Mind the gap
Mind the Gap
November 26 2017
The rich man in this parable isn’t just rich. He is filthy rich, disgustingly rich. Jesus says he habitually dresses in purple and fine linen, the first century equivalent of wearing designer labels, Gucci loafers, gold chains, and Rolex watches. And he feasts in luxury every day, prime rib, rare wine, china on the table. In a country where the poor had only one set of clothes, and where they were lucky to have one meal per week, the rich man is a figure of overwhelming indulgence.
Lazarus the beggar positions himself at the gate of the rich man, hoping to get the leftovers from the rich man’s table. He’s covered with ulcers and is so weak that he can’t even fend off the dogs who come to lick his sores.
In the time of Jesus there were no knifes, forks, spoons or napkins. People ate food with their hands, and in a very wealthy houses, people cleaned their hands by wiping them on hunks of bread, and then they were thrown away. It’s this bread which Lazarus was waiting for.
Then the scene shifts to the next world, and Lazarus is in paradise and the rich man in hell. Jews believed that Paradise and hell were in sight of each other, so that when the wicked in hell looked upon the bliss of those in heaven, their suffering was intensified, and vice versa, when those in heaven looked upon those suffering in hell, they smiled in contentment.
When I was about eight years old my little Methodist church in North Carolina had a revival. There was a visiting evangelist who came and preached. I don’t remember much about what he looked like, but I sure remember what he said. He told us that if didn’t accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior we were on our way to hell, sure as shootin’
He described hell so vividly that I could just see it. The lake of fire, being tormented by its flames day and night, the hell hounds chasing us with their spears or pitchforks or whatever hell hounds carried. And the smell of sulfur and burning flesh.
And then he said, “Think about a day in your life when you were in terrible pain, awful pain, wracking pain.” (I could remember such a day for I had just come that week the dentist and had a tooth pulled without Novocain.) And the evangelist said, this is the way it will be for you in hell, except the pain won’t last for a minute or an hour or a day or even a year, but for all eternity.
“Do you know how long that is?” Do you know how long you are going to be there?” My eyes got real wide.
“Just imagine a granite mountain 10, 000 feet high, and every 500 years a bird flies back and touches its wing on the mountain, just barely touches it. And when that bird wears that mountain down level with the ground that in hell is before breakfast. That’s how long eternity is.
Well all I gathered from that sermon was that I sure didn’t want to go to hell. I couldn’t figure out how I was going to keep from going to hell, for growing up in the Bible belt made you always feel like you bad and guilty of all sorts of sins and you were on your way to hell. But I did know one thing. There may be a lot of people in this world who were going to hell, but the one category of persons who were not going to hell but going to heaven were preachers. So I decided I want to be a preacher. And that’s the story of my call to the ministry.
So what exactly did the Lazarus do to end up in heaven. We don’t know, but his name means “God is my help” so that may be a clue.
And what did the rich man do to end up in hell? He certainly didn’t mistreat Lazarus. He didn’t object to him getting crumbs from his table. He didn’t have his servants remove him from his property. So what was it.?
I think it was this: Lazarus, to him, was just part of the landscape. His village was teeming with the poor. His philosophy was that the poor we will always have with us. It didn’t bother him one whit that a sick, hungry, and suffering man lay at his gates while he feasted in luxury.
You might call it the sin of not noticing. And how many insignificant souls are part of our landscape each day, and we never even see them. I’m not even thinking here of those, who like Lazarus, are in desperate need. I’m thinking, for example, of society’s forgotten people–those who have menial jobs, the men who dry off our cars at the car wash. The bus person who clears our table. The Hispanics who do our yards.
I was playing golf one day and my caddie was an old, stooped grizzled man whose name was Morris. On the sixteenth hole Morris asked me what I did and I told him. He said, “That’s wonderful.” He went on, “You know, I study the scriptures every day. But I’ve never been called into the ministry like you. It’s such a privilege to be called to do the Lord’s work.”
And I said, “Yes it is. Yes it is.”
Now here was a wonderful man with a wonderful spirit about him. My caddie. A child of God. Perhaps in God’s sight, he is greater than I. If you follow the conclusion of this of this parable, in heaven, I’ll be caddying for him. I don’t know.
The sin of not noticing. The sin of having the poor and the nobodies among us, and going about our own way oblivious to them.
When the rich man asks Father Abraham to send Lazarus down to hell to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool his tongue, Abraham replies: “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed and no one can cross from here to there.”
Barbara and I were in London a few years ago and we rode the underground to get around the city. Just before the train comes to a stop at the station there is an electronic voice which urges people to pay attention as they are getting off the train, because there is a space between the train and the platform. “Mind the gap,” it says, “Mind the gap.” Pay attention to the divide. It could trip you up.
The sin of the rich man wasn’t his wealth, but his attitude.
There is no place in heaven for you, Jesus is saying, if you ignore the poor.
There is no place in heaven for you, if you ignore the suffering of the world.
There is no place in heaven for you, if you fail the test of compassion.
I’ve been thinking this past week where I fit in this parable, for the parables come alive for us when we find a character in them we most identify with. And I realized that it was in 1985 when it hit me that I was a rich man. We spend a summer of ‘85 in South Africa and worked in Crossroads, a squatter camp. One day we walked into a male hostel where 17 mean lived in a room not much bigger than my master bed room. Half-naked children playing on the muddy, sewage strewn streets. Idle men sitting outside their living quarters–no work to be had. Women carrying their water buckets to the one tap in the neighborhood where you had to stand in line for twenty minutes.
Up until that time I had always thought of myself as middle class.
But then it hit me: by their standards, by the world’ standards, by God’s standards I am rich.
Let me lay it out for you. My wife and I have two cars, a nice home in Litchfield Park with a swimming pool. I live in a country where I get a nice social security check every month from our government, a nice pension from the Presbyterian church, and a nice salary from the First Presbyterian Church, but, members of Sessio, I probably wouldn’t turn down a raise. My wife and I are on Medicare and we have supplemental insurance.
But some might say: “What about a catastrophic illness at the end of your life which will drain you of all your resources? You know, you can never have enough because anything can happen.”
Well, if that happened I guess we’d do what others do. Sell our house. End up in a sun room in a care center surrounded by others in wheel chairs and plastic lilies and large-print bibles. We could last for a while like that, and if we were still alive, we’d call our kids and say, “Your turn.” And when that ran out I will be wheeled in to this sanctuary, “OK folks, now it’s your turn.”
So here we all are, as rich as Croesus, and not even acknowledging it. Here God has laid upon us blessings of wealth, and I mean wealth, not time not talent, but treasure. We are the rich man in this story.
And the question the parable punches us with is this: what are we going to do with all that we have.
Long ago, when I was that eight year old child at that Methodist church and the evangelist finished his sermon, he issued an invitation to all who wanted to come down to the altar and pray, to all who wanted to to make a first time commitment to Jesus, wanted their hearts to be right with Jesus.
Listen. I will tell you something. When our hearts are right with Jesus we will empty our pockets for somebody else’s children. We will mind the gap between the sky of our intentions and the earth of our performance, and we will feel the razor edge of the moral demands of the Christian gospel. And that will bring us face to face with God.