Historians like to name drop when telling stories from the past. That’s because it’s the rich and powerful, the victors in war or economic competition who get to write history. The winners always get their names mentioned. But, in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus doesn’t tell us the rich man’s name. He only tells us the beggar’s name, the one considered nameless in human society, but who is worthy of mention in the Reign of God.
It was the assumption in Jesus’s day that the rich were rich because God had blessed them for some great thing they had done. The poor were poor because they wanted to be, or because they had sinned against God. President Reagan, in the 1980s, echoed that sentiment when he reminded us that the root cause of homelessness in America was due to people choosing to be homeless. Interesting how much first century theology has managed to perdure even to the present, isn’t it?
In the parable, however, it is the rich man who ends up in Hades, paying for his sin. He is surely shocked to find himself there, wondering what rule he had broken to merit such anguish? Certainly in his mind, he had done nothing wrong: he had kept the letter of the law, he probably went to Temple and probably even tithed. He ate well, he dressed well, he lived well. He certainly didn’t deserve Hades…he hadn’t done anything!
And that is precisely Jesus’ point: by choosing to do nothing in the face of such great need, he chose not to see Lazarus at all. Being a rich man wasn’t a sin; being indifferent to the plight of the poor and destitute was.
The rich man had had the power to do something, yet he chose not to use that power. By doing nothing, by choosing not to see, by deciding to isolate himself in the suburbs, far from inner city problems, he disobeyed the spirit of Moses and the prophets who, speaking for God, had commanded all of Israel to show hospitality to the stranger, the widow, the fatherless, and the poor.
Jesus doesn’t give us the personal background of the man, Lazarus. We don’t know if he got fired from his job for alcoholism, or removed from his ministry for pedophilia, or if he had abandoned his wife and children through his obsession with casino gambling on the weekends. We know only that he is now a poor man, covered with sores. Maybe Jesus doesn’t give us any more information because he knows you and I excuse ourselves from helping people all the time because, we say, they made certain choices that brought them to this point in their lives. No one forced them to start smoking crack. No one compelled them to drink themselves into despair. No one made them drive to the casino and spend the family savings on slot machines. We Christians are often guilty of withholding help from someone who is hurting when we deem them somehow culpable and deserving of their misery. It’s because we don’t see them as they truly are.
When I was 14 years old, growing up in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, I saw and interacted with my first black person. I knew there were black people in the world because I had seen them marching on TV, during the Milwaukee race riots, but there were none in my town. The summer after 8th grade, a girl, Venita Washington, came to stay with our white middle class neighbors. She was from Chicago and had a funny accent. She lived in something called “the projects” and had never seen so many trees and so much green grass and she certainly had never lived in a place where only a few blocks away was a beautiful lake with a beach, where she could swim for free every day. She said she had a brother, Leonard, which she pronounced funny, like “LEE-uh-nard”. We gave her my sisters’ hand-me-downs, listened to her stories from another planet, and in the process, she became our new best friend. We threw her a huge birthday party, and bought her the very first birthday presents she had ever received. We hugged her and cried on the day she had to go home to Chicago, promising to keep in touch—a promise none of us actually kept. We returned once again to the our normal lives in a city full of trees and green grass, a big, blue lake, and lots of white people just like us.
This was 1971, and racial equality was being enforced in every city in the country. By the time I graduated high school, there was one black student in the school, and even a few black families had moved to town, although they lived on the “other side” of town, nearer the river, where the lower class people lived. For many whites, my parents included, the idea of changing society seemed somehow unnatural, like someone was trying to get them to admit that sunrise should happen in the evening and that the dead of winter was the right time for planting a garden. No one had ever considered the possibility that things might be, could be, should be, different. Most of these people weren’t mean-spirited, they just weren’t noticing the suffering and injustice around them—much like the rich man wasn’t noticing Lazarus. No doubt he left his house every morning on his way to the marketplace without even noticing Lazarus. He stepped over him, or walked around him, or took a detour in order to keep from noticing him. And that’s what Jesus condemns about him. That’s what Jesus condemns about us.
Most of want to believe that things are different, some fifty years after the Civil Rights movement began. We’d like to think that the War on Poverty has been won, or that people of all colors are equal. But today, the most noticeable aspect of our economic program and perhaps the most dangerous aspect of American politics is the growing gap between rich and poor. . . . Today the gap between the poorest Americans and the wealthiest Americans is larger than at any point in the last 50 years. The richest 1% of us have as much wealth as the entire bottom 95%.
Again, the rich man’s sin was not that he was rich: it was his attitude. Yes, he could have thrown Lazarus a piece of bread, but that would not have saved him. We often make the same mistake. We think if we throw money at the poor that will solve the problem, but that won’t save them either. The deeper issue for the rich man is the same issue for us: an unwillingness to enter into relationship. It is one thing to hand out services and food to the poor, but it is a harder thing to actually establish a relationship with a child of God who is visibly poor or broken. To offer food and aid to the poor is part of our responsibility as Christians, but real healing can only happen in a relationship. We need a return to a biblical era-style hospitality that welcomes all, that nurtures all, that creates social bonds between all.
For all that, this parable is still about hope because we are assured once again that no matter how bad things get, no matter how difficult life gets, no matter how many people do not notice our pain, God does notice, and God is making things right. Not only does God not forget the poor as a group, he remembers them by name, he knows their situations, he heals their hurts. In sending Christ, in making us into the image of his Christ, God expects that we will engage in the business of co-creating God’s Domination-free Order. The only way for this new Order to become a reality is if we get our hands dirty and begin.
Certainly there are days when we play the role of Lazarus. Unforeseen circumstances change our life’s direction and all seems lost. There are other days when we play the role of the rich man. We may not all drive BMWs or own choice real estate, but we are rich beyond measure when compared to most of the rest of the planet.
If we accept the reality that we have these vast resources at our command, and if we acknowledge that we are the presence of Christ in the world here and now, and if we agree that we are called to help build God’s Domination-free Order for humanity, how then, shall we, the rich, live our lives?