Parables are meant to bother us and to make us think. That’s the whole reason Jesus uses them as a teaching tool and device.
They speak with power.
They confound the learned.
They bring good news to the disenfranchised.
Parables are meant to nag at you, make you scratch your head, or see the world from a different perspective.
Sometimes the “meaning” of the parable or its impact can be lost on us or hard to decipher because of cultural references, or differences in circumstances from that time to this time.
You might not “get” (for example) the full force of “The Parable of the Sower” if you’ve never been connected to the land, sowing seeds or farming.
You might not understand the “Parable of the Children in the Marketplace” if you didn’t remember to think back on what it was like to play childhood games where you imitated the actions of adults, or if you don’t know anything about funeral or marriage practices of Jesus’ day.
You might be forgiven if you didn’t get a parable that was obscure.
This, however, is far from an obscure parable. Everyone pretty much “gets” this one right away.
We get that the rich feast sumptuously.
We get that there are the poor who sit at the gate and are largely ignored or go unnoticed.
We get the idea of a “great chasm.” If it isn’t fixed after death, it sure appears to be fixed here, so that rewards and punishments seem locked in and irrevocable.
There is nothing obtuse about this parable. If you are living high and easy now while letting others suffer at your gate, then be prepared for the great reversal of fortune!
The trouble with the parable for us is not that we cannot understand it, but rather we aren’t sure what to do with it exactly.
Are we supposed to take this as a warning? “You best be taking care of the poor and the needy at your own gate or the fires of hell surely await?”
Maybe, — if you are the kind of person who feasts sumptuously and are prone to order other people around as if they were your servants. The problem with that is that we end up acting on behalf of our neighbor out of fear or obligation, not love. Acting out of fear or obligation is wearying and not in keeping with what Jesus seems to invite us into as “new life.”
Are we supposed to see this as good news and vindication for suffering?
Maybe, — if you’re a person like Lazarus who has suffered one indignity after another, been shut out of even the crumbs of comfort and blessings in this life and has had no one but a hound dog as a friend.
The problem with that interpretation of the parable is that it tends to make martyrs of us all, focusing on how we have been neglected, what others have not done for us, instead of looking at this as Jesus inviting us to see the world in a new way.
Is this a parable about listening to scripture?
Maybe. Perhaps we’re like the 5 brothers who are well acquainted with what scripture tells us about caring for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the immigrant, but summarily ignore it and pretend it doesn’t apply to us.
Maybe the warning in the parable is that we won’t listen to Jesus either, not even after he has come back from the dead. If we don’t pay attention to what the scriptures have said throughout history, instructed us to do to follow God all along, what makes us think one more encounter, if a big and splashy one, will change us?
It’s not that we don’t “get” the parable with all of its warnings, promises and predictions, it’s just that we’re not sure what it is meant to “do” to us exactly.
Is it supposed to move us to change? Comfort us in our affliction? Warn us about complacency and ignoring those who have needs and are at our doorstep?
I’m going to suggest that maybe this parable is meant to do something else.
Maybe Jesus tells the parable less as an illustration of what to do, but rather as a way of flipping how we look at things in this world on its ear, and he does it with a name.
Think about this world as we experience it. Who gets “named?”
Do not the rich and powerful?
Don’t we know immediately the “brand” of those whom this world has regard for. Mention “Kardashian” and (for good or for ill) a whole flood of images will come to mind. We watch them, pay attention to them, regard them as interesting solely on the basis of their name.
If you’ve made it in this world, you only need one name, don’t you?
Elvis, Cher, Fergie, Trump, RuPaul, Shaq, Bono…. The list could go on.
So, I think it’s significant that in this parable the only person whose name we know (besides Abraham) is Lazarus. It is Jesus turning the expectations of this world upside down. The ones usually regarded as “important” in the parable are nameless, and the one who we might expect to have no need of a name is specifically named, given identity and status.
Even the rich man knows his name, (not that it changed his behavior) but he knew him.
The unnamed Rich man knew what to call him when he tried to order him around. “Send Lazarus to cool my tongue… to serve me.”
It’s not that the rich man (or even his brothers, for that matter) did not know Lazarus.
It’s just that they had no regard for him.
This is the point of the parable: We must never become that person who is unable to have regard or care for others.
Martin Luther was once asked if he believed the Christian was required to feed all the beggars in the city where he taught. His response was:
“You cannot feed them all, but you can feed the one who is at your doorstep.”
It was a comment that took the matter of caring about the poor out of the theoretical realm of “everyone” or “those people” and put it into the specificity of “the one before you” – a person who has a name and a story and who is a person worthy of your regard.
It never occurs to the Rich Man in the parable that the man at his gate was his responsibility or his concern. He could walk by, perhaps even say something to him, and callously continue walking.
That is the tragedy in the parable.
Here is a man whom no one thinks of as worth their time or consideration.
Here is a man who the rich and powerful see as just some lackey to be sent to do a task, or some inconvenience upon their doorstep.
This is the real struggle in the parable, to envision Lazarus as being at the side of Abraham, a beloved child of God who is welcomed in.
If I’m honest with myself, (if we’re all honest with ourselves,) this is struggle that we have as well.
We see the man with the sign on the street corner and our mind does not automatically think, “this is a beloved child of God.”
Our mind instead forms another story, based upon the scrawling on the cardboard.
This man (or woman) is a bum! Our mind says.
There it is, a label to dismiss, a title to disregard.
“He/she says he needs work, but it seems to me if he worked as hard at finding a job as he does at working a street corner, he’d not be here where I have to travel every day.”
That’s the story that begins to form in our mind, a narrative that lets us disregard.
“Anything helps.” The sign says, and instead of our mind going to what we might have that he/she/they could use, instead it wanders to whether he/she/they would truly take anything. A narrative builds in our mind about what we might offer to see just how desperate he/she/they are, maybe even devise plans of what we’ll carry with us next time to test that sign, see if they will take anything.”
We can’t help it, really, like Lazarus at the gate we’re not sure how to REGARD this person, and so we insert a narrative that comforts us.
This is how it begins, how the mistreatment starts. It begins by disregarding the “named one” at our gate, the one for whom we begin inserting our own narrative, so our neighbor becomes simply “the enemy”, or the name we give that disparages. A name that allows us to not think of them as completely human. A name that we can order around, or deport, or exclude, or abuse.
It’s hard to look at the Lazarus at the gate and think immediately, “This is a beloved child of God,”… isn’t it?
But this is the point that the parable makes in spades.
God sends the dogs to grant Lazarus unconditionally love when humans pass by with no regard.
God sends the angels to bring Lazarus into the place of high regard, the bosom of Abraham, when he dies.
God welcomes Lazarus into the bosom, into the very heart of Abraham, into the family.
The parable has Abraham instruct the rich man who feasted sumptuously of what God had said throughout scripture, (through Moses and the Prophets.) It was that Israel was to have regard for the sojourner, the immigrant, the poor, the wayfarer….”for you yourself were once sojourners fleeing the land of Egypt…”
Even when the instruction is given to the Rich man in torment, the term used for the Rich Man is “Child.” Someone who is claimed and has belonging even in the midst of his own torment.
The point the parable makes is all are beloved children of God. God is the one who can see us in that way, we are the ones who miss it.
We are the ones who fail to have regard for those whom we meet day to day, and fail to think to ourselves, “This too, is a beloved Child of God.”
But this is what we cannot do, what we must never let that happen lest we find ourselves also in unquenchable fire and torment, for that is what comes of disregarding God’s beloved.
We can never see the other as less of a child of God than we are, or all suffer.
We must never reduce the other to less than human, to a label, or dehumanize them, or we unleash torment in this world that we imagine only in the next.
That one at our doorstep. That is a precious child of God!
The person fleeing Central American and crossing the border. — That is a precious child of God! Remember that!
That person who has been waiting in a refugee camp for years because of war and famine in their own country, — That is a precious child of God! Remember that!
That politician whom we are angry with, do not agree with, whom we deride or look at with contempt. That is a precious child of God. Remember that!
Fill in the blank here of the one whom YOU have the most trouble seeing as someone to regard. That is the one you must look upon and have regard for, for to do less than that is to ignore the teaching of Scripture, the urging of the prophets, and our own history, where WE came from, and to open the way to our own torment.
It is hard.
Jesus knows it.
Chasms get fixed in this world and in the next, and some cannot be crossed.
But Lazarus is at our gate, and Jesus knows him by name, (as indeed, he knows ours.)
Have regard for him, or her, for them, — for your own sake, and for God’s sake.