Thursday, March 8, 2012

Thursday of the Second Week in Lent

Jeremiah 17:5-10 / Luke 16:19-31

There are two ways for one's name to last through the ages. The one way is to have done something notable for the good of others. In an obvious way this fate falls to the name of men and women of political prominence whose rule was decisive, long, or both. In this light, we have come to remember not merely the names, say, of Queens Elizabeth and Victoria, but have even names who eras, styles, and attitudes after them. Others have made such a profound gift to culture in their artistry or in the profundity of their thought that people across the world cannot fail to have heard of them: Homer, Plato, Confucius, Dante, Shakespeare, Bach, Mozart, and others as well. On the other hand, some names are recalled not because of their positive contributions, but in light of their villainy, its extent, its depth, or in some terrible cases, for both of these. So, we cannot mention Jezebel, Brutus, Judas Isacriot, Caligula, Gilles de Rais, Adolf Hitler, without summoning up notions of what is dark and perverse in the human heart, however far removed we may be from their actual wickedness.

Jesus' account to the Pharisees of Lazarus and the rich man upsets these expectations we have of the memory of names. While often called a parable, this story is remarkable in actually naming one of the figures, Lazarus. While parables are, by their nature, not about anyone in particular, and thus potentially about anyone in the audience, this story recalls and preserves for ever the name of a man so ignored in his own life on earth that no one did give him even the crumbs that fell from the rich man's table, and moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. Overlooked and insignificant in worldly terms, the whole Christian world now knows this man's name, Lazarus, and will remember is for all eternity.

The rich man, a man of substance and certain influence, a man who might well have been respected by his peers and contemporaries, is left forever without a name. Even as other features find themselves inverted — his comfort and Lazarus' misery exchanged for his torment in the flame and Lazarus' dwelling in the bosom of Abraham — so in the fate of their names as well. Lazarus, the unknown beggar, is now known across the world and for all time, the rich man will be, like rejected kings of the ancient world or like disgraced officials in Stalin's Soviet Union, struck out from the historical record, never again to have their name spoken, their images and names removed from all public monuments.

To be sure, in the past this rich man was graces with the name Dives, taking the word used in the Latin Bible for "rich man" (dives) and, in a kind of desire for symmetry with Lazarus, the named beggar, giving this character also a name by which to be remembered. While there might be some kindness in sympathizing with the rich man, humanizing him by giving him a name, the desire to do so betrays two mistakes about his fate. The first is that, for those who have turned decisively from goodness and charity, who by the hardness of their heart simply fail to see the misery of those about them and the clear and unambiguous teaching of Moses and the prophets, the abolition of their name is a kind of mercy. Whoever this man was, his name is at least preserved from becoming a sign of wickedness for us.

More than that, in naming the rich man Dives, we distance ourselves from his sin, and do so at our own risk. To the extent that we can think this is simply a story about a very particular man named Dives, a man who has died and already been judged, we need not see quite so immediately what the story has to do with us. Indeed, we might be prone to think that the only audience needing to hear this story was the original one, namely, the Pharisees to whom Jesus presented his account. On the other hand, when we remove the comforting name, can be be altogether sure that those nameless beggars whom we have bypassed in our own lives have not been named Lazarus? Can we be quite certain that we are not, even now, but moments away from the torment of the flame, when we have not merely Moses and the prophets, but Jesus Christ himself? Can we, who have just precisely the witness of Jesus Christ, one who has risen again from the dead, afford to think that the story of Lazarus is about anyone other than ourselves?

No comments: