The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Cross the Chasm
The chasm was always there, it's just that it never went away. It is explicitly noted in death, it's fixed in death, but it started long before the poor man fell into Abraham's bosom. The chasm appeared when the poor man was left to rot away by the gate and the rich man was too busy Scrooge-ing through an ocean of gold coins to notice. Or maybe he noticed but didn't care. Or maybe crossing the chasm just felt like a bad investment.
If last week's parable was confusing, and it was, today's is much less so. There are a lot of hiding spots in the ambiguity of last week's parable; we are not so fortunate today.
But that doesn't mean it is impossible to distract ourselves from Jesus' intense, confrontational message about wealth and possessions. We could easily get bogged down in the peripheral details of the story; we could easily, as some have done, turn this parable into eschatological speculation. We could easily lose ourselves in the afterlife and forget that this parable is very much about life – this life, here and now.
I suspect that Jesus would say something akin to what C.S. Lewis says in the preface to his own fictional journey through the afterlife, The Great Divorce: “I beg readers to remember that this is a fantasy. It has of course...a moral. But the transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or speculation at what may actually await us. The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.” So might the afterlife find us all cuddled up together in Father Abraham's lap? I suppose; anything is possible. But that is certainly not the point of this parable.
So what is the point? In Jesus' parable there are two featured characters: a rich man and a poor man. More than anything, these two men in Jesus' parable represent the shocking extremes of wealth disparity. The rich man is extremely rich. He wears fine linen and purple – a color often identified in the Scriptures as being a symbol of wealth because the purple dye was extremely costly. Purple clothes are not so rare today, so instead we might say something like, his closet was packed exclusively with handmade Brioni suits. And the rich man feasts every day. In the ancient world maybe a king, maybe, could do that. There was no refrigeration; no freezers. Feasts were rare and reserved for special occasions. But the rich man in Jesus' story: he feasted sumptuously every day. He is the very picture of extreme wealth, of luxurious excess.
If the rich man is the picture of extreme wealth, the poor man is the polar opposite. He was likely dropped at the rich man's gate, discarded with the last scraps of his dignity, like an old problem, off-loaded, un-burdened. On the ground, at the gate, unable to defend his sores from the roving hounds, it is likely he was left because he was crippled. There was no social security, no disability in those days. This is what he had: the dust around the gate. He was miserable and abandoned and dying. And all he longed for were scraps – maybe the bread the rich used as napkins, yes that was a thing, maybe the crumbs the dogs licked off of the floor. His expectations were low – and even those low expectations were too high. And to add to the sorrows of this life of hunger and abandonment, he was covered in sores. And dogs licked him. People here in the Springs love dogs, so you might be tempted to think this detail is sweet. It is not meant to be. In that society dogs were unclean scavengers. Jesus is not painting a sentimental scene in which a sweet little puppy helps nurse a homeless man back to health; quite the opposite actually: Jesus is showing his listeners rock bottom. The dogs are simply insult to injury.
And then death happens, because it always does, to rich and poor alike. And Jesus gives us a glimpse into the great reversal – the promised reversal that runs through Luke's Gospel, from the Magnificat (God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.) to the Beatitudes (Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God / But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.) What is promised, plays out in this parable. Good news for the poor man outside the gate; not great for the rich man on the other side.
But what about Jesus' audience, listening intently, trying to find a place in this parable? They were almost certainly not as rich as the rich man; also they probably were not as destitute as the poor man. They lived, like most of us do, in the space between.
This parable was not directed by Jesus to a bunch of people living the ultra-luxurious lifestyle of the rich man in the story. That type of wealth and privilege was extremely rare, the top of the top-tier. And it is too easy to write this off as a blanket critique of the richest rich. And, though one wouldn't know this from this parable, Jesus is not uniformly anti-rich people in Luke's Gospel. He eats with Zaccheus before the man divests of a single dollar and even then does not require Zaccheus to give away all of his wealth. Jesus' ministry is underwritten by a handful of wealthy women whose names are listed in the Gospel. The Gospel of Luke even begins with a message to its wealthy, Roman patron, the guy who funded the book, paid for the research, Theophilus.
That said, Jesus certainly has strong feelings about wealth and money – and mostly those feelings are not positive. The most damning words in the Gospel are reserved for those who cling more tightly to money than to God, most often in the Gospel those are people of great financial means. However, Jesus does not let anyone off the hook. He doesn't allow us to hide behind an upper-middle class or middle class or working class identification. This parable is directed to lovers of money, to those who choose the latter when Jesus says earlier in the same chapter of Luke's Gospel, “You cannot serve both God and wealth.” For most of us, not just the rich, that, practically speaking, is a tough call. That's why Jesus has to say it.
In fact, the parable is fairly clear on this point: the rich man in the Gospel is not condemned for his riches; he is condemned for what he does and does not do with those riches. He invested in the wrong things. He built a kingdom but it was the wrong kingdom. And this is Jesus' warning. Jesus is skeptical about wealth, but he also realizes that it can be used for good. It can be invested in love and beauty, in mercy and kindness. It can be invested in saving lives and restoring dignity. Money is often spent to build up private kingdoms of personal comfort. But it could be spent to build up the kingdom of God; it can be invested in the stuff of God's best dreams.
This story is not about the rich man. This story is not about the poor man. This story is about us. We, the listeners, we are the subject. Because unlike the two men in the story, we are still alive; we still have a chance to make the difference the rich man never chose to make. There are desperate people at our gate, on the other side of the chasm from us – folks in need of mercy, folks in need of refuge, folks who need to see that their lives matter. Jesus calls us to cross the chasm, cash in hand, salvation on the heart, to find the humanity on the other side. This story is not a description of the afterlife; it is not a historical biography; this is a wake up call; this parable is always Jesus sounding the alarm.
Thanks to Jesus, we've now seen the rich man's fate; we've seen the reckoning required for a life of selfish disinterest; we've seen the cost of stockpiling treasures on earth. And to some extent, because, if we are honest, we all love money a little more than we should, we wake up from this parable like Scrooge after his evening with the Ghost of Christmas future: eyes wide, cold sweat, staring down some hard truth, whispering, “Help me, Jesus.” Jesus leaves us with a choice, the same choice he offered before: God or money? It's one of his favorite questions. He tells this story, a hard story that encroaches on our checkbooks and our hearts, because he knows which way we're leaning. But he also tells the story, because for us, unlike the rich man, there is still time, still time to make a difference, still time to invest in our suffering brothers and sisters, still time to invest in the cause of love, still time to invest in the world of God's best dreams. That is the kernel of good news hidden in this stark parable: it's not too late.