If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Gate and the Gap: A word from beyond the chasm

I remember being stunned when I first read Ron Sider's book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger back in the late 70's. Sider's book, which has been re-published several times, is a both a biblical study on wealth and poverty and a critique of the widening gap between the rich and the poor in our world. Reading the statistics on poverty was enough to send my head and heart reeling. But, what cracked open my eyeswas his compilation of biblical texts dealing with wealth and poverty. You see, I had been reading the Bible through the lens of a fundamentalist perspective, which was more concerned about dotting the eyes on its doctrine and sending souls safely off to the next life, than it was with compassion for the poor and feeding hungry bodies in this life. I started to see that the law, the prophets, and Jesus' life and teachings were crowded with words of warning about wealth and good news to the poor. I started to see my own world was crowded with people who lived in desperate poverty without enough to eat. My eyes were opened to another world on the other side of the gate.

The Parable of the Rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) is one of those stories I read with new eyes. It was no longer just a story about heaven and hell. It became a story about life and death issues here and now. Jesus' parable paints two worlds---the world of Dives, Latin for "rich man", and the world of Lazarus, which means "God helps." The world of Dives and Lazarus are separated by a gate, but life in these worlds is as far apart as the earth is from the moon.

Take a look at the world of Dives. Peer through the gate from poor Lazarus' side. Dives is dressed in purple cloth and fine linen, signs of wealth and honor. He feasts at a table spread with sumptuous foods. Roasted hens. Nuts. Figs. Dates. Pomegranates. Jugs of wine. Dives wipes his greasy hands with bread and tosses it underneath the table. Boy, don't those rich people live high off the hog!

On Dives side of the gate you might see paper thin supermodels strutting down the runway in the latest Paris fashions. Racks and racks of clothing hanging at the department store of your choice. Muslin and mink, silk and suede, leather and lace. More styles of shoes than Heinz has pickles. Jewelry, diamonds, rubies, earrings, watches that can wake you up in the morning. And the food, glorious food, on Dives side of the gate! There is a smorgasbord to choose from. Turkey and chicken, steak and pork, Caesar salad, egg salad, tuna salad, chicken noodle soup, tomato soup, celery soup, Clam chowder, Reuben sandwich, roast beef sandwich, cheese steak sandwich, corn, potatoes, green beans, snow peas, with your choice of low sodium or cooked in butter. Wine, champagne, mixed drinks, apple juice, lemonade, milk, chocolate, sodas and teas in every flavor under the sun. And don't forget desert. Pumpkin, cherry, apple, lemon marangue, shoofly pie, ice cream, sundaes, banana splits with a cherry on top! Mmmmm!

On Dives side of the gate you might run into Donald Trump or Bill Gates with their billion dollar fortunes, their big casinos, their big houses, their big yachts. 0, those rich people have it all at their fingertips. Greedy, selfish people. You may not have all their money but you can turn on the TV and dream of being rich as you watch So You Want to Be a Millionaire or buy a ticket and hope to win the Powerball lottery. You may not be rich, but you still have your shiny new car, truck, jeep, van, convertible, station wagon, Ford, Chevy, Dodge, GM, Mitsubishi, Toyota, Honda, hybrid, or whatever you drive. You may not be rich, but you can turn on your surround sound stereo, CD player, Wii, Xbox, blu-ray player, surf the internet, watch over 1000 channels on your flat screen TV, call your friends on the cell phone or iphone. You may not be rich, but you can eat Mexican, Italian, Chinese, Soul Food, Southern style, Ethiopian, Indian, or go out to just plain ol’ McDonald’s, Carl’s Junior, Wendy’s, Burgerville, or Taco Bell for a change. Then, you can go to the spa, gym, weightlifting, aerobics, Tae Bo, Pilates, or get your own home equipment to work off all that food. You may not be rich, but you can still go to the bookstore, clothes store, furniture store, craft store, tool store, lawn care store, or pet store. And, thank God, there's always that one place where it all comes together….the mall! You may not be rich? Well, maybe we do live on Dives side of the gate!

Now, take a gander through the gate at Lazarus' side of the tracks. Look over at Lazarus' world. Lazarus is lying by the gate. He has no energy. Life is drained from his body. His arms and legs are covered with infected, runny sores. Flies buzz around them. Street dogs lick his wounds. Is it out of compassion or are they tasting their next meal? Lazarus' stomach is bloated. It growls like the dogs. Wet eyes look through the gate to see if a tossed scrap of bread might fall from Dives' table and land near his paper thin arms.

On Lazarus' side of the gate you might meet two-thirds of the world. 1.3 billion living in absolute poverty. A simple wardrobe or rags hang on their bodies. No shoes. A little rice and beans. Maybe some tortillas. Bad water. Sometimes nothing but empty stomachs. Starvation. Glassy eyes and supermodel-thin arms and legs. Walking skeletons. Open sores. Disease. No medical insurance. Few doctors. Long hour bending over in the fields or standing in welfare lines. Dirty diaper and alcohol smells. Run arounds and put downs. Frustration and anger seething. Drug dealers on the corner. Trash on the streets. At times it can be a hell hole. For heaven's sake, let's not linger long. Looking through the gate is too horrible, too painful. It makes us feel helpless, hopeless, and guilty. Lazarus' world overwhelms us. Be assured, we are on Dives' side. Everything will be all right in our world. Thank God, there's a gate that still separates us ... from them!

O, that gate. It separates Dives from Lazarus, rich from poor, insiders from outsiders. According to the prophet Amos, the gate is a place of judgment, where justice is to be done for the poor (Amos 5). If only Dives would have opened the gate, or at least passed threw a scrap of bread. But, I understand how tough that is. As I look back through the gate think I spot ol’ Bill Hawkins. Bill was a 62 year old, with a slow walk and mind. He lived in a rundown house painted proudly in red, white and blue, the colors of our great nation of tired and poor and huddled masses. Anyway, I got pulled into his world because he lived across the street from one of the deacons of the church where I was pastor. I was called upon to occasionally visit Bill. He wore old, Goodwill, secondhand clothes that smelled of body odor. His yard was knee high in grass, weeds, trash, and rusty vehicles.
I remember holding my breath as I walked into his home through piles of garbage on the floor.

Bill showed me his altar with pictures of Jesus and his mother lit by burning candles. At the time he had been hit by a Ford Mustang and was on crutches. His sole companion was his dog. "Me and my puppy is all I got," Bill said. He had no wealthy relatives, no brothers or sisters, no income, no disability or health insurance. I remember taking him to the Free Clinic and waiting there six hours to see a doctor. I wasn't being an angel. I was frustrated as a demon trying to get Mother Teresa's attention. Bill was used to waiting upon help from others. Or was he? The world on the other side of the gate is not a heaven on earth.

So, I can understand not wanting to linger too long on Lazarus' side of the gate. Helping Lazarus can take up your precious time. He's always in need of food, money, gas, rental assistance, payment for doctor bills, or some kind of help. Thank heavens, Lazarus is on the other side of the gate. He can become a bit dependent, expensive, and time consuming. And if you want to change Lazarus situation it’s a bigger issue than charity and a hand out. It’s also trying to change the whole darn system that creates m ore Lazarus’ than you can shake a dollar at.

Knowing that, let's not come down too hard on ol’ Dives. Dives worked hard for his money, while Lazarus lays around the gate doing nothing. Why toss it away on lazy Lazarus. Besides, Lazarus would probably just go out and spend it on booze. Besides, if you help Lazarus it’s not going to change anything for all those others in his situation. So, why do anything for him? Cut Dives some slack. Maybe Dives thought of Lazarus when he was tossing his bread napkins under the table. Maybe he was just too busy to take them over to the gate. Mercy takes time. You know how busy life can get taking care of your children, your home, your friends, your work. Who knows? Dives might have been pondering the plight of Lazarus when he scraped piles of leftovers from his plates. "Remember all those hungry kids in China," he might have told his children. Away from the table Dives might have flicked past a TV commercial displaying a child with hungry eyes pleading, "Have mercy." I'll bet he was probably going to sit down and write out a check to World Vision or MCC or Sally Struthers or somebody who helps those kind of people. It must have just slipped his mind. For pity's sake, you can understand that, can't you? Mercy me, it's not like helping the poor is a life or death decision.

Lazarus dies. I wonder if he died from hunger. I wonder if he even got a descent burial. It doesn't say. Lazarus is carried away like a newborn baby to the rock-a-my-soul-in-the-bosom-of-Abraham. Abraham was a rich man. Now, ain't that a kick in the head. A rich man in heaven. Remember, Abraham, along with his wife Sarah, was also rich in hospitality. They fed three strangers at their gate. And, glory be, the strangers turned out to be God Almighty in cognito. Whew! Old Abe was lucky he treated them strangers nice. On the other side, where heaven's hospitality spreads its bountiful table, Lazarus is robed in God's justice. He feasts on the fatness of God's banquet.

Around the same time, Dives kicks the bucket. Maybe it was some bad caviar. You've got to watch out for bad fish eggs. He must have gotten more than a decent burial. Funeral home, hearse, organ, flowers, stone monument, the works. But, things get turned around in the world on the other side of the gate of life. Dives, poor soul. becomes a helluva guy. Literally. He ends up cooking like a potato in the Devil's stew. Gone to the dogs. No medical coverage for his fevered brow. No fire insurance. Not even a drop of water to quench his raging thirst. You would think that he would have changed his menu there in Hell's kitchen. No way. He feeds on the same old stuff he fed on as in his life.

Dives is still trusting in his family and religious heritage to save him. "Father Abraham," he cries. Even in Hades, Dives is still self- centered. "Father Abraham, have mercy on me." He still thinks of Lazarus as a second-class citizen and is trying to boss him around. "Father Abraham, have mercy on me, send Lazarus, my waterboy. The flames are licking my sore legs." Dives is cooking in his own sour juices. He is still imprisoned by his own narrow self-interests. "Father Abraham, I beg you, have mercy and send Lazarus to my father's house to my five brothers. Have him warn them so they don't end up tormented like me." As if his family was the only family, the only people in the world. Poor Dives, still trying to protect home and hearth. Still trying to protect the comfy world of plenty. Still reinforcing the bars that separate the two worlds. Except, in the world on the other side of life, the gate has been locked. It is now an unchangeable chasm, an unbridgeable gulf, an impassable gap.

If only someone from the dead could come back across the gap and give us the score. Tell it like it is. Show us how we build gates that separate the rich from poor, the haves from the have nots, the insiders from the outsiders. Have mercy, Lord. If only some resurrected person could come and tell us some good news, like how we can open the gate and unfix the gap. If only three Charles-Dickens-holy-ghosts could come to us in the dead of night to save us from ourselves. Or what about an Emmaus-road-resurrected- stranger who could walk along side us and teach us the law and the prophets, then we could invite him over for dinner and he could break bread with us. Then our eyes would be opened and we would recognize him. Mercy, Lord.

No. We don't need someone to come back from the dead to tell us the truth, to transcend this gap, to bridge the chasm. We have the bridge of this story. We have the bridge of Jesus’ words. We have the bridge of Scripture. We have preachers and teachers and storytellers and poets to tell us. We have a message from across the other side. We’ve already heard the voice from across the chasm. The voice has already said, “You have the poor with you always. You are your brother’s and sister's keeper. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Heal the sick. Visit the prisoner. Care for the widow and orphan. Welcome the stranger and outcast.” So, hear God's Word from beyond the gate and have mercy.

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