The aptly named Jester Hairston was being playful when he wrote “Poor Man Lazarus.” It’s upbeat, catchy, singable. It’ll probably be stuck in our brains all week.
The song is upbeat, but the story it’s based on is not. “A rich man dressed in purple and fine linen feasted sumptuously every day.” Lying at the rich man’s gate was Lazarus who was “20covered with sores and 21longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.” All Lazarus wanted were the rich man’s table scraps… But he didn’t even get that. Why not? Was it because the rich man hated him? Was it because the rich man was cruel? No. Lazarus’ suffering worsened simply because the rich man was too busy with his sumptuous feasting to see him.
It’s a stark picture Jesus draws. One man blinded by greed; the other dehumanized by poverty. One man well-dressed and well-fed; the other man pushing away the stray dogs licking his sores. One man has everything; and yet it’s the other man in this story who has a name.
Isn’t that interesting? The rich man has everything a person could want in this life—except a name. In this story, the man is completely identified with his possessions. Without his possessions, he is nothing. Some sources (including the anthem sung by the ensemble) refer to the rich man as “Divies”…but divies is based on the Latin adjective for “rich.” So, even those sources that do name him still only identify him with his possessions.
In contrast, the poor man is named: Lazarus. He’s not identified by his social class or ethnicity; he’s not identified by his possessions or lack of them; he’s not identified by his illness or clothing or appearance or even by his need. He is identified by his personhood, by his humanity. He has a name—Lazarus.
The rich man and Lazarus both die. Lazarus goes to heaven…and finds solace in the bosom of Abraham. The rich man goes, yes, “straight to hell,” “where he was being tormented. He looks up, sees Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side, and calls*24 out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” Now the roles are reversed. Lazarus has all he needs—eternal rest in God’s presence. The rich man has nothing—not even a drop of water.
25Abraham says, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus evil things; now he is comforted, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”
27He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house to 28warn my brothers, so they will not also come into this place of torment.” Man! He still doesn’t get it! He’s still ordering Lazarus around like a slave—actually, he’s ordering God to order Lazarus around. And he wants his brothers to change their ways, not because it’s the right thing to do, but to avoid the torment of hell. The rich man hasn’t learned a thing.
“29Abraham replies, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” The man says30, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” Abraham says31, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’
So, what would have convinced his brothers to follow the way of Jesus? // What if they’d seen their brother caring for Lazarus? The class system in first century Palestine was unforgiving. If his well-to-do brothers had seen their wealthy sibling caring for the destitute Lazarus, empathizing with his suffering, looking for and finding the image of God in him? If they had seen their brother acting with compassion toward Lazarus, might those men have been moved to change their lives? Maybe. But after he’s dead, he can’t teach them anything.
Today is World Communion Sunday…a day that’s all about seeing each other, about looking for and finding the image of God in our fellow human beings, about sharing our resources and feasting sumptuously together. One wise person has described World Communion Sunday as “the day we stop at the gate and recognize one another.” It’s the day we welcome everyone to the table—no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey, no matter their social class or ethnicity or sexual orientation, no matter how many possessions they do or don’t have.
Editor of the bi-weekly magazine Christian Century, John Buchanan relates this story told to him by a pastor in a small Scottish village. The pastor had served as “an infantryman in the British army in World War II and ended up in a prisoner-of-war camp in Poland. The conditions were dreadful. There was no heat, and prisoners were given a single bowl of thin soup and a small crust of bread daily. Men were starving, sick, filthy, desperate. Suicide was a very real option. All one had to do was run toward the perimeter of the camp and leap against the barbed-wire fence. Guards immediately would shoot and kill anyone trying to escape.
“In the middle of the night he walked to the perimeter and sat down beside the fence to think about going through with it. He heard movement in the darkness from the other side of the fence. It was a Polish farmer. The man thrust his hand through the barbed wire and handed the man half of a potato. In heavily accented English he said, ‘The Body of Christ.’” (Christian Century, Oct. 2, 2013)
How would the rich man’s brothers have learned of the need to show compassion to others? By someone coming back from the dead? Probably not. By seeing someone alive, someone they knew, someone who had everything the world could give… If the rich man’s brothers had seen him seeing—really seeing—Lazarus….not as a vagrant or an inconvenience, but as a human being created in the image of God, someone in desperate need of food and clothing and care… If the rich man’s brothers had seen their sibling caring for Lazarus, might that have convinced them of the importance of sharing God’s love with others?
Might our seeing and caring for others convince those around us of the same?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2013
‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.* The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.* 24He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” 25But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” 27He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” 29Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” 30He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” 31He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’