This morning we heard a story known as the parable of Dives and Lazarus, from the Gospel of Luke. Dives, in fact, is not a name given in the parable. It simply means “rich man” in Latin, but because this parable was very often depicted in medieval art, the term for the unnamed rich man became a name, and so we have the parable of Dives and Lazarus.
It is story of the reversal of status after death, and some scholars tell us that it was a fairly common folk tale which Jesus used and altered to make his own particular point. This is how it goes. And let’s make it a folk tale, so, once upon a time there was a rich man, Dives, who was clothed gloriously and feasted sumptuously every single day. At the gate of his house there lay a poor man, Lazarus. Ill, covered with sores which the dogs licked. Hungry – all he wanted was to eat the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Both men die and there is a reversal. After death Lazarus is taken to “Abraham’s bosom,” a place of comfort and refreshment. Dives is buried and taken to Hades, a place of torment and of fire. And now, all he wants, Dives, is a drop of water from Lazarus’ finger to cool his tongue. But no, Abraham tells him, “Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here and you are in anguish.”
Again, this is a story of the reversal of fortune, so to speak, after death. Perhaps it was originally a cautionary tale directed at the rich. But in Jesus’ telling, it is much more than just that, and in order to discover the point our Lord is making we must ask ourselves this negative question: what are we not told in the parable? There are things we might be tempted to read into the story, but are they there? First of all, we are not told that Dives was a bad man by conventional standards. He was rich, but Jesus doesn’t tell us that he made his money by cheating or deceit. He may well have contributed generously to the temple. He was just rich – and enjoyed his wealth. That’s all we know. And further, we are not told that Dives mistreated Lazarus. He didn’t call the police to have him removed from his gate. He didn’t mock him or kick him in the ribs when he walked by. And we are not told that he refused to give Lazarus the crumbs which fell from his table. And Lazarus – we are not told that he was a good man. He may well have been a bad man who now suffered as a result of his previous excesses. More important – we are not told anything at all about a relationship – good or bad – between the two men, because there was, it seems, no relationship between the two men. And there was no relationship because Dives, the rich man, conventionally good or conventionally bad, was morally blind. The parable we heard today is only secondarily about wealth and riches; it is primarily about blindness – not seeing what is right there in front of you. For there he was, Lazarus, at Dives’ gate. Not sitting, but ill, lying there in weakness – how could you not see that? The dogs licked his sores – how could you not see that? Hungry, and he could have been fed with the leavings from Dives’ table – how could you not see that?
Dives was blind. Morally blind. Before him was another person in great need, distress, and pain, and Dives just doesn’t see it. He is morally blind, and it is for that that after death he finds himself in torment.
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As I mentioned earlier, some scholars tell us that the parable is Jesus’ version of what was a very popular folk tale in the ancient Middle East. A tale of reversal: the rich become poor; the poor become rich. We find that motif in lots of literature even today. And it’s not hard to understand its popularity. Taking a jab at the rich always finds a ready audience. Even if you are rich, there’s always someone richer to jab at.
And as I also mentioned, Jesus alters the tale to make a point of his own. In his telling the story is somewhat darker, and the point is not about wealth but about blindness. And there’s more.
Remember. Dives beseeches Abraham: “‘I beg you, father, to send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”
A voice from the dead which changes the lives of the living is another common literary device. Even today – think of Dickens – Marley and Scrooge. Apparently, this change was part of the original tale which Jesus retold and altered: Lazarus from the dead warns the five brothers, and they change their lives and avoid an unhappy fate. But no, says Jesus, it doesn’t work that way, and in his version Abraham forbids a voice from the dead. “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” And so again, good people, the story as Jesus tells it is about blindness. Moral blindness and now spiritual blindness. God has revealed his will, through Moses and the prophets. God has revealed man’s duty and responsibility and how human life is supposed to be lived, through Moses and the prophets. And this is not a voice from the dead, but a revelation from the living God. Written down for all to read. Not to see what God reveals in Moses and the prophets, not to understand their teaching, is to be spiritually blind. Blind. Not to see what God has made plain. The same kind of blindness which prevented the rich man from seeing the obvious need of his neighbor – a man lying ill by his gate. Blindness, moral and spiritual. A blindness born of ease, or complacency, or selfishness, or self-importance, or just plain hardness of heart – it doesn’t matter – it is a blindness which cannot be dispelled even, says Abraham, if a man should rise from the dead.
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At the beginning of his ministry Jesus visits his home town. He goes to the synagogue and is asked to read. And the Scripture he chooses is from Isaiah, and as he tells the people later, it is an outline of what he came to do and to be. He reads:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
Recovering of sight to the blind.
Good people – there are blind spots in each of us. We all know that. There are things right before us that we do not see – or do not wish to see. There are forms of blindness which we choose because we do not want to see or are afraid to see. And like Dives – knowing or unknowing – that blindness threatens to undo us, that blindness diminishes us really and morally and spiritually, and we stumble or stride blindly to no god end.
But in the parable Abraham was wrong – thank God – and there is one, good people, who rose from the dead and who is the fulfillment of Moses, the Law and the prophets and whose mission was the “recovering of sight to the blind,” And, as he did in ages past and does even now, he will touch our eyes and open them, that now seeing clearly we might as St. Paul urges us today “take hold of that life which is life indeed.”