Sunday, September 30, 2007
Here's this morning's homily. The Gospel is Luke 16:19-31.
Most story-tellers have favorite themes they use again and again, and Jesus is no exception. In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, he uses ideas we recognize from many other places in the Gospel. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. Love your neighbor as yourself. Whatever you have done for the least of these who are members of my family, you have done for me. This story is, first and foremost, about the obligation to care for the poor, a duty as urgent in our own time as it was in Jesus’.
It would be easy to use this Sunday’s Gospel as the occasion for yet another homily about poverty and homelessness. These are, as most of you know, preoccupations I share with Jesus, and I probably become as repetitive on the subject as he does. But when I read this parable, what captures my attention isn’t Lazarus’ dire earthly condition, or even his joyous ascension. The image that haunts me is that gap, the distance between Lazarus and the rich man in torment. “Between you and us,” Abraham tells the rich man, “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.”
“A great chasm has been fixed.” If one of my freshman composition students wrote that sentence, I’d underline it and write in the margin, “Fixed by whom? Avoid passive voice!” The grammar doesn’t tell us the source of this chasm. Who has made it so impossible for the rich man to receive comfort? God? Personally, I’m uneasy with the idea of a vengeful God who tosses the rich man into Hades, slams the door, and says, “You got what you deserved, buddy. You wouldn’t share your scraps with Lazarus when he was right outside your front door? Fine, then. Don’t come crying to me or mine for help.” As natural as it might be for any of us to feel this way, I suspect that kind of psychology is human, not divine.
My hunch is that the person who fixed the chasm is the rich man himself. He fixed the chasm when he refused to bend down to feed the poor man on his doorstep. By refusing to bend even a few inches, he has created the uncrossable abyss between himself and Lazarus. Because the rich man would not close the distance between them, when he could have done so easily, Lazarus cannot close the much wider gap between them now. All things are possible with God; but God has given us free will, and if we use that gift to deny and avoid our kinship with God’s other children, we are denying and avoiding God Himself. We’re on one side of the chasm. God’s on the other, desperate to reach us, stretching out a hand or a lifeline, always there. But we have to reach back. We have to accept God’s embrace.
To me, this is the most sobering message in this morning’s Gospel. The rich man, denied water, asks that Lazarus to be allowed to warn his brothers. Abraham says, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
Moses, the Prophets, and Jesus himself have commanded us to care for those in need. This is not an obscure or difficult point of doctrine. It’s bedrock. If we’ve missed that message, all the miracles in the world won’t convince us. If we’ve missed that message, the fact that Jesus has risen from the dead, to feed and comfort and teach us, won’t convince us either. Jesus cannot say “love your neighbor” any more plainly than he already has.
And yet I suspect all of us still struggle with the message, at least sometimes; I know I do. “Oh, come on, God. I know I’m supposed to love my neighbors, but surely you don’t mean those people over there?” All of us have people who make us recoil, who send us into furious bouts of searching for shovels so we can start digging moats and chasms. “God can’t mean me to give handouts to these lazy bums who won’t get off the sidewalk and get a job! God can’t mean me to accept people who don’t accept God in exactly the same form I do! God can’t mean me to help those who hurt others!”
These chasms run through every part of our lives: through international affairs and national politics, through our workplaces and our families. It’s easy to believe that our inflexibility is a virtue, that by refusing to bend a few inches, we’re keeping the moral high ground. Imagine the protests of the rich man: “You want me to feed Lazarus? But that would be wrong! Charity would just encourage him to keep lying there, instead of looking for a job!” Or, more simply: “I’ve worked for my money! I deserve my wealth! What’s Lazarus done?”
We all have people who make us recoil, but if we can learn to recognize why, maybe we can also try to bend a little, to keep from automatically reaching for our shovels. One of the behaviors that has always made me start digging is religious intolerance. I hate it when people dismiss me because I’m Christian, and I hate it when Christians dismiss those of other faiths. Since 9/11, I’ve been especially distressed by anti-Islamic bigotry, by people who assume that all Muslims are terrorists. One of the finest students I’ve ever had was a young man who grew up as a Muslim in Tennessee, and who endured terrible cruelty and prejudice at the hands of so-called Christians. When I hear the word Muslim, I don’t see a faceless mass. I see Nael, who stayed so thoughtful and loving in the face of hatred. I see my Muslim student Nadia, a Republican who served in the U.S. Navy. I see my friend Pamela, a progressive Muslim feminist. These are people, not stereotypes. And so when I hear others stereotyping them, my first instinct is to grab the nearest shovel, to dig a chasm and then assure myself that there’s no way to cross it.
During one of my recent shifts as a volunteer chaplain at the hospital, I met a man, alone in the ER, who believed that he was dying. He told me briskly that he didn’t need to talk, thank you -- but then he talked my ear off for thirty-five minutes. He told me about his childhood, about his hobbies, about his family. Quite early in the conversation, he told me that he’d cut off all contact with one of his grown daughters when she married “a raghead.”
I felt my spine stiffen. I felt my hands itching for a shovel. And then I remembered that I was working as a chaplain, that I wasn’t allowed to abandon a patient just because he’d made a comment that infuriated me. And so I said, as matter-of-factly as I could, “You know, some of the kindest and most gentle people I’ve ever met have been Muslim.”
The patient squinted up at me. “Really? But why do they all want to kill us?”
“They don’t all want to kill us,” I told him. “My Muslim friends are as upset by Muslim terrorists as any of us. Their lives are harder because people think they must be terrorists, too.”
The patient grew thoughtful. “Yes, that’s true. I was in Japan during WWII, and those people were nothing like what I expected. You know, they have quite a society over there.”
“Yes,” I said. “They certainly do.” I listened to him wax enthusiastic about Japanese culture for a few minutes, and then I asked, “Have you met your son-in-law? The Muslim one?”
The patient recoiled. “Oh, no! I don’t want to!”
“But you might like him,” I said. “He might surprise you, just like the Japanese did.”
“No,” the patient said, shaking his head. “I’ll never meet him. I have no desire to.”
I don’t know what other issues there are in this family, what else may have happened to estrange father and daughter, what bitter words may have been exchanged before the marriage. I suspect the situation is more complicated than I know, that the religious differences are an easy way to explain deeper hurts. But I do know that this patient has dug a chasm that he refuses to cross, that his daughter and son-in-law cannot or will not cross, and that, therefore, God himself could not cross. And I only pray that before the patient dies, he or someone in his family will bend down to start throwing dirt back into that hole, or to start building a bridge.
And what of me? Normally, I would have recoiled from this man as soon as he used the hateful term “raghead.” But because I had a job to do, I stayed and listened to him instead. And I discovered that I genuinely liked him. I wanted to help him. I prayed that he and his family would be reconciled, that they would allow love to fill the chasm between them.
I’m not claiming as any huge moral victory the fact that I managed to act like a human being, that I overcame my own bigotry and didn’t turn away from a patient facing death. That would be like the rich man priding himself on giving Lazarus his leftovers. I simply did my job. But I would suggest that as Christians, we must always remember the fact -- one I all too often forget -- that we are never off duty. Jesus has given all of us a job to do, and that job is to love our neighbors just as Jesus has loved us: not to dig chasms, but to reach down to those who need help, and to reach out to those who seem to be standing a world away.