Absent a Hero
Every play, every movie, every novel ever written, requires a hero. There must be a central character, who defends the weak and speaks the truth. The music swells and the heart grows glad when, at the moment of highest peril, a hero emerges to save the day.
In the presence of a hero, the poor are cared for with the rich. The hungry are fed. A religious hero provides for Here and Now, as well as for There and Then. He cannot be a true religious hero unless he does both.
In the absence of a hero, all the world suffers. In a world where all people suffer some, poor people suffer most.
One day, a real hero, Jesus, is asked about the religious law by a religious lawyer. The religious lawyer is a Pharisee. Our author here, Luke, a gentile, is really hard on the Pharisees. He calls them “money lovers.” In fact, the Pharisees are the Puritans, Separatists, who want the religion of the Jews to be cleansed of impurities. They want the Old Time Religion, back to the heady days of the First Temple.
Jesus loves the worship of God but he does not just repeat the Party Line. Jesus is unacceptable to the Powers That Be as a result. He was a troublesome young man who simply does not know his place.
When Jesus answers the lawyer, He directs the young man in the law itself. Then, perhaps because the young lawyer cannot see what is really in the law, Jesus tells a story designed to show what one needs to be a hero in the Kingdom of God.
A certain rich man lived in a big house. A poor beggar sat at the gate of the rich man, covered in sores, like Job. The beggar, named Lazarus, wanted just to eat the crumbs from the rich man’s table but, instead, the dogs licked his sores.
Everything about the rich man was right. He did not steal his money, he did do wrong. Everything about the poor man was base. He must have offended God, or he would not suffer so, the thinking goes.
However, the rich man died and went into torment. The poor beggar died and was gathered to Abraham’s bosom. Twist!
The rich man asked Abraham to give the poor man a job hauling water to Hell. Abraham reminded the rich man he had been comforted in life, while the poor had suffered. The rich man, usually called Dives, then asked Abraham to give the poor beggar a job running messages to earth. He did not ask much; just that Lazarus return to the scene of his own agony to warn Dives’ brothers of their peril.
You might say, Dives could have been a hero if he had acted in time. The text does not say how long Lazarus suffered or how long Dives flourished. It must be there is sufficient time for Dives to know about Lazarus, for the rich man in torment calls the name of the poor man. They recognize each other. Dives does not offer anything to Lazarus now because he has nothing to give him. Since he has nothing to give Lazarus, Dives offers to give him a job or two.
Lazarus can run water to Hell. Or, he can leave Heaven and try to warn the Dives’ family, who are living just like the rich man lived all his life.
The time is over when Dives can offer Lazarus anything. He cannot be a hero now. He seems to recognize his error but there is no more time. The beggar who needed food, clothing and medical care could have been helped by the simple act Dives now tries to initiate. Lazarus could have been ennobled in life by the simple offer of a menial job. Now it is not the time.
Heroes act in timely fashion. They come just at the right time. They get there in the “nick of time.” Dives has a lot of time to save Lazarus. The time is over.
In the 1990’s a US Naval Submarine surfaced in the South Pacific. The sub accidentally surfaced just under a Japanese sailing vessel. The US sub damaged the Japanese vessel badly. One wag was heard to say, “You know, if the skipper had done that 50 years ago, they would have given him a medal. Now he will get a reprimand.”
Heroes act in time. Lazarus has great needs in time. It is too late to try to compensate later. Dives has nothing to give Lazarus but he now tries to give him a job. If he had given Lazarus a job in time, Dives would be a hero. Now his actions just make him look silly.
Jesus clearly teaches, repeatedly affirms, consistently preaches, that the needs of this generation must be met in this generation by the people alive now. No one is exempt. If someone is hungry, a hero must feed them. A sick man must be healed by a hero.
Durable sin is that which permeates a culture so deeply that, for generations, society approves callousness toward the needy. One way or another the needy are blamed for their need. Jesus, the hero, acts in time to change perceptions with His prophetic word.
We must strain to call Lazarus a hero. His suffering ends at death, so he is acceptable to God, but he exhibits no heroic actions we can discern. It is not a sin to be rich or a virtue to be poor.
So, what is the virtue that makes Lazarus acceptable to God? We can only guess.
Apparently, Lazarus is a persistent sufferer. He could steal but he does not. He could cheat but he does not. He could engage himself with his fellows in some elaborate plot to swindle the haves but he must hold his soul as worthy. So, he keeps to his course, not accepting it with resignation but facing each day with the courage to try again.
Imagine a brilliant woman born or sold into slavery. She has one course, to chop cotton in the sweltering sun, while the master bites her flesh with his whip. At night he sends for her to engage his flesh and so degrades her.
She is a genius. She could offer the world so much if only she could escape her slavery. Alas, she never does. Immense human capital is wasted chopping cotton. She is born, lives and dies in servitude. The world is poorer for wasting her.
Like Lazarus, this beautiful genius gets to the end of her life with only the dogs to lick her sores. She quite literally never has a chance.
Does your heart not cry for her to have a hero? Can you insist she find some way out of her slavery, off the farm, out of the master’s clutches? Many try, fail, suffer more cruelty and even die.
This is the problem with durable sin. The genius may be ruled by the lesser man because of a predictable power imbalance. The world is poorer because man wastes human genius.
Is it any wonder Jesus uses this story to show how roughly God judges the arrogant man, or how blessed is the humble one before God? In this story, Jesus does what a religious hero must do. He demonstrates the way a good (ethical, moral, loving) life now leads to a gracious experience in eternity. There is meaning for now and hope for later.
Durable sin denigrates human capital. The world is a poorer place because of durable sinners, empty persons who hold back the genius we will never know.
Absent a hero, the whole world suffers. Humans are wasted.
Where is the hero?
Jesus is the hero of the story. One grows weary to hear how Jesus is just a common itinerant preacher of His day, repeating the words of some other teacher. Jesus brings ground breaking information. In history, the disciples of Jesus are the first ones we know who are so impressed by Him they go out to make disciples unto Christ after His death, rather than build their own rabbinic schools. The Christians are marked by their reverence of all things Christian. He is no ordinary man.
He always surprises people. He is always rescuing people, from hunger, from want, from illness, from need. He is always showing the way to Heaven.
Think of it. The way to Heaven, Jesus says in this story, is to recognize the need of man on earth and meet it in God’s name. This is no easy believism.
Quite possibly, Dives recognizes Lazarus in Heaven because they knew each other on earth. Perhaps Dives occasionally dropped a crumb on Lazarus. Dives did not do enough to change the fate of Lazarus, however, and, we see, to leave the poor fellow in his sores displeases God. This is a surprise to the audience Jesus reaches.
Jesus surprises the Pharisees with His story. They are a simple people who simply demand the story end with them as the hero. If they can make the prophet disappear they win.
With the benefit of 2,000 years of Christianity, we know how this story must end. The prosperous man who ignores the sufferer must end badly. The courageous sufferer must find his vindication in God, not in his suffering. The audience must recognize their durable sin and so repent of their callous actions.
We get all this because we hear it so often. This is standard, Western liberalism, straight from the lips of Jesus. We know all this.
So why are so many people so hungry? Why are so many bereft of the common needs of life?
Anyone can drop a crumb on Lazarus. We need a hero to change his life.
My late friend, Nelson Turnbow, would not let you call him a hero. He would stop you if you tried. He was a State Champion in sprints and relays back in high school, a college football star, a faithful husband and sacrificial parent. In WW II he served the US Marine Corps as a forward artillery spotter. He would crawl through enemy lines at night, dig a hole, crawl in and wait for morning. When the guns started to fire he would visually adjust the firing to make it more effective with the enemy all around him.
He would not let you call him a hero. He would stop you if you tried.
I often asked this athlete, scholar, Purple Heart recipient, “Nelson, just what does it take to be a hero, then?’
He would just smile.
He did not need to call himself a hero. Anyone who looked at his life would call him a hero. He had always lived like a hero.
You don’t have to tell people you are a “good” Christian. People will call you a good Christian if you live like one. For Jesus, surprisingly, that means loving the needy enough to change their lives. Jesus approves of life-changing charity.