Luke 16:19-31: Mind the Gap
When our daughter moved to Toronto in 2014, one of the things that Chris and I began to enjoy was to explore the city on its excellent metro system. I’ve never known there to be more than a 2-minute wait for the next train that will take us to Greek town, Chinatown, Little Italy, the university, High Park, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Blue Jays ball park, the Distillery, or any of the other places we have come to love while visiting her there. In each station, there is a yellow strip at the edge of the platform warning riders to keep back until the train stops, and when it does, a recorded announcement from time to time reminds us to “mind the gap” between the platform and the train. Riders who don’t mind the gap risk tripping, falling, or even slipping down into the space between the train and the platform.
It turns out the sign is ubiquitous. In subway systems all over the world—New York, London, Paris, Stockholm, Madrid, Milan, Singapore, New Delhi, Hong Kong, Sydney, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires—signs and announcements warn riders to mind the gap. One could get the impression that there is little or no excuse for subway platform gap accidents. And yet, I’m sure, they still occur.
One might say the same about the gap between Lazarus and the rich man. All throughout scripture from the Five Books of Moses right on down to the writings of the early church, the Bible is full of instruction, warnings, and reprimands to mind the gap of inequality between rich and poor. Some teach us about God’s special affinity for those living in poverty. These teachings are sometimes called God’s “preferential option for the poor.”
“[God] saves the needy . . . from the clutches of the powerful. So the poor have hope, and injustice shuts its mouth.” Job 5:15-16 (NIV)
“Looking at his disciples, [Jesus] said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.’” Luke 6:20-21 (NIV)
“Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom?” James 2:5 (NIV)
Some verses teach us our obligation to care for the poor:
“If among you, one of your brothers should become poor . . . you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother.” Deuteronomy 15:7 (ESV)
“Speak up . . . for the rights of all who are destitute. . . . defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Proverbs 31:8-9 (NIV)
“Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” Luke 12:33-34 (NIV)
And others admonish us when we fail to care for the poor:
What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?” Isaiah 3:15 NIV
Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land . . . I will never forget anything [you] have done. Amos 8:4-7
“Among my people are the wicked who lie in wait like men who snare birds . . . they do not defend the just cause of the poor. Jeremiah 5:26-28
Just as “Mind the gap” signs appear in subway stations all over the world, God’s word on caring for the poor appears all over the Bible. One could get the impression that there is little or no excuse for neglecting the poor of the land.
And yet, that’s exactly what the rich man in Jesus’ parable does until finally, when he sees the consequences of his neglect, Abraham says to him “there is a huge chasm set between us so that no one can go from us to you even if he wanted to, nor can anyone cross over from you to us.” The gap between Lazarus and the rich man only widens, and if the rich man refused to cross it in life he id forbidden to cross it in death.
It is tempting to read this parable as a blueprint for salvation and condemnation, a cautionary tale that teaches us that the poor go to heaven while the rich—especially the unconcerned rich—go to hell. But I think that the parable serves us better, and aligns more closely with Jesus’ purpose in telling it, if we resist that temptation. Read in its larger context of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and the cross, this parable is more about what it means to follow Jesus than about salvation and damnation. It is more about the hell-on-earth we create when we have an unhealthy relationship with money than about eternal damnation. It is more about what becomes of our spirits, our souls, here and now, rather than what becomes of our bodies when we value money, privilege, and self over compassion for the poor.
This parable is one of a series of parables that begin “There was a rich man.” In the first a rich man fails to preserve his life by hoarding his wealth. In the second a rich man praises his manager for forgiving the debts of his tenants. In the third, a rich man’s neglect of the suffering of the poor results in his own suffering and torment. Woven through these parables are Jesus’ words to the Pharisees and his disciples:
Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy. (12:1) . . . Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. (12:15) . . . do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. (12:22) . . . No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (16:13) . . . You [Pharisees] are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God. (16:15)
This is not to say that God does not judge. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus certainly has much to say about God’s judgment. But Jesus is more concerned here with the state of our hearts than with the gory details of damnation. Jesus tells these parables to remind us that a right relationship with money is one of letting go rather than hoarding, of managing money in the direction of justice rather than self-interest, of bridging the gap of wealth inequality rather than widening it.
I love the words I read from NT scholar Peter Gurry in his blog entry in The Gospel Coalition:
The most important lesson this parable teaches is a warning about money. Wealth calcified the rich man’s heart. Though wealth doesn’t always have this effect, who can deny that it often does? As many have realized, either we will own our money, or it will own us. You cannot serve God and money, as Jesus said a few verses before (Luke 16:13). . . . A heart unwilling to help others—because it might be risky, or they might not deserve it, or it might cost us too much—is a heart unwilling to recognize the desperate help we ourselves need from God. . . . The good news is that God is . . . the God who helps. And because [God] has so helped us, we are freed and fueled to help others.
Let us pray:
God before whom we all stand as beggars, in Christ you have promised us abundant life, shown us the direction of justice, and granted us eternal rest in the bosom of Abraham. Soften our hearts in the face of poverty, want, and injustice that we might mind the gap between ourselves and others, and so be equipped to follow you to Jerusalem. Amen.