Last week at the second service, when Rich Gibson passed out, he came to and asked for a drink of water, and a couple of people brought some. I kind of blocked that, so let me explain. When somebody faints, it may very well be because of dehydration, and a drink of water will help that. But when they collapse as a result of the fainting, it’s possible that they might have broken something or done some other kind of damage that somebody without medical training cannot assess. If there were a broken bone, though, and it had to be set, or if any other injury were found that might require anaesthesia, one of the first questions that’s going to be asked is if the person has had anything to eat or drink recently. They need to know that to avoid the possibility of it coming back up and creating a dangerous situation. That’s why nobody’s allowed to eat or drink before surgery.
But it isn’t easy to see someone who is thirsty and say, “No.” Water is kind of basic. There are times when all somebody needs is just a little sip or an ice chip on their tongue to feel better. That fact lies at the heart of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
“In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He 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.’” [Luke 16:23-24]
Interesting, isn’t it, that the rich man still seemed to think of Lazarus as subservient, someone to be ordered about for his convenience and comfort, even in the afterlife?
Abraham tried to explain to the rich man that the roles they held on earth no longer applied. In fact, in their cases, they were reversed.
“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.” [Luke 16:25]
Moreover, Abraham tells him, there’s not a thing he can do about that now. This man does not seem to have been totally heartless, though. At least he cared about his own brothers. But again, he wants Lazarus to be his servant, his messenger boy, to give them one of those spooky warnings like Dickens pictured for Ebenezer Scrooge: “In life I was Jacob Marley…” Of course, Dickens pictures Marley’s ghost itself appearing, not sending a message second-hand. This man, the one burning with torment and thirst, still does not get it. He cares about himself first, then he cares about his brothers, but he still does not really care about Lazarus.
Abraham’s answer to him recognizes that. He knows full well that this man and his brothers are cut from the same cloth. If he had ignored Lazarus in his comings and goings, his brothers had also done the same thing. They had all seen the man’s need and had ignored it. They had all gone on feeding themselves and spending money on fancy clothes while he starved.
(By the way, this is not going to be a feel-good sermon. It’s not a feel-good parable. Not unless you’re on the Lazarus end of things, and to be honest, very few people in the U.S. or Canada or Western Europe fall into that category.)
It’s one of the big annoyances of the scriptures that you have to ignore them in order to ignore poverty, even if you live (as we do) inside an insulated capsule where we can avoid its most troublesome forms. Sure, people go through rough times. But there are often resources to help, if only they can find them – and there are people who care and who do try to help. But there is also a profound kind of poverty that we manage to hold at arm’s length because, once seen it cannot be unseen. The scriptures make us look, even to the degree where we have to make a conscious choice not to see, and to become the person holding his ears and saying, “La-la-la!” not to hear. Abraham (and, by telling this story, Jesus himself) says of those who are feasting while others starve,
“They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” [Luke 16:29]
The rich man says that the scriptures are not enough. He is told – and this is harsh, but it’s exactly on point –
“If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead?” [Luke 16:31]
Some people don’t get it, and some people work at not getting it, because they really do.
This parable hurts. It hurts because it needs no real interpretation or explanation. It hurts because trying to soften it shows which side of the gate we – okay, I – live on. Just go back to the availability of water. There has been a multi-year drought in Central America. That is part of what has driven some people to leave their lands and look for a way to survive. Some have joined criminal gangs and driven yet other people to run from violence. So people leave their homes out of desperation and multiple fears, and then find themselves, exactly like Lazarus, sitting for months or longer outside closed gates, being told they cannot come in. There are those in lands where the Sahara and other deserts are expanding, and they get pushed out in the same way. Some of them fall into the hands of modern slave-traders. Some of them get stuck in refugee camps. Some of them try to cross the Mediterranean in leaky boats and, if they reach safety, also get stuck in horrible conditions waiting for their paperwork to clear or to be sent back to the starting line.
This parable hurts because it gives a name to the man at the gates. We can talk about the nameless poor, but they are not nameless. The rich man and his brothers go nameless. The poor man lying at the gate, with the dogs taking pity on him the way that the people inside the gate do not – that man is the only person in all of Jesus’ parables who has a name. “Lazarus” is the Greek form of the Hebrew “Eliezer”, which means “God is my help.”
I would say this: that Jesus calls us to really and truly see that man. He is not just someone to order around, a bit character in our stories. He is not someone who can be used, either as a messenger or as a cautionary tale. He is a person, someone that we know is out there and who calls upon God for help. It may be someone whose situation is so heartbreaking that we cannot bear to see him or to hear his voice, but the only thing that will keep us from losing our own souls is to look and to listen, and not for our own sake, but for his.
That is the word, I fear, not just of Moses and the prophets, but of someone who called out, when he was dying,
“I thirst!” [John 19:28]
someone who himself rose from the dead.