“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” –Luke 16:19-31
This time of the pandemic has made us slow down, relinquish many of our normal agendas, and sometimes consider things we may have overlooked, or even avoided, such as the vulnerability of our physical lives. Those of us raised in the time of the development of antibiotics will admit that we’ve been prone to the faulty assumption that if anything ails us, there’s likely a pill somewhere that will treat it. These days, though, have opened up new spaces for thought and conversation in our lives. One of our Woodland members, Christen Cross, who provides advance-planning services for a local funeral home, reports that she is now receiving calls from more families interested in beginning conversations about being prepared for inevitable emergencies. As difficult as that may be, I believe that it’s a good idea. Years ago I remember suggesting to a church council that every adult member be provided with a card on which to write all pertinent funeral-planning information, which the church could keep on file as an aid to families and staff. I thought it might actually be a creative endeavor, but the suggestion was met with polite hesitation and eventually quietly shelved. No one wanted to think about it or talk about it.
That said, today’s parable, one of Jesus’ more famous ones, is not actually about death, but about the choices we make during our lives. As we begin, we should pay attention to the dazzling genius of Jesus as a storyteller. Notice, if you will, how he engages the senses in such a positive descriptive manner — for the eyes . . . gorgeous purple; for the skin . . . the feel of fine linen; for the ears, nostrils and palate . . . the merry feasting. But he also does it in a disturbing way – rank hunger, the aching of bones on pavement, the deep sting of skin ulcers, dogs nosing the sores, the embarrassment of public exposure and neglect, then agony in the flames, and thirsting cries for mercy. There are also the great reversals that take place – the man draped in luxury is now wrapped about by flames; his once-sated appetite is reduced to a craving for a drop of water. All of this is to say that Jesus had quite an artistic flare for spinning a story. And finally, with his customary brilliance, Jesus gives fascinating characters.
It may be helpful to look at these characters before we embark. For a starter, this is the only parable of Jesus where he uses a proper name. In his other parables, he refers to Samaritans, prodigals, sowers and so forth. But here he uses an actual name, and that in itself is enough to make us pay close attention. Dives is not so much a proper name, even though we often use it as such. “Dives” is a Latin word which translates the Greek, “plousios” as “wealth,” and wealth does seem to be an apt description of this man. Scholars like Fred Craddock and others have noted that Jesus’ intense teaching on materialism is a direct counter to the thinking of the first-century Scribes and Pharisees. They based their theology on the book of Deuteronomy, which seems to suggest that a person’s wealth is a result of his relationship with God. It seems to infer that the better off you are financially, the more you must be doing God’s will, or as Amy-Jill Levine describes it, a Jewish “prosperity gospel.” In this parable Jesus rejects that typical view by contrasting the end result of the wealthy Dives, with one who was considered the poorest of the poor, Lazarus. The story also brings to mind Jesus’ memorable line that it is easier for a rich man to go through the eye of a needle than to get into heaven.
Furthermore, Lazarus’ name is also important, don’t you think? We remember Jesus’ dear friend, Lazarus from Bethany, brother to Mary & Martha, whose biggest moment on earth took place in a graveyard. After all, Lazarus is the one person we know of in Scripture who went to the place of the dead for three days or so and then was called back by Jesus. His name, therefore, seems to take on added significance.
Jesus’ masterful story is intriguing in so many ways – the notion of judgment, the idea of heaven and hell, the fact that Dives, even in the throes of hell, looks down his nose and calls for Lazarus in such a self-centered, condescending manner. There is also the interesting twist of the parable’s closing lines where Dives asks for divine wisdom and grace, not for himself but for others. This story, when told in a casual, other-worldly mode seems tame enough, but when we consider that Jesus was addressing this story to people like ourselves, why, it is enough to make us sweat! Jesus tells the story, and then he turns and addresses his audience, religious people who have assured themselves that their materialistic lifestyles are totally acceptable because of the way that they read the Scriptures. Jesus seems to say in a very pointed fashion that we are not to read Scripture as much as Scripture is to read us.
Having been jolted from our blithe sense of invincibility by this pandemic, will our lives change in any appreciable way? If so, how? I remember reading a magazine article years ago where the rock star Bono of U-2 fame was interviewed in a magazine. Bono (…who, by the way, has been fascinated by Eugene Peterson and his translation of the Bible) said, “I think the Judeo-Christian culture is at stake. If the church doesn’t respond to the AIDS epidemic in Africa, the church will be made irrelevant. It would be like the way you heard stories of people who watched the Jews being put on trains during the Holocaust. We will be that generation that watched our African brothers and sisters get put on the trains.” Bono went on to say, “Love thy neighbor is not a piece of advice – it is a command. Christ talks about the poor and says: ‘Whatever you have done to the least of these brothers of mine, you’ve done to me.’ In Africa right now, the least of my brothers are dying and we’re not responding. We (Bono and his band) are here to sound the alarm.”
In the middle of one of his sermons, Will Willimon read aloud a Brazilian newspaper article about how the poor of Brazil were selling organs from their bodies to the rich. The story quoted a man named Walter who had recently sold his eyes to a rich person for a corneal transplant. Walter, who never had a job, was quoted as saying, “At last I can see my family to a better life.” Will said, “I just read the story. That was all.” The next morning when he arrived at his office, the telephone was ringing. It was Debbie, who Will described as his church’s resident activist. She lived in a small house with her husband, a teacher, near the church. “I haven’t slept all night,” Debbie said. “Why?” Will asked.” “Because of Walter! I can’t get him out of my mind. I got David up this morning at five o’clock. We talked. We prayed. We were going to buy a new car. We can live without a new car. We were going to buy a new stereo. We don’t need it. We are going to double our giving to the church if you can promise me that this money will go to help someone like Walter.” Will said in such an honest way, “I thought to myself, I slept like a baby last night.” And then, using it as a sermon illustration later on, he said “My fidelity as a disciple hangs by a slender thread of grace provided me by people like Debbie.”
Reading this parable confronts me with the troubling notion that I am not to read Scripture so much as Scripture is to read me. I pray that this reading will bring about a change for the good in all of us.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
Richard Bach, who wrote the delightful Jonathan Livingston Seagull, shared a priceless insight in another book: “Here is a test to find whether your mission on Earth is finished: If you’re alive it isn’t.” Let us spend some time with God, asking for the imagination, wisdom and courage to allow ourselves to be read by Scripture in the days ahead.
Every day’s news headlines highlight the “Lazaruses” in our local and global communities. How might we bless them with graces of God?
What is one specific grace that you are able to share? How might you do that during, and then after, the pandemic?
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: Leigh Hunt’s “Abou Ben Adhem”
Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!) Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace, And saw, within the moonlight in his room, Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom, An angel writing in a book of gold:— Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold, And to the presence in the room he said, “What writest thou?”—The vision raised its head, And with a look made of all sweet accord, Answered, “The names of those who love the Lord.” “And is mine one?” said Abou. “Nay, not so,” Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low, But cheerly still; and said, “I pray thee, then, Write me as one that loves his fellow men.”
The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night It came again with a great wakening light, And showed the names whom love of God had blest, And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.