Self-Reliance is Hell
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Luke 16:19-31
Many of you know a little bit about my spiritual journey from Evangelical Christianity to The Episcopal Church, so you know there was more than a decade in that process in which I totally and utterly rejected Christianity. If God didn’t accept me for the queer person I was, then I didn’t need to accept God. That was that. Obviously things changed.
But in that decade or so of spurning Christianity, I was still drawn to spirituality. In retrospect, it feels a bit like the Spirit stayed with me in the ways I was able to meet her. One of those ways was meditation. There are lots of forms of meditation. Mindfulness meditation, transcendental meditation, and several kinds of Buddhist meditation.
While I did eventually make my way into Buddhist meditation, I started with a different kind of practice. I don’t know if it even has a name. I was instructed to find a small, simple object like a coin or a twig or a key and simply sit with it in my hands for five minutes. I had randomly found a nail in the street, like a nail you hammer, so I decided to use that.
At first, it was the same struggle as I have with any spiritual practice. The squirming to get comfortable, the am-I-doing-this-right, the impatience to feel something deep and inspiring.
Once I got past those distractions, though, I found my thoughts quieting as I held the nail. I started to wonder about it. Who designed this nail? Was it someone who lived centuries ago and created it out of necessity to have one wooden plank connect to another? Or was it a modern design whose structure had been optimized by science and research? What metal was it made of? Where is that metal mined? Are the workers in that mine treated well? How was this nail manufactured? What does the machine look like? Who designed that machine? A team of people probably. Who tends to that machine and keeps it in good working condition? What is the nail factory like? I wonder how many people work there. I wonder how many people’s livelihoods were wrapped into the creation of this nail.
Suddenly, that nail became a whole constellation of people, past and present—their ideas, their ingenuity, their labor. It became a deep connection to the resources of this earth—the metals formed by the forces of heat and pressure that are created by the unceasing tectonic movements of the land masses we live on.
I now realized why my teacher had told us to start with a very simple object. If in that nail there was a reality that spanned millennia, that encompassed the efforts of an untold number of people, that incorporated the Earth’s molten core, imagine how mind-blowing thinking about a book or a cell phone or, God help us, another person would be.
But that is the reality of everything and everyone around us. And I think today’s gospel is telling us that our faith calls us to see that, to know that, to live that.
In the parable Jesus gives us today, it’s not that the rich man is disdainful of or cruel to Lazarus, the sick and injured man outside the gate of the city. It’s that the rich man doesn’t even see Lazarus. The rich man doesn’t recognize that Lazarus is essential to his own well-being, his own thriving.
And make no mistake, he is. That is what the Body of Christ means. We are interdependent. Your unique gifts, your way of being, your joy are essential my thriving, and my unique gifts, my way of being, my joy are essential to your thriving.
Or as Paul writes to the Romans:
For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.
Leo Tolstoy puts it a different way:
It is true that we do not feel the movement of the earth, but by admitting its immobility we arrive at absurdity, while by admitting its motion (which we do not feel) we arrive at laws…It is true that we are not conscious of our dependence, but by admitting our free will we arrive at absurdity, while by admitting our dependence on the external world…we arrive at laws.
Tolstoy says dependence, but I think he means interdependence. And by free will, I think he means “self-dependence,” the denial that we need anyone or anything else.
The illusion of self-dependence is where the rich man in this parable goes wrong. Wealth and comfort reinforce this illusion: because we think we have enough on our own, we don’t think we’re dependent on others. We don’t think about all the labor that brings us the food we buy, we don’t think about the people who made our clothes, we don’t think about the hands that made the nails that hold our homes together, that hold this building together.
We don’t think about how our lives are literally impossible without other people’s gifts, ways of being, and joy, so how can we possibly think we’re somehow dependent on the Lazarus we might see in the street?
This not-seeing is what Tolstoy calls absurdity. It’s what Jesus calls Hades in this parable, or hell.
I think it’s hell to believe that we are alone in this world. I think it’s torment to think that we don’t or can’t rely on anyone but ourselves. It’s what leads to people taking more than they need, hoarding more than they need, and spending all their energy protecting what they have.
Lazarus could not help but recognize his dependence on others. That’s what happens when we find ourselves hungry, sick, alone—those moments when we realize we have to reach out in order to survive. We’re told that he longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table. He was completely aware of how he could not go it alone. And in this parable, he is the one who ends up standing beside Abraham, resting in peace and comfort, while the rich man who did not think to look outside himself ends up in the flames.
I don’t think of this as reward and punishment. I think of this as the logical conclusion to each of these different approaches. The illusion of self-reliance, the illusion of complete self-sufficiency, is ultimately exhausting, it’s lonely, it can become hell. Whereas it’s freeing to acknowledge our connection to one another, recognizing that we are utterly dependent on countless people, most of whom we’ll never see or meet. It's freeing to recognize that everything in our lives is a gift from the vast resources of this earth.
We can let go knowing that not everything depends on our own efforts. Yes, we must pitch in according to our gifts and abilities, but we don’t have to do it all. The Body of Christ connects us across time and distance, connects us to the likes of Abraham, helps us to know that we never go it alone. We can rest, trusting that we are cared for.
Sounds like heaven to me.