Spirited Reflection: Lazarus and the rich man

Phil Ochs
Phil Ochs at the Vancouver Gardens Arena in 1969. Photo by Mark Millman.

Luke 16: 19-31

The passage from Luke about the parable of Lazarus and the rich man is a familiar one.  Things did not end well for the rich man. The rich man died and was buried. We then read that he was in Hades and suffering. When Lazarus died, he was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.

This is an unsettling parable. The rich man, now being tormented in Hades, has forgotten how he ignored Lazarus. While the rich man feasted every day, Lazarus lay at the rich man’s gate hoping for a few crumbs.  The rich man offered nothing. He was blind to Lazarus’ suffering and to his need. If the rich man had known what awaited him, would it have made a difference?

From Hades, the rich man looked up and saw Abraham with Lazarus by his side. He calls to Abraham seeking mercy and asks that he send Lazarus to him to dip his finger in water and cool the rich man’s tongue. The rich man also wants his brothers, still living, to be warned, lest they suffer the same gruesome fate as him. Abraham replies that no intervention on behalf of his brothers would make a difference.

The poor man has a name – he is called Lazarus. It is derived from the Hebrew El’azar meaning God is my help. We don’t know the rich man’s name. This is unusual.  Generally, the poor, the marginalized, the persecuted are unnamed or have their names taken away from them. They may be given a number like the millions of Jews who perished in the Holocaust, and those who survived the concentration camps. Or like the children who attended residential school and were given either numbers or Western European names.

Nelson Mandela’s prison number on Robben Island from 1964 to 1982 was 466/64. He was the 466th prisoner that year. When he was moved to Pollsmoor Prison in 1982, he was given the number 220/82.

There was a documentary on the CBC’s The National in September 2016 about three Canadians who were tortured in Syria with the complicity of officials at CSIS, the RCMP and the Government of Canada. One of the Canadians who was tortured, referred to the number on his cell door.

Remove someone’s name and give them a number strips the person of their humanity.

The rich man failed to see the humanity in Lazarus.  He was not a person, a beloved child of God. In life, Lazarus was invisible to the rich man. In death, Lazarus was a means to a self-serving end.

This is an unusual passage.   Where is grace and forgiveness?

Maybe the message is not just about rich and powerful people. When I think about how I live compared to many Canadians and for that matter, the vast majority of people in the world, I am wealthy. I need to pay attention to the message in Luke’s Gospel. The story of the rich man has implications for everyone.

What I have, what we have – are gifts from God. They are a blessing. And God’s blessings are to be shared. So I must face the challenging question: How am I doing sharing the blessings God has gifted to me? How are you doing?  How is the wealth in Canada shared?

The parable about Lazarus and the rich man reminds us to consider what kind of legacy we will each leave, before our time on earth is done.

The parable reminded of a song by Phil Ochs called When I’m Gone.  Ochs was a folk singer and a contemporary of Bob Dylan in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He was an activist. Sadly he struggled with alcoholism and mental illness. He committed suicide in 1976.  Here is one verse from When I’m Gone:

And I won’t breathe the bracing air when I’m gone
And I can’t even worry ‘bout my cares when I’m gone
Won’t be asked to do my share when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is a jolting reminder that Jesus calls us to live our faith in the here and now.  When we pray for the Reign of God to come, we are professing that we are God’s hands and feet in the world and faithfulness and discipleship are active, not passive, parts of our lives.

Phil Ochs song reminds us that our time on earth is finite. Jesus calls us to live as faithfully as we can today, and everyday.

Stephen Allen, Associate Secretary, Justice Ministries, The Presbyterian Church in Canada and member of the Steering committee of KAIROS.

Filed in: Spirited Reflections


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