Perhaps one of the great tragedies of our existence is that we can never know with complete certainty what another person is thinking or feeling. Even when it is your closest friend or spouse, at a certain point, the words we use to communicate are simply too fragile and clumsy to convey truly thought and emotion. No matter how close we are to someone, there is always a small chasm that separates us and leaves us isolated in the experience of our own mind.
It is as though God recognized this innate barrier when we were created, and so gave us the next best thing; God gave us the ability to imagine ourselves in the place of the other, a capacity we call empathy. While we can never know the mind of another person, empathy allows us to experience the joy and pain that we see in other people as we imagine how it would be for us to be in their place of happiness or suffering. Empathy allows us to be human as we seek to alleviate the hurts and provide for the needs of our fellow human beings.
While today’s Gospel story is about many things, one of its core themes is about what happens when our empathy breaks down and our ability to imagine ourselves in the place of other people no longer leads to compassion. It is a story about a rich man who lived a life filled with luxury and excess, a life that never wanted for any comfort, but who was blind to the man who lived at his gate for months—maybe for years. The poor man Lazarus lived a life that was the exact opposite of the rich man, filled with suffering and pain, within sight of the relief and comfort of the rich man, but separated from it by a great chasm of indifference.
How could this happen? How could the one person become so numb to the needs and pain of another person that they could pass by that person everyday without ever stopping to lend a hand, provide relief from the suffering, and soothe his pain? While we might be tempted to say that the rich man must have been an evil and heartless man, or that his wealth was evil and corrupted him, I don’t think that the answer is that easy. I don’t think that the rich man was evil; I think he may have been remarkably similar to ourselves, remarkably similar to people we know, remarkably similar to people who are close to our own hearts. Nor do I think that the money he enjoyed was evil, after all money can be used for great good and is ultimately only a human idea to which we attach value.
The problem with the rich man in this story is that he believed the illusion that so often comes with wealth. We tell ourselves a collective story that all we need to make it in life, that all we need to overcome any obstacle, is hard work and just a little luck. In my own experience, when we are poor we recognize that story as fantasy. All you need is hard work and a little luck. When you have no wealth, you understand that those words have as much substance as so many fairy tales.
Something funny happens when we find ourselves with more wealth, though. All you need is hard work and a little luck. Slowly, we find those words making more sense, until one day we believe the story we tell ourselves and we buy into the fantasy. All you need is hard work and a little luck. The difficulty is that when we believe these words, then we also believe that the wealth that we have is purely the result of our hard work. When we believe this story, then we believe that the wealth we have is rightfully ours; we believe that we deserve our wealth.
So, we come to the first tragedy of the rich man in this story, because if we believe that our wealth is purely the result of our hard work and something we deserve, then what happens to our capacity for empathy? If this is the story we believe, then when we imagine ourselves in the place of the other, the result is not compassion but judgment. If we don’t need anything, then how can we ever hope to understand the needs of others? After all, if it is hard work and luck that got me where I am today, then when I imagine myself in the place of the poor and the suffering, then the most logical conclusion is that the poor and suffering must not work very hard or have squandered whatever opportunities luck might have afforded them, and that if I had been in their place in reality, things would have turned out differently. So then, why should I be bothered to help people who so clearly in my mind don’t deserve the help? After all, God helps those who help themselves, and I am not better than God.
Thus, the rich man completed his isolation and so established the chasm that separated him from Lazarus who sat for so long at his gates. The tragedy does not end here, because there is a second tragedy in the story of the rich man. All you need is hard work and a little luck. When we really believe this story, then where is there room for grace; where is there room for mercy; where is there room for salvation? If we buy into the idea of being a self-made woman or a self-made man, then do we need God? And if we have no need for God, then how can we begin to hope to see and hear where God is at work in the world?
The great chasm in this story stands not just between the rich man and Lazarus, blinding him to the suffering and pain that Lazarus endured and that he could have relieved, it stands between the rich man and God. So convinced of his self-sufficiency, the rich man stopped up his ears and covered his eyes so that he could no longer be witness to God’s work in the world and could no longer hear the words of Moses and all the prophets sent by God. Showing sudden concern for his siblings, which we can only assume were like the rich man, he begs to have Lazarus sent back to warn them, but Abraham asks with great irony, “If they will not listen to Moses and all the prophets, will they listen to a person resurrected from the dead?”
My sisters and my brothers, we are the siblings of the rich man. Abraham is asking us the question. Will we listen to Moses and all the prophets? Will we heed the words of the one who was raised from the dead?
We live in a world with a huge disparity in wealth, and it is only growing with every passing year, and that is just in our country. When we take into account the rest of the world, the disparity spans several orders of magnitude. There is such a huge gulf that separates the wealthy from the poor that it strains the imagination.
All you need is hard work and a little luck. There is so much wealth involved that these words are whispered into our ears in a cacophony of noise. Though we may not feel wealthy, we have enough wealth that we find these words tempting, soothing, and easy to believe. They lull us into a comfortable isolation, slowly insulating us from the suffering and need that surrounds us, and so the chasm grows.
We are not the rich man, we are his sisters and brothers, and that is the Good News of the Gospel today! It is still left for us to choose, it is still left to us to unblock our ears and uncover our eyes, because God is at work in the world, and God is still speaking to us! The chasm that separated the rich man was not put there by God and it is not what God wants for us. God has sent Moses and all the prophets to speak to us, and God has sent us Jesus—raised from the dead—to lead us back into relationship, back into community, and back into compassion.
My friends, be sharp of sight and keen of hearing so that where God is at work in our world and in our lives, we will see it, and where God is speaking in our midst, we will stop and listen. Take stock of where God has filled our lives with grace, where God has shown us mercy, and where God has saved us, because it is only by doing this that we can remind ourselves that we are not self-made, we are God-made; we cannot trust in our own hard work and luck, it is in God we trust. Only when we first see where God has blessed us in our own lives can we be a blessing in the lives of others.
God is at work in the world. Though one of the tragedies of our human existence is that there is always a chasm that separates us, even if it is very tiny, Moses and all the prophets are calling to us, Jesus is teaching us, and God is equipping us to reach across it and touch each other’s lives.
Preached by Adam Yates