Walls — Rev. Brent Gundlah
September, 25, 2022

On a Friday afternoon in the summer of 1993, Val and I returned from a day trip down to the Jersey Shore to discover that our apartment had been robbed. The thief didn’t get away with anything of monetary value (because we didn’t actually have anything of monetary value), but the experience forever changed the way we’ve thought about our safety and security at home.

When we moved to our house in Massachusetts ten years later we had a lot more stuff (not to mention two children) to worry about, and so one of the first things I did was install new deadbolts on the doors that needed them; truth be told, I had that place locked up like Fort Knox.

One of the most vulnerable areas on our new residence was the porch around back because it was hidden from public view. If someone managed to break into that space, which had another door that led into the kitchen, they’d have unfettered access to the whole house. So I did what seemed like the logical thing to do: I put locks on both the interior and exterior doors. And while this might have been a good plan in theory, it wasn’t such a great one in practice. And there were basically two reasons why it failed.

When our apartment was robbed, the burglar broke a transom window next to the door and reached through it to unlock the deadbolt using the lever on the inside. Suffice it to say, I was not going to let that happen again. So on the two porch locks I replaced, I used “double deadbolts” — which require a key on both sides to open. This was my first mistake — and, as I subsequently learned, a building code violation (for reasons that will soon become clear).

My second mistake was putting a basket for our keys between the exterior and interior porch doors. As general rule, we left the interior door open when we were home, so we could always get our keys when we needed them. But one day, as I was leaving at 4:30 in the morning for a business trip to New York, I inadvertently locked both doors behind me.

A few hours later I was sitting on the train when my phone rang. It was Val, and let’s just say that she was none too happy. You see, her house keys and her car keys were in that basket on the porch between those two locked doors; in my sleepless stupor, I had managed to trap Val and the kids inside of our house. Val ended up being late for work, our daughters ended up being late for school, and I got my you-know-what handed to me when I got home.

In my quest to keep the outside world at bay, I had unwittingly turned our home into a jail of sorts. It’s was kind of like the Eagles said in the song Hotel California: “We are all just prisoners here of our own device” (actually, just to clarify, they were prisoners there of my own device).

I can’t help but think that this is kind of what’s going on in today’s reading from the Third Gospel, which is, of course, the parable of the the rich man and Lazarus.

This is the last of five stories that Jesus shares in response to a situation that takes place at the beginning of the previous chapter; Luke tells us: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to the listen to him [namely, Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”

The parables that follow tell of a lost coin, a lost sheep, a prodigal son, a dishonest manager and now, a rich man and Lazarus. What these stories all have in common is an exploration of faithfulness versus injustice, a comparison of the exclusion that we often witness (and perpetuate) in this world versus the inclusion and community that define God’s commonwealth.

As today’s story begins, we meet an unnamed rich man, dressed in the purple clothes of royalty, dining alone at home as he does every day. At the gate guarding his house lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed for the scraps of food that fell from the rich man’s table (for the record, Lazarus is the only character in any of Jesus’s parables that is given a name).

Both men die and, while Lazarus is carried away by the angels to be with Abraham, the rich man lands in Hades where he is tormented with thirst amidst the flames that surround him.

The rich man mistakenly believes that the privilege he enjoyed in this world is still a thing, so he asks Abraham to tell Lazarus to bring him something to drink.

There are so many questions here: Why doesn’t the rich man address Lazarus directly, instead of speaking to him through Father Abraham? If the rich man actually knows Lazarus by name, why didn’t he provide Lazarus with some help while he was sitting there in agony right outside the gate? I suspect we all know why.

Abraham’s response is a resounding “No.” He points out that the rich man had his fill of life’s good things, while Lazarus had “in like manner evil things;” Apparently, Lazarus now gets comfort while the rich man gets agony. Call it a reversal of fortune; say that what goes around comes around; chalk it up to karma, I suppose.

But then Lazarus tries to negotiate with Abraham. “Ok, you won’t command Lazarus to fetch me some water but can you make him go talk to my brothers, to warn them about what will happen to them if they don’t change their ways?” (again, the rich man can’t actually seem to bring himself to speak to Lazarus). Again Abraham’s answer is “No.”

“Look, God has been saying it for as long as anyone can remember, and it’s pretty straightforward: ‘Love your neighbor, seek justice and righteousness for all, care for the poor;’ it’s right there in the stories of Moses and the prophets for the whole world to see.”

“With all due respect, Father Abraham (may I call you “Father Abraham”?), I think it would be so much more convincing if someone who’d risen from the dead could go remind them; that would really bring it home.”

“Sorry, but there’s no point. If they wouldn’t listen to Moses and the prophets, then they’re not going to be convinced by anyone — even by someone who’s risen from the dead.”

It all sounds so straightforward and so hopeless on the surface: Rich man bad, poor Lazarus good; Rich man goes to Hades, while Lazarus gets to hang out in heaven with Abraham.

But Jesus is the one telling this story, so things are never either that simple or that hopeless. It’s so easy to read this parable as a warning about what will happen to us someday — about what God will do to us at some point in the future — if we don’t mend our ways, but I’m afraid there’s more to it than that.

You see Jesus doesn’t ever make such a clear distinction between life in the here and now, and life in the hereafter.

His whole point is that we share in God’s reign right now — we catch a glimpse of heaven right now — whenever we care about the community more than ourselves; whenever we share our time, talent and treasure with others; whenever we tend to the need that is always all around us; whenever we act out of love instead of fear.

Conversely, we alienate ourselves from God (and one another) — we experience a little bit of hell right here on earth — when we care about nothing but ourselves; when we hoard the gifts we have been given; when we put up walls to separate us from the need that is always all around us; when we act out of fear instead of love; when we choose live alone inside a jail that we ourselves have created; when we make ourselves prisoners of our own device.

Does God have a soft spot for poor people? Yeah, the Bible makes that pretty clear. But does that mean the rich man (and those who act like him) are doomed to suffer at the hands of an angry God? Not necessarily. Besides, does God really need to punish us when we’re so capable of punishing ourselves?

As bad as the the rich man’s plight here might seem, this parable offers some signs of hope. For starters, Jesus has Abraham refer to him as “Child,” and it’s hard to imagine a child being rejected by God for eternity.

More important, though, is the statement that Abraham makes at the end of the passage. When denying the rich man’s request to have Lazarus warn his brothers, we are told that “[Abraham] said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

But, as those of you who have read ahead to the end of Luke’s Gospel already know, that’s exactly what happens with this guy named Jesus of Nazareth. Apparently God still thought there was a chance.

Don’t you see? Despite all evidence to the contrary, God continues to believe that we can be — that we ultimately will be — reconciled to God and to one another.

And so God reached out to us in Moses and the prophets; God reached out to us Jesus; God continues to reach out to us each and every day — in order to liberate us from our self-imposed punishment and to draw us into relationship. 

Because God never gives up on us, even when we seem to have given up on ourselves.

God never gives up on us. Not ever.