One of the first questions people ask when they begin reading the Bible is: So how do we know whether this stuff is real or made up? How do we know if it’s true… It’s like there’s a line in our minds dividing fact from fiction, the real from the invented!
Now this question gets tricky, because a whole lot of the Bible is made up. It’s stories, teachings, and poetry inspired by God but crafted by human people. And yes, there really is some archaeological evidence for biblical events. There really is some historical support. Scholars believe there was a man named Solomon who was likely a king. We know there was a first century rabbi named Jesus.
But here’s the question: Just because a whole lot of the Bible is made up, does that make it any less true…
It’s like there’s a line in our minds dividing fact from fantasy, and what I would ask is, please keep your mind’s eye on that line. It might begin to get blurry. (I mean, what’s up with those sea monsters who praise the LORD in the Psalm? Was that a metaphor, or a manatee, or did the Psalmist know something about monsters that we don’t?)
Writer Neil Gaiman describes this blurry line when he paraphrases a quote by GK Chesterton. Gaiman says: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
In the scripture Bill read, we hear a terrifying parable. Now the writer of Luke did not get to hear A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. But once you’ve heard the story of Ebenezer Scrooge getting haunted by ghosts in a nightmare, you can’t hear the story of the rich man and Lazarus quite the same way.
And I’ve got to tell you, I think Dickens was onto something. It really could be the case that this parable is the story of the rich man’s nightmare. It’s like, one night, his troubled conscience went and messed with his subconscious. It’s like his heart was haunted.
What happened was that Lazarus was a poor man covered with sores. He would lay at the gate of the rich man’s property begging for crumbs from the table, and only the dogs were kind to him. They would lick his sores. Now the day comes, when both men die.
And here, the story demonstrates the classic Lukan theme of reversal. Lazarus gets carried up to Abraham by the angels where he will finally know comfort and joy. Blessed are those who suffer now; one day they will rejoice. But woe to those who are celebrating now… Because at the same time Lazarus is getting lifted up, the rich man is getting plunged into hell.
Right there’s another clue that this is really a nightmare. In his teaching, Jesus rarely spoke about hell. There’s a popular notion that Jesus was all about dividing people into hell or heaven, but that’s not in the Gospel. Want to know where to find hell? In our nightmares!
Hell exists in the deep recesses of our soul’s imagination, where we store all the unhealed trauma and unlooked at shame. So of course this is where the rich man landed, and of course he gets tortured by exactly what he fears. But here in hell, he remembers Lazarus and cries out across heaven and earth pleading for help.
Verse Twenty-Four gives me chills. “Have mercy on me! Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony.” Of course Abraham said No.
He pointed out the daunting chasm between Lazarus in heaven and the rich man in hell, and you have to wonder, how did this man fail to notice the chasm? The gate kept the men divided on earth. The chasm keeps them apart after death. And so it is, these divisions are just the facts. I mean, what can you do?
In the Bible, the story does not end well for the rich man. The chasm wins, and the men stay apart. He couldn’t even get Abraham to send a warning to his brothers.
Charles Dickens decides to fix the ending in his version. In the morning, Scrooge wakes up, realizes it’s all been a terrible nightmare, but it’s not too late to repent. He flings open the window —opens the gate—and he begins living a life of generosity.
Now if we were sitting with Jesus when he was telling us this story, we might feel the sigh of relief at the end. Oh see, it was all just a bad dream! We who go to bed with a troubled conscience, we can wake up the next morning and make a new choice.
But this is when Jesus looks at us with love in his eyes. He says: Just because it’s a nightmare, why do you think it’s not real? Nightmares can be more than true…
Imagine this, says the Lord. Once there was an American woman who was doing her best. Her life was too busy. She spent her days worrying about her parents, caring for her children, working full time at a job that required her to dress professionally. So in between piano lessons and grocery shopping, she ordered a sweater online.
And would you believe she doesn’t even know the names of the people who made her sweater? The tag says Made in China. But where in China? She doesn’t know whether the factory has safe working conditions, whether the people go home at night to their children with repetitive stress injuries. This sweater is going to drape across her skin all day, and she doesn’t even know who’s to thank. She doesn’t even see the chasm.
Jesus continues… There once was a man who worked all day, and took care of his yard, and gave money to the church, and loved his children. One night, he gets a chicken breast out of the fridge and chops it up to go in the Instapot.
Would you believe he doesn’t notice where the chicken was processed? He doesn’t know if the plant gives workers sick time or even bathroom breaks! He doesn’t know the worry the workers are carrying. People suffered to produce this chicken. The chicken suffered! But the man can’t even think about that. He doesn’t see the chasm.
So what do you think his nightmares do to him? What does he do the next morning…
In our world, we usually don’t see the people who pick our vegetables, and process our food, and make our clothes. We don’t see people living in detention facilities. We don’t see people living in poverty. We know that right now other human people are suffering from violence, and here’s the thing. We’ve learned how to absorb that information into our being, then go back to living our own lives because our own lives are demanding. Learning how to do this comes with a cost. It has carved a chasm into our conscience.
And look, you didn’t mean for this to happen and I didn’t either, but it is the sin that is killing us. We’re all moving through our days with fault lines fragmenting our conscience, with invisible fences keeping us separate and that’s not even what scares me the most. What really scares me is that somehow we’ve decided, these divisions are facts. You can’t argue with a wall. You can’t cross the chasm, said Abraham. We’ve resigned ourselves to the inevitability of the division until now we don’t even notice it.
We don’t even remember to remember each other.
It’s just… What if we don’t have to settle for this? One place you see God’s dream coming to life is precisely where barriers are acknowledged, then questioned, then taken down.
You’ve heard me say this before. Part of why prison walls have power is that a key part of their function is to make those of us on the outside forget the people on the inside. So when we don’t, when we make it our business to pray for the people who live and work in prisons, when we write to them, and visit them, and put money on their commissary, this takes power away from the prison wall. Paying attention to walls will do that.
And I know. I know that praying for the people who make our clothes and process our food is not the same thing as passing legislation that ensures their safety —please let’s do that too!— but prayer is a place to start. It’s the act of refusing to ignore our sisters and brothers who are vulnerable, and this insistence changes how we are divided. Every act of noticing the chasm, then shouting across, then reaching across— this makes the chasm tremble.
Your conscience is carved up by division, and mine is too, and it might be killing us. But it doesn’t have to. We can come and lay this down before the LORD. That’s when Jesus looks at us with love in his eyes. Imagine if he tells us, This is not what God wants for you.
The Holy Spirit desires generosity and righteousness, healing for the damage in the world and healing for your heart and mine. Of course we feel torn up when we have so much and someone else has too little; it haunts our hearts because it’s a real problem.
God is dreaming of a world where no one is starving, where no one is in hell. God is dreaming of a world where people are noticing, and questioning, and dismantling the divisions that keep us from being who we really are. And you know God, their dream is already underway. So before anybody tries to tell you that it’s only a dream, you can be sure of this.
God’s dream is more than true: not because it shows us how our divisions are real, but because it shows us how divisions can be overcome… by us. We’re just as real. Amen.