Parables are to theology what banana peels are to a lovely stroll in the park. You hear a parable and you think, “Oh, I see where this is going.” And the next thing you know, you’re flat on your back with the wind knocked out of you, stunned and disoriented.
So, when approaching a parable, proceed with caution. You never know what’s hiding inside one. First, look for tropes. Tropes are set pieces in parables that almost never represent what they appear to represent, but rather are used to establish perspective. For example, any time you hear a story that starts with “There were two brothers” you can know that this is not going to end well, because there is some deep conflict going back to birth; that is, a permanent and intractable human dilemma. Or whenever a story opens with “There was a famine in the land” it’s going to be about institutional idolatry that has pervaded the entire community.
And, as in today and last week’s gospel, whenever a parable begins with “there was a rich man and there was a poor man” it is more likely to be about some power differential or arrogance than about financial surplus or deficit. So, do not think for one moment that this parable about the rich man in Hades and Lazarus in paradise is the proof that there is something intrinsically holy and righteous about being poor and something malevolent or evil about being wealthy.
I think the story of the rich man and the poor man Lazarus is a story about a particular kind of ignorance with regard to just how closely we humans are connected to each other. The Church has recognized this particular sort of ignorance from early on in a branch of study known as Moral Theology. In Moral Theology this sort of ignorance is called “invincible ignorance”. It is not a birth condition any more than generosity is something one is born with, but rather in both cases, the conditions are cultivated over time. Invincible ignorance is being so stupid about the truth of something that no amount of light can illumine your darkness.
Here, the rich man appears to suffer this condition, not because of his wealth but because of his repeated failure to recognize that he is connected to the suffering soul who sits day in and day out at the gate to the rich man’s home. We know that the rich man saw him; he even knew his name. To our great shock, he has the audacity even in death to ask Abraham to make Lazarus bring him some water to drink! He never acknowledges any stinginess toward Lazarus while they were both alive, but only recognizes that he sees someone who he “knows”, someone he believes he has the right to exploit, and believes that despite being dead he is still in a position to tell others what to do. And all this is pretty much the definition of being “invincibly ignorant.”
When we first hear the story set up; that is, there was a rich man and a poor man, we imagine that the rich man and the poor man are separated by a wide and un-crossable social gulf of the nature of the un-crossable gulf that Abraham tells the rich man about when he explains that there is nothing that they can do for him to help ease his suffering. The truth is, in life, the rich man and the poor man were closer to each other than they realized. Both men were trapped in death’s grip, though the rich man couldn’t appreciate how the life was being choked out of him, whereas the poor man could see his life ebbing away.
The way we all try to always put our best foot forward, you’d think that we thought “being great” is what we share in common. But we all know better. I would wager that every adult in this parish has learned the hard way that the place where we all connect is at those moments when we are utterly bereft. Perhaps we are bereft by divorce, job loss, scandal, or some other deeply disappointing event. There is not necessarily any shame in being bereft; the only shame is in failing to see that this event doesn’t make us different from other people; it makes us like them.
But if we allow the things that make us human to serve as excuses for setting ourselves apart from our fellow humans, then over time we will establish such a gulf between us and them that the gulf will seem to be permanent and un-crossable. There was, indeed, an audacity on the part of the rich man to presume that, even in death, he could treat poor Lazarus as he did. But there is another sort of audacity that allows us to presume in a holy sense to reach out to someone at the very moment when we would most like to hide away so that no one can see us “at our worst”. This is Gospel Audacity and its audaciousness derives not from human arrogance but from divine humility, Jesus pouring out his life on our behalf in order to make it possible for us to connect to God through grace and forgiveness and then as a result to be able to connect with each other in ways that are practical, compassionate, and life-saving.
The parable tells us the rich man was in torment. Perhaps you feel like you are in “torment”. The Greek word for “torment” — “basanos” — originally was used to describe a method for testing coins. The coin would be rubbed or scratched with a hard stone to test its genuineness. Later, the word was applied to a form of torture by which the truth was extracted from prisoners. The rich man was being tested and sadly was proved a human counterfeit.
If “hell” is, as the saying goes, “truth seen too late” then let’s see it now while there is time. Beyond compassionate response to the poor or a realization of how the rich man and the poor man were two sides of the same coin, lies a call to repentance for whatever separates us from God. When we are connected with God, we connect with each other in a true sense.
We may be all about building a wall between us and Mexico, until we have a personal connection with an illegal alien. We may actually believe that “separate but equal” makes some sort of sense until we acknowledge that legally forcing separation screams that we don’t consider “the other” our “equal.” When the true mettle of our lives is tested by life’s hard rocks, we actually recognize ourselves in each other.
Every time we speak the words of our baptismal promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, respecting the dignity of every human being” we are reminded that recognizing how we are connected is not just a move toward full humanity, it is a movement toward knowing God.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
September 25, 2016 Year C