The Other Lazarus

October 6: 2013   Luke 16: 19-31

Rev. Catherine Purves


     People who recognize the name Lazarus probably do so because they remember the story of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead.  That is certainly an unforgettable story that stands out from among all of the rambling narratives of people Jesus knew and people Jesus helped.  The relationship that Jesus had with Lazarus and his two sisters, Martha and Mary, was quite unique.  The account of the raising of Lazarus is found in John, chapter 11.  You may remember that it is a long story with a whole lot of detail.  So, this is the Lazarus we know.  But our Gospel reading for today, taken from Luke, introduces us to another Lazarus, whom we may not know so well.  Here is, I think, an interesting question:  are these two Lazaruses in any way connected to one another?  And can the story of what happened to the Lazarus we know help us understand the parable of the other Lazarus?

     This was a possibility that I had never considered before, and I didn’t automatically assume that there would be a connection.  But it is interesting that both stories are about life and death and life after death.  Both end with the riveting question of what will happen if people are confronted with someone who has been raised from the dead. 

     One obvious difference in the two accounts is that the story of the Lazarus who is more familiar to us is something that actually happened to a person Jesus knew.  Luke’s story about the poor man, Lazarus, who begged at the gate of a rich man’s house was a parable, a story that Jesus made up in order to convey an important lesson.  But here is something unusual.  This is the only parable that Jesus told – the only one – in which one of the characters is given a name.  We aren’t told the good Samaritan’s name, or the prodigal son’s name, or name of the farmer who sowed his seed in different soils.  This is the only time that Jesus gave one of the characters in his stories a name, and the name was Lazarus, another Lazarus.

     We all know I think, that the parables that Jesus told were simple stories.  Some were longer than others, but almost all of them were told to make one obvious point, and it’s usually not that hard to discern the moral of the story.  This is another way in which our parable for today about Lazarus and the rich man may be different.  There is a lot going on in this little story about the other Lazarus.  Is it about what happens to people after they die?  Is it about how we should live and how we should treat the poor?  Is it a story about who will be saved or what it takes to be saved?  Is it a story that anticipates the reaction that many people will have to Jesus’ resurrection?  Is it some kind of warning?  Or is it about all of those things?  What are we supposed to learn from this story about the other Lazarus?

     Let’s start by thinking about the Lazarus we know better, the man who was Jesus’ friend, the one who died and was buried for four days and for whom Jesus wept, the man who was raised from the dead by Jesus.  This Lazarus was a walking parable, a living, breathing example of the power of Jesus to defeat death and the will of Jesus to give life to those he loved.  That is clearly what we learn from that story.  Interestingly, the meaning of the name Lazarus is “he whom God helps.”  Obviously, God did help that Lazarus when Jesus raised him from the dead.

     And God certainly helped the other Lazarus too, the one in our parable – not so much while he was alive, but after he died our other Lazarus was carried away by angels to be with Abraham.  What a reversal of fortunes!  The rich man, who seemed to have every blessing throughout his life, now found himself in Hades, the place of the dead, where he was in torment.  And it sounds as if he was mightily surprised to find himself there.  Why would that be?  Why would he expect God to help him as well as Lazarus?

     Well, for one thing, he thought of himself as one of God’s chosen people, a child of Abraham.  Remember, he called out to him:  “Father Abraham, have mercy on me.”  So, the rich man was a Jew.  He probably attended worship services, celebrated Passover and the other holy days, and heard the Scriptures, the Law and the prophets, read every week in the synagogue.  This would have been standard religious practice, and we can probably assume that his five brothers did the same.  Abraham did say, “They have Moses and the prophets.  They should listen to them.” 

     But it is evident to us, if not to the rich man himself, that he was not living like a faithful Jew.  He was not acting like he was part of the covenant community established by God through Moses and the prophets.  In that covenant community, the poor and the needy were to be cared for, charity was a high virtue, and wealth was to be used to help others.  A real child of Abraham would not let a poor, sick, hungry man die on his doorstep without lifting a hand to help him. 

     Here is one important lesson that is illustrated in this story about the other Lazarus.  Simply claiming a religious heritage and attending worship somewhat regularly are not guarantees of salvation.  For all those who thought that calling yourself a Christian, or doing the occasional good deed, or getting to church as often as you could, or having some sort of personal religious experience was all that was expected of those who had hopes of heaven, this parable is a shocking wake-up call. 

     While salvation is God’s work, we are still called to live lives that are a participation in God’s gracious love for the world and for all people, especially the poor.  When we separate ourselves from that covenant community, and especially when we ignore the needs of our poor brothers and sisters, then we are rejecting God’s salvation.  And when we live lives that are really centered in ourselves and our wants and needs, like the rich man, when we don’t even see the poor man on our doorsteps, then we are not children of Abraham or followers of Jesus Christ.  And that has serious consequences, as our parable illustrates.  When we deny our responsibilities for our neighbors we are creating a great chasm between ourselves and God, and in the end we will suffer for it.

     Let’s go back to our other Lazarus for a minute, the one who was dead in his tomb, because his situation also illustrates how desperate our situation is and how much we need God’s help.  That Lazarus was wrapped in grave clothes and a stone had been used to seal the tomb.  (In just a matter of days this is what would happen to Jesus himself.)  When Jesus told them to roll the stone away, Martha, Lazarus’ sister, said to Jesus, somewhat indelicately, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”  That Lazarus was really and truly dead, wrapped in a shroud, sealed in a tomb.  Only God could help him now. 

     Many people – certainly the rich man in our parable, and possibly some of us – but many people don’t realize how dead they really are.  Sin is deadly.  When we live for ourselves, apart from the covenant community, neglecting our responsibilities to God and our neighbor, then we are dead, in the tomb, sealed with the stone, and there is a stench.  The good news is that in Jesus Christ, God can help us; God wants to help us.  As he stood before the tomb of his friend Lazarus, Jesus wept.  And he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.”

     All Lazarus had to do was come out.  He had to leave the tomb of death and the shroud of sin behind.  Jesus had claimed him and he was raised.  Now he had to live.  And now he had to let his friends and family strip off the grave clothes so that he could rejoin the community of faith.  We must be willing to receive new life from Christ.  We must urge one another to leave those former lives in which we were entombed.  We must help one another to remove the shrouds of sin that cling so closely.

     This is what our parable and the story of Jesus’ dead friend tell us.  We are Lazarus – he whom God helps.  We are poor and helpless beggars who cannot help ourselves, but who must rely completely on a Savior to lift us up to new life.  We must not be the complaisant rich man or his brothers who hear the Word of God and practice a hollow religion while living self-centered lives and ignoring the pain of the needy.  Like the well-known Lazarus, we are people for whom Jesus wept, dead in our sins, entombed in a life that is not life.  But, like that Lazarus, we are now those who have been called forth by the Lord of Life and set free from the tomb.  And together we are the community of the redeemed who live to love and serve Christ and one another, fighting sin together, caring for the least of the brethren, and relying on the God who helps us. 

     Remember both Lazaruses.  Hold those two stories of life and death and life after death together.  Hear both the warning and the promise.  Because you are Lazarus.