The 14th verse of the 91st Psalm resounds in my head like the peal of a bell this morning.
“Because he is bound to me in love, therefore will I deliver him; * I will protect him, because he knows my Name.”
As I reflect on this verse, I don’t know whether to say thanks be to God or to cry. Especially as I consider the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
So let me tell you another story instead. This story is about two boyhood friends – Richie and Robby. The boys were born months apart and, because of the relationship between their mothers, they were thrust together right away.
The wonderful thing about infants is that they aren’t particularly discerning, they are prone to fascination with whomever or whatever they encounter. Relationships between them form quickly with little concern for what others think.
In addition to this infantile inclination to forge bonds of love, Richie and Robbie had so much else in common. Their dads were both Navy war veterans, they were both the youngest child, and as country boys they both loved the outdoors and dogs.
These were the makings of a fast friendship. On an almost daily basis the boys were either roaming the woods with the dogs, giggling and fishing, building tree houses, or generally getting into mischief.
Everyone knew Richie and Robby, and when you saw one you expected the other to be along shortly, probably with dogs right behind him.
With the passage of years though, responsibilities such as chores and schoolwork began to intrude on their ability to hang out together. They saw less and less of each other because of the demands of growing up, because of social expectations, and because they did not live near each other.
You see, Richie was white and a child of privilege, whereas Robby was black and child of poverty.
Robby’s father was in the state prison for manslaughter; Richie’s dad was the lawyer who had unsuccessfully defended Robby’s dad. And Robby’s mom was the housemaid and cook for Richie’s family.
Despite the entanglement of their families and their lives, social convention demanded a disentanglement of Robby and Richie’s bond – an estrangement of their natural affection.
After a few years, Richie’s family moved to another town for a better job; and the estrangement of Richie and Robby became an unbridgeable gulf of distance, difference, and discrimination. The infantile bonds of mutual fascination and love had been broken.
Richie often thought about Robby, wondering what had become of him, but he didn’t allow himself to dwell on it too much. The bond was too tenuous, and the demands of social conventions and keeping up appearances were too pressing.
For his part, Robby also wondered what had become of Richie; but life got in the way. After high school Robby joined the Navy, he became a Seabee, and saw horrific combat. He was twice wounded, and suffered what was known in the day as battle fatigue.
Robby was eventually honorably discharged, but the debilitating emotional distress and the pain of his wounds made it hard for him to hold a job, and he slipped into a spiral of substance abuse and addiction.
Robby became a vagrant; paranoid and living on the streets in a town far from his home. But Robby did find a good alley to sleep in. It was under the eaves of a large house that protected him from the worst of the wind and rain. And best of all, there were dogs.
No one paid Robby any mind; he was invisible, except to the dogs. He could count on their company and their consoling licks. Despite the years of separation, the dogs still remembered their playmate Robby.
Richie and Robby’s story, like the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, is timeless; but it is not lost to time like some artifact locked in a forgotten time capsule. This story is timeless in the sense that it is lived out generation after generation with little variation.
The details may vary, but the outcome … not so much. Our native or God-given mutual interests and attractions give way to social conventions to the point where over time we hardly recognize each other because we’re trying so hard to fit in.
In his parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus presses home the divide – indeed the chasm – that we create between us to illustrate the soul-rending consequences of the divide we allow to separate us not to scare us into defying social convention and pressures so much as to remind us what we have lost in our alienation from Robby or Richie.
The soul-rending consequences are to remind us of what the dogs know – that all that separates us is a door, which we have the ability to open.
Jesus uses father Abraham, that vagabond patriarch and timeless paragon of faithful hospitality, the ultimate outsider and questionable opportunist, to embody the epitome of grace that flies in the face of social convention and assaults our polite sensibilities perhaps so that we might remember the Robbys or Richies in our lives and open the door to reconciliation.
Not because we fear the consequences of the divide, but because we remember that the Richies and Robbys were once bound to us in love, therefore we will deliver them; * we will protect them, because they know our names.