Not Even Abraham
"I beg you to send him (Lazarus) to my father's house"
September 23, 2016, Words By: Kris Rocke, Image By:
This week’s text is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man lives a life of plenty, while Lazarus lay at the threshold of his gate “covered in sores” suffering the indignities of wretched poverty. “He longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table” (v. 21).
The rich man lives in a gated community that protects him from Lazarus. The gate in this parable is an important detail. It separates and divides insiders from outsiders, the blessed from the cursed.
Another important detail is that Jesus calls Lazarus by name. It is the only parable in which Jesus names one of the characters. To honor the name of someone, especially someone like Lazarus whom the dominant religious culture sees as cursed, is to recognize their humanity and bless them. To name Lazarus is to make him real. This pretty much sums up the ministry of Jesus.
I confess that I am often tempted towards abstraction. It’s a form of protection. I’d rather deal with the poor in theory than in reality. Relationship opens the gate to reality and keeps us dealing with real people in real places. This is not a parable about the rich and the poor in some general sense. It’s an invitation to open the gate to the one who lives at the threshold of our lives in a concrete sense. It’s here that we discover the action of mercy at work in our lives.
Lazarus lives at the threshold of the rich man’s life in a very specific way. The rich man continually refuses to “satisfy the hunger” of Lazarus, whom he sees every day at his gate. This is a story about two people who know each other.
Eventually the rich man and Lazarus die. They trade places. Lazarus is in heaven and the rich man is in hell. It’s tempting to turn this parable into a story about heaven and hell, but we miss the larger point if we do that. What’s happening here is that Jesus is messing with people’s image of God. Jesus shocks his hearers by suggesting that Lazarus is the blessed one. Jesus is challenging the popular meritocratic notion that the rich are rich because God is blessing them, and the poor are poor because God is cursing them. Jesus flips the script.
Finally, the parable ends with an odd reflection on whether or not the living will repent if the dead man (Lazarus) returns to tell the truth about God’s blessing. The rich man wants Father Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his brothers. Father Abraham doesn’t think it will work. “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (v. 31).
This is clearly a play on Jesus’ own resurrection. We are invited to imagine that Jesus is Lazarus who lives at the threshold of our existence–the one who lives outside our securely gated community–the one who seems cursed by God. And this is where the parable begins to fall apart in the most gracious way. Not even Father Abraham could imagine the great news of the resurrection. In Christ, God answers the rich man’s prayer, and ours too. Jesus returns from the dead. The risen Christ is not an angry Lazarus who comes to haunt us. He is the bearer of Good News–declaring God’s blessing where we imagined only curses. For the last 2,000 years the Spirit has been opening the gates that divide and separate. We are learning to call each other by name, rich and poor alike.
The gates of mercy are opening wide!