When Will We?
As I have pondered the parable of Lazarus and The Rich Man [Luke 16:19-31 I am constantly reminded how easy it is to forget how this story, the story of God, God’s creation and God’s people, begins. In chapter one of Genesis we are created, female and male, imago Dei, in the image of God. Further, as a collective all of us, not some of us, a few of us, or even a lot of us, but all of us are tasked to be stewards, caretakers, of all of the earth, all its creatures, and one another. From the outset things go wrong, so wrong that God is pictured walking through the Garden in the cool of the evening calling out to us, “Where are you?” That is, we tend to fix a divide between ourselves and God, and between ourselves and one another.
The counter narrative does not take long to begin. In chapter four of Genesis, after a fit of anger and jealousy results in Cain killing his brother Abel, the Lord again asks, “Where is Abel your brother?” Cain replies in words that have replaced all notions of ‘the common good’ among nations and individuals, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” From there on out, from Genesis through The Revelation of John the answer is, “Yes, yes you are your sister’s and your brother’s keeper.” For as Richard Swanson reminds us, this is what makes us human at all: that we care for the earth and we care for one another. The most basic characteristic of being human is to respond, or what we call responsibility – the ability to respond. As the Psalmist sings, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything therein.” [Psalm 24:1] Any worldview that denies this then lives out of a worldview that believes it’s “every man for himself,” which results in a world of endless violence.
The world, writes Swanson, has always been an intricate web and an interdependence of need and ability. “We respond to each other; that is what makes us, together, human. If we sever that link of responsibility [like the chasm that separates the Rich Man from Lazarus in life and in death], we become something less than human. These days we have instituted governmental programs to act out our responsibilities to each other. We have also trained ourselves to resent the taxes that fund those programs. It should be noted in passing that this resentment amounts to a wish to sever the links of responsibility and, as such, represents a threat to our humanity, our ability to live together in [and with] God’s creation.” [Provoking the Gospel of Luke, Swanson, p.203] This applies to communities, states and nations as it does to society as a whole.
In the story, although he passes by poor Lazarus, covered with sores, every time he exits or enters his house, the Rich Man has maintained a chasm, a divide, between his life and that of Lazarus, despite everything in the Law of Moses (Torah – Genesis-Deuteronomy) and the Prophets urges and even requires love of neighbor – and neighbors are to include poor widows, orphans, and strangers in the land, i.e. all those who for whatever reason are without resources to care for themselves. The word “love” in these texts does not mean telling them “to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,” but rather to provide material assistance. Period. For whatever reason, the Rich Man, who has no name in the story perhaps to represent an entire class of rich persons, cannot even bring himself to send a plate of leftovers out to Lazarus who desires only the crumbs under the table. Only the dogs in the street reach out to comfort poor Lazarus. The Rich Man does not even possess the compassion of a dog. What a sad man.
Amos, who preached some 750 years before Jesus tells this story, issued a warning to “those who are at ease…who lie on beds of ivory and lounge on their couches…who drink wine from bowls,
and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore, they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.”
The “ruin of Joseph” addresses the plight of the whole nation, not an individual. Corporate responsibility for the whole nation and all those who dwell therein. We forget that we are our sister’s and brother’s keeper at great peril, as the Rich Man finds out all too soon. Lazarus dies. So does the Rich Man. There is a reversal. Lazarus ends up in the lap of Father Abraham, the Rich Man finds himself in Hades, tormented, and cries 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.' Despite his tormented state, he still thinks he is a Rich Man who can order people like Lazarus to do his bidding. Abraham points out it is too late. Although their situations are reversed, the chasm between them remains. Still not concerned with anyone but himself and his own family, the Rich Man wants Abraham to order Lazarus to warn his family, his five brothers.
This is where the story becomes interesting. “They have Moses and the Prophets, just as you had. They should listen to them.” That is, let them read and live out of the covenant I made through Moses, and the warnings of my Prophets like Amos to return to my covenant of Love for all people, especially those in need. The Rich Man pleads to send Lazarus, “one from the dead” to warn them. In case we did not listen the first time, the story ends as Abraham repeats, `If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.' That is, the covenant of Love with Israel is the covenant of Love Jesus preaches and lives. Jesus is calling for a return to the beginning. A return to the common good of all people, the earth, and everything therein. A return, a “repentance,” to putting the world right-side-up again. A call to Tikkun Olam – Repair of the World. The whole world and everything within.
For, as Sister Catherine Nerney, SSJ, illustrates in her book, The Compassion Connection: Recovering Our Original Oneness: “The whole thing is one, just at different stages, all of it loved corporately by God (and, one hopes, by us). Within this worldview, we are saved not by being privately perfect, but by being “part of the body,” humble links in the great chain of history. This view echoes the biblical concept of a covenant love that was granted to the Jewish people as a whole, and never just to one individual like Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Esther, or David. Similarly, the prophets and Jesus spoke both their judgments and their promises to the collective of the House of Jacob, Moab, Bashan, Gilgal, Capernaum, Bethsaida, Jerusalem (and on and on) much more than they ever did to individuals. Many Christians’ failure to recognize this has led to a major misinterpretation of the entire Bible.” [p 12-13]
That is, we are all in this together. The warnings have been in front of us all along. The love of neighbor has always been there. Alms giving and tithing for the common good has always been there. As Amy-Jill Levine concludes in her commentary on this parable, the problem is not the message; the problem is that people don’t listen. Or, sadly, just don’t care. She concludes, “Ironically, what the Rich Man asked Lazarus to do – to warn his brothers of the threat of hell – the parable does for [its] readers. Will the five brothers, who may hear Torah’s insistence that they ‘love the neighbor’ and ‘love the stranger,’ listen? We do not know. Will we?”
[Short stories by Jesus, Harper One, Amy-Jill Levine, p 294,296]
PS “The Gospel is less about how to get into The Kingdom of Heaven after you die, and more about how to live in The Kingdom of Heaven before you die.” – Dallas Willard