Crossing the Great Divide: A Homily on Dives and Lazarus

Skylight (1732) for the high altar of the cathedral in Toledo, Spain .

Only a tramp was Lazarus’ sad fate
He who 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

— Grady and Hazel Cole, 1939

Jesus was a great storyteller. He knew how to use a good story not just to make a point, but to change lives. But today’s story isn’t quite like any other parable. It’s the only one where a character is given a name. The poor man is called Lazarus, a variant of Eleazar, which means “God helps.” The rich man is unidentified in Scripture, but tradition has given him the name Dives. That’s Latin for “rich guy,” so readers of the Latin Bible began to treat it as his proper name.

This is also the only gospel parable about the afterlife.[i] Most scholars suspect it to be a version of a popular Egyptian folk tale widely told the in the first century. The fact that it makes it into Luke’s gospel suggests that Jesus liked the story well enough to use it in his own preaching.

It’s easy to see why people loved the story in a time when economic inequality was as appalling as it is in America today, where the 3 richest billionaires have more money between them than the bottom 50%. In first-century Palestine, the rich had scooped up most of the land and money, leaving tenant farmers with pretty much nothing of their own, while those who hired out as laborers got only starvation wages. So the idea of a great reversal of fortune was an appealing and consoling image. 

The reversal theme certainly resonated with St. Luke, whose gospel, more than any other, expresses a “preferential option for the poor.” [ii]  We hear this in Mary’s Magnificat: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” And we hear it in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.”

A twelfth-century Italian bishop, Bruno di Segni, said of this parable, “These words are most necessary both for the rich and for the poor, because they bring fear to the former and consolation to the latter.” [iii] In Herman Melville’s 19th-century novel Redburn, his protagonist invokes the parable when he cries, “Tell me, oh Bible, that story of Lazarus again, that I may find comfort in my heart for the poor and forlorn.” [iv]    

We all love reversal stories, where the bad get their comeuppance and the lowly are given a happy ending. I have to confess that I myself would take pleasure in a story where, say, the governor of Florida is tricked into boarding an airplane, only to find himself dropped in the middle of a burning desert, with nothing but the desperate hope that a passing migrant might appear with a canteen of water. “Oh Señor, have mercy on me! I beg you, give me a drop of your water to cool my tongue!”

So is Jesus telling a reversal story in the parable of Dives and Lazarus? Or is he doing something else? The Bible certainly can be critical of wealth’s dark side. We’ve heard plenty of that in today’s readings:

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)

And St. Paul, in his first letter to Timothy, warns that “those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” (I Timothy 6:9-10)

But while the parable presents a strong contrast between situations of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, between high social status and low social status, between easy pleasure and terrible suffering, the point is not about changing places, or even about trying to reduce the contrast to some extent—a little less for the rich, a little more for the poor. This parable isn’t about making the game fairer, but about changing the game entirely. 

Right now, in our time, our country, the game is so much about individual winning. The lucky ones win the lottery, invent the Internet, crush the competition, or throw more touchdowns than interceptions. The rest must fend for themselves. Dog eat dog. There have been notable attempts to counter the personal, social, and environmental damage of our careless individualism, but in the absence of a more widely supported vision of the common good, it continues to be an uphill battle. Can we order our lives and our society to be more in accord with divine intention? We’d better. As W. H. Auden put it on the eve of World War II, “We must love one another or die.” [v]

We all enjoy the hymn, “All things bright and beautiful,” celebrating the wonderful world God has made: “Each little flower that opens, each little bird that sings,” and so on. But one verse—thankfully scrubbed from our hymnal—celebrates an archaic social order as divinely ordained:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

In the kingdom of God, the economy of God, such sundering of neighbor from neighbor is definitely not bright and beautiful. We all belong to one another; we are all intended to share God’s gifts in just measure. To forget this is to choose death and hell. 

Kathleen Hill, an American writer, lived in Nigeria when the traditional cooperative social ethic was being eroded by the lingering effects of colonial rule. She tells of a driver who sped by a hit-and-run victim lying on the side of the road. He didn’t stop because he was afraid that if he put the wounded man into his car, he’d get bloodstains on his new seat covers. “He’d felt no need to apologize,” Hill said, “no need to feel ashamed. It was a culture of money that was growing in Nigeria, a new emphasis on personal wealth.… [N]ow, without the play of traditional values that had connected one person to another, there seemed no limits to self-interest, to the tendency to regard someone else exclusively in the light of one’s own personal imperatives.” [vi]

Where there are no limits to self-interest, no one is my neighbor. Dives feasts inside his mansion, while Lazarus starves on the street. And never the twain shall meet. I think that Jesus would say that Dives was in hell from the start. He didn’t have to die to get there. 

But is this state of separation and disconnection the way things must always remain, now and forever, Amen? Is there any chance for the twain to meet? I think the key to this parable is the gate. The rich man is on one side; Lazarus is on the other. In the story, the gate never opens. In fact, its role as a barrier eventually translates into an uncrossable chasm in eternity.

Narciso Tome’s dramatic skylight seems to visualize a glimpse of heaven from a dark abyss,
like Dives’ view of Abraham and Lazarus across the great chasm.

In the parable, Dives in hell is able to see, across that chasm, Lazarus at ease in the bosom of Abraham. But the gap between them is uncrossable. If only he had opened his gate and experienced Lazarus as a fellow child of God—not just a tramp on the street—there would be no uncrossable chasm between them now. He wouldn’t be stuck in the lonely hell of self-interest and self-isolation. It turns out that the closed gate keeping Lazarus out has also been keeping the rich man in. Even after death he remains in the prison he built for himself, behind the locked gate preventing the communion for which every person is made. 

New Testament scholar Bernard Brandon Scott says this about the gate: “In this parable the rich man fails by not making contact.… The gate is not just an entrance to the house but the passageway to the other.… In any given interpersonal or social relationship there is a gate that discloses the ultimate depths of human existence. Those who miss that gate may, like the rich man, find themselves crying in vain for a drop of cooling water.” [vii]  

“I came that you might have life,” Jesus said, “and that you may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). So is there abundant life in the rich man’s future? Can the chasm ever be bridged by repentance and mercy? Ebenezer Scrooge, after being shown what a mess he was making of his own future, put this question to the final spirit in A Christmas Carol,: 

“Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only? Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me.” [viii]

Can there be a different outcome to the story of Dives and Lazarus? A couple of poets have explored interesting options. James Kier Baxter (1926-1972) of New Zealand concentrates on Dives, who is far worse off than Lazarus even before he departs this life:

Two men lived on the same street
But they were poles apart
For Lazarus had crippled bones
But Dives a crippled heart

In an intriguing twist, Baxter leaves Lazarus on earth and puts Dives in the Divine Presence. ‘My poor blind crippled son, [God] said, / ‘Sit here beneath My Throne.” And instead of eternity in Hades, Dives is given a chance to change his life: 

‘Go back and learn from Lazarus
To walk on My highway
Until your crippled soul shall stand
And bear the light of day,
And you and Lazarus are one
In holy poverty.’ [ix]

Canadian William Wilfred Campbell (1860-1918) focused his poem on Lazarus, giving him a voice he never had in the original parable. While enjoying the bliss of the afterlife, Lazarus is suddenly troubled by a “piercing cry of one in agony, / That reaches me here in heaven.” It’s the rich man’s anguished plea from hell, drowning out the more amiable sounds of heaven.

So calleth it ever upward unto me
It creepeth in through heaven’s golden doors;
It echoes all along the sapphire floors;
Like smoke of sacrifice, it soars and soars;
It fills the vastness of eternity.…

No more I hear the beat of heavenly wings,
The seraph chanting in my rest-tuned ear;
I only know a cry, a prayer, a tear,
That rises from the depths up to me here;
A soul that to me suppliant leans and clings.

O, Father Abram, thou must bid me go
Into the spaces of the deep abyss;
Where far from us and our God-given bliss,
Do dwell those souls that have done Christ amiss;
For through my rest I hear that upward woe.

Lazarus can’t ignore the sinner’s plea, nor does he want to. In a replication of both the Incarnation and the Harrowing of Hell, he begs “Father Abram” to let him descend to the uttermost depths on a mission of redemptive love. The journey is immense, and when the poem ends Lazarus is still on the downward way, with cries of pain ahead, shouts of glory behind. As he traverses the infinite gap between heaven and hell, we suspect this outward motion of self-diffusive love will go on and on, until that day when the tears are wiped from every eye and “God is all in all” (I Corinthians 15:28).  

Hellward he moved like radiant star shot out
From heaven’s blue with rain of gold at even…
Hellward he sank, followed by radiant rout…

‘Tis ages now long-gone since he went out,
Christ-urged, love-driven, across the jasper walls,
But hellward still he ever floats and falls,
And ever nearer come those anguished calls;
And far behind he hears a glorious shout. [x]

It’s a striking image: Love perpetually reaching for the hopeless and the lost, opening every gate, overcoming every obstacle that separates us from God. However, in the original parable, the rich man’s repentance is not off to a promising start. In his cry from hell, Dives doesn’t deign to speak to Lazarus at all. Instead, he asks Abraham, a personage he considers of equal status, to treat Lazarus like a common servant. “Have him dip a finger into cool water and come to me, so he can drip it onto my tongue.” Even in his agony, the rich man’s arrogant self-interest is unabated. 

In Luke’s gospel, this parable always ends the same way, no matter how many times we read it. Dives will stay stuck in the prison of his own making for as long as the story is told. If we want a new ending, we must write it with our own lives and times, as we push through the gate into a deeper union, a more loving communion with our fellow creatures. This is not only radically personal work, it is also the collective endeavor of Church and society. In a time when the common good and neighborly love are in acute peril, love and mercy ceaselessly call us to choose the better way. 

This homily was written for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, Washington.


[i] Matthew 25: 31-46 (The sheep and the goats) is also about the afterlife, but many scholars say it does not fit the definition of a parable. 

[ii] The term was popularized by Liberation theologians and activists in Latin America in the 1960s as a key element of Catholic social teaching.

[iii] Cited in Stephen L. Wailes, Medieval Allegories of Jesus’ Parables (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987), 255.

[iv] Herman Melville, Redburn (1849), ch. 37.

[v] W. H. Auden, “September 1, 1939.”

[vi] Kathleen Hill, She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons (Encino, CA: Delphinium Books, 2017), 57.

[vii] Bernard Brandon Scott, Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 159.

[viii] Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (18­­43), Stave IV. 

[ix] James Kier Baxter, “Ballad of Dives and Lazarus,” in Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry, eds. Robert Atwan, George Dardess, & Peggy Rosenthal (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 260-261.

[x] William Wilfred Campbell, “Lazarus.” For complete text: https://www.poetryexplorer.net/poem.php?id=10045686

Summer Reading

The New Novel (Winslow Homer, 1877)

Summer reading has a leisurely reputation, way up there with other genteel activities such as croquet and badminton and wildflower gathering. The act of reading has historically been considered a privilege, and summer reading is privilege taken to an extreme. Just the image of a reader in summer brings to mind something sensual and luxurious. We picture the reader outdoors only, arranged in some bucolic setting: forest or beach or yard.

–– Meg Wolitzer, “The Summer Reading List”

 

When Meg Wolitzer was twelve, she belonged to the local library’s Summer Reading Club, whose members agreed to read at least ten books during the long break from school. “Ten,” she exclaims. “We say the number with true disdain. Ten is nothing; ten is what we have ripped through before the first week in July. . .”

At summer’s end, the club newsletter published the names of the youthful readers along with the titles of all the books each has read. The library threw a party to celebrate their accomplishment, and hired a magician for entertainment. But the kids paid little heed to the performer on stage, for they were still “lost in plots, characters, populated worlds that we’ve plowed through during the hottest days of summer. We all know that there is something magical about the sudden voracity that’s been implanted in us.”

As an adult, Wolitzer still begins her summers with a visit to the library, randomly browsing the stacks until a book’s title or author calls to her. “If it does, then I pick up the book and look at the opening pages. . . I stand and read a little way in, trying to imagine myself surrounded by greenery, keeping company with this book for hours at a time. Is this prose I want to lie down with? I ask. Is this a voice I want to hear murmuring in my ear throughout the longest days of summer?” [i]

I’ve always identified with Wolitzer’s lovely essay, for the selection of summer reading is as critical to the season as compiling our travel itinerary or mapping my annual backcountry pilgrimage. What voices do I want to keep me company in the hammock, on the beach, or by the wilderness lake?

In these brilliant, languorous days of late July in Puget Sound, I am anxious to rise from the desk where I write this in order to rejoin my books out in the garden. But first let me share something of what I have found in two of this year’s summer reads.

Kathleen Hill’s thoughtful memoir, She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons, devotes each chapter to a single book, exploring who and where she was when she read it, and the ways in which that book has both illuminated and altered her own story. In her reflection on Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, she pens a reader’s credo:

“Not so long ago I’d been afraid of living wholly inside of books. Fear of the unlived life had propelled me out of them. Reading, I thought, was a substitute for living, a sphere apart in which the reader underwent the characters’ lives rather than her own. . . And yet here I was, sitting on the verandah with [Portrait of a Lady]. . . pondering Isabel’s life as a way of pondering my own. What could this mean? It was as if I needed a novel, after all, to decipher events. Life was too fluid to reflect on, too transient. One state of feelings replaces another too quickly. . . But in the pages of a novel, time is slowed down so that you can feel within yourself what is transpiring. You can stop, you can ponder. And then see. In reading, you can find yourself where you are. Had I been mistaken, then, to think that reading must lead me away from life rather than toward it?” [ii]

A very different memoir, John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story, explores the dilemmas of his personal narrative through the lens of great thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was a perfect book to read last week beside Minnesota’s Lake Pepin, a wide stretch of the Mississippi River where my grandfather Charles Friedrich built a summer home still occupied by his descendants from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

“What the river says, that is what I say,” wrote William Stafford. And oh, with what pleasure did I sit on the sandy beach of “Friedrich Point,” regarding the immense flow of water through the heartland while mind and heart absorbed the deep currents of wisdom running through Kaag’s pages:

“The think, am, is, since Descartes, the basic mistake of all knowledge; thinking is not my thinking, and being is not my being, for everything is only of God or of the totality.” (Friedrich Schelling) [i]

“Love, recognizing germs of loveliness [even] in the hateful, gradually warms it into life, and makes it lovely.” (Charles Sanders Peirce) [ii]

“Life consists everywhere in a repetition of the fundamental paradox of consciousness. In order to realize what I am, I must, as I find, become more than I am or than I know myself to be. I must enlarge myself, conceive myself as in external relationships, go beyond my private self, presuppose the social life, enter into [the inevitable] conflict, and, winning the conflict, come nearer to realizing my unity with my deeper self.” (Josiah Royce) [iii]

“Have you then a discontent with your thought-horizon? If it is not a mere discontent but at the same time an earnest aspiration, there are goods in store for you whether you seek them among the mountains of philosophy or elsewhere. I wish I might lead you to some peak of vision, but it is seldom that I feel myself more than a wanderer––a climber.” (William Ernest Hocking in a letter to Agnes O’Reilly, his future wife) [iv]

The heart of Kaag’s book is his deeply personal search for healing and meaning. In the middle of his own Dantean dark wood––“so drear, so rank, so arduous a wilderness! Its very memory gives shape to fear”­­­––he chanced upon a dilapidated stone library in a New Hampshire forest.[vii]

The library is part of “West Wind,” the old 400-acre estate of William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966), a Harvard philosopher who grounded transcendental idealism in the empirical method of American pragmatism. “That which does not work is not true,” he declared. Over the years, he had amassed an extensive collection of precious philosophical works, which had never been donated or dispersed. In the quiet backcountry of New England, Hocking’s books remained exactly as he had left them fifty years ago.

Hocking’s descendants were not around, but the library, seeming dilapidated and forgotten, was unlocked. Upon entering, Kaag discovered an astonishing number of first editions from Descartes and Kant to William James and Josiah Royce, along with handwritten notes and inscriptions by Emerson, Whitman and Frost. It seemed philosophy’s equivalent of the Grail Chapel in Arthurian legend, a phantasmagoric no-place where all questions end and all desires are known. Or perhaps it bore greater resemblance to the long-deserted dining room in Great Expectations. Like Miss Haversham’s forlorn wedding cake, its rare and valuable volumes were being eaten away by mice, insects, moisture and time.

With the blessing of Hocking’s descendants, Kaag began to catalog and preserve what he could, a long process in which his own wounded story was critically examined and ultimately healed.

“West Wind taught me many things,” he wrote. “About longevity in the face of destruction, about dealing with loss, about love and freedom, but also about the discipline of philosophy. Philosophy, and the humanities more generally, once served as an effective cult of the dead––documenting, explaining, and revitalizing the meaning and value of human pursuits. It tried to figure out what is most worthy about us. At its best, philosophy tried to explain why our lives, so fragile and ephemeral, might have lasting significance.” [viii]

Kaag grounded his quest in the fundamental question posed by William James in an 1895 lecture to a student assembly in Harvard’s Holden chapel. His question was, “Is Life Worth Living?” And how did James answer? Maybe. It all depends on the choices and commitments of those who live it. The universe is still wild, untamed, and “half-saved,” he said. And maybe our own commitment to the divine work of redeeming it is a prerequisite, or at least a catalyst, for transformation:

“And to trust our religious demands means first of all to live in the light of them, and to act as if the invisible world which they suggest were real. . . It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all. And often enough our faith beforehand in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true. . . [God’s own self], in short, may draw vital strength and increase of very being from our fidelity. For my own part, I do not know what the sweat and blood and tragedy of this life mean, if they mean anything short of this.” [ix]

Dogmatists may debate whether this grants too much capacity to mortals, undermining our sense of dependence upon grace. I prefer to understand the “maybe,” and our willingness to stake our lives on it, as grace’s natural habitat, and Love’s most perfect work.

Well the day is half gone. So is the summer. What shall I read now? Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side, an “elegiac” novel my sister just sent me in the mail? Or how about Amelia Gray’s “stunning” and “heavenly” new novel about Isadora Duncan? What else is lying around, crying for my attention? Bijan Omrani’s Caesar’s Footprints: Journeys Through Roman Gaul? Andre Malraux’s art history classic, The Voices of Silence? Edward Sanders’ 1968: A History in Verse? Devin McKinney’s “great metaphysical soup” and “white-hot prose” in The Beatles in Dream and History? David Orr’s Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry? Or has the moment come at last to pick up what R. Crumb calls “a crazy idea for a book”: How to Read Nancy, a lavishly learned critique of Ernie Bushmiller’s “perfect comic strip” by Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden?

What the hammock says, that is what I say.

 

 

 

[i]Meg Wolitzer, “The Summer Reading List,” in Summer, ed. Alice Gordon & Vincent Virga (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1990), 59-63.

[ii]Kathleen Hill, She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons (Encino, CA: Delphinium Books, 2017), 116.

[iii]John Kaag, American Philosophy: A Love Story (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2016), 167.

[iv]Ibid., 147.

[v]Ibid., 168-69.

[vi]Ibid., 171-72.

[vii] The quote is from Dante’s Inferno I:4-6 (John Ciardi translation). Kaag structures his book into three sections reflecting the triadic progress of the Divine Comedy: Hell, Purgatory, Redemption.

[viii]Kaag, 234.

[ix]William James, “Is Life Worth Living?”, delivered at Holden Chapel, Harvard University, April 15, 1895 (https://archive.org/stream/islifeworthlivin00jameuoft/islifeworthlivin00jameuoft_djvu.txt)