Filling in the gaps

Pentecost 18; Proper 21C
Luke 16:19-31

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Too often in life, it seems that it’s the simplest lessons that can be the hardest to digest.

The parable that we read this morning looks to be, on the surface, one of those “simple lessons”:

The rich man lives a life of luxury - wearing the latest fashions, feasting each day on the finest foods. Meanwhile, at the gate of luxury, there lives a man of despair. So poor, so hungry, so diseased. And though their experiences in their lives are as divergent as anyone could imagine, those experiences converge in the way that all lives do - through death.

As we have come to expect in the literature of the parables, on the other side of this life, the two men’s roles are reversed. The rich man, who stored up his treasures on earth, finds that they have passed away. The poor man, who suffered greatly on earth, finds that his reward had awaited him all along in heaven.

Last week we considered the parable of the dishonest manager. The manager, remember, who was actually commended for being dishonest. It was a tough one. So far from what we expect from Jesus, that, like those who first heard the parable, we were forced to tease out the lesson from amidst the scandal.

This week we’re back to normal. The words of the Magnificat - Mary’s Song of Praise upon reflecting on the Christ in her womb - are borne out in the teaching of this parable. The song says, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” Those words are something like a prologue to the Gospel According to Luke. Throughout the book we are taught again and again to care for the poor and to spurn our dependence on the physical comforts of this world.

So this should be one of the simpler lessons.

We could easily spend our time together today reminding ourselves to care for the poor. We could spend our time imagining the ways that we are like the rich man and considering how we might learn from Moses and the prophets in this life and avoid the fate that he faced.

We might even consider the ways that we are like poor Lazarus - oft-suffering and struggling - but in anticipation of the riches that heaven has in store for us.

Depending upon our situations, those would be perfectly fine things to consider and meditate about on this, the Lord’s Day: if you are suffering, keep calm and carry on. If you are comfortable, offer aid to those less fortunate.

It’s a fine lesson, and if you don’t take anything else away with you today other than that, you will have done well.

But there’s something more lurking under the surface of this story. Each time I read it, I’m struck by one word: chasm.

As Lazarus and the rich man are each reaping the rewards of their lives on earth, the rich man calls out to Abraham begging him to send Lazarus to offer relief to his suffering. In his response, Abraham says, “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can come from there to us.”

Though the parable has the circumstances of each of the men shifting after their lives on earth had ended, their relationship remains, in many ways, the same. In their lives, the men had suffered a divide in their ability to be in relationship with one another. After their lives, this spiritual divide seems to have become physically manifested in the chasm.

Many theologians have interpreted the sin of the rich man as one of “not noticing” the needs of the poor, but I fear it was something greater than that. In reality, the rich man in the parable gives himself away - he calls Lazarus by name. So clearly he had noticed Lazarus in his need.

How many times had he blithely walked by Lazarus while leaving or returning to the comforts of his home? How many times had he heard the cry of Lazarus, begging to sustain himself with the rich man’s wasted riches?

That great chasm was not hewn by God to keep the blessed and the condemned from one another. We chisel it away. Each time we turn a blind eye to the needs of our neighbor and walk away, our footsteps cut into the source, which upholds us. Each time we allow our own wants and desires to distract us from entering into true and holy relationships, we widen the gap.

The rich man knew Lazarus. He was his neighbor.

Who are your neighbors? More importantly, what chasms are you digging out?

It doesn’t have to be about “rich” and “poor”. Most of us don’t live in the kind of opulence that we read about from the rich man in this story. But all of us do have neighbors in need. Is there someone in your world who is lonely? Do you pass the same “faceless” neighbors each day and never reach out to be in relationship with them? We can widen the chasms between us by choosing to ignore those things that make us uncomfortable or that seem to be a hassle; or, we can fill in the gaps. We can choose to be in relationship and not just in proximity.

There’s a degree to which it’s almost harder here in the city. Sociologists have studied the phenomenon of “urban anonymity”. The theory is that despite the dense populations of cities, people are prone to be lonelier. We live and move and have our being within feet or sometimes-even inches of our neighbors, but we don’t see them, and they don’t see us. Life has placed us together, but we tear ourselves apart. We fix great chasms between us and them.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can fill in the gaps: with a warm smile or perhaps a “hello”. How would it feel to walk up to a shopkeeper that you’ve passed for years and take the time to make a formal introduction? What would it be like to get to know a bit of their story and to share a bit of your own? We don’t all have to be best friends, but we can choose not to look away. St. Francis said that we should preach the gospel at all times, and then, when necessary, use words. This is one of the simple ways that we can preach the gospel with our lives: to reach out and build relationships where there had been none or where they had been strained by our ignoring.

It’s a simple lesson. It takes commitment and practice. But how might it change the world?