quoted by John Petty)
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The parable is being told in response to the Pharisees "who were lovers of money," (Luke 16:14-15) who presumably "ridiculed" Jesus because they believed the theology of the time that the rich were rich because they were blessed by God.
Green (The Gospel of Luke) notes
Luke has departed from what we know of the historical Pharisees, providing his own polemical evaluation of them in a narrative aside. [footnote: Historically, the Pharisees constituted a lay movement not known for the wealth of its constituents.] This is not to say that Luke has made an "error" in category, but that Luke means by "lovers of money" less, and more, than might appear on the surface ... the Lukan characterization of the Pharisees as "lovers of money" ties this narrative subsection thematically back into earlier material concerned with Pharisaic habits regarding wealth and hospitality (esp. 14:1-24; 15). [p. 599] (Quoted by Stoffregen)
I said the chasm is caused by "assigning worth to people on account of their position, status and wealth, rather than treating them and valuing them as people." In the case of those Luke calls "the Pharisees," through chapters fourteen to sixteen, the chasm is deepened by a theology which assigns godliness and holiness on the basis of wealth, status and position.
This theology is current.
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate. (All things bright and beautiful)
We leave this verse out of our hymn books, but it is not so removed from current prosperity theologies.
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The parable is not an exposition of heaven and hell. "The background of this parable is a tale from Egyptian folklore about the reversal of fates after death. It also has connections to rabbinic stories. Rabbinic sources contain 7 versions of this folktale" according to Professor Alyce McKenzie.
Scripture, written by people as a response to their experience of God, does not have the final word on what happens when we die. In this area of our being Scripture is finally an hypothesis of what may happen, based on the implications of the faithfulness of the God we know, and deeply influenced by our cultural presuppositions.
Life after death is "outside our ken"... we live in the now. We should read the parable as a story of how we live in the now, for what wealth does to us now, not as some way to ensure, or insure, our future.
Jesus tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus to people who trusted in money to point out the danger of money. Money blinded a rich man to the one person in all of Jesus' parables who is given a name: Lazarus. Lazarus means God helps.
The Greek presentation of Lazarus is poignant. He is defined by his poverty; "poor" is the first word of the verse: poor yet certain (one) was named Lazarus, and yet he is helped by God.
Poor, covered in sores, licked by the dogs, "thrown down" at the gate, he is the poorest of the poor, the most unclean of the unclean, the most unloved of the unloved of God.
He is "thrown down" (ebebleto) at the rich man's gate--"unceremoniously dumped" would be another way to put it. This draws additional attention to what must be the baronial nature of the rich man's estate. He has a gate! (He should had heeded the prophet Amos who warns against those who "push away the needy in the gate" and calls instead for "justice in the gate" (Amos 5:12-15).) ... (John Petty)
Yet "Lazarus parts company with dogs and joins the angels." (Petty)
The chasm between the rich man and Lazarus mentions nothing of piety or goodness, only wealth. Society assumed the rich man was blessed by God; Lazarus was assumed to be lacking that blessing, even to be punished for his lack of obedience to God. But it is not so.
Everything is turned on its head. The rich man has no name; Lazarus is "helped by God"; wealth is a danger.
The great chasm between the rich man and Lazarus existed long before their deaths. It would seem that during their lives, the rich man couldn't bridge the "chasm" between his house (and his wealth) and the poor man outside his gate. He couldn't reach across it to give starving Lazarus a bite to eat or medicine for his sores or shelter from the weather. (Brian Stoffregen my emphasis)
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We understand the depth of God's love for us when we see that the story Jesus told to illustrate his point about the danger of money is fundamentally un-Christian in its eschatology. It assumes that at death there is something greater than God; something we have done digs a chasm so deep that even God will not be able to cross it.
Yet we could say, as Christian, that "Jesus sits in the bosom of Abraham" and that he can cross the chasm; that he does, in fact.
This is why it is unhelpful to see the parable as an exposition of heaven and hell (neither of which it mentions, by the way.) It points us away from the overwhelming love of God.
But as a parable of the now, it warns us of the present chasm which blinds us to each other's humanity; the digging of this chasm is fueled by the disease that riches may bring upon us; a fuel composed of greed, envy, entitlement, and finally, ultimately, indifference.
The indifference dehumanises us. Being wealthy can so desensitise us, so skew our perceptions, that it hollows out our lives. The hollowing out is of chasmic proportions; life threatening.
God gives us life, even saves us. But God is incarnate to us in people. To be indifferent to people is to be indifferent to God. Jesus and Luke are clear on this: status, position, entitlement, and especially wealth (Luke 16) fuel indifference.
In Australia, so wealthy as we are, we might wonder how much our mining boom exports our humanity in exchange for mere things. Does its wealth leave us hollow, indifferent, and separated from God?
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Online resources I found helpful for this study include:
Bill Loader: First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary Pentecost 19
John Petty: Lectionary blogging: Luke 16:19-31
Brian Stoffregen: Luke 16:19-31 Proper 21 - Year C
Alyce McKenzie: “To See or Not to See”: Stepping Over Lazarus? Reflections on Luke 16:19-26
I have previously covered this text in Luke 16:19-31 - Justice. Since I begin fresh with each of these studies, I may even disagree with myself!