Wednesday, September 21, 2016

LAZARUS, THE MAN GOD HELPED


26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C. Luke 16: 19-21

          Like many of the parables, this one is a story of contrasts. These are stark, both in this life and in the hereafter. The rich man has every comfort that money can buy. The beggar at his gate has only his name: Lazarus, a word which means “may God help,” or “the one whom God helps.” This name is significant, as we shall see.

          The rich man’s clothing (“purple and linen”) and lifestyle (he “feasted splendidly every day”) proclaim abundance and luxury. He is far above the social-economic level of Jesus’ ordinary hearers. According to the conventional morality of the day, however, which viewed wealth as a sign of God’s blessing, the hearers would have admired the rich man as an upright pillar of society. 

          The contrast between the two men in the story extends to the smallest details. The rich man is “clothed in purple and fine linen.” Lazarus is “covered with sores.” The rich man “feasted splendidly every day.” Lazarus “longed to eat the scraps” of bread discarded by the rich man and his guests at their daily banquets. The rich man is active. Lazarus is passive, unable even to fend off the dogs whose attentions increase his misery. We are not even told that Lazarus begged. He simply lies there at the rich man’s gate, unnoticed by the rich man as he passes in and out each day. The rich man is an insider, Lazarus is the quintessential outsider.

          Death reverses these contrasts. “The beggar died,” Jesus tells us with stark economy of language. The description becomes richer, however, as we hear about Lazarus (still passive) being lifted out of this world, in which he had been a neglected outsider, and “carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham.” Lazarus is now the quintessential insider.

          Unlike Lazarus, the rich man has a funeral: “The rich man likewise died and was buried.” Now he becomes the outsider, buried in the ground of this world. Where previously he had “feasted splendidly”, now he is “in torment.” His daily feasting is replaced by craving for a drop of water to cool his tongue, parched from the flames which surround him. 

          And now the rich man does something he has not done before. For the first time, Jesus tells us, “he raised his eyes and saw Lazarus” — no longer near, however, but “afar off” in Abraham’s bosom, in a place of honor, like the “disciple whom Jesus loved” leaning on the Lord’s breast at the Last Supper (cf. John 13: 23ff). 

          The significance of Lazarus’ name is now manifest. He is the man whom God helps. Ignored in life — by the rich man, his guests, and everyone else — Lazarus is disclosed at death as someone especially dear to God, who sends angels to carry him to a place of consolation and honor. This would have puzzled the story’s first hearers, accustomed to thinking that unfortunates like Lazarus were receiving the just reward for their sins. 

          Equally disturbing for the hearers would have been the rich man’s punishment. This cannot have been the consequence of his wealth, for Abraham was rich. Nowhere does Jesus say that the mere possession of wealth brings condemnation or that poverty guarantees salvation. Like those on the king’s left hand in Matthew’s parable of the sheep and the goats, the rich man is punished not for anything he did, but for what he failed to do. In that other parable those at the king’s left protest at the injustice of their condemnation, demanding to know when they have ever transgressed God’s law. The rich man in this parable utters no protest. Seeming to recognize the justice of his fate, he merely asks that Lazarus (still passive) be sent “to dip the tip of his finger in water and refresh my tongue, for I am tortured in these flames.” The rich man has forgotten nothing and learned nothing. He still assumes that he can command others to do his bidding. Significantly, however, he directs his request not to Lazarus but to Abraham, a wealthy man like himself, but unlike him a model of hospitality. 

          Abraham’s response is gentle. Addressing his petitioner as “my child,” Abraham discloses that the separation between the rich man and Lazarus, formerly the result merely of the former’s neglect and hence reversible, is now permanent because established by God. 

          The dialogue which follows takes the parable to a new level. The rich man, who for the first time has “raised his eyes” and seen Lazarus, now makes his first move to repair his previous failure by helping others. Still assuming that others are there to serve him, he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers on earth as “a warning, so they may not end in this place of torment.” Abraham’s response to this seemingly reasonable request sounds callous: “They have Moses and the prophets. Let them hear them.” The rich man immediately counters with an objection as plausible as his original request. “No, Father Abraham. ... But if someone would only go to them from the dead, then they would repent.” 

          Across the distance of some seventy-five years I can still recall my reaction to the annual reading of this gospel in my youth, on one of the many Sundays after Pentecost. ‘He’s got a point there,’ I thought each time I heard the rich man’s objection. ‘If someone were to go them from the dead, that would shake them up!’  Enlightenment came one Sunday during my teens, when, listening to this gospel, I realized: ‘Hey. A man did rise from the dead once. It didn’t shake anyone up. The only people who believed in him were those who had believed in him before, and even they had to overcome initial skepticism.’ 

          Luke’s language confirms this youthful insight. Abraham speaks of resurrection: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if one should rise from the dead.” “Moses and the prophets” means simply “Holy Scripture.” Jesus uses Abraham’s refusal of the rich man’s final request to state what Jesus himself has already experienced many times over: signs and wonders, no matter how dramatic, can never compel faith in those who have not already gained faith through attentive reading or hearing of God’s word. The greatest of all Jesus’ signs was the empty tomb of Easter morning. It was the occasion of faith to one man only: the disciple whom Jesus loved, as he is called in John’s gospel (cf. John 20: 2-8). Jesus’ other followers came to faith in the resurrection only through seeing the risen Lord. Those who had refused to believe in him before the crucifixion had a simple explanation for the empty tomb, reported in Matthew 28:12-15: Jesus’ disciples stole his body while the soldiers guarding the tomb slept.

          Abraham’s seemingly callous reminder that the rich man’s brothers need only “Moses and the prophets” to avoid his fate is Jesus’ way of telling his hearers, ourselves included, that present circumstances are always enough for us to believe in God and serve him. Most of us, most of the time, live and work in circumstances that are less than ideal. Confronted with our modest achievements, we plead that they are a consequence of our limited opportunities. When things change and we get into better circumstances, we shall be able to accomplish so much more. That is an illusion.        

          The golden opportunities that beckon on the other side of the horizon will never arrive if we are not using the opportunities, however limited, that are before us right now. It is here and now, in the present moment (the only time we ever have) that we are called to faith in God, and to generous service of God and others — and not somewhere else, tomorrow, when everything changes at the touch of some magic wand and our lives cease to be drab and become wonderful.   

          The parable tells that we must listen to God’s word. If we do this, not just occasionally, but faithfully — day after day, week by week and year after year — we shall find ourselves strengthened, guided, and fed. Faithful, patient sitting at the Lord’s feet, listening and pondering his words like Mary of Bethany, will enable us to understand the words of Cleopas and his unnamed companion after their encounter with the risen Lord at Emmaus on the first Easter evening: “Were not our hearts burning inside us as he talked to us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32) .

          To be close to the Lord, we need to do also what the rich man in the parable failed to do. We need to see the needs of those around us. And like the despised outsider in the parable of the Good Samaritan, we need to minister to those needs in caring, costing ways. The Lord seldom demands heroism. Often a kind word, a friendly gesture, or an encouraging smile is enough. But unless we are open to the needs of those we encounter on life’s way, and are trying to meet those needs, we shall discover one day that we have lived far from God, no matter how many prayers we have said. And if we have lived far from God in this life, we shall live far from him in eternity. God’s judgment is not something imposed on us from without. It is his ratification of the judgment we make in this life by the way we choose to live here and now. 

          This story of the rich man and Lazarus is clearly a parable of judgment.  God’s judgment need not be fearful, however. In reality it is part of the good news.  The judgment meted out in this parable to Lazarus — passive throughout and speaking never a word — assures us that the inarticulate, the weak, the poor, the marginalized and neglected, are especially dear to God. Lazarus, the man whom God helped, tells us that in the kingdom Jesus came to proclaim the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk and run without growing weary; those who hope in the Lord renew their strength and soar as on eagles’ wings; the tone-deaf sing like René Fleming and Placido Domingo; the poor are made rich; the hungry feast at the banquet of eternal life; the sorrowful are filled with laughter and joy; and those who are ostracized and persecuted because of the Son of Man receive their unbelievably great reward.

          That too is the gospel proclaimed by this parable. That is the good news.