Sometimes people can be a bit thick. I know this. I was a teacher. I was a professional. So you can take it from me that people, well, kids at least, if you want to call kids people, can be a bit thick. For example, one day, I was teaching the kids about prepositional phrases. Don’t worry. I’m not going to try to teach you about prepositional phrases. Anyway, I told the kids that a prepositional phrase consisted of a preposition and a noun. I said that prepositional phrases always, as in ALWAYS, begin with a preposition.
So then I asked a kid to identify the prepositional phrase in the sentence, “Joe hit the ball down the stairs.” She said, “hit the ball”. I asked her what sort of word “hit” was. She said, correctly I might add, “a verb.”
“And prepositional phrases,” I said, “always start with?”
“A preposition,” she replied.
“So, is ‘hit’ a preposition?”
“No, it’s a verb.”
“So can a prepositional phrase start with the word ‘hit’?” I asked.
And she just sort of stared at me and started to mumble something unintelligible to herself.
“Which word in that sentence IS a preposition?” I asked.
She replied, “Down.”
“That’s right,” I said. “So, if a prepositional phrase begins with a preposition, what’s the prepositional phrase?”
“The ball?” She asked.
She just didn’t get it. It would seem like it ought to be clear enough. But she just couldn’t get the idea of what a prepositional phrase sounded like. This was after having heard me say a number of various prepositional phrases, too. Perhaps she wasn’t focused. Perhaps she didn’t care. Perhaps she had no interest in knowing what prepositions were. Or perhaps she was just trying to get on my nerves.
Adults can be thick too. I remember hearing a woman tell a story about what happened to her down in the south during those days before the civil rights movement. This African-American woman was in a library and needed to use the restroom. Now as you know, the restrooms back in those days in the south were all segregated.
Anyway, this woman found herself in a certain amount of distress and urgency, so she went to the librarian to ask where she could find a restroom.
Now there was a restroom right behind the counter, but it was for whites only. So, here is this woman, dancing around from one leg to the other, asking the librarian where she can find a restroom. And the librarian, trying earnestly and sincerely to be very helpful, ponders a moment and then says, “Well, let’s see…I think if you go out the door and turn to your left, go down a couple of blocks, you’ll find a diner. They have a bathroom there you can use, I think.”
Obviously, this woman didn’t get it. That poor woman didn’t need a restroom down the street a couple of blocks. Of course, the laws were what the laws were, but it didn’t even occur to that white woman to overlook the law to help another person in need. Moreover, that white woman really thought she was being helpful. She thought she was being nice.
Today’s reading from Luke is also about a guy who just didn’t get it. Jesus is telling another one of his parables to illustrate our relationship to God and to one another. There is a crowd around him, and he tells them the story of the the beggar, Lazarus, and the rich man.
“But there was a certain rich person and he was being clothed in purple and fine linen, enjoying sumptuous living every day. And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, who had been thrown at his gate, full of sores, and desiring to be fed from the things fallen from the table of the rich person. Moreover, the dogs came (and) were licking his sores.
“And it happened (that) the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. And also, the rich person died and was buried. And in Hades, being in torments, he lifted up his head. He saw Abraham from afar and Lazarus in his bosom.
“And he cried out (and) said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus so that he might dip the tip of his finger (in) water and might cool my tongue for I am tormented in this blaze.’
“But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you received the good in your life, and Lazarus, likewise, the evil. But now here, he has been called near, but you are being tormented. And in all this, between us and you, a great chasm has been established so that that ones wanting to pass from here to you are not able, and none may cross from there to us.’
“But he said, ‘I ask you then, father, that you might send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he might witness to them. so that they might not come to this place of torment.’
“But Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them hear them.’ But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone went to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persauded if someone might rise from the dead.’” (Luke, Chapter 16—a direct translation of the Greek)
In typical Luke fashion, the writer is assailing the rich. As much as we don’t like to think so (being such lovers of money ourselves), Jesus constantly warns people about the dangers of loving money and stuff. It is easier for a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle than enter the gates of heaven. Yeah, I know. There are folks who claim that the “Eye of the Needle” was a particularly narrow gate in Jerusalem. It was difficult to get through, but not impossible. But most scholars don’t think that Jesus is talking about THAT gate. Jesus makes it pretty damn clear. You can’t serve two masters.
The rich guy in this story isn’t just rich. He’s stinkin’ rich. He’s Bill Gates rich. Linen cloth and purple dye were very, very expensive. He lives in a gated house. And the poor guy isn’t just poor. He’s amazingly poor. He is thrown at the rich guy’s gate. Dumped there would be more like it. He was like those homeless people that hospitals dump in skid row.
Even then, the rich guy wouldn’t necessarily be evil and the poor guy righteous. They both die, after all. And even in the story, it doesn’t say the rich guy is in hell. Hades, to the Greek mind, was simply the world of the dead—not hell in our way of thinking. It says he is in torment, not that he is being punished. The poor guy, being close to God (Lazarus means “God helps”), is brought to the “bosom of Abraham”, one with his father.
Even in death, however, the rich guy still doesn’t “get it”. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus to comfort him. Even after a life in which he had every advantage, a life in which Lazarus had not even table scraps to eat, the rich guy, who is unnamed, expects Lazarus to come help him. He still doesn’t see Lazarus as his equal before God. In spite of the fact that this very attitude is what is keeping him separated from God, he continues in the misguided belief that somehow he is better than the beggar. And like my student, when you don’t get it, you don’t get it. Even when the truth is staring you in the face. Even if somebody comes back from the dead to tell you.
Abraham has to explain that there is a “chasm” between them. There is. It is a chasm of the rich man’s own making. He has created that barrier. He sees himself as better than the beggar. Certainly not every wealthy person feels this way. But there are plenty who do. There are plenty of wealthy and even not so wealthy who feel the poor are poor because of their own fault, because of their own lack of initiative, or drug abuse, or poor decisions, or whatever. One way or the other, the poor are poor because they deserve to be poor.
Jesus said that whatever we do the least among us, we do to him. This is his way of telling us we are all connected. We are all one. The only barriers between us are the ones we place there ourselves. The Pharisees saw themselves as the children of Abraham. They saw themselves as blessed by God because of who they were, because of who their ancestors were. Jesus is trying to make the point that what really matters is how we treat one another.
Ancient Jewish wisdom painted a picture of heaven as a banquet at which the only way to enjoy the feast was to feed one another. Fail to feed one another and heaven quickly becomes hell. It has nothing to do with deserving anything. Jesus specifically gave the gift of his life for those who didn’t deserve the gift, by our standards. But as children of God, just as in the story of the prodigal son, we all deserved it, simply because we are children of God. God has given us all that we need. We have a wonderful world. It can be a hell of our own making, filled with torments, or it can be a paradise. The choice is ours, as long as we’re not too thick to see it.