A little over 20 years ago, in 1999, Robbie Knievel jumped the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle. Well, he actually jumped a sliver of the Grand Canyon, but still it was 231 feet wide – which is a lot, and it was still a canyon, hundreds of feet deep.
When I watched that, it reminded me of his father, Evel Knievel’s, attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon 25 years earlier – way back in September, 1974. That was 45 years ago.
Those stunts are famous because they were so dangerous. And as scary as jumping motorcycles may be, today’s parable is starker. Scarier. It has my attention, I hope it has yours. That is the point.
Is the chasm here the impossible divide between heaven and hell? Or is it about the chasm resident in the human heart? I think yes to both.
It is helpful to know to whom Jesus is speaking. He is talking with Pharisees and building on the point we heard last week; that you cannot serve God and wealth. Just a couple of verses before this passage Luke tells us that the Pharisees were “lovers of money.”
It’s also important to note the nature of the sin illustrated in this parable. Jesus didn’t say the rich man had actively done anything wrong. He didn’t kick or hit Lazarus. He didn’t mock him. He is consigned to hell because of what he didn’t do. He did not take any notice, day after day, of the human being suffering at his gate. Even the dogs were showing more care. (A dog licking a wound is a care response, cleaning it.)
It’s not like he hadn’t been told. It’s not like he wasn’t aware. This wasn’t in the fine print, buried in pages of legal verbiage that you don’t even look at before you click “I accept.” This is fundamental to Israel’s covenant with God. Remember that Jesus summed up the law in two parts. The first part is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind and all your strength, which is essentially the first of the Ten Commandments, or better the first four. The second part is to love your neighbor as yourself.
Jesus’ teaching is not new. Go back to the prophecy from Amos. Amos was sent to proclaim the Lord’s judgment against Israel because they had neglected the poor during a long era of prosperity. I love the term here – Amos is railing against “the loungers.”
In economics, it’s called opportunity cost, which is the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen. Here, the loungers are choosing to lounge around instead of paying attention to the state of their community and nation. There’s nothing wrong with rest, nothing wrong with music and good food. We all need rest. We all enjoy a good meal. Those are blessings from God. But when that became their focus, it got way out of balance and they became culpably negligent. It’s like someone watching TV all day instead of cutting their grass week after week until code enforcement or the homeowners’ association or someone has to confront them.
The issue with this rich man isn’t money per se. Wealth and high income become a wonderful resource when placed under God’s grace. That increased capacity to fund ministry is an integral part of building the kingdom. God uses wealth all the time.
This parable is about that thing that most commonly creates a chasm between us and God: the love of money or anything else that distracts us from him and his commandments. So, let’s talk for a moment about love.
Love isn’t just a feeling. It’s an active, living thing. If that feeling is not driving you to demonstrate it consistently day by day in acts of care and compassion, then whatever you are feeling isn’t really love.
And that should get our attention. We most often focus on our active choices. But it also applies to our passive choices. All sin – active and passive – is rooted in our focus. Either we are focused, or at least persistent in developing our capacity to focus first on God, or we are not.
To the extent that we are unable to bridge that gap, then whatever un-heavenly attitudes we have simply cannot enter the Kingdom of God.
If you choose to serve wealth first, if wealth blinds you to responding actively to the suffering around you, even at your gate, you cannot get where God is calling you to be. And that is perhaps the subtlest of sins. We cannot say we didn’t know. He just told us. He who did actually come back from the dead just told us.
There will come a time when our wealth will fail us, when we cannot buy another moment on this earth at any price. There will come a time when our health will fail us, no matter how well we diet and exercise we won’t be able to manage another step. There will come a time when our family and friends, though they may love us beyond measure, will not be able to keep us.
At that moment, do you want even a hint of a crack in the sidewalk, much less a chasm?
God doesn’t want you to wait for that moment.
Jesus isn’t merely restating the message in his own time, or even for all time.
He is himself the message. He is himself the means. He is himself the goal, the end.