After Jesus told his disciples about the dishonest manager he turned to the Pharisees to offer one of his least known parables, the rich man and Lazarus. It is worth noting that this is the only parable in which Jesus names a character. And while this Lazarus is not the same as his dear friend, whom he raises from death; naming him does suggest the imperative for the poor, that sick fellow at the gate has a name, while rich boy does not. And if you respond that his name is Dives, the word dives is merely Latin for “rich man.”
Jesus sets the contrast – unnamed rich guy feasts sumptuously every day, wears purple, the rich dude’s color and steps over the poor at his own house gate. Then there is poor fellow, Lazarus, lying day after day at the gate, too ill to even beg, and grabbing only the attention of the dogs that lick his festering wounds.
That’s the context. Both die, everyone dies. No matter what you have, it can’t save you from that most basic existential fact. And as we all too often forget, you can’t take it with you. We’re struck that Jesus tells us both men are in Hades. In other references in the gospels, Jesus intersperses Hades and Gehenna, the name for the trash dump outside the gates of Jerusalem. We now refer to it as Hell. So both men are in Hell. In this vision of Jesus, then, both men go to Hades, but there they are separated by a gap, a barrier that keeps them visible, yet apart.
Frankly, this is a perfect reading for our world today. This is a fictional story, it is a parable, after all. But we try to take Jesus’ fictional parables seriously, right? We try to live as the Good Samaritan, to be mindful of the Lost Sheep, to forgive the Prodigals in our lives. So how do we live this parable?
The richness of Jesus’ parables lay in part in allowing listeners to find their place in them. We are the Lost Sheep, God is the shepherd; we are the beaten one, or the Samaritan who helps the beaten one. We are the prodigal, God the father welcomes us home. This is how we bring the parable into our lives.
So, who are we in this parable? Are we the rich man who ignores his poor neighbor? Are we the poor man, Lazarus? It is clear we are not Abraham. Perhaps we are the gap that has been set between Lazarus and the rich man and keeps them eternally divided.
To start with, consider that anyone with any economic security at all, must rightly be seen as the rich man. Then we are rightly chastened by Jesus to take note of the poor among us. There are plenty of Lazaruses around that we just don’t see. Consider the fellow playing music in the Kroger parking lot last week. Or the fellow at the same time approaching you as you exited the store, or the tent city behind Target, the folks at the Hopkins Rd exit off Chippenham. It is chilling to to consider our blindness to these children of God.
Who is Lazarus then? Those I have mentioned? Others? In the story, Lazarus is sitting at the gate of the rich man’s estate. In the ancient world, it was at the gates of cities and estates that the justice of a community was carried out. Cities were walled and there were small gates through which visitors would gain entrance.
But the gates were also the courthouse and places where the common good could be decided. Lazarus has established himself at the gate as a statement of failure by the community to deal justly and respectfully with him.
Friends, you may not like this, but the unrest and uncertainty that is happening in so many corners of our country is because the Lazaruses of the world are at the gate. They have been ignored and mistreated by their communities. This fact is so well established that it should be self-evident. It was recently reported that the largest income inequality in over fifty years, continues to widen the gap between rich and poor. This is not about willingness to work, it is about opportunity. So those who have been served well by the community, you and I for the most part, are being asked to come down out of our sumptuous feasts and be with those outside.
That’s the most obvious reading of the parable: we are the ones who need to learn from the rich man’s folly of uncaring and hard-heartedness.
But the fact of the matter is, most of us are not filthy rich. We relegate wearing purple to our older years. And most of us actually do some ministry with the poor. We sponsor Grace Café, the Food Bank, our own pantry and lunch programs for children. A great many of us gathered here this morning make some attempt at going down to the gate and alleviating the suffering of the Lazaruses in Chester and in RVA.
Which is to say, maybe we are not really the rich man in the parable. And we are not Lazarus. So who are we? We are the rich man’s brothers. Jesus is being coy because someone did come back from the dead to certify the kind of living that God described through Moses and the prophets. We are the brothers, and Lazarus was sent back to warn us.
Friends, Lazarus is at the gate. Truth is, Jesus tells us Lazarus will always be at the gate, for the poor will always be with us. But what makes Lazarus Lazarus is that the rich man does nothing for him. We have an opportunity to un-write this parable. We, at this moment, can undo what Jesus describes in this parable, right here, right now.
There is an old rabbinical saying that darkness does not end when the sun rises or when someone lights a candle. Instead darkness ends when you can look into a person’s eyes and see the divine.
When we look at another person and know that they are God’s creation, that’s when the darkness will end. We must see others not for what they’ve done, nor for what they can become, but for their status as a child of God. That’s how we can undo this parable.
All the social improvement plans, all the money that we throw at problems, none of it will make an ounce of difference if we persist in not understanding this fundamental truth: the ones we hate, the ones we resist, the ones we argue with, the ones we kill are God’s children and deserving of respect and life. They are the ones we must see.
Recall the words of Jesus: “I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me something to drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you…?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Yes, we are the rich man’s brothers. Abraham has allowed Lazarus, Jesus, to come back to our gate to warn us so that we might be brave enough to look at those who are calling for our attention. We must look at them as the children of God that they are, and we are.