Thomas J Parlette
“The One Whom God Helps”
Luke 16: 19-31
I know I’m not the only one in the room who is a fan of the British show on PBS, Downton Abbey. It’s been a big week for Downton fans. The long awaited movie came out last weekend to give us our first fix of new stories about the Abbey and the doings surrounding the Crawley family in the 1920’s, since the show finished production back in 2015. I will say I haven’t seen the movie yet, so don’t tell me any details.
For the past few Sunday afternoons, Juliet and I have been catching up on the final season of Downton through reruns. Last week there was a surprise visitor to the Abbey for lunch. A former housemaid named Gwen came for lunch with her husband, an upper class gentleman John Dawson.
When she first arrives, most of the family does not even recognize her. A couple of the ones who knew her best greet her quietly, but the master and lady of the house do not recognize her. Before the meal is over, it is revealed that Gwen used to work as a maid at the Abbey until one of the sisters helped her get a job as a secretary and her life continued to move ahead on a very different course. The family is embarrassed that they didn’t know her when she came in, but they are thrilled for her good fortune.
Something similar happens in this well-known story from the Gospel of Luke – although it does not end as well. The first part of the story about the Rich man and Lazarus introduces us to the two main characters. First, there is the Rich man, an incredibly self-indulgent character who lives in a gated estate, dresses himself every day in purple robes and fine linen. He no doubt had other clothes, but purple cloth was extremely expensive, and only the truly wealthy could afford it. This guy wanted to make sure everyone knew he had money. In short, he was a clothes horse, with an inner need to constantly remind everyone of his wealth. He also wore fine linen. This is an interesting detail because the word refers to quality Egyptian cotton used to make the best underwear you could buy.(1) When Jesus tells this story, this little detail is a bit of a joke. As he tells it, he does so with a wink and a nod, a wry smile on his face, “This guy not only had expensive robes, but just in case you were wondered, he wore the best underwear too.” It was akin to saying the rich man wore only custom-tailored Italian suits and silk boxers.
In addition to his fine clothes, the man feasted sumptuously every day. Therefore, he did not observe the Sabbath. His servants were never given a day of rest, so the rich man was publicly violating the Ten Commandments every week. His self-indulgent lifestyle was more important to him than the law of God. The injustice he inflicted on his staff meant nothing to him.
And then there’s Lazarus, a poor man, covered in sores, who is laid by the gate every day. The rich man ignores Lazarus, never bothers with him at all – a little like the downstairs servants from Downton Abbey. Lazarus is the only individual with a name in all of Jesus parables. Major characters move in and out of the parables, but are never identified by name. The good Samaritan, the Pharisee, the father, the older son and the sower – all famous, but nameless. Lazarus is the sole exception, and therefore his name must be significant.
The name Lazarus is a Hebrew word that means “the one whom God helps.”(2) Perhaps it’s meant to be ironic, sort of like called a big man “Tiny”, because Lazarus does nothing but lay at the rich man’s gate day after day. He was so sick he could not even stand, and so poor he was reduced to begging. On the surface, he appears to be a person whom God did not help.
But Lazarus is not completely abandoned. The community around Lazarus apparently respected and cared for him as best they could. The phrase “at his gate lay a poor man” is better translated “a poor man was laid at his gate.”(3) So every day Lazarus had someone who was helping him by taking him to the rich man’s gate. He was, after all, the only man in town with the resources to help Lazarus, so it would make sense to take him there and hope that the rich man or some of his wealthy guests would feel some compassion and give some food or assistance.
And then we stumble on one of the most graphic details in the story – “the dogs came and licked his sores.” It’s tempting to see this as one more demeaning part of Lazarus’ existence, but it is? A better translation of this phrase would “BUT the dogs came and licked his sores. The word used here, “alla” always indicates a contrast. The NRSV and the NIV state “even the dogs came”, which would place the dogs on the rich man’s side, tormenting Lazarus. But for more than 1000 years most Arabic versions have accurately translated “alla” as a contrast, and thereby emphasized that the dogs were not joining the rich man in tormenting Lazarus(4) – they were doing just the opposite, offering comfort and compassion.
Dogs lick their own wounds. They lick people as a sign of affection. Recent scientific scholarship has found that dog saliva actually contains antibiotics that facilitate healing. Somehow the ancients discovered that if a dog licked wounds, they would heal more rapidly.
In fact, in 1994, Professor Lawrence Stager of Harvard University discovered more than 1,300 dogs buried in ancient Ashkelon. The graves dated from the fifth to the third century BC, when Ashkelon was ruled by the Phoenicians. These animals were probably linked to a Phoenician healing cult. The dogs were, in all likelihood, trained to lick wounds or sores and the ailing people would pay a fee to the owners.(5) A little gross, but effective.
So this rich man will do nothing for Lazarus, but these dogs sense that Lazarus is a kind soul and they do what they can – they lick his wounds.
Both men die. Lazarus is carried away by the angels to a place of honor with Abraham. The rich man was buried and went to Hades where he was in torment. Part of his torment is the fact that he can lift his eyes and see Abraham and Lazarus way off in the distance.
The second half of the parable is a dialogue between Abraham and the rich man. Amazingly, the rich man doesn’t even speak to Lazarus. Perhaps the audience is amazed to learn that the rich man knows Lazarus’ name, despite ignoring him all those years. Which just makes him look even more callous and unfeeling. The rich man’s first demand is nothing short of unbelievable. When Lazarus was in pain, he was ignored by the rich man. But now that the tables are turned, the rich man wants action immediately – “Send Lazarus to bring me some water.” Instead of offering an apology, he demands service, as if Lazarus is his waiter in a restaurant.
At his point we might expect to hear from Lazarus himself. We want to see some revenge, hear Lazarus say something like… “Why should I do anything for you? You never even gave the scraps from your table. Your dogs were nicer to me than you were. You are a terrible person, I’m glad to see you in torment – you deserve it!”
But Lazarus doesn’t say any of that. In fact, he says nothing. He is quiet. This gentle, long-suffering man has no anger or resentment to express. He seeks no vengeance. Like a New Testament version of Job, Lazarus creates meaning by his response to what happens to him. Lazarus is a model of mercy, as Jesus described when he said, “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Lazarus has his chance at revenge, but he remains quiet, showing kindness an utterly ungrateful and self-absorbed rich man.
All eyes are on Abraham to see what he will say. “No can do,” says Abraham. “You had your good things in life – now it’s Lazarus’ turn.”
And then Abraham says something surprising: “And besides all this, between us and you, a great chasm has been fixed, that those who would pass from here to you cannot, and none may come from there to us.”
The fact of a great chasm is easy enough to understand. But why does Abraham remind the rich man that “those who want to pass from here to you” cannot? Who, for heaven’s sake, would want to journey from heaven to hell? Obviously, Abraham has a volunteer. There’s only one other person on stage. It must be that Lazarus is whispering in Abraham’s ear and saying something like, “Father Abraham, that’s my old neighbor down there. I’ve known him for years. He’s in such pain – I can take him a glass of water, I know how it feels.”(6)
More of Lazarus’ nature is now revealed. He not only refrains from gloating over the rich man’s well deserved predicament, but shows compassion for his fallen oppressor. Truly stunning!
So once again, the rich man becomes a beggar. He pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them. It is noble of him to show an interest in his brothers, but they are presumably of the same class in society that he enjoyed, and for him such people matter most in the scheme of things, while the poor – like Lazarus – do not. And that doesn’t change, even in the afterlife. The rich man couldn’t use Lazarus as his table waiter, so then he tried to turn him into an errand boy. Once again, no sign of repentance, no hint of an apology. The rich man’s class-structured world remains intact. He still does not see Lazarus as a person.
“Can’t do that either” says Abraham. “Your brothers have Moses and the prophets, they should listen to them. Even if someone rises from the dead, they will still not get it.”
A rather stark place to leave the story. This parable is a particularly scary one, especially for those with any semblance of wealth or privilege. Luke’s great reversal theme is certainly at play here. Those who have it easy in this life, will suffer in the afterlife – and those who have nothing now, will be comforted in death. That is one of the interpretations that are possible for this story.
But there is more we can say.
This story reminds us that what we do in this life matters. The choices we make in life will follow us to the afterlife. God will judge. As Abraham Heschel teaches, “God is not indifferent to evil.”(7) Evil, self-indulgence and a lack of compassion will be judged.
We see in this parable that we have a responsibility to notice the need at our doorstep and do something about it.
But moreover, this story encourages us to answer the question, “How are we to respond to both the grace and the pain of life.” The question is not why do we receive blessings or pain, but rather, what do we do now? What we DO with the good gifts we receive and the pain and disappointment we all run into is what really matters.
The rich man responded to the good things given to him with self-indulgence, indifference to the needs of others, arrogance and class pride.
Lazarus responded to is pain with patience, gentleness and implied forgiveness.
The focus of this parable is not on a form of justice that evens the score in the afterlife, but rather on discovering the ways in which meaning is created by our responses to the good gifts and the suffering that life brings to everyone. Lazarus’ silence is eloquent beyond any words that might be used.
As commentator Alfred Plummer has written: “The silence of Lazarus throughout the parable is impressive. He never murmurs against God’s distribution of wealth nor against the rich man’s abuse of it, in this world. And in Hades, he neither exults over the change of relations between himself and the rich man, nor protests against being asked to wait upon him in the place of torment, or to go run errands for him to the visible world.”(8)
In the end, Lazarus truly lives up to his name. He was indeed Lazarus – the one whom God helped.
May God be praised. Amen.
1. Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes” Intervarsity Press, 2008, p382.