Not Even a Man Rising from the Dead

We have all seen him. He lies on a pile of newspapers outside a shop doorway, covered with a rough blanket. Perhaps he has a dog with him for safety. People walk past him, or even step over him. He occasionally rattles a few coins in a tin or cup, asking for more. He wasn’t there when I was a boy, but he’s there now, in all our cities, east, west, north and south.

As I see him, I hear voices. It’s his own fault, they say. He’s chosen it. There are agencies to help him. He should go and get a job. If we give him money he’ll only spend it on drink. Stay away—he might be violent. Sometimes, in some places, the police will move him on, exporting the problem somewhere else. But he’ll be back. And even if he isn’t, there are whole societies like that. They camp in tin shacks on the edges of large, rich cities. From the doors of their tiny makeshift shelters you can see the high-rise hotels and office blocks where, if they’re very lucky, one member of the family might work as a cleaner. They have been born into debt, and in debt they will stay, through the fault of someone rich and powerful who signed away their rights, their lives in effect, a generation or two ago, in return for arms, a new presidential palace, a fat Swiss bank account. And even if rich and poor don’t always live side by side so blatantly, the television brings us together.

So we all know Lazarus. He is our neighbor. Some of us may be rich, well dressed and well fed, and walk past him without even noticing; others of us may not be so rich, or so finely clothed and fed, but compared with Lazarus we’re well off. He would be glad to change places with us, and we would be horrified to share his life, even for a day.
Jesus’ story about Lazarus and the unnamed rich man (he’s often called ‘Dives’, because that’s the Latin word for ‘rich’, but in the story he remains anonymous) works at several levels. It is very like a well-known folk tale in the ancient world; Jesus was by no means the first to tell of how wealth and poverty might be reversed in the future life. In fact, stories like this were so well known that we can see how Jesus has changed the pattern that people would expect. In the usual story, when someone asks permission to send a message back to the people who are still alive on earth, the permission is granted. Here, it isn’t; and the sharp ending of the story points beyond itself to all sorts of questions that Jesus’ hearers, and Luke’s readers, were urged to face.

The parable is not primarily a moral tale about riches and poverty—though, in this chapter, it should be heard in that way as well. If that’s all it was, some might say that it was better to let the poor stay poor, since they will have a good time in the future life. That sort of argument has been used too often by the careless rich for us to want anything to do with it. No; there is something more going on here. The story, after all, doesn’t add anything new to the general folk belief about fortunes being reversed in a future life. But if it’s a parable, that means we should take it as picture-language about something that was going on in Jesus’ own work.

The ending gives us a clue: ‘Neither would they be convinced, even if someone rose from the dead.’ Jesus, we recall, has been criticized for welcoming outcasts and sinners; now it appears that what he’s doing is putting into practice in the present world what, it was widely believed, would happen in the future one. ‘On earth as it is in heaven’ remains his watchword. The age to come must be anticipated in the present.

The point is then that the Pharisees, being themselves lovers of money, were behaving towards the people Jesus was welcoming exactly like the rich man was behaving towards Lazarus. And, just like the rich man, the Pharisees, and anyone else tempted to take a similar line, are now urged to change their ways while there is still time. All Jesus is asking them, in fact, is to do what Moses and the prophets would have said. As Luke makes clear throughout, his kingdom-mission is the fulfillment of the whole story of Israel. Anyone who understands the law and the prophets must therefore see that Jesus is bringing them to completion.

If they do not, then not even someone rising from the dead will bring them to their senses. The last sentence of the parable, like a great crashing chord on an organ, contains several different notes. It speaks of the whole hope of Israel for restoration and renewal. It speaks of the poor and outcast being welcomed by Jesus. And it speaks, for Luke’s readers from that day to this, most powerfully of Jesus himself. One day soon, the reader knows, the law and the prophets will all come true in a new way, as Jesus himself rises again, opening the door to God’s new age in which all wrongs will be put right.

Tom Wright

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

%d bloggers like this: