By Sarah Hinlicky Wilson
Good morning, everybody. My name is — well, it doesn’t really matter. You’d be impressed if you knew who I was, or who I used to be, before I died. I was a rich and important man. Really rich. Really important. You’d have been proud to be seen in public with me. I wore the best clothes from the top fashion companies. My jeans cost more than you pay for a month of rent.
I had a private cook, trained in France, when I ate at home — but most of the time I was out at expensive restaurants, entertaining clients or being entertained, drinking champagne and enjoying rare ingredients on beautiful dishware. Everyone admired me, everyone wanted to be like me.
Who could blame them? I was the ideal. I had the kind of life that most people only dream of. Yes, my father was rich, we had a lot of friends in government, and I got the best education — but still, I worked hard and I deserved every penny I got. I helped people who helped me, and we did each other favors. Just like it should be — perfectly fair all around.
Well, there was this one dark spot in my otherwise perfect life. My house was in a great neighborhood in the city, really beautiful and clean, full of artworks and designer furniture. But there was this disgusting poor man who insisted on sitting outside my front door. I mean, he was in such bad shape that people who visited didn’t even see my house — all they saw was this sick, stinking, filthy guy. They were afraid to go near him, though he was weak and harmless.
I tried to scare him off. I called the police, but since he wasn’t technically committing any crime, they wouldn’t do anything about him. A few times I turned my dogs on him, but for some reason they wouldn’t bark at him or bite him — they just licked him. Yuck! After a while I just tried to ignore him when I got into my car. Sometimes he would talk to me and ask for money.
He insisted on telling me his name — Lazarus — maybe thinking it would soften me up. It didn’t. Once he even asked permission to go through my garbage cans! He must have figured out that my cook makes so much food that I end up throwing half of it away. Of course, I told him no, and to leave me alone, but every morning he came back again, hoping. I figured he was stupid or lazy or an addict, and that’s why he was poor and sick, and it’s not my job to help people who have ruined their lives.
Well, I won’t bother you with the details, but the day came when I died. I guess I always knew I would die, but I wasn’t really ready for it when it happened. But it turns out, death isn’t the bad part. What comes after death is the bad part. The place I’m in now is bad. To say the least. Not like my wonderful house with its beauty and good food and peace and safety. There isn’t even water to drink in this God-forsaken hole. I never even knew what thirst was like, but now all I can think about is how thirsty I am.
Actually — there is one other thing I think about all the time. I think about Lazarus. Even though I’m down in this hot and terrible hole, I can see a long way, and I can see Lazarus. He died too, but he didn’t end up where I did. He is way high above me, in a place full of light and cool breeze and water.
In fact, he’s hanging out with famous and important people now. He’s best friends with Abraham — you remember him, from the Old Testament, the one that God called? Yeah. Lazarus gets to hang out with Abraham, while I’m stuck here dying of thirst, except I’m already dead, so I can’t actually die of thirst. All I can do is go on suffering. I don’t know why Lazarus gets such special treatment, because he sure didn’t do anything worthwhile with his life. He doesn’t deserve it.
Well, one day I got so frustrated about being thirsty and so mad that Lazarus got this perfect afterlife that I called up to Abraham — and what do you know, he heard me! I was really respectful. I said, “Father Abraham, please be kind to me. I am so hot, and so thirsty. It’s just terrible down here. Be kind, and send Lazarus down to help me out. Just a drop of water on my tongue is all I ask. Surely Lazarus, sitting there in comfort, can do a little something to earn his keep and deserve all the pleasures he gets.”
I didn’t say this part out loud, but let me tell you, it just burned me up that Lazarus got something for nothing. He could show a little respect to those of us who worked hard.
Now I have to say, Abraham was pretty polite. He even called me “child,” since I called him Father. But that’s where the niceness ended. Instead of helping me, he insisted on making me remember my life on earth — as if I didn’t already suffer from the contrast between life then and death now!
“Remember,” said Abraham, “all the good things you used to get. And remember how Lazarus got nothing good — only the bad. Well, you used up all your comfort on earth, and now all that’s left for you is suffering. Meanwhile Lazarus, who did nothing but suffer, is finally getting the comfort he longed for. And may I add, child, that you could have been part of his comfort on earth, but you didn’t bother to help. You just let him go on suffering. Well, you see the result: there is such a huge gap between you and him that even I can’t do anything about it. In any case, I certainly can’t send Lazarus to be your personal waiter and bring you a glass of water.”
This was a disappointment, let me tell you. I think my lips and tongues cracked from dryness just while he was talking. But I got the point. I was too selfish, I should have paid attention to what other people need. Maybe, I thought, if I show him that I’m actually a good person inside, with a generous heart and concerned for others, he’ll give me a break.
So then I said, “Dear Father Abraham, you’re so right. You know, back on earth, I have five brothers. They’re like I used to be, rich and powerful and important. I can see they’re headed down the wrong path. Gee, I’d hate for them to end up just like me. I really want to help them. I really want to set them right. So don’t worry about sending Lazarus to me. Instead, send Lazarus to them. Have him give them a warning so they’ll change course and not end up here like me.”
Again, I didn’t say this part out loud, but it was still driving me crazy that Lazarus was just sitting there doing nothing. Fine, he won’t help me, but I’ll make him help someone else. Anything to get him up and moving! Of course, if it helped my brothers, that would be fine, too.
This time, Abraham didn’t call me “child.” He didn’t seem quite as kind. Instead, he answered me: “Look, you had Lazarus sitting by your door all your life, and you didn’t get the warning. Why should it be any different for your brothers? They won’t take the warning any more than you did. They will ignore and hate Lazarus just the same. I’m not going to send poor Lazarus back to that kind of treatment. But more to the point, your brothers don’t need Lazarus. They already have the necessary information. It’s called the Bible. It’s there in the Ten Commandments that Moses gave you; it’s there in all the prophets. They all say the same thing: Love your neighbor, look after the poor, feed the hungry, protect the widows and orphans, don’t make a god of your money. It’s pretty simple, actually. All they have to do is open the book, and the answer is there for them.”
Abraham obviously doesn’t know my brothers. But I do. They are not exactly the spiritual types. They do not read the Bible, and even if they did, they wouldn’t pay attention. I mean, I didn’t! And I don’t know why I should have been expected to. It’s an old, outdated book, after all. It doesn’t speak to the modern world. It didn’t seem relevant to my situation. If somebody could just have told me how important it was, then maybe I would have listened better.
But the point is, I didn’t listen, and my brothers won’t either. They need something more dramatic than just an old book. They need something really exciting, like a miracle. Something to blow their minds and give them a good scare. Something like Lazarus, a walking corpse, coming back from the dead. That will get their attention! And that will give lazy Lazarus something to do!
So I replied again, very politely, “Dear Father Abraham, I’m flattered that you think so highly of my family, but honestly, we are not Bible-reading people. But that’s OK. We’re not completely deaf and blind. If you send someone back from the dead — say, someone like Lazarus — then I know you’ll get my brothers’ attention. Then they’ll change their ways for sure. Then they’ll end up there where you are, in the light and the breeze and the water.”
Of course, I thought to myself, “If my brothers get up there with Abraham, surely they can do something about getting me out of this hole.”
But Abraham was stubborn. He just wouldn’t listen and wouldn’t believe me. “I’m sorry,” he answered, “but if they won’t listen to the requests of the poor man on the street, and they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets in the Bible, then they won’t listen to someone coming back from the dead, either. In fact, they won’t even believe that he came back from the dead. They will say it’s impossible for anyone to rise from the dead.
Don’t you see? It’s all connected. Believing in the resurrection from the dead is the same as believing in the law and the prophets, and believing in the law and the prophets is the same as taking care of the suffering people you see around you. You don’t get one without the other. I could send a thousand dead men to you, but if you can’t see the one, suffering, living person at your door, the thousand dead people won’t get through to you. I could recite the Bible to you day and night, but if you won’t recognize other people as God’s beloved children, I may as well read you the manual for your air conditioner. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing more I can do for you. You’ve had your comfort. Now it’s Lazarus’s turn.” And that was the end of our conversation.
I don’t know about you, but that whole thing just made me madder than ever. How was I supposed to know Lazarus was so important? He was just a poor, sick, disgusting beggar. How was I supposed to know God cared about him? Why didn’t anybody tell me? Why didn’t anybody make me listen to the Bible? Maybe, if someone came back from the dead to tell me, I would have believed. I don’t know. What about you?
The Rev. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is associate pastor at Tokyo Lutheran Church.