We can’t tell this story. We just can’t tell this story of Lazarus and Abraham and the nameless rich man. I’m just not sure it will get us anywhere. I’m just not sure it has any redeeming value for us today. There are so many problems with it.
Let’s start with this: everyone knows the world is unfair. This is not new information. Sure, we continue to act as if we expect it to be. We get all exercised when banks flaunt rules and pharmaceutical companies jack up prices on lifesaving, but we’re not really surprised. It is an age-old story. Only the names and details change.
And that makes this story a problem. It seems to suggest a calculation that divides the balance sheet between this life and the next. Poor Lazarus. He had it rough in life, but everything balanced out in the end. He finds himself in death resting in the arms of Abraham, while the fires of hades collect the debts owed the rich man for the credit he ran up in life.
But do we really believe this? Most of us, when it comes down to it, are probably universalists. I mean, who among us really believes anymore in hell? It was such an overused trope in our childhood. It is such a medieval, archaic and vindictive idea that was used by the powerful churchmen to keep the poor pew-sitters in their place. The idea has more to do with Dante and his nine circles and the eternal fire than it does any meaningful examination of the scriptures.
And it just doesn’t square with what we know of a God who is LOVE. You can’t have both a loving God and an emotionally stunted God who demands sacrifice and can’t find a way to satisfaction without a balance sheet. So we dismiss this story of the rich man who gets his just desserts, and then some. And we quietly long for the kind of wealth we believe would make us secure too.
And Luke seems to know it. The story just ends. There is no moral to it. There isn’t a word of hope. There is no “what choice will you make?” question that we are left with, like we are in other parables. The end seems pretty clear. We have all the information we need. Not a ghost, or even a Christ, resurrected from the dead is going to change hearts that don’t want to change.
We can’t tell this story; it won’t get us anywhere. Everyone knows that the world is unfair. Everyone knows that the rich man’s brothers are still around, and probably aren’t going to change. And, when we are brave enough to be honest with ourselves, we recognize our behavior and our inaction puts me and perhaps you too in their company and in the company of a host of privileged people throughout history.
Martin Luther King, of course, was familiar with this phenomenon. Sitting in the Birmingham jail after another arrest, he reflected on what he heard from Christian pastors who looked a lot like me. I imagine him, much like Lazarus, sitting in a corner of his cell, nursing his wounds as he wrote a letter that included this:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council or the Ku Klux Klan, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you and the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action” ; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season,” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Maybe we’ll be surprised and the story of Lazarus turns out to be a literal truth. That the punishment will fit the crime. But I doubt many are betting on this. And, to tell you the truth, I don’t want that kind of a God.
So let’s not tell that story. Let’s tell a different one. Let’s tell a story today of all the rich and all the poor men and women and children who have refused to walk by Lazarus and his kin. Let’s tell a story of all the ordinary people and all the celebrities who have stopped and seen the wounds and listened to the pain and decided to get involved. Let’s tell the story of those politicians who have risked their re-election to challenge a rigged system. Let’s tell the story of grandpas and grandmas, moms and dads, children and grandchildren, widows and orphans who have stuck their neck out for something or someone they didn’t need to care about.
Let’s tell the story Doug Baldwin of the Seattle Seahawks who has been talking and tweeting all week about the treatment of people of color by law enforcement. Baldwin, the son of a police officer, has refused to hide any longer behind the gates of his big house and the tinted windows of his celebrity. He tweeted this on Thursday: “I think it’s time for us to hold each other accountable, and…I mean to the preamble of the United States Constitution, which states…that ‘in order to form a more perfect union, we must establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility.’” Baldwin has called for state attorneys general to review training policies for police and law enforcement to increase training of tactics of de-escalation and crisis management.
And it looks like some of them are listening. Bob Ferguson, Washington State’s Attorney General tweeted back at Baldwin, “Watched your press conference today with interest. I’ll be reaching out soon to see if you’d like to sit down and chat.”
Let’s tell the story of the Garfield high school football team who have chosen to take a stand, or more accurately a knee, to call out the different Americas they live in depending on the color of their skin. Let’s tell the story of their claim that they are bound together by something bigger than a mascot, that they are brothers because of their humanity, in spite of the grief they get for it.
Let’s tell that story.
Let’s talk about the rich men and women, the privileged boys and girls, let’s talk about the struggling ones too, who have used their imagination and stepped out in courage to try to be the change they want to see in the world. Let’s talk about them, because, I don’t know about you, but when I see and hear these stories, something rises up within me. Let’s call it a spirit. Let’s be even more audacious and call it the Spirit of God. And it rises up in me and makes me a better person. I have no more information than I did before. I have no factual basis to do so more than I did, but something tips and a different future suddenly becomes not only a dream, but a probability.
The legendary singer Bruce Springsteen was being interviewed recently about his new autobiography. He was asked about what he calls the magic trick when it comes to what happens at their concerts. “You are there to manifest something.” Springsteen explains. “Before you go in there it’s an empty space. And the audience is going to come and you are going to show up and together you are going to manifest something that is very, very real, that’s very tangible. But you are going to pull it out of thin air. It wasn’t there before you showed up…”
What Springsteen is describing is what is manifested when people like Baldwin and the Garfield football team and you and I give ourselves to what is true, perhaps especially when it is hard and it seems so rare and so fragile. But once it begins to appear it rises up in the one who speaks and acts and the one who sees and hears and something is brought to life and the world is suddenly different, at least for a while, at least for the moment. And sometimes it even tips for good.
The stories we need to tell are fragile like that. They don’t live without us, even if they are always true. I think that’s what the writer to Timothy means by the good confession and its power:
12 Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you 14 to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 which he will bring about at the right time--
And there it is—the manifestation. The manifestation of something new, of something good, of a world that has turned because the truth that was always there is raised in us. Let’s tell that story. Let’s seek that good. Don’t expect it to magically appear. Let it start in you and in me.
 Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” April 16, 1963. Quoted in many places. See, for example, page 10 of this pdf image of the original letter: http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/undecided/630416-019.pdf.
 See Baldwin’s September 22, 2016 tweet, “Things need to change. Let’s start here.”
 The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, September 23, 2016: http://www.cbs.com/shows/the-late-show-with-stephen-colbert/video/384WtqnrA915qrqhXHEZceeiwf391bmo/the-late-show-9-23-2016-bruce-springsteen-/. This conversation appears about 32 minutes into the show, or about halfway into the video.