I fully admit at the outset that I don’t like this morning’s Gospel reading, the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16.19-31). It’s an outlier in many ways. It isn’t set up like a parable, nor does it have the markers we associate with true stories. It also seemingly presents a startling vision of God and judgment — while the New Testament is clear that we will be judged on our actions, rarely is it presented so starkly and matter-of-factly as in this tale of the rich man who is tormented after death while the poor man whose sores were licked by dogs outside the rich man’s gates is welcomed as one of God’s own. The story just sits there, challenging us.
And that’s probably why it’s there. I know I, at least, need to be challenged some times.
When I read the story this morning what stood out to me was the line “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” It’s so matter of fact. And it’s true. So often we know what we should do and simply don’t.
Any four year-old instinctively knows that it’s not fair for one person to have food and for another to have nothing. We also have four thousand years of sacred tradition that tells us how we should treat people living with poverty. And yet, here we are, living in a society whose rules serve to increase gaps between the rich and the poor, and which often hides its war on the poor under the guise of a “war on poverty.”
The same can be said for how we respond to refugees and immigrants. Welcoming refugees isn’t some liberal, postmodern idea. The Hebrew Bible is clear that we should welcome the stranger and foreigner living in our midst, and the New Testament picks up on this theme encouraging hospitality. And yet, our national discourse so often hides a deep ambivalence or apathy of the fate of strangers in our midst behind concerns about our bottom line or even fears about cultural purity.
Again, perhaps outside the realm of religious faith strictly speaking but still very relevant, we know our planet is warming and we know this is happening at a rate with which nature cannot keep up. We know plastics are choking our planet’s ecosystems. And yet, as a culture we seem to be unwilling even to take the smallest steps to combat any of this, for fear that it’s politically unpopular or will allow our competitors in the global economy to get a leg up on us.
The point of all this isn’t to chide or shame, but to point out how easy it is for us as people to ignore what we know, whether from ancient wisdom or the signs of the times, simply because we don’t want to deal with the consequences of doing what is right. We all do it. It’s human. But, we are called to more. We are called to honesty in the face of these things, to confront seemingly insurmountable problems head on, and simply to do what we can.
There are always going to be things in the world or our faith that make us uncomfortable, that challenge our assumptions and way of life. Today’s Gospel reading reminds us not to ignore these challenges, but to confront them. I am far from perfect on this count, but would like to share a strategy I have found helpful when addressing issues, people or facts that I find challenging:
When confronted with something that makes me uncomfortable, whether politically, culturally, or theologically, I ask myself four questions:
- What is it about this that makes me uncomfortable?
- What can I affirm about this?
- What am I doing about this now?
- What else, even just 1-3 ideas, can I do about this?
I find this a helpful way of engaging with challenging truths. Rather than shying away from things that make me uncomfortable, it forces me to bring my discomfort out into the open and it helps me engage with it in constructive and creative ways. This makes me a more open, honest, mature and less fearful person. And, I hope and trust, when the day comes when I will be judged on my actions — whether in this life or in death — I will at least have a good defense.