A Man Called Lazarus

By Fyodor Andreyevich Bronnikov - http://etnaa.mylivepage.ru/image/411/12132_Притча_о_Лазаре._1886.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9882122

Luke 16:19-31 | Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Only one character has a name out of all of the parables that Jesus told, and his name is Lazarus. That is almost as remarkable as the fact that the miracle of raising the other Lazarus from the dead is only told in the Gospel of John; the synoptic gospels—Mark, Matthew and Luke—never mention it. That other Lazarus is raised from the dead, being four days in the grave, and it gets no mention. Yet here in Luke, the only place the parable of the rich man is told, the poor beggar gets the same name.

To be fair, in the oldest manuscript (P75) containing this story, the rich man is said to be known “by the name of Neues…” The Vulgate translation gave us ‘Dives’, but that simply means “rich man” and was not intended as a name. Elsewhere, the rich man is as nameless as the Pharaoh of Exodus.

By Meister des Codex Aureus Epternacensis - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=155243
Lazarus and the Rich Man, Codex Aureus of Echternach, c. 1030-1050

Maybe the poor man is called Lazarus because there is a mention of resurrection: ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ If there is a link between the Lazarus of John’s Gospel and this parable, it is tenuous.

Ironically, the main action of the story takes place after this Lazarus is dead.

The imagery of this parable contributes to our notions of heaven and hell. Of course, it is not clear that Lazarus and the rich man are in different places—they might be in the same overall place, a Hades something like the notion of the afterlife we find in Greek mythology but separated into different areas, like the dead who come to speak to the Greek hero Odysseus in Homer’s story. It could also be that the parable is describing heaven and hell after all, with the surprising aspect of making each visible from the other but divided by a chasm that cannot be crossed.

It is a mistake to take any of these details literally. As in any mythological tale or great story, the point is truth, not facts. (Facts may be true, but they are not truth, not the kind of truth that can make life worth living.) Abraham, the gate keeper figure of this parable, might have been Saint Peter had the parable been told a few centuries later—the role is the same as in later notional tales where Peter is the gatekeeper of heaven.

One oddity of the story is the lack of detail regarding why the rich man is condemned, and there’s a second oddity in the peculiar detail that is present:

But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.’

Anyone who believes that wealth is a sign of God’s blessing and that poverty a sign of the lack of it, an idea that emerged early in Old Testament thought but one that the prophets thoroughly trashed and discarded (a theological trajectory of understanding moves through scripture), should hear a word of warning. We assume that the rich man’s offenses are self-absorption and a lack of compassion for Lazarus. What the Abraham character (and therefore Jesus) tells us is more straightforward but perplexing—the rich man received good things in his lifetime, but Lazarus only suffered. There is a sense of balance, but there is little that matches up with any expectations of a final judgment and of God’s justice. Still, there is one more aspect of the rich man’s life that is mentioned, and it may be the critical element of the entire parable. He did not believe.

The rich man’s response to God, or rather the lack of it, is the true basis for his present condition. In fact, it is because of this same indifference on the part of his brothers that the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn them. Surely, the rich man says, they will believe if someone rises from the dead.

Here is the early kerygma of the Church, the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus and the demand that faithful people respond to it. The demand is not simply to live a moral life, not to feed the hungry or help the poor: those are baseline behaviors expected of any decent person. The critical matter in the Christian proclamation is the response to the presence of God as witnessed in the resurrection of Jesus. Of course, anyone responding to such love in God would also respond to a poor man starving on the steps.

Hendrick ter Brugghen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Rich Man and Lazarus, by Hendrick ter Brugghen, 1625
Feeding Lazarus would have made the rich man more of a decent human being. It would not have addressed the central question Jesus is posing—how do we respond to the presence of God? To put it another way, why are we going to feed Lazarus? Because it is the decent thing? Because there but for grace and accident of birth or opportunity go we? Or are we going to feed Lazarus because we recognize the presence of God in the person of the beggar at our gate?

Boundaries, chasms, and gates fill this story. The rich man reclines inside his walls, beyond his gates, unreachable by the beggar Lazarus who lies dying outside. Then the rich man is in torment inside the walls of death, outside the gateway of life, watched by Lazarus, who never speaks a word throughout the entire parable.

The other Lazarus of John’s Gospel lay dead inside a tomb, cut off by the dual obstacles of stone and of death. In that story, Jesus removed the stone, but he stood outside and called to Lazarus. What if that Lazarus had been like this rich man and all his brothers and refused to respond? What if Lazarus had closed his ears, refused to listen to the echo of Jesus’ voice reaching into the darkness of that tomb, calling him back to life?

We might wonder the same thing about ourselves. We might stop to listen, and go to see who is waiting outside the walls we have built.

By Fyodor Andreyevich Bronnikov - http://etnaa.mylivepage.ru/image/411/12132_Притча_о_Лазаре._1886.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9882122
Lazarus at the Gate of the Rich Man, Fyodor Andreyevich Bronnikov, 1886

Death, a Thief, and the Scent of Perfume

Glass stopper in bottle

Fifth Sunday in Lent | John 12:1-8

Death, a Thief, and the Scent of Perfume

At the dinner table sat Lazarus, the man who died and lived to tell about it. Except that’s the interesting thing: he didn’t tell about it, at least not in the story recorded in John’s Gospel. Surely people of that day were just as curious as we are, wondering what Lazarus experienced in death, what it was like, whether there were things to fear, what it was like to awaken in the tomb, to shuffle into the light wrapped in a burial shroud.

We don’t hear any of that.

Jesus also sat there, the man who was headed toward confrontation and nearly certain death. Everyone in the room knew trouble was coming. The crowd outside knew it. The spies sent from nearby Jerusalem knew it. Judas knew it. Jesus knew it.

As they sat, Lazarus remembering the tomb and Jesus looking forward to it, they were overwhelmed by the scent of the perfume that Mary was rubbing on Jesus’ feet. It is said that smell is the most powerful trigger of memory that we have. Everyone in the room remembered the smell they encountered when they approached Lazarus’ tomb days after his death. Now for the rest of their lives they would remember the scent of this room, this dinner.

John tells us that Judas complained at the cost of the perfume poured out. He had foreseen the end of their discipleship days and wanted a golden parachute for his retirement: today he would have been called a shrewd executive, but John just calls him a thief.

Then Jesus said a strange thing. “Leave her be, that she may keep it until the day of my entombment.”

So that is what it smelled like that morning at the tomb, after it was all done, like Mary’s perfume, the same one she used on his feet, the same scent that filled their house at this dinner gathering, perfume she saved to anoint his body.

VinegarAs I write this reflection, on and off, I have paused to work on a home improvement project, installing an interior passageway door. It is an old door, one that was left in this house by a previous owner I never met. It has twenty seven panes of glass, though I can find no theological significance in the number. It has been trimmed, cut down, repurposed, like many of us. I have just been scrubbing it with vinegar and water.

Vinegar is a cleansing agent and a preservative, but I find the scent reminds me of spring time and nature, of life. Perfume, on the other hand, often reminds me of funerals.

It may be that the scent of Mary’s perfume reminded everyone in the inner circle of this last gathering, one of their last suppers. Jesus may have carried the scent throughout his last days, some of it remaining as he washed his disciples’ feet at their very last supper. As he was crucified, the scent may have lingered in Mary’s hair, may have mixed in the air with the sweat and blood and the pungency of the vinegar Jesus sipped.

We think that God speaks to us in a voice like men, that we might hear it like Charlton Heston in the version of The Ten Commandments that plays in our heads. Maybe that happens. More often, I think God pricks our memory with things as simple as the scent of perfume or the aroma of vinegar.

How strange that we can find the eternal in such ordinary things. Scents. Tastes. Memories. It is amazing that something so ephemeral as perfume can linger with us all our lives.Dogwood Flower

It is more amazing that something so ephemeral as our lives can linger after us, like perfume in a room we have already left.


Fifth Sunday in Lent  |  Bones

Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 11:1-45

Gravel 008The lectionary guides us to Ezekiel 37:1-14, the valley of the dry bones, and to John 11:1-45, the raising of Lazarus. We are invited, in this time of Lent, this journey toward Jerusalem and the cross, to contemplate the tomb.

Ezekiel, the prophet of the exile, visionary, one of the most strange of all the strange people in scripture, tells us of his vision of the valley of dry bones. Ezekiel speaks of many wonderful and frightful things. He sees angelic beings with wings and wheels, cities built like cubes. He sees a valley full of the bones of the dead. The bones are the people of Israel as individuals, all those who perished in the past, being raised at the last day. The bones are also the collective people of Israel, the kingdoms of Israel and of Judah destroyed by oppressors, finally being restored by God. The bones are many things, on many levels.

The bones are us. The bones are our lives, scattered like sand over our days, our losses, our failures, our shortcomings, our longings, our sins. The bones are our ignorance, our hard-headedness, our hard-heartedness. The bones are us.

And here in Ezekiel, ‘son of man’ (your translation may say something else, mortal perhaps) is not a phrase referring to the Messiah. No, in Daniel and in the Gospels we find the messianic phrase ‘the son of Man’ used to describe the one born of woman but who is God. Here, in Ezekiel’s stark vision, the son of man is just that—the dying child of dying children, one who knows and must accept mortality, the unrelenting bondage of time.

Son of man, mortal creature, says our God, can these bones live? Can our shortcomings be repaired, our failures remade? Can our lies be untold, our unkind truths be recalled? Can we find the honesty to see ourselves from within, our sinews, our bones? Can we be saved from the dust of which we came?

Lazarus had been dead for four days.

Again, there are many levels to this Gospel story, many levels to everything John records in this Gospel. We see Jesus, God among us, the resurrection and the life. Who lives and believes in me shall never die, Jesus says, do you believe this? Shall these bones live, oh mortal? O Lord, God, you know the answer, says Ezekiel, and so say we. Yes, Lord, you are the Messiah, says Martha, and so say we.

Just as the bones are us, our lives, our past, our future, so are Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Each of us is them. Each of us is Martha who boldly goes to meet Jesus, to meet God, on the dusty road. Each of us is Mary, holding back, hearing of God’s nearness, God’s approach, but slower to respond, each for our own reasons and for our own time. Each of us is Lazarus, already dead within, carrying the darkness of our own choices, surrounded by the darkness of the world, grieving for ourselves, for those lost before us, grieving for the pain we cannot spare those we love, perhaps for the pain we have caused them, the pain we have caused for ourselves.

We are in Lazarus’ tomb. We are the people sitting in darkness, the prisoners, the poor, the pitiable, the naked and the blind.

And that is the Gospel we hear—that voice. It is Ezekiel, prophesying, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. It is Jesus crying, Lazarus, come out! The promise of the Gospel is resurrection, newness, life, the promise of Easter.

For now we wait. These days of Lent give us time, here in the darkness, to gather the bones of our failures, our shortcomings, our doubts and our fears, our losses, our grief, our anxieties, our needs, our weakness. We have time to examine the dry, bare truth of who we are, each of us in the darkness, unknown to those other souls around us. And we wait.

Who believes in me, though they die, yet shall they live.

We wait for the sound of the stone being rolled away, death and loss being remade. We wait for the Easter voice of God, calling us out from our tombs.

Already and not yet—the Gospel promise, the new life in Christ, is described as already and not yet. Already we have the life of God. Not yet are we fully transformed. Lazarus comes out of the tomb, alive, renewed. He is already resurrected, but he is no heavenly being; he is restored, but not yet of a new heaven and a new earth. He walked in the same dusty paths as before, but he no longer carried the dread of death; his second journey to dying became one of hope, a journey toward a voice he knew.

We walk as Lazarus, leaving the darkness behind. Jesus commanded that the robes of death be removed, that Lazarus be unbound. Likewise, hearing that voice, we are raised in renewed life, unbound by those burdens that dragged us into darkness. We leave our bindings behind; there is no need of carrying those burdens any longer.

Easter is the promise of resurrection, the call into new life.

And now we listen. And now we wait.