Feb 22, 2021
Luke 16:19-31: “'Forgive My Hat'”
Given at Houston Mennonite Church virtual service on 2/21/2021
I've come to think of this as “the parable of the chasm.”
It's the only parable with a chasm. In fact, it's the only chasm in the whole of the New Testament. And what a chasm it is. A chasm that the rich man is able to see over, to see the poor beggar Lazarus resting comfortably in Abraham's bosom on the other side (I know, the more modern translations say he is by Abraham's side, but I like the King James here.) The rich man is able to see to the other side of the chasm and even to talk with Abraham across the chasm. The one thing the rich man cannot do is cross over the chasm.
Of course, this chasm between heaven and Hades is a physical—and I would say imaginative—manifestation of the divide that existed on earth between Lazarus and the rich man. One dressed in (very expensive) purple and fine linen; the other covered with sores. The one feasting with his friends, using scraps of bread as napkins and then tossing them under the table; the other stuck outside the gate, longing for some of those table scraps. The story-teller wants to make it very clear that these two men live in different worlds—even when they are both alive on earth.
Another story-teller, Katherine Mansfield, has the same idea in her short story, “The Garden Party.” The Sheridans—well, the women—are preparing for their annual garden party on sunny early summer day that could not have been more perfect “if they had ordered it.” At their large, elegant, house on the hill there are hundreds of roses in the garden and trays full of lilies delivered by the florist. Fifteen different kinds of sandwiches with the crusts cut off and and swept off the counter by the cook. (Not quite using bread as napkins, but still . . . )
The chasm in this story is between the Sheridans and the people who live in the cottages at the bottom of the hill. There is no physical chasm between the house and the cottages, but “a broad road ran between them.” Compared to the large, beautiful house on the hill, the cottages below are “little mean dwellings.” And instead of roses in their gardens, they have cabbages and sick chickens. Even the smoke is poor: “Little rags and shreds of smoke, so unlike the great silvery plumes that uncurled from the Sheridans' chimneys.”
The Sheridans seem oblivious to the people who live on the other side of the chasm. Like the rich man, they simply ignore the poor outside their gate. Until death comes. In “The Garden Party,” none of the rich people die. But a tragic accident results in the death of Scott, a young father who lives in one of the cottages.
Laura Sheridan, one of the daughters, learns of this death as they are all preparing for the party, and she asks her sister, Jose, how they can stop the party—they can't possibly have a party with a poor man dead just down the hill. His widow and children might hear the party music and it's just too awful. Jose, however, thinks Laura is being ridiculous. She tells her sister: “If you're going to stop a band from playing every time someone has an accident, you'll lead a very strenuous life.”
And her mother refuses to cancel the party: “People like that don't expect sacrifices from us,” she says. “And it's not very sympathetic to spoil everybody's enjoyment as you're doing now.” Laura insists that the dead man's family are “nearly neighbors,” but apparently they are not neighbors enough—the chasm is too big--for the man's death to hinder the party.
These chasms—the one in Jesus' parable and the one in Mansfield's story—are obviously caused by money. The people who have a lot of it—the rich man and the Sheridans—manage to isolate themselves from the people who don't have enough of it. The rich choose to live in their own gated world and to spend their money on luxury items, on food that gets casually tossed out. These choices mean that they are cut off from friendships with the poor, from the web of community that could be theirs, from living in right relationship with their neighbors. These are both stories about the poverty of wealth.
Certainly there are chasms today between the rich and the poor. The wealth gap, as you are probably aware, is obscene—and growing. We also must talk about the racial chasm in our country—which, of course, is connected to the economic chasm—with a history going back to genocide of native peoples and enslavement of Africans. Still today, the racial wealth gap is overwhelming. The typical white household has 10 times the amount of wealth as the typical black household.
In addition to the wealth gap, there is the related experience gap. This chasm that exists between the way I experience this society as a white person and the way people of color experience it. A few years ago I remember I was driving in town and I changed lanes without signaling. I had just heard Sandra Bland's mother on NPR talking about the settlement related to her daughter's death. Bland, who was black, was arrested in the course of a routine traffic stop and later found dead in her jail cell. I remembered, as I casually switched lanes, that Sandra Bland's traffic infraction had been failing to signal a lane change.
The same week Bland’s settlement was in the news, so were the shooting deaths, at the hands of police, of Terrance Cruthcher—who van was broken down in the middle of the road—and Kieth Scott—who was sitting in his car in a parking lot. If my car broke down, I would be happy to see the police come, and I realize this is not the experience of many black people in this country. I've read about young black men having near panic attacks any time they hear or see a police car. When Kieth Scott's wife, Rakeyia, saw the police officers approaching her husband's car, she immediately yelled, “Don't shoot him! Don't shoot him!”. I have never—not once—yelled “don't shoot.”
I've had some contact with police over the years. There was the rolling stop incident. And the time the police came to me with an inquiry about a criminal I had talked to in a pastoral context. A couple of home visits by police when children had called 911—you know, for fun. There were a few issues with a missing child. And the time I turned in a large box of ammunition that we had inherited from my husband’s dad. At no point did it ever cross my mind that I or anyone I loved was in danger. Not when a police car pulled me over or when the flashing lights showed up at my house unexpectedly or when I tried to figure out the best way to dispose of unwanted ammunition. That is a chasm—a wide gap in the way I am able to experience the world compared to how most people of color experience it. And of course, police interaction is only a small small part of what creates such a wide racial chasm in our country.
“The parable of the chasm.” It's a great parable to preach social justice—to point out the vast disparity between the haves and the have nots. But it's not such a great parable when you're looking for hope. Not so great when the huge inequalities, the deep divides, the chasms, are already painfully clear and what you want, what you need, is a word of grace and encouragement and hope that we might be able to go from here to there after all—that the unbridgeable chasm just might, by the grace of God, be bridgeable.
But in the parable, it's not. Abraham is pretty adamant that the rich man cannot come up to him, and Lazarus cannot cross over into Hades with a water jug.
It's kind of a depressing parable. But I noticed that the chasm isn't the only physical division in the parable. We also have the gate. We have a gate in the parable and in “The Garden Party.” Lazarus has been thrown at the rich man's gate. Laura laments that they “can't possibly have a garden party with a man dead just outside the front gate.” There is a great chasm, yes. But there are also gates. And the thing about gates is. The beautiful, wonderful thing about gates is that they can open.
The parable hints of a better way. The rich man begs for Lazarus to be sent to his brothers and warn them. He wants Lazarus to tell them to open the gate—open the gate and share with the people in need. Open the gate while there is a gate to open. Lazarus, of course, cannot warn them. These brothers have to listen to the prophets and figure out about the gate for themselves. And we have no idea if that happens. We do not know the story of the brothers.
But Mansfield does tell us some of the story of the Sheridan sisters. After the garden party, Mrs. Sheridan has the brilliant idea to send the leftovers to the family of the man who has died. Laura is unsure of this plan, but she dutifully gets the basket and then goes down the hill, out the gate, and to the home of the recent widow.
Now the thing about Laura is, she's somewhat ridiculous. Early in the story she fancies herself just like a worker because she spends about five minutes talking to the men who will put up the marquee—but she is quickly distracted from her reflections on the evils of class distinctions by the ringing telephone. And she is quite upset about the man's death, but her mother is able to distract her and get her to enjoy the party by giving her a nice hat to wear. The same hat she thinks she should have taken off before walking among the poor cottages. Laura is somewhat horrified to be ushered into the grimy little cottage where the widow is—she wants to just set the basket down and run away. But she goes in. And offers the food. And even looks at the dead man.
Feeling like she should say something to him, she says, “Forgive my hat.”
That's how I feel sometimes, trying to go through the gate. When I think about trying to work for antiracism, I am afraid I will do it wrong—because I probably will. I'm afraid I won't give enough. I'm afraid I won't understand the people on the other side—or worse, they won't understand me. I'm afraid I will be in the way. That I will feel ridiculous. And I'm afraid that sometimes I'm more concerned about being ridiculous than I am about the people beyond the gate.
When I read “The Garden Party,” I'm kind of embarrassed for Laura, walking through the grimy streets, past the little cottages, with her basket full of leftovers and her fancy hat.
But the thing is, at least she walked through the gate. The rich man didn't do it. Laura's family didn't do it. They all stayed in their comfortable homes with their nice clothes and their full tables. The rich man finds himself on the other side of the chasm with all hope of going through the gate gone. Laura's mom and her sister Jose, still could decide to go through the gate, but there is most likely a great chasm in their future as well. Those who don't go through the gate face the chasm, that hopeless chasm that separates us from each other—and from God. So sure, Laura is ridiculous. But at least she is on the other side of the gate.
I've decided I don't like “The Parable of the Chasm” after all. I'd rather think of Jesus' story as “The Parable of the Gate.”
And I pray that we will have the vision to see the gates around us and the courage to walk through them—even if it means we must apologize for our hats.