As you were listening to what I just read, did any of you get a picture in your mind’s eye? I do. My first Bible when I was a little boy was a picture Bible. It’s this one right here, given to me in 1966 when I was 7 years old. From that time and from that Bible I developed the habit of trying to see all the stories that Jesus tells. I usually don’t just hear the Bible stories, I see them as well. When I read a passage like this one I can sometimes get a fairly vivid picture of what it might have looked like.
There is an old tradition that gives this rich man a name – the tradition calls him “Dives.” (DEE-vez) I don’t know if I’m pronouncing that correctly, and as I say it’s only a tradition, but that’s what we’re going to go with. I can picture Dives right now. He’s a big stout man, with flowing dark brown hair and a thick beard and a big smile, and he likes to laugh a lot. I picture Dives in fine linens, with a luxurious purple robe, pampered and perfumed. I see him lying down in front of a banquet table, holding his wine goblet up high and laughing and smiling and toasting all of his wealthy guests. There are lots of light and lots of laughter and music in the background and fun and food and drink all around as these wealthy friends party with Dives.
I can picture Lazarus too. Lazarus is around back in the alley. It’s dark back there, lit only by the moonlight and by the light coming from Dives’ house. I know that it’s not accurate to Bible times, but I picture a dumpster and some empty cardboard boxes. Lazarus is thin, kind of bald, with a straggly fringe of gray hair and a straggly beard. He’s wearing a dirty old cloth kind of wrapped around him, and nothing else. Lazarus doesn’t smell very good. He’s got bad teeth and so he’s got bad breath.
Lazarus is lying down too, but he’s not lying down like Dives. Instead of a great feast, Lazarus lays down next to the dumpster, waiting for the help to throw out some of the leftovers. Instead of laughing, wealthy friends, Lazarus is surrounded by bony looking dogs. Alley dogs, junkyard dogs that have become accustomed to the sight of Lazarus in the alley, dogs that have learned that Lazarus is no threat.
The dogs provide Lazarus companionship, and they lick his wounds, and Lazarus is probably the only man in town who pets the dogs and talks to them, and they all share whatever food they can scrounge from Dives’ dumpster.
That’s the picture that Jesus’ story paints in my mind and already, just this little bit into it, there’s something slightly unusual here. As you probably know Jesus used parables a lot, Jesus used stories or examples that illustrate a point. The parable of the prodigal son. The parable of the lost sheep. The parable of the persistent woman and the crooked judge. The parable of the good Samaritan. You may know some of those parables.
You can see what’s unusual just in the title of the parable – “The Rich Man and Lazarus.” Does anyone see it? Here are some titles again. The prodigal son. The lost sheep. The good Samaritan. The rich man and Lazarus. What is different about that last one?
It’s those last two words – “and Lazarus.” You know what? You can check out every other parable in the Bible, and no one has any names. It’s always a parable about “a rich man” or “a certain shepherd” or “a man who had two sons” or “a woman” or something like that. That’s how this one starts out too – “There was a rich man.” And then, “at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus.” Named Lazarus.
Some people have suggested that the use of a real name means that this is a true story, that Lazarus was someone Jesus’ hearers would have known and that the man we’re calling Dives was someone else Jesus’ hearers would have known. I’m not so sure about that, but I certainly can’t prove it one way or the other.
One thing the use of Lazarus’ name does tell me though is that the poor are real people. The poor aren’t just an abstract group. The poor aren’t “them” as opposed to “us.” The poor are real people, with real names and with real identities and real stories. The poor and the hungry are real and specific individuals.
Let’s go on with the Bible story, thinking about it as Jesus’ hearers might have thought about it. Eventually Dives and Lazarus die. Lazarus is in heaven, and Dives is in hell. This is probably a surprise to at least some of the people listening to Jesus. At many times, maybe even at most times within Christianity there have been lots of folks who believe that wealth is a particular sign of God’s blessing and that poverty is a particular sign of God’s curse. When you look at real people that you know of you can see that’s not necessarily true. No one would seriously argue that Donald Trump is closer to God’s heart than Mother Teresa was, but the idea of riches equaling blessing still hangs around today, just as it was around when Jesus spoke these words.
So at least some and maybe most of the people hearing Jesus were probably surprised that he mentioned Lazarus at all, and they were surprised again when Jesus said that Lazarus was in heaven and Dives was in hell. They were surprised, and they probably wondered why this strange thing had happened.
Why did this happen? The answer is coming right up. Dives is in Hades, and he’s being tormented, and it’s hot, and Dives is thirsty. Dives looks up to heaven and sees Lazarus and Abraham up there together. “Father Abraham!” poor Dives says. “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.” Abraham tells Dives that that’s impossible.
This is the part that kind of gives me chills. Dives looked up to heaven and recognizes Lazarus. You know what that means? Dives knows Lazarus. Dives looks across the great expanse between heaven and hell, and he sees Lazarus and he recognizes him and he knows his name. Dives knows Lazarus.
You might say, “So what preacher? Dives knows Lazarus. So what?” Here’s so what. Dives lived his life knowing who Lazarus was, and he didn’t care. Lazarus was not some faceless guy starving across the world that Dives had never heard of. Lazarus was not some guy on the street that Dives drove by from time to time. Dives knew Lazarus. Dives knew Lazarus, and he let him suffer.
Sometimes we think about things like world hunger and we say, “What can I do? I’m just one person.” We become concerned about conflict somewhere in the world, or about poverty someplace, and we say, “I can’t solve that problem. What can I do?”
You know what? You’re right. You can’t solve world hunger. You can’t bring peace to Nigeria. You can’t meet all the world’s needs or solve all the world’s problems or feed all the world’s people. You can’t do everything for everybody.
But you can do one thing for one person. Dives’ sin wasn’t that he was rich. It wasn’t that he failed to solve the world’s problems. It wasn’t even that he failed to solve his town’s problems.
Dives’ sin was that he knew one person’s need and he ignored it. Dives saw and knew Lazarus well enough to know him by sight and call him by name and still Dives let Lazarus lay there by the dumpster with the dogs licking his sores. It’s not even that Dives didn’t fix it all for Lazarus. It’s not that Dives didn’t take him to a doctor and buy him some clothes and find him a home. It’s that Dives did nothing.
All over the world Christians are worshipping today. Many places in the world they are gathered for worship right now. Every Sunday Christians celebrate and seek to make real the presence of the body of Christ in the world and pray for peace and reconciliation and healing between all the people of the earth in Jesus Christ.
What can I do to help bring about that peace where there is war, to help feed people where there is hunger, to help heal people where they are ill? I can’t reach out to everyone all over the world. I can’t bring peace and wholeness and unity and health to everyone the world over. God can do it, in part through me, but I can’t do it and God can’t do it all through me. I’m too small and weak.
But somewhere there is a Lazarus in my life. Somewhere in my life is someone who is hungry. Maybe hungry for food and shelter, like this Lazarus was. Maybe hungry for a friend. Maybe hungry for care and support. Maybe hungry for God.
God’s not going to ask me if I brought peace to Nigeria. God’s not going to ask me if I wiped out famine in Bangladesh. God’s not going to ask me if I eliminated disease across the globe. God may ask me if I did something towards any of those goals, but God’s not going to ask me if I accomplished those things all on my own.
God is going to ask me if I recognized my Lazarus, and what I did about him or her.
There is a Lazarus in my life. There is a Lazarus in your life. I don’t know who it is. I don’t know what they’re hungry for. I don’t know how you can help them. But I know that they’re there and that they have a need that you can meet. I know that you have a Lazarus.
Lazarus’s everywhere need to be loved and cared for and fed and nurtured. That’s our call as Christians – to see the Lazarus in our life, to be reconciled to the Lazarus in our life, and to help the Lazarus in our life to know God more fully. That’s a universal call, that believers all over the world share in common. Dives certainly knew Lazarus, and Dives probably went to the temple and heard that call, but he didn’t respond to it.
You’ve got a Lazarus, and you have just heard the call. The end of this story is now up to you and God. Amen.