The blue-collared, calloused-handed guys roll their eyes as the well dressed young man walks up. It doesn’t help that his opening line to Jesus is, “What must I do to earn eternal life?” “Of course,” whispers Peter to Thomas, “who wouldn’t want to keep living forever if your bank account will last that long?” Jesus ignores his disciples. “All you have to do,” he tells the eager young man, “is everything God considers good- all those rules Moses came down the mountain with.” “I’m faithful to all of that,” says the young man. Jesus shoots Peter and Thomas a look. They stay quiet. It would be easy to mock this rich guy’s self-righteousness, but they’re also disconcerted as they recognize in him the same awkward mix of eagerness and desperation that started them trekking around behind a holy, baffling Messiah. Then Jesus steps closer to the young man, leans in, put his hand gently on the back of his head and whispers into his ear. Jesus pulls back slowly. The young man looks up to find his eyes. Then his shoulders slump, wind knocked out of him. What did Jesus say? He looks again at Jesus, who stands quietly. They young man turns. He walks away.
The TV news shows and outline new streams work to keep us riveted to tragedy after tragedy. Each upcoming story is crucial. Then fifteen to thirty minutes later, there’s nothing you can do about all you’ve seen, which spans the country and the globe, except feel punished and depleted in mind and soul. And there are the charity ads, the local fundraisers, the church announcements. There are ways to volunteer that feel meaningful, but how can it not seem too little? Focus on the demands of you family, friends, and work, as if that weren’t more than enough.
But it nags, doesn’t it? Gets caught a little in the throat. Should I, could I, be doing something that really makes a difference? What would it look like? What do I really believe about helping other people, especially if it gets demanding?
A rich man dies and goes to hell. From there the rich man begs Abraham (apparently the keeper of the gate before Peter) to send over a poor man named Lazarus from heaven to put a soothing drop of water on the rich man’s burning tongue. On earth the poor man had lain outside the rich man’s gate. Dogs licked his sores as he lay there scrounging for crumbs, while the rich man feasted sumptuously. Sorry, says Abraham, no can do. It’s role reversal now.
I heard this parable for many years and was unbothered by it. Sure, those millionaire-billionaire people are feasting in their towering homes, with luxury toys, with diversified accounts full of money. Sure, it’s wrong when others are barely surviving in poverty. But growing up middle-class in Nebraska, my attention was drawn to those who were richer than we were. Other families had boats or backyard pools, and we didn’t. My friends were given cars when they turned sixteen, and I wasn’t.
Then my eyes and my chest opened, and it became frightening clear: that story is mine. I’m the rich man, not worthy of a drop of water on my tongue. Though nobody would consider me rich in my country, outside it’s gates is a different story. And the parable’s conclusion and definition of justice don’t offer much latitude or easy hope; Abraham tells the rich man it’s useless to send a warning back to his family members who haven’t died, because they wouldn’t change their ways to pay attention to those suffering beyond the gates anyway. They would, in essence, walk away, like the rich young man who came to Jesus.
But Jesus did not seem to agree with Abraham’s pessimism. In telling the story, isn’t he hoping we might change, might awaken to how much is at stake right now? Quite a warning and an invitation- to try both changing the world and finding salvation.
-except from Following Jesus Through the Eye of a Needle