“If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.” – Luke 16:31
We live in an age of broken dreams and growing chasms: dreams shattered by chasms in thought, dreams crushed by chasms in civility, dreams unrealized by chasms in our perceptions of justice and fairness. The current political climate seemingly consuming the waking hours of so many of us has only widened these chasms.
Regardless of what we read from our favorite social media pundit or hear from cable news “contributors,” chasms are nothing new to humanity. We are not suddenly “more fractured than ever” as one self-appointed arbiter of righteousness recently posted.
Rather, we’ve had to face and cross chasms throughout history, sometimes more successfully than others. In virtually every case, warning signs were available … and too often ignored.
There’s a well-known parable in the Gospel of Luke I often turn to when grappling with notions of division, strife, and warning signs.
In the parable, Jesus sets the stage by describing how the rich man dressed opulently and lived in splendor every day while Lazarus begged for crumbs from the rich man’s table, covered in sores. There was a gate separating them, with Lazarus lying outside and the rich man safe within.
After both men die, the rich man is sent to Hades and Lazarus is taken by Abraham to heaven. The rich man begs for relief (much as in life Lazarus had begged for food), only to be rebuked by Abraham who responds “between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.”
Where did this chasm come from? Did God create an artificial barrier separating us into two camps of Heaven dwellers and Hell sufferers?
Some readers mistakenly believe this parable is about afterlives and whether we end up in Heaven or Hell separated for eternity by a chasm of infinite dimension as punishment for our deeds. Instead, Jesus is describing a different chasm, a divide of man’s own insistent making.
In life, the rich man had maintained distance between himself and Lazarus. He built walls around his life, locking himself inside a prison of self-creation. Over time, this prison became surrounded by a chasm so vast that in death not even eternity could bridge it. The chasm was created by the rich man himself.
But the story goes further.
The rich man also had five brothers, all still alive. After Abraham’s rejection, he pleads: “Father Abraham I beg you, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may warn them so that they may not come to this place of torment.”
The siblings are apparently unaware of their peril. They need to be warned, urgently. The rich man asks that Lazarus be raised from the dead and sent back to warn the rich man’s brothers to change their ways. Abraham denies this second request, indicating the brothers would not listen to a resurrected dead beggar’s warnings since they continued ignoring the teachings of Moses and the Prophets.
Who Are We?
As you read this story, who are you? The rich man wearing purple and feasting every day? Or do you identify with Lazarus, the poor beggar covered with sores, lying at the gate? Or perhaps the siblings?
In truth, most of us are neither that rich nor that poor. Yet in this story, it doesn’t matter – they are both already dead. Thus, we are the siblings. What Abraham couldn’t do (send Lazarus back to tell the brothers), Jesus does with his parable.
The great chasms in our lives are not imposed by God, but are actually divides of our own creation. Yes, there is a great divide between rich and poor in our world, often a chasm of our own making, and this chasm gets deeper with each act of separation, each act of negligence, each act of violence, each act of indifference.
Like the rich man in Jesus’ story, we build gates and walls, digging moats and chasms. We move into exclusive neighborhoods, send our kids to exclusive schools, add “us vs. them” into our everyday language.
Perhaps we see the Lazaruses in our own lives, maybe sympathizing with their plight. Yet even in our compassion do we actually see them as fellow children of God? We offer them crumbs from our tables but do we offer them respect and hospitality? This is the true chasm Jesus describes.
There seems to be a lot of division between the “us’s” and the “them’s” in our world – differences based on wealth, or race, or faith, or nationality, or a thousand other distinctions. Jesus tells us these distinctions are artificial and ultimately no amount of warning can save us if we refuse to heed God’s call to turn away from the invented chasms in our hearts.
In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he warns that “those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction.” I would argue the same might be said for rich and poor alike.
Anyone seeking to divide along artificial lines falls into the temptation of believing themselves superior to those on the other side of the chasm, placing their trust in that separation rather than God’s appeal for reconciliation. Rather than being generous and compassionate they become hardened and cold. They don’t prioritize their relationships with God and with others. They reject the life that is true life.
And yes, it’s hard work. Society seems wired to exploit what divides us rather than what unites us. Sometimes it seems the chasms are so great we will never cross them.
Yet we are called to be those people, those chasm-crossers. We’re called to level mountains and fill valleys, straightening the paths that lead to God. Every step of the way, God is beside us, reminding us that His Grace and Love can bridge any gap, close any distance.
Jesus tells us in this parable to listen for the warning. To turn away from digging ourselves deeper into isolation. To hear the cry of those who need reconciliation with us. To love God with all our hearts and our minds and our strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. No matter who we (or they) are.
We’ve been warned. What are we doing about?