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July 19, 2015

Computing Compassion

Passage: Luke 16:19-31
Service Type:

At this point, this probably goes without saying, but computers are just absolutely amazing.

In the course of just a few minutes, you can jot off an email, click Send and someone on the opposite side of the globe will receive your message almost instantaneously. You can then search the web and find just about any piece of information you could ever possibly want to find, as well as lots and lots of pictures of cats:

When you’re done looking at pictures of all those cats, you can use your computer to watch reruns of your favorite television show from decades past or even play a game of chess with your friend who lives across the country.

Now these are just everyday uses of computers – things that you or I or anyone with a laptop or even just an iphone can do. But then there are scientists and engineers who have the expertise needed to take things the next level and do really, really cool stuff with computers.

Recently, they’ve started putting computers together in what they call “Neural Networks” These networks are designed to mimic the way that the human brain operates. These neural networks can think. They can learn. They can do a lot of things that our own brains can do. As we sit here this morning, they may even be laying out plans for world domination. God only knows.

At Google, engineers are hard at work trying to use these neural networks for image detection. Let’s say you have a collection of 2,000 or so unorganized photos saved on your computer and you want to find a picture of your faithful dog Fluffy. Using a neural network that has been taught what a dog looks like, you can type in the word dog and it will bring up all of the photos that have dear ol’ Fluffy in them. As you can probably imagine, this a useful bit of technology that holds a lot of potential.

To gauge how well these neural networks are learning, engineers will test them from time to time. They do this by feeding a single photo into the system, then telling the neural network to identify and highlight a specific item in that photo.

So what happens when these neural networks are given a photo and asked to identify and highlight a specific item? They do just that!

If you feed a photo into one of these systems and ask it to find and highlight the banana in it, the neural network will find and highlight that banana for you – wonder of wonders!

But there is one hitch: A neural network will find and highlight a banana whether or not there’s actually one in the photo. This is one actual test run by the fine folks at Google:

Test Image


Neural Network Enhanced Image

So, these neural networks, which, remember, are made to mimic the way human brains work, these neural networks are able to completely ignore what’s actually in the picture, and instead find in them exactly what they’re looking for. They see what they want to see and they don’t see anything else.

I don't know about you, but I can’t help but think that the same dynamic is at work in today’s story from Luke.

The story tells us about two men: We’re told about a rich man, who dresses in fine linen and who feasts sumptuously – a word we don’t get to use often enough – a man who feasts sumptuously every single day. We’re then told about Lazarus, a poor man who is laid at this rich man’s gate. Lazarus is apparently in such bad health, he is so bad off, so defenseless, that he’s not even able to keep dogs from coming up and licking at the sores that cover his body. It is a stark and startling image that’s painted for us; a study in contrasts if there ever was one.

What we’re not told though, is how or even if, these two men interacted with one another in any way. For instance, we’re not told that the rich man was cruel toward Lazarus. Nor are we told that the rich man tried to drive Lazarus away from his gate. At the same time, we’re not told that the rich man acted with any sort of compassion toward Lazarus. Instead, it’s as if these two men occupy two entirely different worlds, two worlds that, despite being physically close, don’t seem to intersect with one another.

Luke paints this startling picture for us, and then, in but two short sentences, he dispatches with both these men. Lazarus is carried by angels to Abraham’s side, and the rich man is sent to the torment of Hades.

From the fires of Hades, the rich man calls to Abraham and asks him to send Lazarus to come and help him relieve his suffering. Abraham pretty much tells him no, and then adds this tidbit: And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.

Friends, I believe that this chasm of which Abraham speaks was not something new to these two men. Rather, I believe this chasm was already in place well before these two men died. This chasm was in place because just like a one of those neural networks, the rich man saw Lazarus, but he did not see Lazarus.

Every time the rich man heard dogs barking outside his house at night, he no doubt knew the dogs were attracted there by Lazarus’ open sores, but he did not see Lazarus.

Every time the rich man left his house he no doubt had to step over or around Lazarus’ weak and diseased body, but he did not see Lazarus.

Every time the rich man so much as looked out his window, his eyes no doubt landed on sight of Lazarus lying hungry at his gate, but he did not see Lazarus. T

he rich man did not see Lazarus because he did not want to see him, he found in the world around him only what he wanted to find -–beauty, luxury, comfort – and a chasm was created between these two men.

The beating heart of the Christian faith is a story of a God who looked upon humanity and saw us not as God desired us to be, but as we actually are, but in all our need, in all of our frailty, and in all our brokenness. And rather than letting a chasm be formed between us, that God reached out to be with us in Christ. As followers of this Christ, as people of have been really, truly and honestly seen by God, it is our greatest calling to look around us and see the world not as we’d like to be, but as it really is. To see its need. To see its frailty. To see its brokenness. And rather than letting a chasm form between us and it, it is our calling to extend ourselves to this broken world in love. May the spirit and example of Christ embolden us for this hard and holy work. May we see as we have been seen. And may we love as we have been loved. Amen.