"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...”
The sentence that struck me the most when I was trying to read a little bit to work with this parable was one that had this as the kernel of the idea: “It can’t be just about the rich and the poor. After all, Abraham was a rich man.” That is so right. We want to make Luke the apologist for the preferential option for the poor, and there’s some truth in that, no doubt. But we have to understand the gospel as a whole, too, including the passages that remind us that God doesn’t play favorites, and calls all people his beloved children. The thing about God is, there aren’t any walls.
This might be the big problem in this parable. It’s a problem for the rich man, anyway, because there’s someone at “at his door” (or, other translations put it, “sitting at his gate”) whom he does not see. The rich man is self-possessed; he has everything he needs, and one thing he does not need is to go outside his gate and see the poor man there beyond the threshold. The poor man is idle, he doesn’t even seem to have the strength to beg. At least, that is not important to the story.
And there's the detail of the dog. I can hear Jesus telling this story and getting a big laugh about that, at the rich man's expense. Even the dog could see that Lazarus needed some help. This poor dumb street animal, at least, licked Lazarus' sores. Rich guy: bupkis.
What happens, inevitably and suddenly, is that both men die, and suddenly, that threshold that the rich man was loath to cross in his life has become uncrossable in death. Even now, the rich man apparently doesn’t “see” the invisible Lazarus, doesn’t approach him for the favor of mercy. Instead, as a child of the covenant which he did not keep with his fellow Israelite, he calls out to Abraham, who gives him the bad news. Even in his desperation, the rich man makes no attempt to cross the chasm. Does he feel entitled, somehow, to relief, because he is child of Abraham?
I don’t think this parable is intending to say, “You’d better give to the poor, or else you’ll burn in hell.” Hell as a place of fire and suffering was not an image to which pious Jews would appeal, and Jesus would be among them. I think it’s trying to say, “You’ve got to look at what’s happening to the people right outside your gate, the people just beyond what you choose to see every day. You’ve got to stop just sitting there, doing the same old things, and get up and go out and see what’s going on to people right outside your door, and help them out." The price for not doing so will be some separation, some unbridgeable distance between people that will result in anguish. There are all kinds of explanations for the anguish - start with lack of self-actualization, or some Marxist dialectic that leads to revolution, or the unrealized potential of the human enterprise. Fill in the blanks. If the threat of hell enters the picture, the whole scenario takes on less of the urgency of the empire of God, the inviting rule of agape, and more of the triumph of superego, the preadolescent desire to do right in order first to avoid punishment, then possibly to win the affection of mom and dad.
Thinking about this, I couldn't help but hear Pope Francis's words in his homily in Brazil. Who wouldn't hear them, with Luke's parable in this gospel ringing in our ears? ""We cannot keep ourselves shut up in parishes, in our communities when so many people are waiting for the Gospel! It's not enough simply to open the door in welcome, but we must go out through that door to seek and meet the people." (Emphasis mine.) A couple of weeks ago, I traveled the parabolic arc with the two lost sons, and found myself outside a door looking in to a sumptuous feast. Should I go in, or not? Can I accept myself as sinful and imperfect, no better or worse than my brother, and make Dad happy? Here, a few verses later in Luke, I'm inside, and find myself looking out over my sumptuous table to the street. What am I seeing? What am I missing? Can I get up and go out there where it might not be safe, and make a difference? Two parables, two tables, two doorways. Both invite me to leave the safe place, and go on a spiritual adventure. I might find myself by losing myself.
We listen to Pope Francis exhort us to action; we talk about the “marginalized,” “marginal” people, on the edges of our experience and awareness. Sometimes, like the panhandlers who stir us from our reveries of our affluence and richly deserved diversions, we choose to ignore them, justifying our sangfroid by naming ourselves the caretakers of their own good, they who would go and spend our pocket change on booze (not like we would, for instance.) Sometimes we can’t see them because we’ve become inured to the suffering of the world by our collusion with the strategies of economic imperialism. People are just invisible to us because we’re blind to them; they’re not part of our American paradigm of having enough to get by and being able to get what you need when you need it. “Marginalized” people are the ones who are “outside the gates” of our consciousness, as individuals and as a nation and culture. But just because we don’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not out there, nor does it decrease their suffering nor our peril.
We sometimes quote Robert Frost’s poem “The Mending Wall” with the phrase, “Good fences make good neighbors,” and we don’t seem to realize that Frost was using that phrase ironically. The poet was aware of the fragility of fences, of how nature seems to abhor what separates people from each other. “Don’t fence me in,” sang Pete Seeger, and he wasn’t making a suggestion, either; he was singing a manifesto (probably unlike the urbane Cole Porter, who wrote the song which he didn’t like!) Those gates and fences that make good neighbors are bad for community, bad for a sense of solidarity, and they tend to fail unless they are attended to by people who feel more is lost by sharing than is gained by solidarity.
Interestingly, the article in Hear Then the Parable by Bernard Brandon Scott that deals with the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is called, “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors.” Jesus, in his storytelling and world-making, knew the irony of that phrase. He could see the failure of the covenant in the blindness of his rich man, and could only hope to rekindle the sabbath mutuality inherent in that covenant with a flint-spark struck from a story about a reversal; a gate, a margin, an obstacle to vision that became a self-fulfilling prophecy of absolute and irreversible alienation. Talk to the people of Belfast, Berlin, and Bethlehem about their walls, and how much they’ve helped their nations. Do you ever wonder whether the people planning to build a fence along the Rio Grande read the same gospel you do, or if they do, which god they mean when they say, “one nation, under God”?
I’ll leave you with a few lines from Frost, building on Scott’s essay, and a prayer that we keep our doors and gates and eyes wide open:
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.