The Rich Man and Lazarus

Medieval illumination, The Rich Man and Lazarus

Medieval illumination, The Rich Man and Lazarus

For when we first believed in Christ we did not immediately acquire an exact understanding of what we should be doing, nor was it clear to us what we should stop doing and what we should continue doing.

— Diodore, Bishop of Tarsus (d. 394) [i]

You see, God who lives in heaven kept quiet about the rich man’s name, because he did not find it written in heaven. He spoke the poor man’s name, because he found it written there… [ii]

— St. Augustine

This Sunday’s gospel tells the parable of the nameless rich man, living the high life in his mansion, and Lazarus the poor man, who is starving just outside his gate. When they both die about the same time, their situations are reversed. The poor man, suffering the torments of Hades, gets a distant glimpse of Lazarus enjoying the blessings of heaven “in the bosom of Abraham.” (Luke 16:19-31)

Where do we find ourselves in this gospel parable? At the gate, or at the rich man’s table? When Jesus tells this story, he doesn’t seem to allow us the option of remaining a spectator, detached and uninvolved.

Jesus is calling us to make a decision.
What would you do in the circumstances of the story?

There’s a 19th century song based on this gospel. I learned to sing it 50 years ago from the legendary Ramblin’ Jack Elliott:

 Only a tramp was Lazarus’ sad fate
When he lay down by the rich man’s gate
To beg for some crumbs from the rich man to eat
But he left him to die like a tramp on the street…

 If Jesus should come and knock at your door
Would you let him come in and take from your store
Or would you turn him away with nothing to eat
Would you leave him to die like a tramp on the street?

What would you do?
In our world of extreme economic inequality, it’s not a hypothetical question.

That’s the thing about the lectionary. We come to church to be illumined, fed, inspired, and renewed; to praise our Maker and Redeemer in the company of God’s friends. But sometimes we’re slammed with a question that’s really hard to answer.

In this case, what’s hard isn’t mustering the good will to do the right thing. If you’re a friend of Jesus, you know what is right. What’s hard is figuring out exactly how to implement our good will in complicated long-term situations.

We could empty our wallets for the homeless on a walk through downtown, but homelessness would remain. We could vote for candidates who put the needs of the poor ahead of the billionaires. But we would still remain entwined in a system driven more by greed and consumption than by the nurture of human flourishing and the health of God’s creation.

So where do we start? Does the parable itself provide any clues? It’s not really a story, but more of a snapshot. On one side there is Lazarus the beggar lying outside the rich man’s gate, covered with sores, dreaming of the scraps of food that fall from the rich man’s table. On the other is the rich man, behind locked doors, dressed in purple and fine linen, eating to his heart’s content – with a clear conscience as far as we know.

And the story seems to imply that he is unaware of Lazarus’ very existence. He doesn’t send his servants out to drive the poor man away. He doesn’t callously pass him by, pretending not to see him.

In the story, the rich man remains inside, Lazarus remains outside, and the two worlds are completely sealed off from each other—until a catastrophe shakes the rich man out of his complacency, and opens his eyes to the suffering he has ignored for so long.

The catastrophe is his own death. This not only plunges him into the fires of Hades but also—even more painful!—it opens his eyes to his lifelong indifference to the suffering of Lazarus, a suffering he could have alleviated, had he been more aware.

So now he must gaze up at Lazarus, safe in the bosom of Abraham, tormented by the knowledge of things done and left undone. It turns out that his blindness to suffering was not the same thing as innocence. The words of the prophet Amos could have been addressed to him:

Woe to those who are at ease in Zion,
and for those who are complacent on the mount of Samaria…
Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory,
and sprawl on their couches,
stuffing themselves with lamb and veal,
singing idle songs and drinking wine by the bowlful,
who anoint themselves with the finest oils,
but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph. (Amos 6: 1, 4-6)

It’s not that the rich man didn’t care about Lazarus. He didn’t even see him. Lazarus did not exist for him, until he was compelled to see reality through God’s eyes:

And what the rich man is shown by God in the end is this: Lazarus, rocking his soul in the bosom of Abraham, turns out to be very precious to God. But he (the rich man) is a prisoner of his own self-regard, the loveless and isolating condition otherwise known as hell.

And then this parable, as parables often do, turns to us expectantly. So, it wonders, is there anything you are not seeing in the places where you live and move and have your being?

Last week I attended a meeting of the Interfaith Economic Justice Coalition in Seattle. The subject was the situation of the workers at the airport, the ones who clean and load the passenger cabins, who push the wheelchairs and guide the planes to their gates, who prepare and serve the food in the facility’s many restaurants and coffee shops, who rent the cars and staff the parking lots.

When we pass through the airport as travelers, we are served by many of these workers. But how often do we really see them as people or understand their situation?

Are we aware that the Seattle airport, the third largest economic producer in the state, has been a notoriously low-wage pocket within the greater urban area? Other West Coast airports, such as LAX, are way ahead of our own in addressing wage and justice issues.

The employment structure at Sea-Tac Airport is complicated. A variety of corporate contractors apply to the Port Commission and the airlines for the right to provide specific services. Individual airlines can choose to work with their own preferred contractors, so there is a bewildering variety of arrangements in which individual workers may fall through the cracks, as their employers play musical chairs in the bidding and renewal process. Without a guarantee that you will keep your job regardless of which corporation wins the next contract for the service you provide, you could be out of a job with little warning.

The process of bidding and contract renewals has sometimes been used, by both airlines and the Port Commission, to shut out union workers and reduce the job security and benefits of airport employees in general.

When Seattle passed the nation’s first $15 minimum wage law in 2014, some contractors complied, some chose to fight the law in the courts, and some simply ignored the law and continued to pay only $9.45 an hour, until lawsuits forced them to comply.

Some of the contractors are still in court, but this month several of them agreed to pay retroactively the full minimum wage, which amounts to about $10,000 per worker for each of the two years in which they were underpaid. This will make a huge difference for those workers, their families, and the communities in which they live.

This ongoing struggle for a living wage is about the workers’ dignity and well-being as equal participants in an interdependent society. And, as people of faith would insist, it is about their inestimable value as the beloved children of God. But until my eyes were opened by what I learned at that meeting last week, they were almost as invisible to me as Lazarus at the gate.

And now that I see them a little more clearly, what shall I do? When I take a flight next Saturday, I will certainly be asking myself this question. I can pray for the workers, I can thank them for their service. This Tuesday I’ll be joining with workers and faith leaders at a Port Commission meeting to exert continuing pressure for economic justice. But what else?

I may not have a lot of answers yet, but the question is not going away as long as we keep replaying the unsustainable story of the rich man and Lazarus in our economics, our politics, and our social order. It will not go away, in fact, until that promised day when we will all sit together at one table, sharing our essential communion as grateful brothers and sisters in the feast of God.

Holy One, Lover of Justice, bring that day closer.

 

Related Post: Why Do We Work?

 

[i] q. in Thomas C. Oden, The Good Works Reader (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmann’s Publishing, 2007), 333

[ii] Sermon 33a.4, q. in Oden, 54

The Return of the Prodigal Son

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son, c. 1661–1669 (Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg)

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son, c. 1661–1669 (Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg)

Sometimes I lead retreats to explore correlations between biblical narratives and our own stories. It’s not just a matter of putting ourselves in a given Bible story as a method of interpreting it. We also need to let it interpret us, as we discover the biblical motifs which are playing out in the particular circumstances of our own lives. What is my creation story, what is your exodus story, what is each one’s death and resurrection story?

At one such retreat, we considered Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. After studying the text, we tried out various ways of retelling it in our own words. Then we divided into three groups: Fathers, prodigal sons, and elder brothers. Membership in each group was determined by chance, although it turned out that the “elder brothers” consisted mostly of firstborn children.

Each group was asked to wrestle with their assigned character. What do you feel about this character? What does the story tell you about him? What does the story leave unsaid? Then they were invited to share a related story from their own lives. Tell about the struggles of being a parent, a child, or a sibling. Tell about a time you were forgiven, or needed to forgive. Tell about a time you felt neglected or ignored, envious or resentful.

One man said he had been disappointed at first to draw the father’s group, because he always related more strongly to the elder brother. As the oldest child in his family, he had some of the issues common to that role. He knew the burden of wanting to live up to his parents’ expectations, to be “perfect,” obedient, one who pleases by getting everything right. He had also experienced some envy and resentment of younger siblings who seemed more carefree and less responsible.

But as he listened to others in the group engage with the father’s side of the story, it occurred to him that he himself had actually been a father for as long as he had been only a son and brother. Maybe, he said, it was time to rethink his own story and who he was in it.

In the early nineties, Henri Nouwen wrote “a meditation on fathers, brothers, and sons” using the parable of the Prodigal Son along with Rembrandt’s famous painting of the moment when the errant child is welcomed home. Like the people in my retreat, he found critical insights into his own life in each of the characters. And in doing so, he realized that there were two sons, not just one, who went astray from their father’s will, into “a distant country,” the place of alienation.[i]

The younger son’s sins may have been more dramatic and colorful, but the elder brother’s bitter and jealous heart grieved his father just as much. Both sons are lost. Both need to be welcomed “home.” As Rembrandt’s painting shows, the elder stands in the shadows, separated from the radiant light surrounding the father and his youngest child.

“There is not only the light-filled reconciliation between the father and the younger son, but also the dark, resentful distance of the elder son. There is repentance, but also anger. There is communion, but also alienation. There is the warm glow of healing, but also the cooling of the critical eye; there is the offer of mercy, but also the enormous resistance against receiving it.”[ii]

Whether the elder brother will be able to step out of his darkness into love’s radiance remains unknown in both the painting and the original parable. But the father has made it clear that his parental love will never be withdrawn. Like the loving mercy of God, his welcoming arms remain ever extended and expectant, now and forever. As Nouwen writes, “The heart of the father burns with an immense desire to bring his children home.”[iii]

Nouwen describes the differences between the father’s hands in Rembrandt’s painting. His left hand is strong, masculine, gripping his son encouragingly. His right hand seems more refined, almost feminine, offering the caress of consolation. The father’s red cloak also conveys shelter and protection, like the enfolding wings of a mother bird.

Love so amazing, so divine, has a cost. It does not always produce happy endings. In the “fathers” group at the retreat, one woman told us about her own prodigal son, a forty-year old man who had struggled for years with his own lostness. “I welcomed him home every time,” she said, “and then he would just break my heart all over again.” Six months before our retreat, he had committed suicide.

When we hear the parable, it is natural to focus on the prodigal’s experience of unconditional, unmerited welcome. We all long to hear the word of mercy for ourselves: weary pilgrim welcome home. But Nouwen won’t let us stay there. Although we each need to make our way on the difficult journey home, in the end we are called to claim the role of the father as well. Forgiven so much, may we also become the ones who forgive, whatever it costs.

“His outstretched hands are not begging, grasping, demanding, warning, judging, or condemning. They are hands that only bless, giving all and expecting nothing … As I look at my own aging hands, I know that they have been given to me to stretch out toward all who suffer, to rest upon the shoulders of all who come, and to offer the blessing that emerges from the immensity of God’s love.”[iv]

 

 

 

[i] Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Meditation on Fathers, Brothers, and Sons (New York: Doubleday, 1992)

[ii] ibid., 126-7

[iii] ibid., 89

[iv] ibid., 127-8, 130