I wonder whether we can bring this parable a bit closer to home…
Perhaps you have read or seen the play or the film of Alan Bennett’s little book – The Lady in the Van. It’s a true story about the years when a woman lived in some squalor in a van parked outside the writer’s house – first on the street and then on his drive. She was eccentric, dirty and chaotic – her legs sore and streaked, and her mind full of imaginations about her place in the world. She had a succession of strange and irregular vehicles. She was unpredictable and difficult and never easy to help. She had a knack of leaving those who had helped her feeling uncomfortable. Alan Bennett was torn between the urge to help her and the urge to get rid of her – he felt sorry for her, but also very angry with her. He did shopping for her and helped in lots of ways, but drew the line at letting her use his toilet. One day, feeling particularly charitable, he offered her a cup of coffee. She said,
‘Oh, I couldn’t possibly put you to all that trouble. I’ll just have half a cup.’
Bennett is very honest about the awkwardness of her presence in his street of large Victorian villas – amongst all those rising professionals, the knockers through and the gentrifiers. He writes,
‘What made the social set-up funny was the disparity between the style in which the new arrivals found themselves able to live and their progressive opinions: guilt, put simply. There was a gap between our social position and our social obligations. It was in this gap that Miss Shepherd (in her van) was able to live.’
Bennett and his neighbours were the rich man – Miss Shepherd was a kind of Lazarus. She did receive some scraps from their tables, but there was still a great gap between them. When Miss Shepherd became very ill, Bennett noticed with wonder how the ambulance man arranged her greasy clothing with no obvious distaste and carried her off to hospital, a Dorothy Hodgkin of vagabonds, her grimy face in heavy folds. On the day she died, it was Alan Bennett who found her and he who arranged her funeral.
Alan Bennett’s story is at once sad and funny, but it can make any of us who manage to have a house to live in and some kind of security feel as uncomfortable as he did. The story of the rich man and Lazarus makes us uncomfortable too and yet, just like Bennett’s book, it offers some glimmers of hope for all of us, some hints of how the world could be different and will be different.
In the parable – not so much the lady in the van as the man at the gate – we find a rich man – as rich as anyone could expect to be – and a destitute man – enduring the most disgusting and helpless kind of poverty you could imagine. The rich man eats gourmet food every day and wears suits from Savile Row. The poor man has nothing to eat and he’s too weak even to call off the dogs that are sniffing round him. In the story they both die and in the after life their fortunes are reversed. The rich man goes to Hades and suffers while Lazarus rests contentedly in the bosom of Abraham. The rich man pleads for help, first for himself – some water to cool his burning tongue – and then for his relatives – someone to warn them. But no-one – says the parable – can cross the great gulf fixed between them now. It’s a story that looks as though it has a simple message – and an easy moral – a bit like an Aesop’s fable really.
A group of us sat round on Tuesday at Café church and thought about this story. And the more we thought about it the more complicated we thought it got. We imagined how a really poor person might see this story – and we thought about how a rich person might see it.. and we wondered what God might be saying to us…. We could see that someone living in real poverty might think it’s good news if there’s really hope in the next life for them .. But then we thought that actually what the poor needand want is not ‘jam tomorrow’ or in heaven, but bread today. A story that can only promise something in the next life is no good…That’s why Christian Aid believes in life before death – things will only ever stay the same right now if we think it’ll all be sorted out in the next life… And we thought about how this story might seem to the really rich.. (and we recognised that in global terms that’s us too) – but we weren’t happy with a story that offers onlly payback in the future. We couldn’t recognise the Gospel that offers hope and salvation to everyone in this story. Where is the God of love? We thought that being rich or being poor doesn’t necessarily define who you are. It’s who you are on the inside that really counts. And the parable doesn’t tell us that the rich man is necessarily wicked – just that he’s rich. Perhaps he’s providing work for thousands, is tithing his money… and keeping the synagogue going.. And, who knows, maybe the poor man is not necessarily a good man. Maybe he’s already had some kind of comeuppance… We realised, of course, how easily you can deceive yourself into wriggling out of the discomfort of a message like this one, but still.. we thought that there has to be more to redemption than just a reversal of fortunes – it seemed to us just as a pitiable in the end that the rich man suffers and just as terrible.. and we didn’t think anyone should spend eternity suffering, however stupid or even selfish they had been. Isn’t the Gospel more than that?
But this story has an important second part – that part about ‘the great chasm’ between heaven and hell, between the living and the dead, between the rich and the poor. The story says that the chasm has been fixed and no-one can cross it. But of course, if you think about it, we haven’t got to the end of the Gospel story yet – we don’t yet know at chapter 16 that by chapter 24 someone will have crossed that great chasm between death and life – Jesus himself, the one who told this story. In the world of the story, there’s no going back, no redemption, no hope – no hope for the rich man in the next life or for the poor man in this. But in the world of the Gospel, there is hope for the poor right now and there is hope even for the rich, even for the dead, even for the destitute and the excluded, even for the dishonest and the prodigal, even for you and even for me.
In the worlds we all live in there is often some kind of great chasm that can’t be crossed. But isn’t the Gospel all about crossing and bridging and dissolving those gaps? St Paul said that in Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. In Christ, those great chasms have been crossed, transformed. There is something about Christianity that says that the gaps, the divides, the great chasms that haunt our lives really can be bridged. If Jesus can be God made flesh, if Jesus can rise up from hell and death to life itself, if Jesus can bring God’s love to the Gentiles and not only the Jews, if Jesus could announce really good news for the poor, then the great chasm can be crossed. That, I think, is the good news that is hidden in the telling of this parable.
What matters then is that we need to start noticing where these chasms are and rising up with Christ to cross them. In the world of the parable the rift between rich and poor was starkly visible – right at the gate. Today the chasm might be harder to see, but it’s no less real. Most of the clothes we are wearing right now will have been made by people in far away places, some of them in dangerous and fragile factories, for low wages, working long hours. And, like others here I expect, I have an iphone. This week I read a report about recent conditions in the three factories in China that make them, and I wondered whether I should still use it. I think what this tells me is that the gap between rich and poor in our world is not so far away – that all our lives are connected with others very closely. The test is whether I notice it and whether I care, and whether I believe and trust that ‘the chasm’ can be and should be overcome. The poor cannot wait .. and neither can I. I believe in a different world, and not so much a next world, but a new this world – and I believe that this is what God wants too. This parable does something good in me if it gives me the courage to imagine and believe in a different and a better world.
And there are other chasms too that need to be bridged and redeemed. Sometimes we can look at someone who sits at our table each day and wonder who they really are. Sometimes we hear someone say something and we wonder how they can ever say that. Sometimes we look at our different political tribes or our different churches and traditions, and we wonder why anyone could belong where they do. Sometimes we look at someone on the bus or sleeping on the street or kicking off on a Saturday night and we wonder how it could have come to that. I just don’t understand it, we say. We all of us need those who will cross the chasms between us now to tell us what it’s like to be them. And we need those who will listen and hear what it’s like to be us. When the great chasms between us seem fixed and unbridgeable we need to hear the good news that there really is a way across.
Alan Bennett, thinking about the lady in the van, quotes Francis Thompson, someone who in the late 19th century was down and out in London, addicted to opium and destitute, and yet who wrote sublime poetry. A devout Christian, he really believed that God crossed the great divide between heaven and earth, that God did come to save us – rich or poor. He believed that on anyone’s loss or grief, including his own, ‘shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder, Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross’. He found himself ‘clinging to Heaven by the hems; and lo, Christ walking on the water, Not of Genesareth, but Thames!’.
The great St Paul also believed that Jesus was the one who crossed the chasm, so that we could cross it too. He wrote to a church that was struggling with the divide between rich and poor:
‘You know the generosity of our Lord Jesus Christ: he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor, so that through his poverty you might become rich.’
The Gospel we proclaim is not a reversal of fortunes, not just a pantomine, fairy tale kind of upskittling, but a new world in which the old walls get taken down and the old divides crossed. In this world the poor and the rich get to sit at the same table, the living and the dead are united, and each of us can reach out across worlds to find that we are one. And we don’t have to wait for the next world – it’s here already. Amen.