by Mark P. Bangert
John H. Tietjen Professor of Pastoral Ministry: Worship and Church Music, Emeritus
Maybe it’s because he is the only one in the parable with a name, but most of us, I would guess, like to identify with Lazarus. The image of angels carrying away Lazarus at his death has yielded some of the most touching texts to comfort Christians mourning the deaths of loved ones. Take this age-old antiphon from the funeral rite:
May choirs of angels welcome you
And lead you to the bosom of Abraham,
And where Lazarus is poor no longer
May you find eternal rest.
Or the last stanza of Martin Schalling’s sturdy hymn:
Lord, let at last thine angels come,
To Abraham’s bosom bear me home…
the stanza Bach chose to conclude the final version of his two and half-hour setting of the Passion According to John.
After a life of being crippled and dealing with skin disease, at home with vagrant street dogs, Lazarus deserves better fortunes and we are delighted with the reversal—knowing, we think, something of what it means to be the underdog.
Truth be told, however, it doesn’t take a whole lot of creative probing to see ourselves in Dives—yes, enough believers over the years have looked closely at the sixth brother in this parable, his familiarity gaining him a name: Dives.
While not wearing royal purple or linen underwear, we do know a little about sumptuous feasting, over-eating, especially in light of the hunger that plagues the world and even our own community.
And the Dives problem is broader than sumptuous feasting. Things are hot for him also because he failed to notice Lazarus, even though he was there, at his gate, daily. Didn’t really SEE him, Lazarus looking more like the dogs with which he made company.
Dives is Latin for “rich one,” and needs little help for us to recognize the type. The feasting is but a sign of one who games the system, bending things to serve his own needs. Send Lazarus to cool my tongue. You won’t do that? Send him to my brothers, how can I get you to do something? Bartering, influence schemes, manipulating the engines of culture constitute a dark parallel universe to which we, as professional believers, are not immune, or churchly bureaucrats, nor governments.
Lazarus and Dives grab our attention while this Gospel really ends with another parable—the parable of the six brothers. Lazarus and Dives lead us to the second story of six brothers, five of whom presumably also lead the sumptuous life with the sixth in a hot spot. How to get to the five becomes his surprisingly selfless concern after failing to con Abraham into some cool water.
Hades was considered to be a holding pen for the dead, a place where a great chasm separated righteous from unrighteous, even though they could see each other. How to bridge that chasm and warn the others leads to he silly maneuvers Dives proposed. Send Lazarus, Send a dead man. But of course, chasm cannot be bridged.
Even if it could, the magic of a dead man walking would be received as slight of hand.
What the five needed could not be supplied by Lazarus, or by Abraham, for that matter.
They needed help with their hearing. For their problem was one of deafness to the Word. Addicted to their lavish tables, caught in the machinery of their self-preservation project, and consumed by daily tasks and challenges, the brothers five could not HEAR, Really HEAR Moses and Prophets.
Dead Lazarus can be of no help.
But, if one should come not from the dead but from life—that is, a life so new and so different it can only be imagined as coming from the future—if such a one should come not from the dead, but from life, then, then the five, maybe even six, will hear, really hear.
On the first day of the week two of them were going to a village, walking and talking about the things that had been taking place, the things about Jesus of
Nazareth. They had hoped that He would be the one to redeem Israel. A stranger joined them and beginning with Moses and the Prophets he interpreted
to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
Cleopas and friend heard. They heard well. The chasm bridged, because this Jesus, coming from the living, from life so new, so different, from the Father’s bosom, woos us, romances us to hear him not only in Moses and Prophets, but in the witness of the saints, at his lavish table, in the hungry and poor, in the diseased.
Hear, then, hear the things about Christ right in the midst of Hebrew quizzes, in the slippery gray areas of pastoral care. See the Christ in candidacy committees; see the Christ among the needy. See the Christ in those who try to champion the reign of God in the midst of the political chicanery that impedes the common good. Embrace the Christ in the simple food that reaches your table.
Dives and Lazarus have elicited the best from visual artists over the years—flames and agony are irresistible images. The one who comes from the Father’s bosom is less interested in that, I would wager, instead yearning to enflame us from within, fit to join the tiny congregation made up of Cleopas and friend, whose warmed hearts drove them to Jerusalem and the ends of the earth.
Luke 16: 19-31