These days its notable that Dives has been stripped of his name – he's now just “a rich man.” Dives never really was his name, just an adjective meaning, of course, rich man...
Lazarus, who had nothing in this world, has been allowed to keep his name – though his name is also, in a sense, an adjective. Lazarus is a form of Eliazar – which means “God is my help.”
Dives is rich and needs no help, and Lazarus is desperately poor and needs all the help he can get.
The presence of a proper name (or names in the days of Dives and Lazarus) leads some people to read this parable in strange ways. Parables, after all, don't contain names. They contain general references like “there was a man...” or “there was a man with a wine press...” Some believe this story is biographical; that it tells about specific people and their lives, and more importantly, their after-lives.
But the story is a parable – there is just no doubt about that. Dives and Lazarus are archetypes – not individuals.
The rich man, lets just call him Dives, isn't just rich – he is the definition of rich. He has nothing to do all day long except be rich. His clothes are as lavish as any royal garment, that's what the color purple tells us. And they are made of the same material as the highest of priestly attire, that's what fine linen tells us. The entrance to his home is as grand as the entrance to the Temple or the Governors palace – in translation the word gate is all that appears, but a word like “portico” might be more accurate. He leads a life of total abundance and comfort.
And Lazarus, the one whom God helps, is the definition of poor. Lame, covered with sores, the dogs who lick his wounds. He has nothing and no one.
Dogs licking his wounds is, in human terms, just one more insult. But Luke may have something more subtle in mind. Dogs, by nature – that is to say by the way God made them, lick their wounds. It is a form of cleaning and of comfort. It promotes healing and helps reduce infection... not that I recommend it...
If we can get beyond the initial “ick” factor, the dogs are, in their way and to the best of their ability, comforting and caring for Lazarus. They are doing what people, especially the rich man Dives, do not do. The dogs, in some way, are telling us about God's love.
And then both the rich man and the poor man die – this story does not linger on narrative... I love how it is just assumed that the rich man goes to hell – no discussion needed. And now he learns what Lazarus's life has been like – he learns suffering and pain. He also apparently learns compassion, for his greatest concern is for those he loves, that they might learn in life what he has only learned in death.
But the answer is that his family, his loved ones, already know what they need to know. If Moses and the prophets are not enough, nothing more will help – not even someone rising from the dead.
The economic realities of Jesus time were different than ours. Wealth was a zero sum game in that time. We take for granted that wealth can be created, as it were, from nothing. My wealth increasing does not depend on someone else's wealth decreasing. We live in a world where wealth can easily expand.
But in Jesus time, if I got richer, it meant someone else had to get poorer. It was a finite world. The amount of gold that could be found, or the amount of grain that could be harvested from a plot of land, didn't expand easily. A bad year could destroy the harvest, but in a good year, an acre of land could yield only so much. Wealth was more or less fixed. For Dives to win, someone, namely Lazarus, had to loose. You couldn't have one without the other.
So Dives had a real obligation to Lazarus. From its earliest days, Jewish law required giving to the poor. And Dives response to Lazarus was, in the internet parlance of today, an epic fail.
Jesus is not telling us about some past failure or future punishment in this parable. He's telling us about how we fail in the present.
Peter, do you love me? Feed my sheep. I give you a new commandment, love one another as I have loved you. Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself. We know the texts just as Dives knew Moses and the Prophets...
We, unlike Dives and Lazarus, live in a world where new wealth can be created at unfathomable rates; where billions of dollars can wink into existence on the stock exchange in a good day of trading. On a bad day, they can just as quickly wink away...
Dives no longer requires Lazarus. In order for me to increase in wealth, it is not necessary for someone else to loose. What does this story have to say to us today?
I want to turn to the poet Edith Sitwell and her profound poem “Still Falls the Rain.” The poem was written in 1940 when World War II was beginning to rage. This poem, like so many, was given a nearly perfect musical setting by Benjamin Britten.
I'll read just a portion:
Still falls the Rain – Dark as the world of man, black as our loss -
Blind as the nineteen hundred and forty nails upon the cross.
Still falls the Rain At the feet of the Starved Man hung upon the Cross.
Christ – that each day, each night, nails there - have mercy on us -
On Dives and on Lazarus:
Under the Rain the sore and the gold are as one.
Then sounds the voice of One who like the heart of man was once a child
who among beasts has lain -
'Still do I love, still shed my innocent light, my Blood for thee'.
Dives failure was not that he was rich. His failure was that he did not show Lazarus even the kindness that the dogs showed. He provided no food, bandaged no wounds, provided no comfort, showed no compassion.
And what of us? We have Moses... We have the Prophets. Take for example Amos who we heard from this morning: “Alas for those who are at ease – they shall be the first to go into exile... the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.”
We have the Gospels and new testament as well... for example, the letter to Timothy we heard from this morning: “As for those who are rich in the present age... they are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share...”
By any measure we are materially blessed. The amount of wealth in the United States today is unfathomable.
And we have hungry people, sick people who can't afford basic medical care, old people who are warehoused, mentally ill people who are sometimes left abandoned on our streets and other times locked away in prisons.
Dives asks Abraham to warn his loved ones and Abraham replies: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
Someone has come to us from the dead – someone we will encounter again as we gather around the Altar for Eucharist. We have all that Dives' family had and more...
Yet look around, listen to our social discourse, to our political leaders. Some of the most heartless voices are not those of the godless, but those who claim to be devout Christians. Look at how some of us grow ever richer – with Lazarus in our midst. The terrible conclusion forms in my mind: Abraham was right. We will not listen even if someone should rise from the dead... Our failure is epoch.
Yet Jesus story is not one of hopelessness. Edith Sitwell's poem is not one of hopelessness. Jesus is risen and comes to us again and again and again. My prayer is that each day we can listen more closely to Moses, to the Prophets, to the Gospel; that each day we can be better servants of God's love.