Reaching Out for the Helping Hand

Luke 16:19-31

19 “There was a certain rich man who clothed himself in purple and fine linen, and who feasted luxuriously every day.20 At his gate lay a certain poor man named Lazarus who was covered with sores. 21 Lazarus longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Instead, dogs would come and lick his sores.

22 “The poor man died and was carried by angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 While being tormented in the place of the dead, he looked up and saw Abraham at a distance with Lazarus at his side. 24 He shouted, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I’m suffering in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things, whereas Lazarus received terrible things. Now Lazarus is being comforted and you are in great pain.26 Moreover, a great crevasse has been fixed between us and you. Those who wish to cross over from here to you cannot. Neither can anyone cross from there to us.’

27 “The rich man said, ‘Then I beg you, Father, send Lazarus to my father’s house. 28  I have five brothers. He needs to warn them so that they don’t come to this place of agony.’ 29  Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets. They must listen to them.’ 30  The rich man said, ‘No, Father Abraham! But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will change their hearts and lives.’ 31  Abraham said, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, then neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’”

 

Thoughts on the passage:

How many people like to be wrong about something?  I might be wrong about this, but I suspect that the answer is that few, if any of us like to be wrong about things.  I generally make it a point not to be wrong.  I do not say that with the arrogant belief that I am always right, but with more of a humble acknowledgement that I am often wrong and that I try to correct myself when I am in error.  I suspect that I am not alone in my endeavor to be right.

The challenge is, how do we know when we really are wrong.  Sometimes we are dealing with clear cut things and so it is possible to know if we are right or wrong.  Say I flip a coin; it is either heads or tails.  You can guess which one it is and once we look at the coin we will know if you are right or wrong.  The problem is that things are not that easy.  Take a harder question, like who is better, the Packers or the Vikings.  Packers fans would point to all the Super Bowl trophies they have as proof that they are the superior team.  Vikings fans however could point to last week’s victory as proof that at least right now, we are better.  Of course, Packers fans might be quick to point out that the Vikings won at home and would wonder if the Vikings could do as well in Green Bay as they did with the home crowd.  However, if the Vikings won later this year, would a Green Bay fan actually admit that Minnesota was the better team?  Again, I could be wrong, but I suspect not.

As much as people like me say we want to be right and that we will change our minds, we rarely do, even when presented with evidence.  Several studies have been done that find we are guilty of confirmation bias, which is looking for data that confirms our existing ideas.  We also have a tendency as humans to not be convinced by new data that questions our existing ideas.  Instead, we tend to push back harder when confronted with facts.  Think of every political conversation you have ever had, never does someone say “oh, now that I know that I have totally changed my views on President Jones and will be voting accordingly in the next election.”

What does any of this have to do with faith?  Everything.  The challenge of faith is that we often have to overcome our own assumptions and biases about the world.  Our inability to gather new information and be changed by it makes it that much harder for us to learn and grow in our faith.  Instead we tend to take what we already know to be “true” from scripture or our life experience, and ignore those things that would cause us to change.  For people who have never experienced or believed in God, this is a problem because it makes it that much harder for them to learn about and come to love God as we do.  For those of us who do have a faith in God, it can still mean that we end up with a frozen image of God, an impression we have based on limited knowledge, and leaves us unable to grow in our faith and come to a deeper and better understanding of God.

We are reminded of this danger in the scripture lesson for today.  Here, Jesus, tells us the story of two people both of whom die and go to the afterlife.  Lazarus, goes to Heaven while the rich man goes to Hell.  Concerned for his own condition, but also his brothers, the rich man pleads that Lazarus might be sent back as spirit to warn them of the fate that awaits them if they fail to live a good life.  Here is where we get to the punchline, “If they don’t listen to Moses, and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.”  In the context of the story, the original hearers might think of Lazarus as being the one who rises from the dead, but as Christians we know of another man who did rise from the dead.  Even when he did come back, many struggled to believe in Jesus.  It is easy to think that if we just had a little more proof of who God is or that God loves us, then we would believe.  The reality is that even with the enduring message of Christ’s death and resurrection, we can still struggle to believe.

On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is an image of Adam and God.  Adam reclines on the left side, his arm extended towards God but his hand is limp and hangs down slightly.  On the right is God, seated in the clouds with the angels.  Unlike Adam, God is stretched out, leaning far from the divine seat to reach Adam.  God’s arm and hand are extended fully towards Adam to try and reach him.  Still there exists between the two of them a small gap, a break between humanity and the divine. 

Skeptics would say “If only God were to reach a little more towards Adam, then there would be this connection with humanity.”  We do the same thing over and over again, asking ourselves why God does not do more to stop evil, injustice and oppression.  Where was God during the Holocaust?  Why is God not there for us?  Think about that image of Adam and God.  God is there, God is reaching out so far to try and touch Adam.  What is keeping them apart is not the lack of effort on God’s part, but the lack of effort on Adam’s.  What is keeping us from God is not what God is not doing it is what we are not doing.

God is reaching out so hard to try and touch us.  What is needed now is not further proof of God’s love.  What is needed now is not more effort by God.  Instead, what is needed is each of us to reach out towards God as well.  We are not like the rich man, condemned to Hell for our sins and our failings.  Even now God is reaching out to us, offering us hope and new life.  What we need to do is see the ways that we are failing to reach back.  We need to let go of whatever is keeping us from taking God’s hand and reaching out as well.  Jesus died for each of us that we might have life.  Now Christ is reaching out to us to pull us into that new life.  Are we willing to take Christ’s hand?

Questions to Ponder:

When have you struggled to have faith in God, what causes the struggle, what changed your mind?

What does taking Christ’s hand look like to you?

Who has helped you in your faith journey?

Prayer:

 

God of grace, over and over you reach your hand out to us.  Over and over we lean back from you or worse turn away from your love.  Forgive us our weakness and doubts.  Help us to reach out and embrace the life that you call us to.  Help us to be faithful followers of you and that through us others might be lead to new life as well.  Amen