Another Look at the Rich Man and Lazarus

After I suggested in Sunday’s sermon that Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) was a Bible-times Pearly Gates joke, I’ve been receiving additional jokes in my inbox. Unfortunately, some of them aren’t appropriate for a church publication …

There is one more fascinating aspect of the parable which I didn’t address in my sermon. Did you notice that when the rich man looks up and sees Lazarus in heaven, in the “bosom of Abraham,” that he continues to treat Lazarus as an object, a tool for his own desires? He has the nerve to ask Abraham to send Lazarus down to him and touch his tongue with a cold, wet finger!

When Abraham rebuffs this request, the rich man goes on to ask if Lazarus could be sent to warn his five brothers of the coming judgment. Again, Abraham rejects the plea, stating that his brothers have had their chance to repent.

It should be quite obvious that the rich man has had no real change of heart, because he continues to view Lazarus as someone who exists to do his bidding. He tries to bully Lazarus around heaven.

Neither on earth nor in heaven does the rich man ever really pay attention to Lazarus as a fellow human being. He ignored him on earth, when Lazarus lay in front of his gate day after day; and in heaven, he only sees Lazarus as his servant.

This reveals the true depth of the rich man’s depravity. He shows himself to be a narcissist, someone who really only cares about himself. Even his sudden concern for his five brothers comes at the expense of Lazarus. 

I thought about this parable again this week as I followed the tense back-and-forth between the civil rights icon John Lewis and President-elect Donald Trump. What was most alarming was the reaction that several other leaders expressed in the wake of the conflict, most notably Maine governor Paul LePage, who said, “John Lewis ought to look at history. It was Abraham Lincoln that freed the slaves. It was Rutherford B. Hayes and Ulysses S. Grant that fought against Jim Crow laws. A simple ‘thank you’ would suffice.”

Never mind the fact that LePage’s interpretation of history is wonky; consider the way his words must sound to the descendants of slaves. He continues to speak in the language of master-slave; like the rich man, he thinks the slave is still beholden to him, even if it is for finally letting him go!

This oddly-racist statement reminded me of recent words by a few other public figures. Filmmaker/author Dinesh D’Souza asked in a 2014 book, “Did America owe something to the slaves whose labor had been stolen? … The answer is yes, but that debt … is best discharged through memory, because the slaves are dead and their descendants are better off as a consequence of their ancestors being hauled from Africa to America.”

What? But wait … that sounds exactly like what the rich man would have said. “Lazarus owes me a good deed or two because, after all, if I hadn’t treated him so poorly, he wouldn’t have it so good in heaven!”

And that sounds eerily similar to what a former presidential candidate said in 2008. Pat Buchanan infamously said, “America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known … Second, no people anywhere has done more to lift up blacks than white Americans. Untold trillions have been spent since the '60s on welfare, food stamps, rent supplements, Section 8 housing, Pell grants, student loans, legal services, Medicaid, Earned Income Tax Credits and poverty programs designed to bring the African-American community into the mainstream … We hear the grievances. Where is the gratitude?”

It’s scandalous — and racist — for a white man to suggest that blacks should be somehow grateful to white people for enslaving them, then setting them free. It is a narcissistic attitude because it implies that white people are at the center of the universe. It’s the attitude of the rich man, clad in purple linen, sumptuously fed. 

On Monday, we celebrated the life and thought of Martin Luther King Jr. who taught that freedom is not given, it is demanded. He demonstrated that African-Americans would never be simply granted dignity and equality; they would have to march, fight, and struggle to achieve what they believed to be their God-given rights.

Of course, Lazarus is a character who is unable to demand his rights. He is not even able to stand on his own two feet; he is covered by sores and tormented by dogs. The real tragedy is that he has nobody else to stand up on his behalf, no one who will be his advocate. His cries go unheard; he is voiceless and powerless.

That’s where you and I come in. If we want to avoid the fate of the rich man, we must pay attention to the Lazaruses of our world. We must lift them to their feet, feed and clothe them, and give them voice. 

We don’t need to be told “Thank you.” Because it’s not all about us.