THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO LUKE, 16:19-31: Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, enjoying himself in splendor every day. And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed from the scraps which fell from the rich man’s table; not only that, the dogs also were coming and licking his sores. Now it happened that the poor man died, and was carried away by the angels to the bosom of Abraham; and the rich man also died, and was buried. And in Hades he raised his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his arms. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus, so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set, so that those who want to go over from here to you will not be able, nor will any one cross over from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I request of you, father, that you send Lazarus to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—in order that he may warn them, so that they will not come to this place of torment as well.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ But Abraham said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’”
For the past several days, my family has been fostering a shelter puppy. “Spike,” as we have taken to calling him, was left in a box on the doorstep of the local Animal Shelter. They took him in, but at first he was so listless and disoriented that they feared he might have a concussion or head injury of some kind. The next day, after some food, water, and a bath, he was much improved, and they called us to see if we could care for him at home for a week or so.
Spike is a sweet faced, shaggy mutt with a gentle disposition. He is unusually trusting, for a rescue dog, and unusually mellow, for a four-month-old puppy. He is also unusually large for a four-month-old puppy, and his feet and tail are even larger; he will grow into a great big cuddly dog. After just a week in our home, he is playing, wagging his tail, and exuding sweetness and charm. He will be ready for adoption soon, and we have no doubt he will find a home.
What happens, when it is not a dog, but a human being lying on the doorstep?
Today we are confronted with the story of Lazarus, a poor man who is left at the gate of a rich man. The story says, not that Lazarus lay there, but that he was laid there; someone apparently dropped him off there, hoping perhaps that the rich man might take him in. But the rich man, who dressed in fine clothes and feasted every day, is indifferent to the man at his gate; he walks by him, perhaps even steps over him, every day, without bringing him in for a bath or a meal.
So Lazarus lies there, hungry and suffering. In a memorable detail, the parable tells us, “the dogs came and licked his sores.”
Biblical scholars are divided, over the meaning of those dogs. Were they soothing Lazarus, or feeding on him? Perhaps they were just exhibiting solidarity; after all, Lazarus, too, had to beg for scraps from the master’s table.
The poor man dies; we are prepared for this event, for how could he survive in this manner? The rich man, however, also dies. The sturdy gate that protected him from Lazarus’ poverty failed to protect him from Lazarus’ fate. In the end, death claims us all, rich and poor.
Death is sometimes called the great equalizer; but in this parable, it is even more than that, for death brings a great reversal. Lazarus is welcomed into the tender care of his ancestor Abraham; it is now the rich man, who lies outside, barred from entry, without even the comforting presence of a dog.
So perhaps it’s true, that all dogs go to heaven.
Even after this reversal of fortune, the rich man asks for no forgiveness from Lazarus. He speaks only to Abraham, and he asks him to send Lazarus down with some water. Even in death, the rich man cannot let go of the class division he clung to in life. Abraham informs the rich man that there is now an impassable barrier, a great chasm between him and Lazarus.
This should come as no surprise to the rich man; he built that gate himself. The surprise, is that he was on the wrong side, all along.
The conclusion of the parable is in equal parts satisfying and terrifying. Satisfying to our sense of justice; terrifying to our complacency.
Something feels right, about this reversal of fortune; it feels right that Lazarus should be raised up, and the rich man cast down. We recognize in this story the hand of that same God that frees the enslaved and raises up the crucified, the same God of whom Mary sang, “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.”
But there is also something frightening about the permanence of this reversal. After all, we want to believe in a God of mercy, of forgiveness, of second and third chances. And we worry, perhaps, that we have more in common with the rich man than we might care to admit.
But this is a parable told to the living, not the dead. There is a deep irony in its final words, when Abraham tells the rich man that it would do no good for Lazarus to go warn his living brothers. Because what is this parable, if not a word of warning to the living? What is the point of telling it, if not to open our eyes to the great chasm that exists here, in this world, between rich and poor, insider and outcast? If we are disturbed by this image of a perpetual caste system in heaven, perhaps we should take a hard look at the caste systems we perpetuate here on earth. Which side of the fence do we come down on?
Last week, a puppy was brought to our doorstep, so we brought him inside, and we gave him a name and a hug. The poor man left on the rich man’s doorstep already had a name — in fact, he is the only character in any of Jesus’ parables who has a name. Lazarus is the Greek version of his name, but Jesus would have used the original Aramaic or Hebrew – “Eliezar.” It means, the One Whom God Helps.
Which should have been a clue, right there, as to which side of the fence God was on.
Rev. Liza B. Knapp
October 2, 2022