19 "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 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.' 25 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. 26 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.' 27 He said, "Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' 29 Abraham replied, "They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' 30 He said, "No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' 31 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
Just who does this guy think he is? Tradition names the rich man Dives, but that’s tradition’s problem—“Tradition” can’t understand why a rich man wouldn’t be given the dignity of a name. But Jesus leaves him unnamed, and maybe we should sit with that, we who are inundated day after day with the names of the rich, the famous, and the powerful. We, who are led to assume, by the media, that the names of the poor, the powerless, and the struggling are names not worth knowing. Who wants to know them?
The people who go without names in scripture are usually, in one way or another, the little people. From the shepherds in the fields who come to visit Jesus in the manger; to the mother-in-law of Simon Peter, who has a fever that needs curing; to the paralyzed man whose friends take off the roof to lower him into Jesus’ presence; to the woman who anoints Jesus with costly ointment… the gospels are filled with stories of unnamed people who come near to Jesus for a few moments, to pay homage, or to receive healing, or to offer their own kind of blessing. And then they go on their way.
If we know the name of someone in scripture it’s usually because they’re important to the story, or they're rich, or they’re powerful, or maybe all three. Zechariah and Caiaphas, the high priests. Pontius Pilate, the governor. Even Zacchaeus, the tax collector, who also happens to be rich. The fact that we know Mary Magdalene’s name, and that she is said to provide financially for Jesus and the disciples, leads many scholars to believe she was wealthy, maybe the member of a powerful family.
But not here. Not now. Not in this story that Jesus is telling. Jesus is telling a story, a parable. And the story upends convention. Jesus subverts the order of things by telling us the name, not of the rich man, but the poor one. His name is Lazarus.
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. ~ Luke 16:19
Jesus tells us that the man is rich, and then shows us how rich: his clothing tells us he is rich—purple cloth, usually reserved for royalty, fine, expensive linen. And instead of feasting once in a while, on special occasions, which people at every level of society try to do, for this man, every day was a feast.
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. ~Luke 16:20-21
Nearby—not just nearby, but actually at the rich man’s gate, was the one we know by name, Lazarus. In a museum in Barcelona you can find an 11th century fresco depicting Lazarus, clad in only a cloth from the waist down, his sores sadly on display, leaning on the gate. The title of it is “Lazarus waiting at the door.” Jesus tells us his location was no mistake. In that time and culture, if a wealthy man were eating from a full buffet every single day, word would get around. Now, please understand: the poor man has no illusions. He does not expect an invitation to dine inside. Lazarus is simply waiting for the rich man to see him, to notice him, to take pity on him, and maybe just throw him some crumbs that no one else wants. This poor man… the dogs came and licked his sores… maybe just to reinforce for the listener, how poorly he was clothed, his wounds weren’t even covered.
How is it that Lazarus actually lived at the rich man’s gate and was not seen? That in the comings and goings of a man who undoubtedly had prestige in his community, not to mention his many daily guests, plus the daily deliveries of all that food, and all those lovely purple robes… you mean to tell me, no one saw and took pity on the starving man covered in sores? I think the more logical interpretation is that he was seen, but he was ignored. Maybe on the other side of the gate, inside that house, there was a vague hope that he would move along, and find another gate to haunt, in his awful condition. I honestly don’t know what I would do if I saw someone in this terrible state, if I literally walked by Lazarus on Washington Ave. in front of the Endicott Performing Arts Center, say. I like to think I would stop to help—run into the Subway to get him some food, maybe. But I also know that our human nature can cause us to look away. We look away from pain. Sometimes we tell ourselves it’s to give the suffering person more dignity, to keep ourselves from staring. I’m not sure I believe us. I think pain is painful, even for the witnesses.
And then… well, this is where we say, we’re grateful that Lazarus was out of pain at last. But it’s more than that. Lazarus is finally, truly, seen, if not by the rich man and company, then by his ancestor Abraham. The original Greek tells us, angels carried him off to the bosom of Abraham, the traditional Jewish understanding of the place of perfect rest and contentment, refreshment and healing. Lazarus is free.
Not so the rich man. He is not carried anywhere by angels. Apparently, he’s dragged down to the land of the dead by who-knows who or what. Jesus calls the place Hades, and tells us that the rich man is being tormented there… and yet, he can look up and see Lazarus, content in the bosom of Abraham.
And even in Hades, the rich man continues to carry with him some notion that he has some power at his disposal, and so he calls 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.” ~ Luke 16:24
I watched a British TV series this week. And in this particular series, a story set on an island in the Arctic Circle, there was a man who committed a terrible, violent crime, and who didn’t seem to have any remorse whatsoever. So the sheriff took it upon himself to dole out what seemed like a just punishment. It was horrible. See me after church if you need the details.
And, you know, I got it. I understood why the sheriff thought something so horrific was an appropriate punishment for him. But still. It gives you pause. The rich man is in flames. Anyone who has ever put their hand on a hot iron knows a burn is a pretty terrible thing. And the rich man is asking for some help. We can understand that.
But still, it makes me wonder: just who does this guy think he is?
Evidently, he thinks he is someone so important that Father Abraham will make an exception for him. He thinks he is someone who can get Father Abraham to send Lazarus as his errand boy, to bring him some relief from the punishment he has earned himself.
He is a man filled with pride. He is a man who does not seem to have a real understanding of his position, which is that God is God, and he is not. He is a man who is trapped by his pride, in fact, trapped from being able to save himself. But also, according to Father Abraham, trapped from being able to save anyone else. He has lived in an image of himself, which has not allowed him to understand who he is in relation to God and other human beings.
He is someone who has never figured out how to disappear.
In Gifts of the Dark Wood, author Eric Elnes, writes,
Pride artificially inflates our self-image. Shame artificially deflates it. Both tend to set us on dead-end paths because they cause us to willingly obstruct our connection with God. Pride convinces us that we are better off living under our own power and authority. Shame convinces us that God does not love us as we are, thus we are unworthy of connection.[i]
The rich man in Jesus’ story seems to be in the former category—someone whose pride, either has convinced him he is better off living under his own power and authority than taking the risk of connecting with God. But it could just as easily be shame: he may feel unworthy. In either case, the rich man has not seen the forest for the trees… the forest of connection with God for the trees of self-will. By refusing to allow space in his life for God’s whispering, for the Unexpected Love of the Holy Spirit, the rich man has all but guaranteed that he would also miss the opportunity to allow God to show him what he needed to see.
This is where disappearing comes in. If the rich man had only, in his life, been able to disappear, to leave behind his self-image as The Rich Man Who Wears Purple and Feasts Sumptuously, and instead live into his original image—the one he was created in, the image and likeness of God—he would have found himself, not diminished, but enlarged. “Rich Man” is too small an identity for a human being. If he had been able to live as a Child of God first and Rich Man second (or third), he might more easily have seen the other Child of God who lay suffering and starving at his doorstep.
It is incredibly hard to let go of the things that we feel define us, to step out of our carefully crafted personas and stand with nothing more than the image of God in us, to tell the world who we are. And really, doesn’t it keep coming back to Jesus’ words that we keep hearing over and over, that we have to become like children? Someone I trust told me recently that, birth to age 6, children are pure receptors, they are taking everything in, absolutely everything, with no filters. That is a very vulnerable state to be in. But it’s also a state that allows us to be utterly open to God. We need that. We need to become like children. We need to learn how to disappear out of our carefully constructed personas, and to reappear as children of God.
I know Jesus says some harsh stuff to the rich man. Or, rather, Jesus has Father Abraham say it. “…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” (Luke 16:26). That sounds so hopeless.
And yet, look at what happens next. The rich man, is in the most vulnerable state he’s ever been in, truly suffering, probably, for the first time ever. And he says, “Then please, send Lazarus to warn my five brothers, so that they will never have to go through what I am going through.” And you have read that Father Abraham says it’s hopeless still, but I tell you this: For the first time in his life or afterlife, the rich man is thinking about the welfare of someone other than himself. No matter what Father Abraham says, the rich man has already crossed the chasm, because his heart has gone out to others. He wants to prevent suffering, even if it won’t do him any good. His heart has gone out.
What if we tried it? What if we tried to let go of those identities we cherish so much—pastor, parent, problem-solver—and instead allowed ourselves to stand before God and one another simply as God’s children, made in God’s image? What if we let go of our need to be right or best or smartest or fastest, and instead remembered how to become a child, capable of joy, unselfconscious, but utterly God-conscious, and therefore, other-conscious? What if we knew what it was to be idle and blessed, instead of bored and distracted? What if we realized that we are the five brothers of the rich man, who has given us the incredible gift of reminding us that all men are our brothers, all women our sisters, and all little ones, our children?
Thanks be to God. Amen,
[i] Eric Elnes, Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers) (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), 125.