Lazarus and Dives
Jesus said, “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
I am sure that few of us have not had the experience of passing by a beggar sitting on the sidewalk, or standing on a street corner, or at a stop sign on the side of the road. The beggar’s cardboard sign might read: “I am hungry”, “I am homeless”, “Please help me?”
In that moment of passing encounter, I am also sure that few of us, who have been heard the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, do not experience some twinge of conscience as to our making or not making a response to this desperate plea.
The twinge of conscience might also carry with it some concern as to what not responding says to me about who I am as a human being, as a Christian, and possibly as someone who lives with a hope of finding an eternal resting place in the bosom of Abraham. In other words, could there possibly be some eternal consequence of a failure to respond with mercy and compassion?
For most of us the moment of moral crisis, if there has been one, is fleeting, as we return our attention to where we are going and what we are doing – to the agenda of our own day and our own lives.
But I do remember times when I have reached into my pocket and pulled out some spare change. I also remember times when I have dropped into a nearby store, bought a sandwich and a drink, and returned to give some relief.
But this parable is about more than those instances in which we might find the scene pictured in the parable enacted, by chance, at moments in our lives.
The parable in its widest sense seeks to have us understand that God cares about the poor and expects us to care about the poor. These days there would be little doubt as to what God’s party affiliation, if he had one, would be in regards to this issue.
The scriptures leave little room for ambiguity that wealth and what we do with it are a core biblical concern.
The warnings of prophets like Amos, are clear, “Those who are at ease, those who feel secure, those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs and calves, who drink wine and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of others, they shall be the first to go into exile.”
The psalmist sings that the God of David, “Gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger. He lifts up those who are bowed down; He cares for the stranger; he sustains the orphan and widow.”
The disciple Timothy, writes in his letter, “We brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it. Those who want to be rich fall are trapped by harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Eagerness to be rich causes pain.
Those who are rich are to do good. They are to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”
And Jesus himself speaks more than anything else about money and riches, and how these can undermine our relationship with God and each other.
As much as the parable is about God’s preferential option for the poor and how we care for the least among us, it is not primarily a judgment that rich people go to hell and poor people go to heaven.
Yes, the choices we make, the words we speak and the actions we take have eternal consequences, but the story is more about our present lives than about the future. The parable seeks to remind us that our lives are connected both now and forever. As a holy monk, Antony of Egypt, once said, “Our life and our death are with our neighbor.” Challenging the American myth, life is less about individuality and more about mutuality.
As to who is the rich man and who is Lazarus, we do well not to jump to quick conclusions. Life is fluid. Circumstances and situations change. At some point in our lives we may have been one or the other.
We can all name times in our lives when life has been good, full and easy. Likewise we can name times when life has left us destitute, broken and desperate.
The parable is less about making judgments about who is the rich man and who is Lazarus and more about dealing with the gates and chasms that separate us from each other.
Yes, the parable is more about the gates and chasms that separate us than about anything else. At the start of the story, on one side of the gate lies Lazarus dressed in sores and dog saliva. On the other side sits the well-dressed rich man who dines lavishly each day. At the end of the parable Lazarus sits comfortably in the bosom of Abraham on one side of the chasm and the rich man stands tormented in hell fire on the other side of the great divide.
The gate and the chasm are the same thing. The chasm that separates Lazarus and the rich man in the next world is another expression of the gate that separates them in this world.
The rich man carried it with him into the next world. It was part of him. The gate that separates and divides us in this world is not a condition or circumstances or categories: rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, Muslim or Christian, immigrant or native born or any other.
The gate is a condition of the human heart. The gate that becomes a chasm always exists within us before it exists between us.
That means that each of us must examine our own heart to find the gate that separates us from ourselves, our neighbors, our enemies, those we love and ultimately God.
What are those gates for you? For me? For this parish? For this country? What gates do we live with? Fear, anger, greed, pride, prejudice, hurt, resentment, envy, cynicism. There are lots of possibilities for gates within us. We all have them. But that is not how God would have us live. That is not how Jesus loved. Gates destroy relationships. They unmake God’s creation.
I don’t know what gates you carry within you, but I know this. Every time we love our neighbor as ourselves, every time we love our enemies, every time we see and treat each others as created in the image and likeness of God, gates are opened and chasms are filled.
As to how to do these things? Well we much each find our own way to live into this. It is a choice we face each day. In our marriages, and familial relationships, at work, at school, in parking lots, in our prayers for the world.
In his life, death and resurrection, Jesus demonstrated this. He opened gates and filled chasms. And His love, mercy, grace and presence make it possible for his disciples to open our gates and insure that they do not become chasms.
Let your gates be opened and your chasms filled. This is what the kingdom of God looks like. We have what we need. That is why Abraham is not sending Lazarus to the rich man’s brothers. Abraham was not denying them anything. Nothing was lacking. They already had everything they needed to make the right choices.
The word of God that opens gates and fills chasms is the same word of God proclaimed by Moses and the prophets, the very same word embodied in the person of Jesus. Jesus is what opened gates and filled chasms look like. Jesus is the image or who we are and who we are to become.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
September 29, 2019