Luke 16:19-31 – The 19th Sunday after Pentecost – for Sunday, September 25, 2016
“The poor man died and was carried by angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried . . .” (Luke 16:22)
I steered to the shoulder and stopped. In my rearview mirror I watched the Kings Canyon National Park ranger open the door, alight from her seat, and purposefully stride toward me.
My wife sat in the passenger seat, still and silent. Our Minnesota-born niece and nephew, in California to attend college, occupied the back seat. All were witnesses to my foolishness. This was in 2010. I still recall my embarrassment.
The ranger, a slender woman with auburn hair pulled back and a holstered gun on her belt, leaned down and asked me an inevitable, irksome question.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been asked THE QUESTION.
(Don’t judge me! Being stopped by law enforcement personnel hasn’t been a regular experience in my mundane life. Oh sure, there was the “Nebraska incident.” We were headed for our new home and new life in Wisconsin when a Nebraska cop stopped me to wonder why I was leaving his lovely state at such a rapid pace. And there was also that graveside service I was late for, when another cop stopped me for traveling “slightly” over the posted limit. He encouraged me to tell my pastor’s tale of woe and repentance to the traffic judge while handing me a speeding ticket. Such a helpful cop . . . and the judge turned out to be a swell fellow too.)
Like the ranger at my window, all of the cops asked a variation of THE QUESTION . . .
“Sir, do you know why I pulled you over?”
Did my niece or nephew write foul language in the dust on the rear window? Had the fine folks in Nebraska failed to officially indicate that I’d paid for my long-ago speeding evils? Perhaps my brake lights were busted or the tailpipe had dropped to street level and created a trail of sparks? Oh the litany of real and imagined sins, vehicular or venial, that I’ve committed in my life!
But she knew I knew.
“Speeding,” I confessed. “There was a thirty-five mile speed limit sign a few miles back and I drove faster than that.”
“That’s right, sir,” she replied with a pleasant smile.
She requested my license.
And this is where I could’ve whined: that stupid sign had appeared miles ago and this road was straight and I wasn’t going any faster (or slower) than the other cars around me. Why pick on me! And, more pathetic, I could’ve added that my disappointed wife would frown and tsk-tsk-tsk at me all the way home and my niece and nephew, who barely knew me, would refuse to ride with me again. How dare this perky and polite park ranger ruin a fine day of hiking to make me the butt of family jokes! Shouldn’t she be chasing delinquent bears or preparing a campfire talk rather than ruining my future?
But I said nothing. I was wrong. The ranger was right.
Whether leaving Nebraska or late to a graveside service, I’ve always been polite and agreeable with the peace officers posing that inane question: “Sir, do you know why I pulled you over?”
Why complain? Why make excuses? Why try to negotiate? In other words, why be like the rich guy in Luke 16? On a late Sunday afternoon a ranger stopped me for speeding. The next morning, early in the pre-dawn time, I read Luke’s story about the rich man “who died and was buried.” He then, according to the parable, went to Hades. While there, “at a distance,” he spotted Lazarus, a poor, hungry, downtrodden fellow he’d ignored while living his rich and contented life. Across that distance, he now saw that Lazarus was leading the la vida loca . . . sipping rum chasers with Abraham (the esteemed father of faith), and spending afternoons choosing between long naps or visits from Inga, the angelic Swedish masseuse.
The rich man pleaded with “Father Abraham,” first for himself and then for his family. Though it’s taken a long time, I’ve come to believe that negotiating with a “higher power” is foolish and faithfully counter-productive.
I agreed* with everything the park ranger said and did. For me, on that straight and safe road in the national park, she became that momentary higher power. I provided her with simple, honest answers to every question. I did nothing to create more anxiety or suspicion.
She was right. I was wrong.
Mostly (to borrow Paul’s wonderful phrase), I’ve tried to “end my childish ways.” When young, I’d barter with God for a bike by promising to be good until Christmas or the next birthday. More seriously, I once attempted to strike deals with the Holy during the worst parts of my divorce. Then in my twenties, I’d make any promise possible with God for fewer sleepless nights . . . for a better next day . . . for less spiritual pain.
The rich man negotiated with old Abraham. Bartered. Pleaded.
And yet, there was only one person he should’ve bartered with to make his situation better: himself. In other words, don’t wait until you’re dead as doornail to bargain for wisdom, mercy, and forgiveness.
Try working on it today.
[*Did I get a nasty ticket or only a nice warning? What did that ranger do? What did happen to me? What happened to the older brother in the Prodigal Son parable? Did the Samaritan fellow who was beaten by robbers eventually recover? Don’t know everything, do we? (Heh-heh-heh!) Drive safe!]