Dives, Lazarus, and the Problem of Knowledge

The famous parable of the Rich Man (who acquires, in the tradition, the name “Dives,” which is Latin for…yes, a rich man) and Lazarus obviously raises the problem of wealth and poverty, and hence of justice, and also of judgement. It also raises the problem of knowledge. In his torment, Dives presents the problem in just these terms, begging Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers "that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” He just hadn’t known, and now wants his brothers to know. 

Abraham’s response has a clear Christological sting or at least wag in the tail for us hearing the story from a later perspective; if they did not listen to Moses and the prophets, "neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” This nod to the historic future of the parable’s own world may obscure the other part of what is significant, if ironic, about the suggestion of Lazarus in particular as messenger; not just that he would be risen from the dead, but that he was the same poor man who sat every day in the gate of Dives’ house, always eloquent testimony to what was not being heard. 

At this moment in history, the difficulty of hearing or seeing the obvious is very stark. After a bruising election, the divisions of opinion within US society have a resilience reminiscent of the parable’s "great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” One thing both sides of these divisions find incomprehensible is the mutual incomprehension itself. We resort to various half-explanations more useful for maintaining the chasm than for exploring it: the others are stupid, or bad, or ill-informed. Their apparent virtues are vices, mere “gaslighting” or otherwise disingenuous. Sometimes these accusations have enough truth in them that they can avoid the scrutiny they deserve, but sometimes they are simply not true enough to do more than obscure the problem. 

Dives was not lacking evidence of what was demanded of him. Just as Abraham muses that even a resurrection will not convince those not already convinced by Moses and the prophets, the parable gives us in its very telling another parallel irony: Lazarus had already been there as a messenger for Dives, and his word was as eloquent as those of scripture, as eloquent as the word picture of the dogs licking his sores and his anticipation of what would fall from the rich man’s table. What was lacking was not evidence, but Dives’ capacity to understand it. Still, he didn’t know. 

What is the message for us though? The temptation is of course to treat this as a parable of the breathtaking delusion of the other. The Gospel however is rarely there to reinforce our own preferences; and here in fact the precise message is that what we need to think differently (yes, implying that we do) may be available to us but still ignored. We don’t know either. 

We are constantly tempted, both with regard to the past and present, to moralize about what we see and others do and did not: thus we conclude (for instance) that only the vicious and oppressive could have countenanced slavery and patriarchy then, only the bad and the ignorant could vote for Trump now, and so forth. Yet we do tolerate - or rather embody, like Dives sitting at the groaning tables of our western lives - other practices that drive inequality and environmental degradation, to take two obvious cases. Of course not we do not support these, we deplore them. Yet why assume Dives would not have deplored sickness or poverty? Our actions, our relationships, our reliance on systems and structures, are what place us in the parable, not our opinions. 

Moses and the prophets, the risen Christ, and every Lazarus at every door speak the same message of judgment and hope to us, and they are not as much interested in our opinions as we assume. Practice is the mark of knowledge, the sign that we are learning something, however falteringly. Acknowledging the limits of our own knowledge, and the need for it still to be transformed, may yet give us not only a different relationship with Lazarus, but with those from whom we are divided by every apparently impassable chasm, but who are united with us at least in the need for transformation. Our hope is not that we already know what we need to, but that there is one who has crossed that gap between death and life, who continues to teach us in every situation of want. He also promises to bring us to eat with him and with unlikely companions, Abraham and Moses and Lazarus, Sarah and Miriam and Mary and Martha, and then we will all at last know.


An unpreached sermon


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