Sunday, September 25, 2016

“Dog Paddling in the Gap” (Luke 16:19-31)

The parable is simple.  It is a story about two men--an anonymous rich man and a beggar--a poor man by the name of Lazarus.  The rich man had it all. And Lazarus longed for the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table.  Eventually the two of them die.  Lazarus ends up in heaven by Abraham’s side; the rich man lands in Hades.  Needless to say the fortunes of both men are radically flipped.  Where Lazarus suffered while living on earth, suddenly he is enjoying the bounties of the “good life”.  On the other hand, the rich man is in torment and longing for the simple pleasures of his time on earth.

Despite the rich man’s pleas for any sort of comfort from his agony, he is told it is too late.  Abraham tells him that the rules can’t be changed . . . he had his chance, ignored it, and now he is facing the consequences of his inaction.  Reluctantly accepting his fate, the rich man suddenly has a twinge of compassion--no, not for the poor, but for his apparently wealthy brothers,  In his moment of compassion he pleads with Abraham to send a messenger--Lazarus--to warn his brothers to avoid the torment he wallowing in.

Abraham assures the rich man that his brothers have been warned.  Abraham tells the rich man: “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.”  This is not good enough for the rich man.  Apparently the five brothers aren’t that much different than the brother roasting in Hades.  The rich man demands that a messenger from the dead go to his brothers and warn them.

Abraham doesn’t buy it.  “If they listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”  

That is the story . . . that is the parable.  Pretty simple--right!  Or is it?

The simplest form of swimming is called the “dog paddle” or “doggy paddle”.  It is characterized by the individual lying  on his or her chest in the water and moving his or her hand and legs alternatingly in a manner reminiscent of how dogs or other animals  swim.  It is the basic stroke that keeps a person from drowning and ultimately dying.  It is the oldest stroke known to humanity . . . one of the oldest methods of survival.  It is a method of keeping our heads above water.

A “gap” is an unfilled space between people or things.  In the news we hear a lot of talk about the “gap” . . . in particular the gap between the rich and the poor . . . the rich and the middle class . . . the rich and everyone else.  The talk we hear is not what any of us would describe as positive talk.  No, there is some animosity in those who are on the short end of the gap . . . from those who long even for the scraps that fall from the wealthy’s tables.  With such conversation comes the allusion towards our parable this morning.  The gap may never be lessen, but in our hearts and minds . . . woe to those who dwell in the top one percent!

At least that would be one interpretation of this passage.  Jesus is talking about this gap between the rich and the poor.  When set against our time in the world there is validity to this interpretation.  The wealthy should be taking care of the poor . . . they should be lessening the gap . . . if for no other reason than to avoid the fiery agony of Hades.  Thus this could be a valid understanding of this passage.

Yet, I’m not so sure that was the intent of Jesus sharing this story.  Sure, even in Jesus’ time there was a gap between the wealthy and the poor.  Often times, in the Old Testament, this is what the prophets alluded to . . . the gap between those who have and those that did not.  Seems that the people of God paid the price when they did not heed the words of the prophets.  I’m sure that Jesus had this same concern as this hasn’t seemed to change; but I think that Jesus was leaning in another direction.

In the story the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his brothers.  Abraham explains that the brothers have all the information and warning they need.  They received it from Moses and the Prophets.  The ground rules have been laid in their holy scriptures.  In Abraham’s opinion, sending a dead person back to warn them won’t change anything.  They are going to do what they do . . . the heck with the consequences!

The gap is going to remain.  The poor will always be there . . . the wealthy will continue to be indifferent.  Nothing is going to change no matter how warned any of us are.

Which brings us to this idea of dog paddling . . . dog paddling in the gap.  I imagine that those in the story--in particular the five brothers--are quite aware of the words of Moses and the prophets.  Quite aware of the ground rules . . . after all, they are fairly fundamental rules.  The problem is that instead of taking those words seriously, they hope for the best and ignore them, and dog paddle in the hope of avoiding death by drowning.  Instead of closing the gap . . . instead of shortening the distance between “us” and “them”, they hope for the best and attempt to maintain the gap.  They dog paddle . . . between here and there.

Though this “gap” issue between the wealthy and the poor might be an issue for Jesus, in this I think he is more concerned with the gap between us and God.  I think he is concerned about us and our insistent desire to dog paddle  between a fully-encompassed relationship with God and just surviving.  There is no dog paddling in the estimation of Jesus . . . there is not settling for survival.  There is only a full commitment on the part of the faithful.

Dog paddling is the fundamental stroke in swimming.  It is targeted as a means of survival.  It really doesn’t move a person anywhere . . . it maintains . . . it keeps our heads above the water.  From this basic survivalist stroke we are taught how to swim . . . how to move from one point to another.  All the other strokes--the freestyle, butterfly, back, and breast strokes--are meant to move us from one point to another . . . meant to lessen the gap.  Dog paddling is to survive.  The other strokes are meant to provide a means to thrive.

Abraham said it plainly: “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”  Well, we have it all as the followers of Jesus . . . we have his words and actions . . . is that enough for us to emulate Jesus . . . to be his living witness?  We also have his resurrection . . . his return from the dead--just what the rich man asked for.  Has it made a difference?  Or are we just dog paddling in the gap?

Jesus kept it simple.  We are to love God completely--mind, body, and soul.  We are to love others--all others because they, too, were created in the image of God and are considered the children of God.  We have heard Jesus speak.  We have knowledge of his example as an exclamation as point to it all--the resurrection.   The choice is always ours . . . may we chose wisely.  Amen.

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