Over a decade ago, a researcher named Daniel Simons from the University of Illinois conducted a now famous experiment which involved a basketball and a gorilla. In the experiment, the participants were asked to watch a video of a group of people passing a basketball back and forth to one another. The participants were instructed to focus on the people in the video who were wearing white shirts and then to count the number of times the basketball was passed among those particular players in the white shirts. In the middle of the video, a woman dressed in a gorilla suit walked into the scene. She turned and faced the camera, pounded her chest, and then slowly exited the room. When asked what they saw, fifty percent of the participants watching the video never noticed the gorilla walk into the room. Fifty percent! The researchers concluded that this was not a limitation of the eye, but a limitation of the mind. When our attention is directed and focused on a particular thing, we can become blind to almost everything else, even something as surprising and unexpected as a gorilla walking into a basketball game. The researchers call this inattentional blindness – what we think we see and what we actually see are often two very different things.
In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus tells yet another dramatic and somewhat perplexing parable. The first character we meet is “a rich man,” which has become sort of a stock character for Jesus. As with other rich men in other parables, we don’t know this man’s name, but we do know that he has been living the good life, wearing the latest designer fashion and enjoying all the gourmet food and wine he can handle. In contrast to this generic rich man, there is a poor man who actually has a name – and his name is Lazarus. Day after day, Lazarus sits at the gate outside the rich man’s palace. He is thirsty and hungry. His body is covered with sores. Both men die. Both are carried to their eternal destinations. Both men receive their just deserts. Lazarus is accompanied by a throng of angels with the great patriarch, Abraham, and the rich man – well, let’s just say the quality of his living quarters has diminished significantly!
The rich man cries out for mercy, but Abraham says, “It’s too late, a great chasm has been fixed between you and Lazarus, and there is nothing more that can be done.” In his desperation, the rich man pleads that at least his brothers should be warned and thus be spared the same fate. But “Alas,” says Abraham, “even if someone were to be raised from the dead, they would not listen.”
Now at face value this parable appears to be fairly straight forward – the person who is greedy and selfish in this life will ultimately suffer the consequences in the next. Therefore, the moral of the parable is “don’t be greedy and selfish.” But what if there is something deeper going on? What if this parable is meant to challenge us to examine who we see and who we don’t see? What if this parable, just like the basketball players and the gorilla, is about the way we can be blind to something or someone who is standing right in front of us? Someone just like Lazarus.
Imagine with me for a moment what the daily routine of the rich man must have been like. He likely went in and out of his palace by the same gate each and every day. He went to parties and celebrations by night. He wore his purple and fine linen. He hobnobbed with the who’s who of the grand city in which he lived. But when it came to the lame beggar who sat at his gate, the rich man was blind. Oh, he may have turned a sideways glance in the direction of the beggar; he may have heard that this poor man’s name was Lazarus. But the rich man never really sees him. It appears the rich man has fallen into the trap of inattentional blindness. His attention and focus are so fixated on his own self-interests that he fails to see what right in front of him.
And this is important, because throughout the ministry of Jesus, transformational relationships begin with seeing. And there is a certain progression that seems to unfold over and over again and it goes something like this:
I see you that I might know you.
And I know you that I might love you.
And I love you that I might serve you.
Seeing, knowing, loving, serving.
That is the pattern of transformational relationships that Jesus is cultivating throughout his ministry, but it all begins with seeing.
This past week I read the story of pastor who actually cancelled the Sunday morning worship services at his church, and he sent the members of his congregation into the streets of their city to spend time talking to the homeless. The church members were sent out just as the disciples were sent – with no staff, no purse, no bread, no money, no extra clothing – their mission was not to just offer a quick handout and move on. But rather their mission was to communicate to the poor, the homeless, and the downtrodden in their community, “we see you – and we see you that we might get to know you. And as we come to know you, we can more fully love you. And when we love you, then we can truly serve alongside of you.” In some cases, their efforts were rejected. But in most cases, there was dialog and the sharing of stories that was deeply transformational for all involved. But it all began with intentional seeing.
Now, we have to acknowledge that this is not easy. This is the kind of intentional discipleship that stretches us and calls us outside of our comfort zones. But that is precisely what the parables of Jesus are supposed to do. They’re supposed to make us think. They’re supposed to make us reevaluate our previously held assumptions about God, about ourselves, and about the world.
And so, maybe at the end of the day, the subject of this parable is not the rich man, but us. Because the Church for too long has been guilty of inattentional blindness, what we think we see and what we actually see are not always the same thing.
The parable ends with a warning that not even someone being raised from the dead would be able to change the hearts of the rich man’s brothers. Well, guess what? We are the ones who gather every Sunday with the sole purpose of proclaiming that Jesus has been raised from the dead. We are the ones who claim to follow a crucified and risen Lord. We are the ones who kneel at this altar rail week after week after week to receive the life and grace of Jesus, who is alive and powerful among us by his Spirit.
The question is “Is all that making a difference in our lives?” Have we allowed our vision to be transformed? Have we allowed the eyes of our hearts to be opened to see those who, at times, we would prefer not to see? Do we see in order to know in order to love in order to serve?