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A great gulf fixed….


29 May 2005 11:00 | Rev Canon Dr John Cullen

NT: 1 John 4.7-21); Gospel: Luke 16.19-31

Every time I hear that passage from the 16th chapter of Luke's Gospel (and of course in the Prayer Book sequence of readings it come round every year!) I can't help feeling an inner shudder. It's a tremendous piece of storytelling with a string of very powerful images: "…a certain rich man (no name)… clothed in purple, and fine linen… fared sumptuously - every day… a certain beggar named Lazarus… full of sores… crumbs which fell from the rich man's table… dogs came and licked his sores...."

I've almost had enough already - but Luke goes on - and means to go on - relentlessly. "…the beggar died… carried by angels into Abraham's bosom… the rich man also died… was buried (the brevity and finality of it)… in hell… torments (plural!)… that he may dip the tip of his finger in water… cool my tongue… tormented in this flame… thou in thy life-time receivedst thy good things (nothing he wasn't entitled to!)… likewise Lazarus evil things. I'm feeling I can't take any more - but the most chilling phrase is yet to come: "… between us and you there is a great gulf fixed…" I don't know about you - but for me that's the point at which all feeling goes! I find the image of that "great gulf" bad enough, but the fact that it's "fixed" makes it terrifying.

Like all Jesus' parables, and especially those recorded in Luke's Gospel, the economy of words is brilliant. It's important therefore that we take as much note of what he doesn't say, as of what he does say. It's interesting to note that this particular parable is based on a very popular folk tale common in the teachings of Jewish rabbis, but it actually originated in Egypt. Jesus however gives it a very particular twist.

We should note, for instance, that for all his almost obscene wealth, the rich man is not condemned for being rich (his wealth was his, remember). Neither did the rich man persecute or exploit Lazarus in any way; he didn't deliberately refuse him food, nor did he have Lazarus removed from outside his home - unpleasant though the sight and smell might have been. The two major characters in the story actually do very little. We simply have their situation described - in very few words. And as for Lazarus, he doesn't do or say anything: no fist shaking, no cursing, no calling for revenge. All we're told is that he "was laid at (the rich man's) gate full of sores" and that he desired "to be fed with the crumbs which fell from (his) table".

So apart from the descriptive details of this parable making me - us? feel very uncomfortable, what's the point of the story? It is only after the death of both characters, and the dramatic reversal of their positions, that we begin to discover the real problem with the rich man. First, it is only when he is stripped of all the trappings of his wealth and the privilege that went with it that he actually sees Lazarus! His wealth had so distorted his vision that he had become blind, de-sensitised to the world he actually inhabited.

Second, there is a bitter, tragic irony in his cry from hell. He calls out: "Father Abraham, have mercy on me!" The rich man is claiming his heritage as a child of Abraham - but it was that very heritage that lay upon all Abraham's descendants explicit obligations to the poor, the powerless and the stranger; obligations that he had chosen to ignore every time he went out his gate. Both Jesus and John the Baptist called people to account in the severest terms for claiming rights as children of Abraham while choosing to ignore the fundamental tenet's of Abraham's teachings. The deep pathos of this man's hellish torment would not have been lost on any of those standing by - Jew and non-Jew alike.

But the pathos and the irony deepen yet further. Having at last seen Lazarus, and obviously aware of the nightmarish reversal of their situations, yet the rich man can only see Lazarus as a servant to come to his rescue! Not totally cured of his distorted vision he is still trapped in his old roles and relationships. But he is also trapped by something infinitely worse. In his gentle yet matter-of-fact reply, Abraham points out to him that "great gulf". And we are all left pondering: Who created the gulf in the first place?

And now the final twist. One more try! Acknowledging that he is trapped on the other side of a gulf of his own making, the rich man thinks of his five brothers, whom he acknowledges need to repent. If Lazarus can't come to his rescue, surely Abraham would grant his request to send Lazarus to forewarn his brothers, while they have time?

"No need!" says Abraham. "Your brothers already have sufficient teachings and warnings in Moses and the prophets to protect them from your fate." "Oh, but Father Abraham, if one went to them from the dead, that would convince them. Then they would repent." Now Jesus widens the parable to draw in all his hearers, and that includes you and me. The answer for the brothers, for the New Testament church, and for us, is literally in our own hands. The message is clear in the scriptures, and in Jesus who fulfils the scriptures, for in Jesus and in the scriptures we see spelled out and lived out God's purpose for humanity.

During this last week our attention has been drawn to the plight of the scale of world poverty, especially throughout Africa, in the run up to the G8 summit in Gleneagles in a few weeks time. As I looked in horror at the emaciated and distended bodies of children and adults, full of sores, licked not by dogs, but certainly by flies, I was struck by the great gulf between their situation and mine; and I shuddered again. This parable of Jesus has profound political implications, as does of course so much else of his teaching. Are we ready and willing to hear Moses and the prophets and Jesus, to be sensitised to see the Lazarus at our gate and follow through the consequences required of us? Or do we simply accept that that "great gulf" is fixed? The consequences for our world are enormous.
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