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I remember saying to my parish priest when I was searching my heart about ordination, “I’m willing to answer God’s call. But if I’m told I have to serve in a prison, I think I’ll hang up.” Watch out: God loves that kind of challenge.
Fast forward. Two weeks ago, I was standing in the guardhouse outside Lovelock Correctional Center: eager to go in, but anxious. I’d been waiting for months to take part in the Alternatives to Violence Project—its Basic workshops are held only in prisons. So I crossed through the steel gates and barbed-wire fences into a territory that was unreal to me except through my required training from the Nevada Dept. of Corrections and years of shadowy, scary movies.
And over the next three days, that unreality, that fear, those shadows, were replaced by something surprising and profound.
It started when we had to introduce ourselves: the 20 male inmates who had waited months (some, years) to participate in the workshop; the 9 inmates trained as facilitators; the 2 female volunteers; and me: the oldest participant; the only woman; the only one from the “outside.”
“Give yourself a nickname by choosing an adjective that starts with the same letter as your first name,” Nifty Nancy said. I looked around the circle. I have to keep my guard up; I’ve been trained not to trust these guys. Compassionate Clare might sound too vulnerable, I thought. So I went with Curious Clare.
But then I heard the inmates choose their names: Kind Kent. Mellow Michael. Jovial Jon. Even Poetic Pete. What will I hear around this circle, I began to wonder. Who do I assume is here—and who is really here?
The breakthrough revelation for me then came when we shared an exercise called “Crossing the Line.” Magnificent Marc rolled a rope across the center of the room and asked us all to gather against the far wall. “When I read a statement,” he said, “cross the line to the opposite side of the room if it is true for you. Face the others who did not cross. Look around and ask yourself, are there any surprises?”
Cross the line if you: Were in the military. Went to college. Have traveled outside the U.S. Grew up in a stable family. Were in a family with drug or alcohol problems. Were ever told not to cry. Ever had someone give up on you.
Each time I crossed the line at these statements and more, I was surprised by who was around and across from me. And I acknowledged each slight shock as a sign of my ignorant assumptions based on the men’s looks, age, race, tattoos, accents—how I thought society worked.
Why did I assume that the biggest guys would be the toughest guys? That all inmates would have a similar negative history: badly educated or touched by addiction or by domestic violence?
Why did I assume I would be somehow superior or set apart? That these men and I would not share common hurts and strengths?
And each time I crossed the room, I began to regret the line that separated me from the men with whom I had just shared common ground. As we silently grouped and regrouped, making revelations to each other by where we stood, we paused and looked deeply into each other’s faces. We connected. We became real to each other.
I came back to this eye-opening and heart-opening experience when I read this morning’s parable. I heard it fresh, as a similar teaching. Over and over again, through his parables, Jesus shocked his listeners into rethinking their assumptions about society.
Think you know the characters in my story? Where they stand? How the reward system works? Who’s blessed? Who’s wise? Who’s superior? Think again. Cross the line, and recognize your common humanity. The Kingdom of God is coming.
I invite you to examine your own assumptions as we look at this story together, to pay attention to your own points of surprise or discomfort, to notice who you stand with in this parable—and why.
In just two sentences, Jesus sets the stage with two characters representing a deeply divided, segregated social structure: the rich man of the urban elite at one extreme; at the other, Lazarus, the unclean reject of the underclass.
It’s a picture of Palestinian society Jesus’s listeners would have immediately recognized. And perhaps there’s some shock of recognition in seeing our country’s great and growing economic divide in this story also. Yes, this is how things are, we think along with the crowd. Wealth, power, and class privilege fixed on one side of the line; poverty, hunger, and misery on the other. Realities that rarely touch. Realities that are fixed.
Yet, Jesus gives a clue that begins to upset that easy reading. His listeners would have known that the name “Lazarus” has a special meaning—like our prison nicknames, a clue to a bigger human story. His name does not identify him as “Lowlife Lazarus,” but it means “God has helped.”
Perhaps, we suddenly wonder, this outcast enjoyed happier days before he came to this sad state. Perhaps his poverty was the result not of laziness or incompetence or disfavor with God, but of a sharp downward slide. Was he foreclosed on his land like so many in his oppressed society, reduced to an out-of-work day laborer, eventually so malnourished that he sank into disease?
What was this man’s complete human story? Can we see in him someone like us?
Before we can fully consider these questions, Jesus moves and shocks us again. Both men suddenly die. Think the rich man will have the greater privilege of a longer life? No, Jesus bluntly reminds us.
Whether in luxury or in destitution, with a proper funeral, or left unburied like Lazarus, all humans die. You will too. It’s the one experience that will unite us all, no matter where or how we lived. And what will we face when we cross that line of death?
Jesus then shows us a third grouping to further upset our assumptions about reward and favor. Lazarus is now in the bosom of Abraham; the rich man is across the chasm, suffering in Hades—his earthly wealth and status clearly not proof of God’s favor.
Know that, in the understanding of Jesus’s time, Hades was not the same as Hell. It was “like a waiting place where righteous and sinners alike were gathered after death but separated from each other.” In this system, there still would have been a chance for the rich man to shift his consciousness, repent, and cross over to join Lazarus on the Day of Judgment. But Jesus reveals why this nameless man will remain in eternal torment; why he caused so much torment on earth.
It is because the rich man cannot, will not, recognize Lazarus as his brother. As fully human. This fixed consciousness, this hardness of heart has fractured society—and will fracture your soul, Jesus warns.
The rich man knows who Lazarus is; he even knows him by name, but as an inhuman fixture outside his gate. He has the teachings of Moses and the prophets to teach him brotherhood. But even seeing Lazarus in the place of favor in Abraham’s lap, the rich man still sees him as an underling in the dust.
So used to being in a superior position, he begins to issue orders to Abraham: show mercy, send the servant Lazarus to give me water, send the errand boy Lazarus to warn my brothers. There’s a flash of connection outside himself. But even in agony, he is concerned only with sustaining the position of his kin, his class. Even the shock of death was not enough to wake him up to an awareness of common humanity, not enough to inspire him to rethink and repent.
Instead, he’s back to his old ways: trying to manipulate, bargain, argue to reassert his elite status. Without true humility or compassion.
And so I ask you, which adjective will you choose to describe yourself in this life? Face the chasm in our society and look around you.
Who do you see standing with you—are there any surprises? And look deeply at the people on the other side, facing you. Are there any surprises—or do they look to you as though they belong in the dust?
Who’s blessed? Who’s wise? Who’s closer to God? And who have you been refusing to see—as fully human?
Go through the gate, cross the line, Jesus says: you always have the power to change your consciousness. Take up the life that is life.
Recognize your common humanity. Be brave enough to take the name of compassion.
Regroup, and create the Kingdom of God. Amen.
~ Rev. Clare C. Novak
Associate for Interfaith Ministry, St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church
Incline Village, Nevada
September 29, 2013