Proper 21(C): Glimpsing the Kingdom in the Other
By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly
Once upon a time, there was a rich man who ate and dressed very well. He lived in an opulent mansion surrounded by a large, secure wall. At the gate to the outside, there was a poor, diseased man named Lazarus. (Public Service Announcement: Luke’s character named Lazarus is almost certainly a different person than the other dude named Lazarus whom Jesus resuscitates in John’s Gospel). Lazarus was starving, and begged the rich man for food—not the food from the man’s table, but only the food from the floor; the dog scraps. Weeks went by. The rich man kept ignoring Lazarus, and Lazarus kept getting sicker and weaker and hungrier. Eventually, both men died. Fast-forward to the afterlife: Lazarus is in heaven, and the rich man is in Hades (which most Christians have amalgamated to mean Hell). So there you have it: the rich man who doesn’t care about the poor goes to Hell, and the poor man who is forced to beg goes to Heaven. The end.
Well, not so fast.
Parables in general and this one in particular can’t be summed up with a paragraph or two of quick and dirty exegesis that reduces the narrative to a simplistic binary between rich and poor. “The rich go to hell, and the poor go to heaven.” This text is far richer, more complex, and more engaging than reducing it to the tired old binary of morally bankrupt rich people against the innocent poor.
So what’s going on here? How are we to make sense of this text? Where is the Good News?
First, I think it’s helpful to remember that a parable is a unique genre of literature, set apart from fables, anecdotes, or allegories. That’s not to say that they can’t convey a moral message (fable), or illustrate a larger point (anecdote), or reveal hidden religious or political meaning (allegory). In fact, parables can do all of those things—but they can also do none of those things. More than simple literary devices, parables are meant to offer us glimpses into the Kingdom of God; snapshots of how God does things in God’s realm, as opposed to how we do things in our world. The difference between the two is often surprising, and even jarring at times!
On first hearing it, this parable may appear to suggest that the rich man’s sin lay in the fact that he ignored Lazarus, even when he was in grave and dire need. And I think there’s something to that. But did you notice what happens when the rich man cries out to Abraham? “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” The rich man not only recognizes Lazarus in the afterlife, he calls him by name! The problem here is not simply about the fact that the rich man ignored Lazarus or treated him as though he were invisible—although that in itself is problem enough. The deeper problem is that, even in the afterlife, the rich man denied Lazarus’s personhood; he denied that Lazarus had an equal share in God’s economy and even in the afterlife, the rich man reduces Lazarus to a place of servitude. As far as the rich man was concerned, the eschatological implications of the situation made no difference. Lazarus would always be less important; less valuable than he was. Lazarus would always be a servant.
A preacher hoping to breathe fresh air into this well-known text may wish to start here, inviting the congregation to think about Lazarus’s personhood, and all of the ways in which the rich man could not—or would not—see it. She may also wish to explore Abraham’s response to the rich man: “If [your brothers] do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Where in our own lives have we failed to heed the warnings of the prophets? How have we contributed to the distortion or destruction of another’s personhood? There are scores of poignant and timely examples: Equating “Muslim” with “terrorist”? Assuming that proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” means that other lives don’t matter? Confusing “immigrant” with “criminal”?
Another potentially fruitful avenue is to invite the conversation to practice listening so as to understand, rather than listening so as to respond. How might we hear one another’s stories across racial boundaries, socio-economic boundaries, or other cultural boundaries? Where might there be room to cultivate table-top discussions, or face-to-face encounters with those who differ from us? This can take many forms, and the preacher will know her local context best. The bottom line is that Moses and the prophets are still speaking; they’re still warning us of the dangers of seeing others as less than who God created them to be. Are we listening? Are we looking for the imago Dei—the image of God that dwells within each and every one of us?
The American author and playwright Tennessee Williams said it best: “The world is violent and mercurial. It will have its way with you. We are saved only by love—love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent, being a writer, being a painter, being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.”
The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly (@MarshallJolly) is the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He earned a BA in American studies from Transylvania University and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. His published work includes essays on Christian social engagement, theology in the public square, and preaching. He is a frequent contributor to The Episcopal Church’s “Sermons that Work” series, and is the editor of Modern Metanoia. He spends every moment he can exploring the nearby Appalachian foothills with his wife Elizabeth.
 Tennessee Williams, as recorded by James Grissom in Follies of God (Knopf), 2015.