Lafayette Cemetery, New Orleans, LA
photography by D. Plasman
My forthcoming book, Jesus, a Life – Daily Reflections on the Gospel of Luke will be available for purchase from Amazon later this month. It’s 400 pages and will be a reference resource people will turn to more than once. I’d be grateful if you’d consider purchasing it (less than $20). I don’t expect readers always to agree with my interpretation of scripture, and to prove it, here’s an installment to get you thinking. To preface the excerpt, Jesus tells a story about a rich man and a poor man Lazarus who is sick and hungry and occupies a spot at the rich man’s gate.
“The poor man died, and angels carried him to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. Tormented in Hades, the place of the dead, he looked up and saw in the distance Abraham with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, show some mercy! Send Lazarus to dip his fingertip in water and cool my tongue. This heat is unbearable!’” (Luke 16:22-24)
Rich or poor, death plays no favorites. Both men die. However, something shocking happens after death; a great reversal occurs. The poor man, Lazarus, receives special treatment as he’s ushered into a new community next to the Hebrew patriarch Abraham. The rich man ends up (or down) in Hades and is left without a friend. Hades is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Sheol, an Old Testament reference often translated “the place of the dead.”
At this point in the story, Jesus’ listeners would have raised their eyebrows. Aren’t riches a sure sign of God’s blessing? Aren’t poverty and sickness sure signs that one is experiencing God’s displeasure?
As in many parables, the absence of certain details is worth pondering. Jesus makes no mention of either man’s personal faith. There is no suggestion that Lazarus ends up in heaven because his piety is robust and his belief system is strong. Lazarus is rewarded in the afterlife for another reason altogether. On earth, he was poor and hungry and sick and lonely and forgotten and abused and abandoned. On earth, he counted for nothing. Period. For all we know, Lazarus was not even Jewish—he could have been a Buddhist, a Hindu, or an early Muslim before the arrival of the prophet Muhammad some six centuries later. He’s definitely not a Christian.
Similarly, the rich man’s faith, piety, belief, and orthodoxy are nonfactors in determining where he ends up. He’s where he is for one reason: during his earthly life, he regularly ignored the needs of Lazarus at his gate and of all the Lazaruses beyond his lot line.
Why do we seem to get hung up on right beliefs instead of right actions?