Some memories never go away and maybe never should. For twelve years in Atlanta, I navigated fences and gates to get into the downtown church I served. Late each evening, those same fences and gates served as the backdrop for women and men as they would roll up their clothes for a pillow and lay down cardboard for a mattress, while I would walk to my car and return to my comfortable home and bed.
The parable that Jesus tells today brings back memories, hard ones. It is a tough parable to preach not only because it hits close to home, but because it is so hard to pin down. Some pin it down is as a “Jesus get tough on wealth” story. After all, that theme is not new in Luke. It begins at the start of Luke’s Gospel as Mary sings her Magnificat: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (1:52). In an early sermon in Luke, Jesus says that God’s reign is for the hungry and poor, and woe to those who are rich. So, maybe, this is what the parable is all about. It is all about the rich and since you and I are not rich, it is not about us.
Others pin this parable down as a “Jesus gets soft on the poor” story. In this parable, poverty’s new name is Lazarus, a name derived from Eleazar, which means, “God helps.” In an old English carol based on this parable called Dives and Lazarus, it is the rich man who sends his dogs to chase the poor beggar Lazarus from his gate. There will be no begging, no panhandling on his estate. The carol reminds us that the dogs do not attack Lazarus but lick his sores instead. Maybe this is what the parable is all about, that if you are poor and hungry, you may not be able to count on the rich to come to your aid, but you can always count on God.
The poet Edith Sitwell offers yet another way to pin down this parable. In her poem, Still Falls the Rain, she presents Lazarus and the rich man not as opposites but as fellow sufferers, each in need of the mercy of God. She writes, “Christ . . . have mercy on us--/On Dives and on Lararus: /Under the rain the sore and the gold are as one.” Maybe this is what the parable is all about, that whether rich or poor, we all stand in desperate need of the mercy of God.
Not only hard to pin down, this parable also messes up some neat notions about God and the Bible that I hear all the time. Lots of Christians carry around the idea that the God of the New Testament is much better behaved than the God of the Old, a new and improved God, that the God of the Old Testament is full of wrath, while the God of the New Testament is full of sweet love. In this parable, if you were to ask the sweating rich man in Hell about the nature of God, I do not imagine that the words “sweet love” would easily roll off his tongue.
Allow me to add one more to the crowd of interpretations of this parable. The parable is told in three acts. In Act One we meet the characters: a rich man whose wealth is defended by a gate and on display by the royal garments he wears and the lavish meals he eats, and then there is poor Lazarus, a beggar on the street, who waits each day for the trash to be carried out from the rich man’s mansion, so he can feast on the rich man’s scraps. In Act One, we see the world as many then and many today see it, a world designed by God, where blessings in this life are a sign of God’s favor, while poverty and hunger are signs of human sloth and God’s displeasure.
The second act of the parable shifts from this life to the afterlife. The poor beggar is treated like the prophet Elijah as he is carried on a chariot to the halls of heaven, while the rich man is tortured endlessly by thirst and hellish heat. In Act Two, the world as we know it is turned upside down, a world in which the poor prosper and the rich suffer. In a basic way, though, Act Two simply repeats Act One as the rich man’s only interest in Lazarus is simply in how the beggar can serve him in his time of distress.
Act Three begins with the rich man pleading with Father Abraham to send Lazarus to visit his five brothers, like Jacob Marley is sent to warn Scrooge of his impending fate. The rich man wants Lazarus to haunt them with the torture that awaits these five brothers, so they will repent and be spared his fate. Clarence Jordan, a good Georgia biblical wise man, who retold the parables in a Southern idiom, interprets Abraham’s answer to the rich man: “Lazarus ain’t gonna run no mo’ yo’ errands, rich man.”
Father Abraham’s response to the rich man is basically, “They do not need a special messenger from God; all they need to do is read their Bibles.” In Deuteronomy, Moses tells his people: “Do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor” (Deut 15:7) and later Isaiah asks: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice. . . to let the oppressed go free . . . ? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isa 58:6-7). As hard as you and I and the five brothers may try to live gated lives, God has a given us a different vision for living our lives, suggests Act Three of this parable. And, so the story ends.
I would argue, though, that this is where parable actually begins, as you and I, write Act Four. In Luke 15, the final parable ends with us wanting to know if the elder brother will have a change of heart and join the party for his wayward, now returned, brother. The parable today ends with us wanting to know what will happen to the five brothers of the rich man. Will they repeat the sin of their sweating brother or will they have a change of heart?
Maybe this parable is less about the afterlife, about eternal feasting in heaven or scorching in Hell, and more about noticing every day in this life. The sin of the rich man is not that he is rich or that he sends his dogs to torment the beggar. The sin of the rich man is that he never even notices the man. Lazarus is just another anonymous beggar on the street who is best ignored.
I would like to think that in Act Four the brothers will notice Lazurus and his kin who are sleeping under cardboard on the city streets and writhing in sores at the gate or living in makeshift immigrant camps on both sides of our Southern border, so hungry that they are willing to sort through the trash for something to eat. I would like to think that the brothers, that we, will start losing sleep at night not over how to invest our latest dividends or where to go for our next grand vacation, but over how so many nameless ones are waiting for us to notice.
As I read this parable, it is not so much that the rich man did something wrong during his life on earth; the problem is that he did no-thing, nothing. I would like to think that in Act Four the brothers, that you and I, notice – notice the millions who die from hunger each year when this earth has all the resources necessary to feed them, the thousands who suffer needlessly from poor or no health care at all when we have all the medical knowledge necessary to care for them, the children in our cities who die annually from pollutants that we dump into rivers and belch into the air when we know what must be done to clean up our own mess. I would like to think that the first step toward doing some-thing is to notice.
In Act Four I would like to think that the brothers, that you and I, will walk out from behind gates and fences with more than a tasty casserole and a spare subway card, feeling good about our generosity. I would like to think that we will come out with a deep desire to know and be known by those whom we have never noticed before or only noticed enough to stay clear of them.
Maybe Act Four of today’s parable begins not with chasing Lazarus away from the gate, but with noticing more than the rich man ever did in this life, by refusing to do no-thing even if what we do is not everything that needs to be done.
Maybe this parable is not all that hard to pin down. Maybe it is a story not so much about the afterlife, but about how you and I are to live this life. Maybe this is a story not in three acts, but a story that actually begins when you and I write Act Four, when you and I begin to notice.