Saturday, September 24, 2016

The story of Lazarus and the rich guy: what's in a name?

The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:14-31)Image result for lazarus and the rich man

14 The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15 He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.....19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ 25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’ 27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ 30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ 31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ 

Our society adores celebrities, who are people famous for being famous. A rich person's name is considered a valuable asset. Trump is probably only exaggerating a little more than usual when he says his name is worth three billion dollars.  The rich in Jesus' times also considered their names to be valuable. Having a name like Caesar or Herod meant you were important. You belonged to a family that counted for something, that was part of the aristocracy, which literally means "the rule of the best people." The poor, on the other hand, were nameless and powerless. They were considered nobodies, losers.

How different it is in God's kingdom! When the Pharisees, who love money, mock Jesus for siding with the poor, he tells them the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Jesus doesn't name the rich man, but he gives the poor name a name, Lazarus, which means "God is my helper,"

The rich man's name "Dives" is the Latin word meaning simply "the rich guy." Jesus tells us this man wears purple linen and lives in a gated palace and is probably royalty, perhaps even the Emperor himself. Emperors and kings wore Tyrian purple as a sign of their wealth and status. In God's kingdom the rich have no name, just wealth.

The poor man has a name in God's kingdom but is disregarded by the rich. He lives outdoors, on the street, and is so sick that dogs lick his sores. He is much like some of the chronically homeless people who live on our streets and seen as eyesores. We often treat them as if they are nameless and  refer to them simply as "the homeless." During a panel discussion an advocate for homeless people in Utah said, "Please don't use the term 'the homeless' as if all homeless people are alike. Each one has a story and a name."

One of the great blessings of my life has been getting to know homeless people by name. Getting to know the stories, and the struggles, of my homeless brothers and sisters has helped me to get in touch with my own humanity. I feel more fully human and alive because the friendships I have formed with homeless and formerly homeless people. A formerly homeless man named Mark lives in our home and not only is an indispensable helper and handyman, he constantly surprises me with his insights. The other day he informed me that the expression "low man on the totem pole" would not make sense to an Indian. To an Indian, everyone on the totem pole is equally important, especially the one on the bottom, who holds up everyone else. It is our corporate, hierarchical society that misunderstands what native people see clearly; the intrinsic worth of each person.

That's also the point of Jesus' story. If we separate ourselves from the poor, if we live apart from them in gated communities, or in neighhorhoods that exclude the poor through zoning policies, then we who are privileged are the losers. We lose a vital connection with those who can help us to become fully human and to see God's beloved community as it is intended to be. And we suffer the consequences of living in a hell world of power and privilege without compassion and justice.

Loving God, help us to see our brothers and sisters on the street are people with names and stories, and  hopes and dreams just like us. Help us to see that we are all interconnected, we are all part of God's family, and if those on the street are suffering, we need to reach out to them, not hide behind walls or "safe neighborhoods". Help us to learn their names and listen to them and do what all the prophets tell us we must do. Be just, be compassionate, and create a society where there "there is no poverty among us" (Acts 4).  

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