Dying Into Life
By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
Back when I was a teenager in a church youth group, we once tried what I will call an exercise in trust. Each of us took a turn, facing away from the group. The person whose turn it was would fall backward, expecting to be caught by the others. Taking this fall was not easy. Some of us could not let go for more than a few inches before stopping ourselves. There was a lot of laughter, and feelings of embarrassment.
I was reminded of this exercise in trust last week while reading a book given to me by a member of this parish. The author, Mitch Albom, recalls an unusual class from his college days. The professor has the students participate in this same trust exercise. There too the result is hesitation, embarrassment, and laughter.
One student redeems the situation. A thin, quiet, dark-haired girl who almost always wears bulky white fisherman sweaters, she crosses her arms across the chest, closes her eyes, leans back, and does not flinch. For a moment it looks as though she is going to thump on the floor. At the last instant, her assigned partner garbs her head and shoulders and yanks her up harshly. “Whoa!” several students yell. Some clap. The professor points out that the girl closing her eyes is what made the difference. [Mitch Albom, “Tuesdays with Morrie” (Doubleday, 1997), pp. 60-61.]
Another example of the trust exercise appears in a story Jesus tells. Two people fall backward. One is unable to trust, and cannot be caught. The other one closes his eyes, falls backward, and is caught by the one behind him.
The trustful one we know as Lazarus. Jesus does not give a name to the other, but refers to him simply as “the rich man.” Christian tradition labels him as Dives, the Latin word for rich man; let us do the same.
Dives dresses up and eats well one day after another. He’s quite a consumer. So preoccupied is he, in fact, that he simply does not notice poor, sick Lazarus lying outside his front door, there on his manicured lawn. Dives’ pet dogs find their way to Lazarus, they lick the poor man’s sores, but Dives does not notice his neighbor in need. Oh, he may see the figure of Lazarus and even know his name, but all to no avail; he fails truly to recognize him. It’s not that Dives oppresses Lazarus, or cheats him, or exploits him; he simply does not notice him.
In time, Dives dies. Perhaps his death is premature, due to all that rich food, and the ignoring of his doctor’s advice. His funeral is quite a big deal, and his burial plot looks beautiful. But Dives finds himself in a place of torment. He complains that this place is hotter than hell, and then suddenly realizes, much to his astonishment, that it is hell.
Dives looks around. There in the distance, very far away from him, well beyond the boundaries of torment, he sees the brilliant figure of Abraham, and somebody sitting beside him. Certainly to chat with Abraham is the catbird seat for the departed.
The face of that other figure looks familiar. Then Dives recognizes that this is the bum who once sprawled over his lawn and was such a nuisance for the dogs.
Dives has lost nothing of his haughtiness. He hails Abraham as one might signal a less-than-competent waiter. “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to cool my tongue with a damp fingertip; these flames are frightfully uncomfortable.”
Same old Dives. Absorbed with himself. He thinks he deserves this special treatment, and that Lazarus is available to serve as his personal lackey.
The answer is “no,” but Abraham gives it to him easy.
First, the universe does, however slowly, bend toward justice. Dives’ whole life was a holiday; Lazarus, on the other hand, had it lousy. The death of both of them brought about a great reversal. Now it’s Lazarus’ turn to sit at poolside enjoying a drink with the big boys, while Dives is doomed to sizzle like fat in the frying pan.
Second, Abraham points out that where he is and where Dives is are separated by a great gulf, an insurmountable no-man’s land. So Abraham finds himself unable to have room service visit Dives. That’s just the way it is.
Dives is not in the habit of taking “no” for an answer. So he makes another request, one where he sounds like a good family man. “Then I beg you to send Lazarus to my father’s house and warn my five brothers to clean up their act; otherwise all six of us will sizzle together.”
Abraham replies that the brothers can get on the right track if they read and heed the Bible.
Dives counters with a suggestion, a plea, and an original idea. He knows his brothers. The whole lot of them are a sad sight when it comes to ethics, religion, or just plain decency. But if someone were to come back from the dead–heart thumping again inside the shroud–then even those morally challenged, self-indulgent boneheads would sit up and take notice.
Once again what Dives proposes is shot down by Abraham. The old patriarch responds:
“You’ve missed the point by a mile. This resurrection business is not about reviving corpses so they’re good for another 100,000 miles. This kingdom of God is not the old life you remember, great meals and fine tailoring, but done in more brilliant colors. If we send Lazarus off to your brothers, he’ll startle them, but their hearts won’t change. They’ll still play by the same crooked rules, and they’ll assume the game goes on forever.
“Try to understand, Dives: What we’re about here is a whole new order, and strange to say, it works through failure, loss, and death. Nobody struts their way in. To enter you must fall backward, eyes closed, believing you will be caught.
“Lazarus is here beside me, and I’m picking up the tab, because he’s somebody who knows how to take a fall. His whole life amounted to one big shove, but he closed his eyes, and trusted that the arms were there to catch him. He died into life.
“You, on the other hand, Dives–sorry to say, you lived into death. It wasn’t the money that was the problem. It was you. You could never accept loss or failure. Not even the tiny ones you were dealt in your well-endowed existence. You always had to be a winner, and you succeeded, you won big. But really, you lost even bigger. You refused to die, because you didn’t believe that arms were there to catch you. Even when you closed your eyes as your body shut down, you refused to let go and fall into life. I’m sorry, Dives, I really am.”
With that Abraham sighs, turns away, and walks off, his arm round Lazarus’ shoulder. Dives never sees him again.
Brothers and sisters, we are here at this banquet in honor of Jesus Christ. He tells us this story, but more than that, by his own example he shows us what it means to die into life. He is not afraid to close his eyes, let go, and fall backward, because he believes that arms are there to catch him. He tells us those arms are there for us as well.
By his word and example we learn that the kingdom is not a place into which we strut. If we are to enter, we must close our eyes, let go, and fall backward, believing we will be caught. This needs to happen at the end of earthly existence and many times before.
It’s all a trust experience. We can live into death as Dives did. Or, like Jesus and Lazarus and every saint, we can die into life. Close your eyes. Lean back. Let go.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2004 The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.