Who’s got the keys?
There’s a particular mystery to this story that I never even noticed until my professor Len called my attention to it this past fall. There are nearly 50 parables of Jesus recorded in the Bible — stories featuring farmers and bakers and bridegrooms and landlords and Samaritan heroes and prodigal sons. But out of all of these stories, there is only one character that is ever given a name: Lazarus. Unexpected details like this rarely appear show up in the Bible without good reason. So here we have a real mystery: What is the significance of this specific name for this particular story?
Once upon a time, Jesus says, there was a rich man who dressed in purple and linen and lived in luxury. Purple dye, in the ancient world, was very expensive. The only people who wore it were royalty, priests or card-carrying one-percenters. In other words, is that this is the sort of guy who wears Armani, drives Ferraris and tipples 100-year-old bourbon at the clubhouse. The other thing we know about this man is that, like many of means in both his day and ours, he lives in a large house surrounded by walls and guarded out from by a gate.
On the sidewalk just outside the gate, a beggar spends his days. He depends for his meals on charity. He appears to have trouble walking. He is covered with sores, which probably means he has the dreaded disease of leprosy, a skin disease that could cause terrible disfigurement and even make fingers and toes rot away. The beggar’s name is Lazarus.
Specific details about the relationship between these two men are rather sparse. But it’s easy to let imagination fill in the gap with pictures familiar to all of us from our own time. A sleek black car with tinted windows pulls up to a massive iron gate. The guard in the guardhouse presses us button, the car rolls through, and the gate slides closed behind it. The rich man conducting business on his cellphone in the back seat never looks up. He has no idea there’s even someone beneath the rags that lie just a few feet away.
Most of the action of the story doesn’t unfold until after both men die. The beggar’s rags are transformed into white robes and he’s carried off by angels. The next glimpse we get of him, he’s rubbing shoulders with no less than Abraham and eating off golden plates. The rich man, on the other hand, is covered in dirt and sweat and suffering and finds himself begging for former beggar Lazarus to dip a finger is his goblet to just ease for a moment his thirst.
The obvious question this raises is what on earth has happened that led to such an extreme reversal. It’s left to Abraham, the father of faith, to explain. Abraham says to the formerly rich man, “You enjoyed an abundance of good things in your lifetime, while Lazarus suffered extreme scarcity. Now both of you are experiencing the other side of life.” Abraham makes no particular judgment about this — he simply assumes this is how eternity fundamentally works: whatever once was down goes up; whatever once was up goes down. Eventually the coin flips over. This is Abraham’s only explanation: such is how eternity goes. And, he adds, even if Lazarus wanted to shared his newfound reverse-abundance with his former neighbor, he could not, because there is now an uncrossable chasm separating them.
What do we make of this story? It’s uncomfortable at best. But if we image some details upsetting enough — say, stock brokers paying for sex and drugs in the penthouse suite while kids starve just a few blocks away, something that happens all over the world — most of us can probably start to recognize a certain justice about the scene. I’ve certainly had encounters with the indifferent, willfully ignorant wealthy that have outraged me enough that I can feel a certain dark satisfaction at the story. There’s also no question that many in our world could benefit from a reminder that we are morally culpable not just for what we do but for what we ignore.
The only trouble is, the rich man in Jesus’ story is never actually accused of neglecting the principles of charity or basic human decency. In fact, if you read the story closely, without all the assumptions we usually read in, you might just discover evidence of the opposite.
I mentioned before that the beggar appears to be a leper. The thing you need to know about lepers in the ancient world is that those showing any sign of skin disease were forced to live outside the city, ringing bells or shouting warning to keep others away. You see this in Jesus’ own ministry, as lepers call out to him for help from some distance away. But notice where this leper is in Jesus’ story — he is spending every day lying right outside the rich man’s estate grounds.
How many rich people do you know who would tolerate a visibly diseased beggar panhandling at the end of their driveway day after day? How many not-rich people do you know who would put up with that? The dogs mentioned in the story are probably not just random strays — they appear to be guard dogs intended to patrol the estate. But instead of barking and biting and doing their job of driving Lazarus away, they lick him as if he’s one they know their master has chosen to tolerate.
Furthermore, we are told that Lazarus “craves” the food that comes from the rich man’s table. The language here appears to imply he’s eaten this food before. In fact, it may well suggest that this is what he’s been living off of, as if after each evening meal, the rich man had someone wrap up the leftovers and take him out a doggy-bag.
If all this true, an uncomfortable story becomes exponentially more disturbing, because it is no longer about a villain. This rich man may actually be far better than most. Lazarus is no stranger to him. He turns out to know him well enough to call for him by name. He has fed him when he was hungry. He has pitied him enough to let him stay at the gate, despite the fact he would have been fully within his rights to have him sent away. A second mystery has been added to the mystery of the name. If this rich man is nicer than most, why in the world did he end up so thirsty and forlorn?
The answer to these two mysteries of Lazarus’ name and the rich man’s fate are deeply intertwined. One of the biggest clues is in the name itself.
What do you know about the name ‘Lazarus’? There’s a real person in the New Testament with this name — the man that Jesus raises from the dead. What else do we know about the real Lazarus? The Gospel of John suggests he was one of Jesus’ closest friends. Jesus regularly stayed in his home when he needed a break from traveling. So this is the name Jesus chose for the beggar — the name of his frequent host and known best friend, a man closer to him than his own brothers.
When the rich man begs Father Abraham to send Lazarus to his family, declaring, “I have five brothers,” the significance of the clue finally comes together. It turns out the rich man could not count properly. He had five biological brothers. But he had a sixth brother as well, a brother given by God whose name was Lazarus and who spent his entire life just outside his gates. His sixth brother was in the lineage of Abraham, their mutual father in faith.
The name ‘Lazarus,’ chosen by Jesus for its significance in his own life, highlights exactly what was missing in the relationship between these two men. The rich man may well have showed Lazarus pity. But he never embraced him as friend, as brother. They may have interacted their entire lives, but the rich man’s gate was always between them. The boundary was always there, distinguishing giver and receiver. The gate was always there, maintaining the line between comfortable charity and high-risk relationship.
But why does this matter at all? Why is “friendship” such a big deal? It’s important to understand that this is not a true judgment scene. God is not showing up on the scene to formally judge the rich man for his wickedness or even lack of friendship. Hades isn’t hell. What has taken place is simply what is spoken of in the Bible from the Old Testament to the moment Jesus was conceived and Mary sang her great song: “God has filled with hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” The reversal of the world is not issued as a threat; it is a simple statement of what God has come to do for the world. What happens to the rich man and Lazarus is not personal or even punishment; it was simply the kingdom’s natural effect of turning the world upside-down. When the kingdom comes, the tables turn.
The real question Jesus is dealing with in this story is what happens next. What happens AFTER the tables turn and the powerful made low and the lowly raised? Where do we go from here? And the answer turns out to hang on the crucial question of friendship.
In Jewish tradition at the time, after death the righteous were separated from the unrighteous by a river or chasm. But sometimes Abraham would intercede and an angel would carry people who started out on the wrong side across to the right one. This is the tradition Jesus is drawing on in his story. But he makes one significant change. The shocking revelation of Jesus is that the gate that separated these two men on earth in eternity has frozen into a chasm. And that chasm has become uncrossable.
It turn out, the rich man had a chance in life. He had a chance to open the gate, to cross the chasm. If he’d crossed it then, when eternity came with its great reversals, he and Lazarus would be been on the same side of the chasm. Make no mistake — the reversal would still come. This is what the kingdom does. He would still fall; Lazarus would still rise. Lazarus would have access to all the good, just as the rich man did on earth. But the difference is it wouldn’t matter. There would be no gate or chasm between them. They would be in eternity just as they were on earth, brothers freely sharing their whole lives and all that was good between them.
If you thinking I’m reading too much into this story, all you have to do is go back just a few verses earlier. Just before in Luke 16, Jesus tells another story about a wily manager who is accused of wasting his employer’s possessions. Knowing that he is about to be fired, the manager goes to all the people who owe his employer money and erases large portions of their debt. He does this on the theory that at least when he is jobless, there will be people who will really like him.
The crazy part of this story that has been shocking Christians since Jesus first told it is that the shady manager is actually commended by his employer for acting so wisely. After telling the story, Jesus offers this simple commentary: “I tell you, use worldly wealth to make friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”
Did you hear that? Jesus clearly states that the great reversal is coming. This is not about moral judgments of whether you were a “good” or “bad” rich person — this reversal is quite simply the effect the kingdom has. The question is what to do now to prepare for when that day comes. Jesus states his counsel plainly: make friends.
Make friends with the poor. Make friends with your debtors. Make a brother of the beggar. Bring Lazarus through the gate and make him a member of your household. And when the great reversal comes, you’ll be on the same side of the chasm. Just as you shared a dwelling before, you will share one again. The beggar, who will now hold the keys to the kingdom’s mansions, will recognize you as a brother or sister and welcome you in.
There is no charity in eternity. There is only friendship, brotherhood. As Abraham points out to the rich man, we don’t need to wait for a ghost or sign. We’ve already been told the truth plainly. Pay attention to what friends you make. Be sure you count your brothers right. The sister lying right now just outside the gate may actually hold the keys to your future house.
Meghan Larissa Good is pastor of Albany (Ore.) Mennonite Church. She writes at MudPieGod.com, where this first appeared.
Mennonite World Review invites readers’ comments on articles. To promote constructive dialogue, editors select the comments that appear, just as we do with letters to the editor in print. These decisions are final. Writers must sign their first and last names; anonymous comments are not accepted. Comments do not appear until approved and are posted during business hours. Comments may be reproduced in print, and may be edited if selected for print.