Sunday, September 29, 2013


We are all familiar with the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (the gospel reading for Sunday, Sept 29, 2013) about the rich man who feasts richly every day while never noticing the poor man lying at his door. I’ve been thinking the challenge posed by this story.

First of all, the poor man, Lazarus, lies at the door. Now the Latin word for door is porta; it’s the root of the English “opportunity.” Luke gives us other hints that show that Lazarus poses an opportunity to the rich man every day.

Notice, for example, that the poor man actually has a name! Why is he the only character in any of Jesus’ parables that has a name? He is not anonymous; he may be poor and outcast, but, Jesus tells us, he’s a person with hopes and fears and feelings. Further, his name Lazarus (the Greek rendering of Eliezer) means “My God helps.” And how is God intending to help him if not through the generosity and concern of his fellow humans? Lazarus’s very name, then, contains a moral challenge to those around him.

The rich man, though, consistently misses every opportunity to incarnate God’s help for the poor man. The situation is set out in a couple of brief sentences, then the real action starts when the poor man dies. When Lazarus dies the rich man’s opportunity dies as well.

The parable contains another interesting point: When Lazarus lying in Abraham’s bosom explains to the rich man in v. 39 “A great chasm lies between us and you,” the pronouns are plural! This story includes you and me. Uh-oh! How many opportunities do I walk past every day? How many Lazaruses are camped out at the door of my life hoping to be fed by the smallest gesture or kind deed from me? When I walk into a classroom full of sophomores is Lazarus sitting among them? Almost certainly.

The better question would be “How many Lazaruses are sitting in that room?”

For me the most unsettling question coming from the parable is “When will these opportunities suddenly
stop? D.O.B. and Exp. We’re all used to being asked for our date of birth when filling out forms or as a normal way of confirming our identity when making a doctor’s appointment. We’re also used to telling vendors the expiration date on our credit cards.

But what would you think if the person on the phone also asked “Could I have your expiration date, please?” You do have one, right? Each of us is due to “expire” some day. The problem is, of course, that unlike the date on a credit card, a passport or a bottle of vitamins, your personal expiration date is unknown to you. I know that I have in the back of my mind these good intentions: “Yeah, I really should consider doing something about this or that,” or “Right, I guess I ought to start being kinder to so-and-so.”

The parable, though, makes a rather abrupt point: The rich man was unaware of his own expiration date, and suddenly found that all opportunities for doing something with his life had just ceased one day -- and he was stuck on the wrong side of this big chasm. Actually, this chasm was nothing new: He had lived with it all his life, the poor man on one side and himself on the other. So now he has to live with it forever, with the added realization, of course, that God is on the other side with Lazarus, whose name means My God helps.”

Lest we miss the point, Jesus adds the final section in which the rich man wants to send a warning to his brothers back home who are as blind and unaware as he himself used to be. We are those brothers and sisters at times, looking right past Lazarus at our door and not seeing him as one whom God is expecting us to help.

Strange behavior indeed for people who don’t know their own expiration date.

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