Museum of Romanesque Art, Barcelona. Wall painting from San Clemente, Tahull (Lléida).
Several years ago, I was attending church in a well-to-do neighborhood of Boston. One Sunday, the deacons announced a new policy to deal with beggars who showed up at the office looking for handouts. They would no longer give out small amounts of cash. Instead, they would give out vouchers good for groceries at local supermarkets. They were very clear, however, that the vouchers would not be valid for alcohol, lottery tickets, or tobacco.
At coffee hour, people spoke approvingly of this decision. Everybody knew that for years the church’s money had been ending up in the cash register of Marty’s Liquors. Nobody wanted the church to be an “enabler,” but they didn’t want to turn people away empty-handed either. Grocery vouchers seemed like a good way to help without doing harm.
Now, I was feeling peevish that morning, not in control of my mood or my mouth. Thus it was that I asked what the deacons would do if a beggar didn’t want to buy groceries, but wanted to rent a DVD of “The Sound of Music,” or maybe take a Duck Tour of Boston, or buy a few carnations to brighten the corner where he lives?
This was not well-received, and the conversation went downhill fast. I was to blame, of course. It was an unfair thing to say, even for someone feeling peevish and looking to make a point. Everyone, including me, knows that beggars who show up at church doorsteps are not usually looking to spend an evening with Julie Andrews. Many are homeless, drifters, active alcoholics, mentally-ill. Not a few are con artists who give you a long detailed spiel about their woes. If you were to give them all money, sooner or later you’d get taken for an expensive ride, or you’d do real harm. And if word got out on the street that St. Polycarp-by-the-Pool was dispensing cold cash from the front office, it could even get dangerous.
So it’s no surprise that most churches have adopted a no-cash- approach to helping people who wander in from the street. The voucher plan was prudent. It was plain old good stewardship, for us and for them. It also gave the deacons a warm feeling. One deacon remarked that the church should be proud that our vouchers would keep street people from guzzling or gambling, and get them to eat a healthy meal for a change. I valued my life and didn’t say out loud what I was thinking about that—namely, that if the voucher plan was really aimed at getting street people to eat, say, more leafy green vegetables, then we should have put red meat on the exclusion list along with the booze, the scratch tickets, and the smokes.
Vouchers? Okay, fine. It makes a certain sense. But did we need to be so tickled about it? Why were we congratulating ourselves? Wasn’t it enough that we were the ones who had the wherewithal? The ones who got to stake out the ethical territory? The ones who could designate the proper objects of our compassion and choose the precise terms of our generosity? Wasn’t it enough that we were in a position to shape other people’s morality?
You’d think that upon announcing the voucher plan, we all would have had the good grace to feel a little embarrassed. You’d think that we would have reminded ourselves that the proper posture for giving someone a food voucher is not on your high horse, but on your knees.
Lazarus was a beggar who could have used a voucher. He was starving, lusting after Dives’ garbage. We don’t know much about him; the parable lacks the sort of data people like to have when deciding whether and how to help. We do know his name (he is the only character in Jesus’ parables to be given one), but we don’t know how he ended up starving at the rich man’s door. We don’t know if he was one of the ‘deserving’ poor, or whether he’d been a lazy, drug-addicted oaf, or simply peevish and ill-tempered like me. We don’t know whether he cornered the rich man every time he left the house to pelt him with pathetic stories of woe, or whether he just lay there, mute, day after day. All we know is that he was at the gate, open-sored, hungry, and visible.
And that, Luke seems to say, is all we need to know to predict the reversal ahead.
We don’t have much information about the rich man either. Did he invite friends over to laugh and point at Lazarus, have his goons lean on the beggar to scare him off, gag at the sight of dogs licking his sores? We don’t know if he was a cold fellow who habitually averted his eyes from unpleasantness, or a self-preoccupied man who never saw the beggar; or if he did notice him, said an honest prayer for a sorry case, but stuck to his policy of never giving cash to street people, for all the high-minded reasons those deacons had decided on vouchers. We know only that he was rich, dressed well, ate well, and enjoyed his confortable life.
And that, Luke seems to say, is all we need to know to predict the reversal ahead.
If you’ve read the gospels half-awake, you aren’t surprised by that reversal. Jesus is unnervingly repetitious about the mortal risks the wealthy run—so much so that two chapters later, the disciples get exasperated with him: “But (if what you say is true), Lord, how can anyone be saved?” It’s a familiar theme with an expected twist.
Yet there’s something in this story of reversal that has always struck me as odd. When the rich man wakes up in Hades, he is up to his neck in flames, but he doesn’t seem to realize that his new situation is for real and for good. He doesn’t seem to grasp that there is no way out, even for a Somebody like him.
Of course it’s not lost on him that he’s suffering, and that his wealth and Egyptian cotton underwear have been shot to hell. No doubt he’s sorry now that he failed to do right by Lazarus in life and would do things differently if he had another chance. But even hellfire has not burned away the capacity for self-delusion that made it easy for him to sin so greatly by omission while he was alive. In the afterlife, he has no wherewithal, but the stubborn residue of wherewithal remains. Privilege clings to him, even in hell.
“Send Lazarus,” he says.
This is not an idle line. It betrays life-long habits of command and control, habits that now make him oddly insensible to the gravity of his situation. He thinks he can still make things happen. He thinks he is still maneuvering in the earthly geography of status, power, wealth, and worth. He now recognizes that Lazarus is a man he should have helped more in life, but even now he wouldn’t trust him with cash. At best he will let Lazarus be his gofer. “Send Lazarus to bring me a drink.”
The rich man may be a damned man, but he is an important damned man who, as a courtesy, out of deference, should be exempt from the unrelenting thirst that so many others have known, exempt from the thirst of the beggar outside the gate.
It doesn’t work, but he isn’t deterred. “Well, then, if you won’t send him over here to me, send him to my kin as a warning.” The rich man believes that even in hell no problem is insoluble if you can just get your best people working on it, or if you have the right connections. God is bound to make an exception for people in the network: it’s one of those perks that money used to buy.
But there is no good news for the rich man. Abraham’s reply is truly terrible: Some outcomes cannot be altered. Some lines cannot be crossed. Things eventually harden. It is too late. There is no return. “Between you and us a great chasm is fixed,” says Father Abraham. Even the progenitor of the faith cuts no ice with a God determined to be just to the poor.
This is a bleak and unforgiving parable, one of the harshest stories in the gospels. It warns us broadly about the moral peril we incur if we ignore the needs of the poor who lie begging at our gates all the time while we go about the business of being and having and doing in a routine of indifference. But it also warns us about the delusion that persists in us even after we have seen the error of our ways and been shown the truth; even after we have acknowledged and acted on our duty of mercy towards others.
It speaks of the stubborn residue of privilege that clings to our egos and produces in our souls a mostly unconscious and unexamined confidence, a confidence that permeates and perverts even good deeds and intentions; a confidence that leads us to assume that because of who we are, we know what’s good for ourselves and for others, we can influence outcomes, we can define and ensure our own and others’ integrity.
The deep chasm in eternity that is fixed between Lazarus and the rich man is a snapshot of the scandalous distance that exists between the poor and the privileged here on earth. But it also depicts the chasm that exists inside each of us—the distance between our unthinking entitlement, condescension and judgment, and the sublime reality and true privilege of simple creaturehood; the distance between thinking of ourselves as self-made and the humility of knowing Who in fact made us, and of owing ourselves completely to that Other; the humility that establishes us in common cause and kinship with every human being and every creature, and makes plausible and possible our ideals of mutuality, love and justice.
There’s no final grace, no last minute reprieve in this parable for the privileged, entitled, self-deluded rich man; but we can hear some good news in it for us, for we are still living and thus still susceptible to a breakthrough. We can still hear Moses and the prophets. We can still listen to Jesus. We can still help each other to love being creatures and to love each other because of our common human condition, and to aspire to nothing more or nothing less.
There is no second chance for the man in the story, but there can be for us. We resemble him more than we know, but the God who makes the sun to shine on the wicked and the benighted as well as on the good and the just is ever-able to illumine our ignorance of our human condition and reveal our creaturehood to us as an unfathomable mercy. From the One who made us, there is courage, grace and healing at every turn, and Jesus promises that it will not be denied to the humble, searching, contrite and broken heart. Our task is to live fully into the calling issued by God from the beginning: to be creatures with our Creator, to be who we are before God and one another, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
To love them as ourselves.
It is hard, but it is possible. We have the Holy Spirit. We have the church’s ancient means of grace—prayer, sacrament, song, service. We have God’s Word. We have each other. And we have today.
And thank God for that, because this sober parable tell us plainly that for us who have the wherewithal for so much good and do not do it, there might be no tomorrow.