If you live on a street where everyone puts out their blue box on recycling day, you may have noticed that not everyone who can recycle does. The recycling bins in my own townhouse complex are communal so I have no idea who amongst my neighbours is and isn’t recycling but the cardboard boxes that periodically show up in the garbage bin tell me that at least some of them aren’t. We all know we are supposed to recycle but we don’t always do it.
I myself am a pretty avid recycler so it’s easy for me to point fingers at those who don’t but when it comes to reducing and reusing, well, let’s just say those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. For example, I am terrible at remembering to bring reusable cups to a coffee shop. I have a very bad excessive paper towel habit and despite having several conversations about becoming a one car family, we have not been able to bring ourselves to actually become one. I know I am supposed to reduce, reuse and recycle but I don’t always do it. And I know I am not alone.
That is why when it comes to the current state of our environment, we all bear some responsibility. When the fires are burning, temperatures are soaring and the waters are rising we all know what’s going on but do these changes in our environment motivate us to change? Not always.
This morning we hear a parable that is only found in Luke’s gospel in the Bible. We shouldn’t be too surprised that Luke includes this story about the rich man and Lazarus in his version of the Jesus narrative. All four gospels make it pretty clear that Jesus was concerned about the gap between the rich and the poor more than pretty much anything else, more than lying, more than stealing and more than sex in case you are wondering about that. But in Luke’s gospel Jesus confronts the rich four times as often as he does in the other three gospels. Biblical scholars call this Jesus preferential option for the poor.
So it shouldn’t surprise us to open up Luke’s gospel and find this story about the gap between the rich man and poor Lazarus. But it might surprise us to know that Luke’s gospel in particular and the Bible in general is not the only place this story is found. There are at least 7 different versions of this same story in a variety of Rabbinic ancient sources. Versions of it are found in Egyptian priestly literature and elsewhere in documents found throughout the near east. The characters are different but the story line is essentially the same. The story is universal.
Rich people and poor people living side by side, the gap that exists between them and our struggle to overcome it is a reality that has been with us for what seems like forever. This is not a parable about what happens to us after we die. This is a parable about what is happening in the here and now day in and day out.
When I read the story of the rich man and Lazarus my mind immediately goes to my own confrontation with this reality. The travelling I did as a young adult in developing nations exposed me to a level of poverty I had not previously experienced. When I returned home to the comforts of my western life I had a terrible time reconciling my life of privilege with the disparities I had seen. It wasn’t until I was a bit old that I realized I didn’t actually have to leave the country to see those disparities. A drive from one end of Hastings street to the other is all it takes. It’s just I hadn’t seen that reality in my own backyard before I went off travelling.
And that’s part of what is going on for the rich man in this parable. He fills his stomach in full view of Lazarus who has been languishing just outside his gate but he never actually sees the beggar on his doorstep. After he dies and ends up in hell, he suddenly can see him but he still doesn’t really see him ,if you know what I mean. “Brother Abraham, send Lazarus to dip his finger in the cool water and bring it to me” says the man. He doesn’t even speak directly to Lazarus. Even in death he expects Lazarus to be his servant. He’s burning in hell because of his actions on earth and he still doesn’t know how to treat Lazarus with respect. The gap between the two is firmly entrenched.
How often do we pass by people sitting in the street or standing at an intersection holding a cardboard sign asking for spare change but never actually see them?
I wonder if there’s something about seeing and then making visible the invisible suffering of the world that helps us close the gap between rich and poor. If we think about the divide between the rich and the poor and apply this same logic to the divide between humanity and the rest of creation perhaps there’s something about seeing and making visible the suffering of planet that will help us mend that gap.
I wonder but I’m not entirely sure. And here’s why.
Of all the stories that have been told across the centuries about a rich man who dies and goes to hell and the poor man who sat outside his gate who dies and goes to heaven, only the story we heard this morning carries on with a conversation between the rich man and Father Abraham. “Father Abraham” says the rich man “please send Lazarus to my father’s house. I have five brothers. Please Father Abraham I beg you please send Lazarus to them to warn them so that they will not also come into this place of torment.”
“They already have what they need.” Says Father Abraham. “They have Moses and all the prophets. They should listen to what they already know.” “But they won’t Father Abraham they won’t listen to them but maybe if someone rises from the dead and warns them maybe then they will listen.”
The Christian in me wants to say “yes Father Abraham. What about Jesus? If he rose from the dead maybe they would listen to him.” But instead Father Abraham replies “No. If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they are not going to listen to someone who rises from the dead.” And that’s how the parable ends.
I’m looking for the Good News for the rich in here and I’m not finding much.
I recently learned about a Halloween attraction called a Hell House. Hell Houses like haunted houses are meant to scare their patrons. The difference is that they are created by churches who want to teach their teenagers lessons in morality. Various rooms in the Hell House illustrate how sinful behaviour like drinking alcohol, taking illicit drugs, engaging in premarital sex and same sex marriage in this life lead a person directly into the hell fires of the afterlife. Not surprisingly in the last room in the house there is an opportunity to commit one’s life to Jesus Christ before it is too late.
The creators of these Hell Houses clearly have not read the story of the rich man and Lazarus because if they had they would know that fear is never a good motivator for lasting change.
The last two summers on the West Coast we practically have burned in hell but even that may not be enough to make us do what we need to do to stop the planet from warming.
When the rich man wanted Father Abraham to go and warn his brothers about the future they were creating for themselves Father Abraham said “They already have what they need. They already know everything they need to know. “ Scaring them into changing will not work.
The point is we don’t really need a big show or a big scare to do what we already know we need to do. We just need to remember what we already know.
Across the centuries, from philosophers to psychologists to spiritual leaders it has been argued that for humanity to recognize truth there must be something within us that already knows it. And I can’t help but wonder if that’s what Father Abraham was trying to say to the rich man in today’s parable. Somewhere in our being we already know there is no gap between rich and poor because we are one and the same. I am you and you are me and if we can remember that together we will act in ways that acknowledge that reality and there will be no gap. The same is true for us and creation. We are one and the same. And the more we can remember that day in and day out by slowing down and being consciously aware of that truth the more we will act in ways that acknowledge that reality and we will close the gap.
The Good News is, we have what we need to do this. We just need to act upon it.
Fred Craddock who was a great American preaching professor once said that the scriptures, the stories, the poetry we reflect upon together every Sunday, are all we need to generate faith. Live in the pages of the Bible, he said, and it will make you open your pockets and empty them for someone else’s child. Live in these pages, he said and you will never eat a full meal in plain sight of someone else who is starving. When it comes to the disparities of this world, we will never be able to right these wrongs in any other life than this one.
Let’s remember and act upon what we already know.