BIBLE READING: 1 Timothy 6: 6-19 Luke 16: 19-31
This is a boring story that does not leave much to our imagination. There is this rich man who wears expensive suits and dines at the most expensive restaurants with his beautiful friends. Then there is poor Lazarus, - who, for whatever the reason is homeless. He doesn't really have many friends to speak of. He is cut off from human contact, alone, lonely, and desperate.
Then the curtain comes down on both of them. Immediately the tables turn. The rich man ends up in hell. Lazarus, on the other hand, is touched by the angels and ends up in heaven. The story seems so predictable, moralistic, and boring!
But there is another thing going on in this story that makes us uncomfortable. According to Luke the reason the "great reversal" happens between these two characters is only because of the inequality of life. If the rich man had been doing evil things – breaking the ten commandments, we could say, he deserves hell. God is punishing him for his sins!
But the parable clearly says that what was wrong between the rich man and Lazarus was nothing but the inequality of life that existed between them. We all know life is not equitable. Some are rich and some are poor. We really don't know how this man became rich. He might have inherited it he might have worked hard for it - but the reality does not change. That's why Luke's says that "....between you and us a great chasm has been fixed" (Luke 16:26) - this statement comes to us as more or less as a statement about the facts of life. Yes, indeed there exists in this world appalling wealth and absolute poverty. We don't like it. But that is the way it is. No surprise here. Then why should the rich man be punished for his material wealth? If this is indeed the case, just imagine what would happen to Bill Gates when his curtain comes down! After all, we all know that there are so many versions of Lazarus everywhere. And also there are those who are really protected from poverty either by greed or just by plain luck. The eternal punishment for the inequality of life seems too severe and unforgiving.
And there is something else difficult about it. - there doesn't seem to be good news in the story. The rich man finally comes to his senses after he is placed in an awful predicament and becomes concerned about the well-being of his own family members, people who are not yet thrown into hell. So, he asks Abraham to teach them a lesson or two before it's too late. But Abraham simply talks about the final tragedy of human sinfulness. Abraham says that there are people who just do not get it regardless! Some people are dense! So, where is the good news in this?
If we carefully read this story in Luke, we find that what appeared first to be a statement of the "chasm" that exits between the Rich Man and Lazarus is not really a statement of fact about the way life is. Rather, it is a statement of reality, the reality about those of us who live on this side of the great chasm.
· It is a statement of reality about our own apathy and numbness in the face of overwhelming poverty and suffering.
· It is a statement about how we are numbed until we become indifferent by the enormity of suffering world over.
The situation is overwhelming isn't it? The needs of the poor of the world seem like a heavy burden. A great chasm is fixed between those of us who live in affluence and those who are suffering from economic, social, and political devastations in Asia, Africa, Latin America and in our own cities. Those of us who live on this side of the great chasm have learned not to see the pain of Lazarus. We are numb, numb with the enormity of the pain being suffered by Lazarus of the world.
Just before he retired as president of the World Bank, Barber Conable spoke about the magnitude of the numbness those who live with wealth experience: "You know, one of the great problems we have [in this country] is we think of poverty as a relative term. We have absolutely no acquaintance with it in absolute terms, and so you can't talk about the quality of life without beginning to focus on the more than a billion people who are living on less than a dollar a day. That is not what [Americans] we would define as living." (World Watch 5, January-February, 1992, p. 8)
Our numbness is very deep. Because, between us and the world a great chasm has been fixed.... And numbness has set into our life, individually and collectively. We are unable to weep.
But, what is really scary about the great chasm that Luke talks about is more than our numbness. It's something more insidious. In the world full of Lazarus that we do not want to see, because it is too painful for us to see, we have developed an incredible sinful need for flattering falsehood in order to protect ourselves. We cannot survive without lies to make us feel we are indeed good people, actually better people than we really are. Numbness leads to self-deception.
We often talk about justice. But when we demand justice, it is likely to be justice on our behalf against other people. Few of us would ever ask for justice to be done upon us for every thing we ever did wrong. Even in the name of justice, we make ourselves feel better.
The numbness we have developed toward pain and suffering of people is compounded by our self-deception. No wonder Mother Teresa once said of the USA: "America's wealth makes her poverty much worse than India's, because it leads to spiritual death."
But the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus has another unexpected message. It is true that some of us are really dense and not really capable of "getting it" no matter what Abraham says to us. But, the real point of this tale in Luke is not just us missing the obvious signs of salvation. You see, the good news in this story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is Lazarus himself!
The biblical word for the "poor and the needy" means "the true people of God." Why? Because what are the poor if not the true images of God? Many Lazarus of the world are not "problem people." Rather, they indeed mirror the giver of life – Almighty God. That's the good news for those who live on this side of the great chasm.
So turn your heart and your eyes away from the contained private world of self-preoccupation, even self-preoccupation with our own pain, to the deep pain of the larger world. Live with weighty risk toward a new world whose shape we are yet unable to see but it is coming nevertheless. Such a life of courage and trust is indeed the life of true faithfulness.
The good news is that God wills even in the great chasm. God wills the dismantling of our sick world. For in that conviction and trust, even though it sounds so simplistic and naive, is precisely where genuine hope begins. And the signs of that are all around us in the Lazarus of the world, the images of the Almighty who wills the well-being, shalom, of all created order.
Thanks: Prof. Fumitaka Matsuoka