Jesus said to the Pharisees:
"There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen
and dined sumptuously each day.
And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,
who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps
that fell from the rich man's table.
Dogs even used to come and lick his sores.
When the poor man died,
he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham.
The rich man also died and was buried,
and from the netherworld, where he was in torment,
he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off
and Lazarus at his side.
And he cried out, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me.
Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue,
for I am suffering torment in these flames.'
'My child, remember that you received
what was good during your lifetime
while Lazarus likewise received what was bad;
but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.
Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established
to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go
from our side to yours or from your side to ours.'
He said, 'Then I beg you, father,
send him to my father's house, for I have five brothers,
so that he may warn them,
lest they too come to this place of torment.'
But Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets.
Let them listen to them.'
He said, 'Oh no, father Abraham,
but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.'
Then Abraham said, 'If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets,
neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.'"
Jesus’ parable about the rich man tormented in the netherworld is one of his most vivid and unsettling. I think a lot of Christians receive this parable with mixed feelings. We are in part satisfied by the reversal of fortune. We’re pleased to learn that Lazarus who, in life, was so wretched that “dogs even used to come and lick his sores” has found a peaceful rest. But modern Christians are often discomforted by the heaviness of the justice exacted upon the rich man. Is it not noble of him to beg a messenger be sent to his remaining brothers? Let’s look at some of the story’s details more closely and see if they can shed some light.
An initial thing to notice: Lazarus is the only character in any of Jesus’ parables that actually has a name. It is always “a rich man” or “a dishonest steward” or “a woman having ten coins.” They never ever have names. But then there is Lazarus. It makes sense that Jesus would only give a name to the poorest character in all his parables. For Jesus, it is always the last who come first. It is those who are overlooked who get seen and named. They are the first to have a concrete identity. Indeed, Jesus specifies Lazarus by name in order to highlight his dignity, a dignity which is often taken from the poor.
Juxtapose Jesus’ specific attention upon Lazarus with how the rich man treats him, and not just during his earthly life. We often overlook that, even amidst his torment, the rich man asks Abraham if Lazarus specifically can be sent to slake his thirst: “Have pity on me,” he says. “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.” The request is breathtaking. Why must it be Lazarus specifically? And again, when Abraham rejects this, the rich man wants Lazarus specifically to be sent to his brothers: “I beg you, [Abraham], send [Lazarus] to my father’s house … so that he may warn [my brothers], lest they too come to this place of torment.” He continues to view Lazarus as a slave, as one meant to serve him and his rich family. Where Jesus specifies Lazarus by name in order to highlight his dignity, the rich man specifies Lazarus by name in order to torment him, even while he himself is being tormented.
It’s possible to become locked in to certain ways of thinking and acting. This is so much the case that, even when the rich man ― agonizing in the netherworld ― seeks to aid his still-living brothers, he cannot help treating Lazarus like a servant. It is second nature to him; this is how he had lived his whole life. Even profound torment cannot occasion the real transformation of his life. Perhaps this is what Abraham meant by that “great chasm established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from … your side to ours.” Perhaps he was referring to the inability to escape one’s habits once they’re locked for eternity.
A concluding point: Jesus naming Lazarus serves to disrupt the way we typically think of poor people. Even if we offer alms to a beggar, we rarely stop to interact. They are immediately lost in the vague sea of faces that constitutes “the poor.” By giving him a name, Lazarus becomes more intimate in our imagination. He becomes more human, more alive. He is someone with a story, with particular fears, dreams, and agonies. He is not an abstraction; he is concrete. He is not some vague poor man. He is Lazarus. The rich man’s sin was not that he neglected “the poor,” but that he neglected Lazarus, the man “lying at his door.” His sin was that, when he encountered the man named Lazarus, he did not place him first — he did not hear his name, so to speak — but used his name to order him, even from the torment of the netherworld, to do his bidding.
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