Luke 16: 19-31
When I was thirteen, I was elected into the Order of the Arrow, a fraternity of honor campers in Boy Scouting, dedicated to brotherhood and cheerful service to others. Initiation into OA requires a weekend-long Ordeal consisting of 24 hours of silence to turn one’s thought’s inward, a night camping alone under the stars to prove self-reliance, a day of scant food to demonstrate self-denial, and a day of arduous toil to prove one’s willingness to serve others. Once a Scout is inducted into the Order, he can then serve as part of the team leading others on their Ordeals.
Several weeks after my own ordeal, a friend and I showed up at the Scout Camp to help with another Ordeal weekend. We were looking forward to being as hard on new candidates as others had been on us. There in the parking lot where the candidates gathered, we picked out one rather grizzled, middle-aged man in uniform, standing among the younger Scouts. He had no OA insignia on his uniform, so we asked him if he was an Ordeal candidate. “Yeah,” he answered. “I’m a candidate.” “Boy, are we going to have fun with you,” we teased. “I know a great place for you to sleep tonight – on that rock pile up on the hill – and we have some great work projects for you this weekend.” “Whatever you say,” the man responded.
That night, as the Ordeal team met to organize, I was shocked to see that same man meeting with the team, wearing a Vigil Honor sash, denoting the highest level of honor within the lodge. Fortunately, Joe Ohler was a kind, forgiving, and fun-loving spirit who became a very close friend of mine in the Lodge. That night I learned a lesson about dealing with people I thought were “beneath me.”
Who are the people “beneath us?” Someone new, sitting in “our pew,” new neighbors who don’t look quite as classy as the people they replaced, the wait staff at our favorite restaurant, the cooks and dishwashers in the back – probably without green cards – that we never see, the janitors at school or work, the people who pick up our garbage, the hospital orderly who empties the bedpan, the usher at the movie theatre or ballgame, the children who will be running around the church this week, the man who panhandles every day at the ramp from Powhite Expressway to Cary Street. Police, firefighters, rescue squad. Or perhaps the numbing, nameless numbers dying every day in Baghdad, Gaza, Somalia, Haiti, or the streets of our own cities. People we have learned just not to see.
The parable of Lazarus and the rich man can only be understood as an extension of the Kingdom values Jesus preaches in the Sermon on the Mount – called in Luke 6 the Sermon on the Plain. In the Kingdom of God, Jesus says over and over, the values of the world will be reversed. The poor inherit the kingdom, the hungry will be filled, those who weep will laugh, the hated will be rewarded. On the other hand, the rich in this world have already received all the reward they’re going to get, the full will be hungry, those who laugh now will weep, and the popular will be numbered among the false prophets.
Thus it should be no surprise that when the rich man, who symbolically has no name, dies, he ends up in Hell. The poor man who lies at his gate is named Lazarus, which is Hebrew for “God has helped.” Lazarus is right there at the rich man’s door, he is starving and sick and alone, but the rich man is focused on his designer clothes and gourmet meals. The dogs are the only being who show Lazarus compassion. So, in the great reversal of death, Lazarus is in heaven, healed, at the side of father Abraham, who represents Lazarus’ inclusion in God’s covenant family.
The rich man sees Lazarus in comfort and calls to Abraham to send Lazarus with water to quench is thirst. On one hand, verse 23 says Abraham is far away. On the other hand, he is still in sight. So, the far away is not a physical distance – it is another kind. Hold that thought for a minute. Abraham answers that this is the great reversal – in mortal life, the rich man got everything that was coming to him, but Lazarus got sorrow and misery. Now, the tables have been turned. Besides, 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.
The distance is not physical: heaven and hell are within sight of each other. The distance is spiritual. What is the nature of the distance, and who created it? Not God. The chasm has been created by the rich man. It was created in his own front yard, when he decided that Lazarus was not his neighbor, and not his responsibility. That the chasm continues into death, and that no one can cross from one side to the other is demonstrated that even in the agony of hell, the rich man still expects Lazarus – and Abraham – to serve him, instead of the other way around.
What we sow in this life has eternal consequences. If we sow selfishness and greed and separation, that will continue into eternity. On the other hand, if we sow forgiveness and charity and community, we will find ourselves in a place of those things. You may remember the 2006 movie Click, which tells the story of a much-too busy man, played by Adam Sandler, who is given a remote control for life. More than anything else, he uses it to fast-forward through the unpleasant parts of his life – his wife’s complaining, his boss’s ego-driven lectures, his children’s activities. It is a deeply flawed movie, but what spoke to me was how the fast-forwarding of his life goes on automatic, and he finds himself too quickly old and sick and dying, having missed all of the small moments that make life holy. What we plant in the smallest moments in life produces a crop that we will have to eat forever.
How, then, can we begin to bridge the chasm between us and the Lazarus who lies at our gate? The Christian writer Bill Pannel used to say that when Jesus tells us to love our neighbor, the first place for us to look is to our right and our left. Who is on your right and left, right now? Look around you. Who are those people? What are their dreams? What are their hurts? What are their joys? Right now, turn to your neighbor and ask, What is your dream today?
When you leave here today, slow down enough to look for Lazarus: the Lazarus who will wait on your table at the restaurant, the Lazarus cooking or washing dishes. Look for the Lazarus who delivers your mail, who takes out your trash, who cleans your office. Who is the Lazarus who works in the next cubicle, who lives next door or down the street, who shows you to your seat at the game? Get down on your knees this week and ask a child you don’t know her name. Put some candy in your pocket and give it away.
Let me challenge you to a more specific act of neighborliness. I invite you to visit someone who lives near you but you don’t know with a gift of food. Find out who they are, what they do, and what they enjoy. Invite them over for coffee, or maybe a meal. After that, find out where they go to church, and if it’s nowhere, offer to pick them up next week and bring them with you. Don’t invite them to come on their own – carry them.
There are people at our gates we never see. Jesus says that chasms we create last forever. Jesus is God’s bridge across the troubled waters of sin; if you and I are going to follow Jesus, we have build a bridge to the Lazarus at our door. If we don’t, the loss is eternally ours.