I have to admit that I am terrified of the parable about the rich man and Lazarus the beggar. When you really think about it, it is terrifying.
A rich man ate well and dressed in fine clothes. Well, he didn’t just eat well, he feasted every day and he didn’t just wear nice clothes, he wore purple and fine linen. Purple was the color of royalty and linen, so light and beautiful, was one of the most expensive fabrics in Israel. Meanwhile outside the rich man’s house, a poor man named Lazarus lay there dying. He was not only poor and hungry but he had sores. And the dogs came and licked his sores. He was degraded to lower than a dog. He lay in the dirt. And the poor man has a name, Lazarus. And the rich man does not.
Both men die and Jesus paints a vivid picture of what happens next. Lazarus is taken to heaven by angels where he sits with Abraham. The rich man just ends up in Hades and we don’t really know how he got there. But what we do know is that he is very hot. There is fire all around him and it torments him. Worse still, the rich man can see Lazarus and Abraham in the comforts of heaven. He can see them but he can’t get to them. He must watch paradise from a seat in hell.
The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool his tongue. It is a small request. He does not question his fate. He does not yell and scream. He does not ask for a way out of hell. All he asks is for a tiny bit of water, enough to moisten the tip of a finger, a tongue. But Abraham answers by telling him about the chasm.
Abraham addresses the rich man with the word “child.” He does not seem angry or offended by the rich man, rather, it seems that he is trying to educate someone who knows next to nothing, someone like a child.
Abraham describes the gap to the rich man. “There is a great gap between heaven and hell and you can’t cross over. No one can, not in either direction.” And this is what I find so hard to digest in this parable. Heaven and hell are cut off from each other. There is no redo. Once you end up in one place or the other, that’s it.
And the rich man ends up in Hades because he did not see the man who sat on the ground right on his doorstep. He did not see a person there. He had a chance to make a connection that would have served as a bridge between him and Lazarus, but the gap that was there in life was even worse in death. The rich man could simply not cross over.
The rich man failed to see Lazarus. Lazarus looked so different. He was so dirty, so ugly, so smelly. The rich man didn’t want to see. So he just walked on by and the distance that he created became the chasm that kept him from God.
The distance that he created became the chasm that kept him from God.
Our relationship with one another is part of our relationship with God. When we fail to see each other, when we allow the gap to exist, we alienate ourselves from God.
All over this country, there are riots going on in our cities. These riots have been going on periodically for decades. White and black people are not seeing one another as human beings. There is still so much blindness. So little communication. So much hatred. And we all are suffering, all of us.
Lazarus was lying right in the path of the rich man, at the gate to his home. He was right at his doorstep. The rich man had to pass by Lazarus every time he left home and every time he returned. And even still, he did not see Lazarus as a human being. Day after day, he simply refused to see.
So how can we bridge the gap in this life? What could the rich man have done to save himself from eternal torment? The answer is simple. See Lazarus. Enter his skin. Learn about him. Serve him.
God is not asking us to fix it the problems of the world or the suffering of humanity, but to see the people who are in our path as people. To learn their names. To see with God’s eyes and to ask ourselves, “What is God asking of me?”
This love your neighbor as yourself stuff, it’s no joke. We are being asked to close the gap.
It’s scary to see each other, to risk letting someone change our lives. But if Jesus is right, it is essential. We cannot cross the gap to God if we haven’t crossed the gap to understand each other.
Yesterday, I was leaving the church after an emotionally-charged funeral. I was walking to my car when a homeless woman came marching towards me swearing at the top of her lungs. She seemed to want to tell me something, but the swear words were so thick that I had to ask her to stop swearing so much simply so I could understand her. She was carrying a children’s book wrapped in plastic, like the kind you get at a McDonalds drive through or a Chick Fil A. When she slowed down enough, I began to understand her story.
It turns out that this woman had tried to give the children’s book to a little girl as she and her family were leaving the church after the funeral. And the little girl refused to take it.
“I had a present for her!” the woman cried. “And she didn’t want it!”
I realized that this woman, who was so loud and abrasive, had had her feelings hurt. When I told her that it sounded like this hurt her feelings, she said, “Yeah it did! That little girl…she broke my heart!”
And then, to my surprise, the woman thanked me for listening and walked on. Turns out that all that she needed was simply to be heard.
Who is on your doorstep? That person is an essential part of your story, a way for you to grow closer to God.
To close the gaps in this broken world is to grow to God in the next. It is all so intertwined. We must see one another as human beings for the very salvation of our souls.