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Posted: 1/25/2014
Lazarus and the Rich Man
Perhaps Lazarus was a Jerk
Lazarus and Rich Man: Gabriel Metsu

In the interest of full disclosure: The stimulus for this reflection came from a sermon by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "Lazarus and the Rich Man", thought to be preached in Berlin, May 29, 1932.Sermon found in The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, edited by Isabel Best. Published 2012 by Fortress Press. (The Lazarus spoken of here is not the Lazarus Jesus raised from the dead, but is the character in the story Jesus told of the beggar and the rich man in the gospel of Luke, chapter 16.)

It's painful to admit, but sometimes when I see an obviously needy person, I wonder whether the person deserves my compassion, pity, or whatever. Thoughts, that I'm not proud of, creep in like, "Wonder if he really has tried to get a job?" Or, "If she took better care of herself, she wouldn't have all those health problems." I'm getting better at looking with "God's Eyes;" but, those lack-of-compassion thoughts come more often than I like confessing.

Recently, two unrelated things caused me to see how distorted my "judging" thoughts are. I had been reading the Dietrich Bonhoeffer sermon mentioned at the beginning of this Reflection. The sermon focused on Lazarus and the rich man. (It is a short passage and is found in Luke 16:19-31. You may want to pause and read or reread it.) As a brief summary: Lazarus was a poor man, covered with sores, who stayed outside the gate of a rich man's home, probably begging and hoping to get table scraps to eat. Both the rich man and poor man died, the poor man was "carried by angels to be with Abraham," the rich man tormented in Hades. The rich man begs Father Abraham to "send Lazarus to dip his finger in water and cool my tongue."

After reading the sermon, the noon news reported on a serious, two-car accident on the Schuylkill Expressway. There were flames starting to come from one car generating fear it would explode. Police and firemen were on the scene risking their own lives to pry open the car's doors to drag the occupants to safety. I thought about how these first responders did what they had to do, their lives on the line, to rescue people they knew nothing about. Were those in the burning car drug dealers on a trip to serve their poison? Maybe they were nuns on their way to serve lunch at a soup kitchen. These first responders probably had no idea. They risked their lives without judging to do their job. Almost daily we hear stories of heroic first responders like firefighters who enter burning buildings without any idea of "what kind of people" are inside.

You might be wondering what do the daring first responders have to do with the Lazarus story. In his sermon, Bonhoeffer cautions against our tendency to spiritualize and moralize Jesus' stories like this one. We tend to go beyond what was said, turning it into a story about, say, the attitude that the rich should have for the poor. Or making it a story of the one being rich on the outside but poor in spirit. Maybe we make the beggar someone we should admire: poor in worldly ways but rich in spirit.

Bonhoeffer says that we need to realize that Jesus' story has no moralizing in it:

"Now, I ask you, where in the story of the poor Lazarus does it say anything about his inner life? Who tells us that he was a man who within himself had the right attitude toward his poverty? Just the opposite, he may have been quite a pushy poor man, since he lay down in front of the rich man's doorstep and did not go away. Who tells us anything about the soul of the rich man? That is precisely the frightening thing about this story -- there is no moralizing here at all, but simply talk of poor and rich and the promise and the threat given to the one and the other." (I'd encourage you to read the expanded selections from Bonhoeffer's sermon as found in the Of Related Interest section at the bottom of this Reflection.)

Perhaps Lazarus was a jerk! Where in scripture do we find that all the people Jesus healed were "good" people? People with right attitudes? Many were probably people that most of us would not like. But, they were people in need of healing. And, Jesus equated the Kingdom of God with "the deaf hear, the blind see."

If we take the commands of Jesus seriously, we are to feed the poor, welcome the stranger, clothe the needy, and "We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer
visit the prisoner. He says nothing about examining them to see if they are worthy, consider whether they will appreciate our efforts, predict whether they might come to church if we help. Sounds a lot like those first responders: "There are people trapped in a car about to explode -- Get them out!"

Although I don't think much of the practices of the sports equipment giant Nike™; maybe there is great truth in their slogan: "Just do it!"

I need to say here that none of this suggests that we should not think about how we help. Does our method of helping simply enable destructive behavior, or does it help the person move to a better position? Do our compassionate programs reduce the dignity of those we want to help, or do they foster a sense of self-worth? These are important questions that need to be thoughtfully considered. What I think Jesus commands, however, is not up for debate: We are to help! Or as Nike™ says: Just do it!

My prayer is that I will develop clearer "eyes of God." That I will think less about whether I like the needy person or not. That when those judgmental feelings of whether the poor deserve my compassion, I will say, "Get behind me, Satan!" So, what if that guy begging at the corner is a jerk; he is, as I am, a child of God.

We read our bibles, talk about what gender to use when speaking of God, debate what sorts of people and their beliefs will be allowed into heaven and who will not. And, Jesus up there on the cross, turns to the despicable thief to his side, and says, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise."

Clearly, God's ways are not our ways.

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Of Related Interest

A PDF of selections from Bonhoeffer's sermon Lazarus and the Rich Man.
Bonhoeffer Sermons Book Cover Book referenced: The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (

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