Psalm 146; Luke 16:19-31)
Sun, Sept 25, 2016 – UBC Digby – J G White
Robert Frost: The Road Less Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
We face many forks in the road, from day to day. And the destination changes because of the way. Today we heard another parable of Jesus. A story of two people who did not seem to have many choices. But watch closely for the way of escape.
The story of the Rich Man, unnamed, and Lazarus, the poor man. Is the parable about riches and poverty? Jesus says much about money and the misuse thereof. As we read through Luke’s Gospel, the stories come one after another about: counting the cost before starting a building project, a lost coin that gets found, a prodigal son who wastes his inheritance, a dishonest manager who acts shrewdly when he gets fired. Today, from chapter sixteen, Jesus tells this parable about a tremendously rich man and a desperately poor man. They both die, and things are quite reversed for them in the afterlife.
When hiking the Cape Split trail the destination is the Cape. The top of the rocky cliffs, overlooking the ocean. Overlooking another piece of land separated by a tremendous gorge or crevasse. Beyond that there is another island of rock separated by a dramatic gap, a split in the North Mountain. And beyond that more rocky outcroppings down on the beach where the raging tides sweep by and roar for much of the day, every day and night.
It is named Cape Split for the great splits in the magnificent peninsula of stone. Standing on top, at the end of the trail, one looks out across a great gulf that is fixed between your sod, and the turf of a large rock pinnacle that is inhabited only by grasses and gulls. There is no possible way for a person to cross to the other side, across that split.
We are told there is a great gap in our world, a great gap between the rich and the poor. Do you see it? How can we escape this split?
I heard Jean Vanier interviewed again, for the radio program Ideas. I heard him tell his anecdote of seeing the deep divide between rich and poor on a visit to Chile, years ago. Vanier speaks of “crossing the road.” So, he got to Chile. His driver picked him up at the airport to go to Santiago. The driver, like many a taxi drive, is a natural tour guide. he said, as they went down the road, “on the left, all the slum areas. On the right, all the houses of rich people, protected by police and military.” He said, “Nobody crosses the road. Everybody is frightened. The rich are frightened, the poor are frightened; everybody is frightened.” (video: “Become Weaker,” The Work of the People)
The gap is great. And if we think we are someone in the middle, our Master asks us to see who we really side with. Who we want to be, and be with.
Reading Jesus’ story, we see the rich man, the poor man named Lazarus, Father Abraham, and the five brothers of the rich man, mentioned at the end. Where do you fit in the story? Are you the poor man? No, no, not quite so desperate as that. Are you the unnamed rich man? No, of course not, we say! So, do we tend to side with those in need, or those who are prosperous? What would Jesus do? We hear these parables Jesus told; what did Jesus do?
Or are we like the five brothers of the rich man? Still alive, and needing to be warned so they don’t end up like their tortured brother in the flames of Hades. It may be that our God is still getting through to us, while we seek riches instead of sharing, in this world of 7 billion humans. While we seek comfort and security – and luxury – within this creation, a planet that is groaning with the pains of pollution and consumption and extinction. While we seek self-help and self-sufficiency in a world where we need a Saviour for our souls and bodies.
Between us and you a great chasm has been fixed.
Is the parable about eternal geography?
Jesus’ parable paints the dramatic picture of a man burning in hell’s flames, looking away and seeing another man, peacefully in the company of the great ancestor Abraham. The man in Hades even gets to talk, across the chasm, with Father Abraham. But there is no way to cross the gap.
Many a hearer of Jesus’ story has wondered what details we can glean about the afterlife here. Is there really fire burning in Hell? Can you glimpse heaven from those flames? Can those in everlasting bliss look down and see those who are being eternally tormented? Or is Lazarus waiting with Abraham for the final resurrection, and Paradise actually comes later?
It is easy to have our own ideas about all this. Me, for instance, I prefer to think that when we enter heaven by God’s grace, we won’t be troubled with being able to look down upon the troubles of earth, not to mention Hades.
It’s like hiking Cape Split last week: it was foggy all day. From the beach at the base of the great cliffs and craggy rocks, we could just see the top enshrouded with fog. Once we got around to the top of those ___ m cliffs, we could not see down to the beach at all. Could barely see the flat pinnacle of stone right in front of us, separated by a great gap.
One thing I would suggest. Jesus told this vivid parable within the language and understanding of His hearers. We Christians today don’t talk about dying and going to be with Father Abraham, but that is how the ancient Jews pictured what could happen at death. And perhaps it was easier for them, 2000 years ago, to think of all who had died being rather close together – some suffering terribly, and some at peace – separated by a great gulf.
The Jewish understanding of what happens after death is not a simple story. The whole Old Testament saga gives a variety of teachings, and their understanding evolves through the ages. By the time we get to Jesus, there clearly were disagreements among Jews about the afterlife.
It seems clear that our Master is telling, here, that the next life is connected to how we live this life. In this instance, it is related to luxurious rich living, and deadly poverty. So perhaps the point of the parable is not to explain what happens when we die, but what our living now can be like.
I have five brothers… warn them!
So, is the parable about warnings? Heeding warnings and warning others? Yes.
‘A word to the wise is sufficient,’ my father would often say, when we kids were young. Yet, so often, we are not wise, and need to be told again and again. Do you heed every warning you are given?
When hiking to Cape Split there are signs posted along the way. DANGER. Eroding, unstable cliffs. Stay on the trail. Keep pets on leash. Safety is your responsibility. And we locals hear in the news, from year to year, of those who get into trouble on the cliffs and the beach below. A few rescue operations happen each year, a occasionally the sad recovery of a body. And the new signs on this trail will no more prevent accidents and foolhardiness than the signs and guards at Peggy’s Cove. Another warning? Another sign? Put up a fence? There can only be so many warnings.
And so it was for the rich man burning up in Jesus’ story. When he cannot be helped, even with a drop of water to ease his torment, he pleads for his living brothers to be warned.
What does Father Abraham say? They’ve got Moses and the Prophets. What does that mean? They have the Scriptures. They already have the warnings.
‘But you go and warn them… please!’
No, says Abraham, even if someone rose up from the grave, that would not convince people.
We know all about what happens to our Jesus who was telling this story. The power and poignancy of this ‘punch line’ was not lost when Luke wrote this whole thing down later. In real life, not just in a story, Jesus comes back to life from the grave. And sure enough, even He, risen from the dead, is not believed by everyone.
Might it be that we get confirmation from Jesus that we are following Him? And we are assured of our walk with Him when we are inspired to do as God does. A life of following the way described in Psalm 146. The Eternal frees those who are imprisoned; makes the blind see; lifts up those whose backs are bend in labour; cherishes those who do what is right; looks after those who journey; takes care of the orphan and the widow. This became Jesus’ ministry… and it becomes ours too.
Escape the split between rich and poor in this life.
Escape the terrible justice of the afterlife: the punishments from which Christ can save us.
Escape these both by heeding the warnings of scripture, and of Jesus Himself, who is alive and well after death and destruction. Alleluia! Amen.