At first read, (okay, maybe first, second…tenth…twentieth read), this parable is a tale of how in the end, God squares up the universe’s accounts. He sends rich people who live lives of comfort and opulence to hell, and poor people who have nothing—least of all comfort—to heaven.
We, the hearer, can be comforted believing that on some level this kind of “karma” makes sense. We want heaven and hell to make sense, don’t we?
However, as in all of Jesus’ parables, this one is replete with imagery, symbols, and metaphors that invite us into a different Rich Man, Poor Man narrative. The gate, the water, how angels carry the beggar away while the rich man is buried, the great chasm between heaven and hell, the meaning of the name Lazarus (“The One God has Helped”)—it’s all important. These elements are all in place to help us see what may be hidden. As much as I want the story to be about how to get to heaven, I think what Jesus offers here is a way to think about how and why we show up, or fail to show up, for those around us.
The Rich Man
I imagine the rich man at the beginning of his day. He is a man about town, with pressing matters on his mind and very important people to meet. I am easily persuaded that someone like him has no time to volunteer with a local charity or dedicate himself to the protection of the less fortunate. But then we find Lazarus right outside his gate. We see that this rich man had the opportunity to acknowledge and build a relationship with his neighbor every time he left the house, but he chose not to engage.
After the men die, angels carry Lazarus to Abraham’s side while the rich man is buried and descends into a desolate reality. The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to him, thinking that Lazarus’s touch might cool the water and give him a little relief from his agony. It is interesting to me that he appeals to Abraham not Lazarus, revealing that he still thinks he can hold court with Abraham and that Lazarus is still powerless. His intuition about people served him well in life, but fails him now. Abraham replies, “Not only has the time passed for a meaningful connection between you and Lazarus, he is not accessible to you, nor are you to us.”
The Local Lazarus
In the last week, I have submitted grants to 3 different funding sources. I have spent a lot of energy, being about town, with pressing matters on my mind, meeting with important people. While I spend my days crossing the great chasms of my non-profit world, the opportunity to meet Jesus and be witness to my own humanity is right outside the gate. But like the rich man, I might miss it if I don’t remember to see.
Proximity to Lazarus is how the Word became flesh and blood and moved into my own neighborhood. He lives down the street from me, in the park at the end of my block, up on Myers Way in a homeless encampment and in the homes of the children at our neighborhood schools.