Say Their Names

a sermon for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 21C/Lectionary 26]

Luke 16:19-31

“Say their names.”

We often hear that phrase in the aftermath of certain tragedies or injustices, especially when there have been victims of violence or hatred. We often rather look away in these instances, or ignore that the event happened, but saying the name seems to keep the issue in the forefront. Maybe its George Floyd, or maybe it’s the children killed in the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting, or the Ukrainians furiously trying to dig up mass graves so they can identify bodies before it’s too late. Look at what’s happening in Iran as people say the name Mahsa Amini. She was the otherwise ordinary 22-year-old Iranian woman who died last week after being detained by the country’s morality police for not wearing a headscarf in public. Those in power would rather her name be forgotten, dismissed, not spoken, because it might cast the might down from their thrones.

a protester holds up a photo of Mahsa Amini

I know I’m often challenged to utter these folks’ names but the truth is that all too often the world dismisses overlooks, or discounts the existence and personhood of people like this. We tend to lump them into one big category—the orphaned, the disabled, the poor, the elderly, the immigrants—so that we won’t have to deal with the sorrow of their individual stories and recognize their meaningfulness. Naming those at the margins takes special effort and involves special pain. Let’s be honest: we’re much more ready to remember and say the names of the wealthy, the powerful, the beautiful, the gifted.

And so this morning Jesus helps us in this task. Jesus says Lazarus’ name, the man in his story who is the very definition of living at the margins in every way you can possibly imagine. Jesus says Lazarus’ name even though most of his listeners would have found that strange. In fact, in all of the 40 or so parables that Jesus tells in the gospels, only one character gets a name. Not the Good Samaritan, not the prodigal son who famously wastes his dad’s inheritance and who shamefully plods back home. Only Lazarus—the man who is so hungry he wants to eat table scraps, the guy who is so dirty and nasty that he’s covered with festering sores, the fellow who is so exhausted he lets dogs lick his wounds because he can’t kick them away. This sad man is the world’s ultimate “nobody,” a victim of the worst kind of neglect, and yet Jesus says his name.

And then, on the other hand, there’s the world’s ultimate Somebody: this rich man, at whose mansion’s front door Lazarus lies. If we told this story, the rich man would have a name, and we’d know his net worth and just how many billions he lost in last week’s stock market downturn. We’d be following him on Instagram along with 40 million other people. But in Jesus’ parable, in the scenario Jesus illustrates, this rich guy is the nameless one. As Jesus tells it, it is this wealthy, no-doubt influential guy who is left without the dignity of individual identity.

Jesus doesn’t give him a name because this is a story about how God envisions the world. This is a window into how God turns the tables on everything, making the last first and the first last. Furthermore, this is a warning, especially for the Pharisees, about how wealth actually has the power to take away our personhood, our humanity, even more than poverty does. This is a parable about how money and luxury build real walls around us and can warp our minds into objectifying the people who are right in our path. This is a reminder of how affluence can cut us off from the particular kind of suffering that would actually allow us to connect us to others. This is Jesus’ lesson about materialism and how God has constantly, from day one, been trying to tear down the barriers it creates to human community.

An enormous study published last month by researchers at Harvard, Stanford, and New York Universities showed fairly conclusively that friendships across social classes have a strong influence on things like increased rates high school completion, reduced rates of teenage pregnancy, and increased income for those born poorer. Said differently, interconnectedness, especially across different income and social levels, is always better for everyone, especially those at the bottom. Interestingly enough, the study also looked at different places in society where people tend to mix across socio-economic lines. In universities, for example, cross-class friendships form at a rate 5% lower than would be expected. In fact, none of our educational settings or workplaces currently promote this kind of mixing at a rate better than average, which is somewhat of an indictment. In religious settings, however, the study revealed friendships between people of different social classes form at a rate 3% higher than expected.[1]

Other studies conducted on human tears, of all things, reveal that tears we shed as a result of our emotions have a higher protein content than tears we shed when our eyes are just irritated by dust or allergies. Higher protein content makes them roll down our cheeks more slowly, increasing the chance they’ll be seen and cause people to care for us. Some scientists see this as proof that our body is built for community.

All this is to say, God created the rich man and Lazarus to live in community, to pay attention to each other, to notice each others’ tears and what they mean. This is to say God creates our communities to be interconnected, that the blessings of God’s good creation may be enjoyed by all. This is the vision that Jesus has for the world, and Jesus comes to share that vision in all that he says and does. And a clownish story about flipping the social structures upside down, about making his hearers notice the people at the bottom, will help his hearers understand that vision.

Jesus is not the first to explain or articulate this vision, and that’s really the thrust of Jesus’ message this morning. This is nothing new, he says. The prophets like Amos mention it, over and over. And the psalms repeatedly, like Psalm 146 this morning, praise God precisely because he lifts up those who are bowed down and sustains the orphan and the widow because too often no one else will.

Reading the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as a real example of what happens to people when they die is to miss the point of the parable entirely. This is not a lesson about what happens to us after we die, and this is not the Lazarus that Jesus raises from the dead in John’s gospel. Only according to some ancient Jewish traditions do people believe they are “rocked in the bosom of Abraham” in the afterlife, and Jesus is borrowing on that as he tells this parable.

Parables typically have an element of exaggeration and embellishment in them, and this great reversal between life now and the life hereafter for Lazarus and the rich man is part of that exaggeration. The rich man’s fortunes are so terrible now after his death that he can’t even get a drop of water to slake his thirst. And lo and behold for the first time we hear evidence he finally sees Lazarus! With his riches pulled away and now experiencing suffering himself, the rich man’s eyes are opened to see someone else, even though the rich man is still only focused on his own needs. God’s hope for us is that our eyes would be opened to see others, and in seeing them, show compassion to them and hear their cries. God’s hope is that we could have our barriers of money and privilege stripped away so that we can be aware of needs other than our own.

Jesus directs this parable at the Pharisees, whom Luke describes as lovers of money. The Pharisees ascribed to a strand of ancient Judaism that God financially blesses those who are faithful. Poverty, on the other hand, was a sign of God’s curse. The Pharisees justified their love of wealth through a corrupt understanding of God’s law Jesus explains that this interpretation of God’s law was never the intention for God’s people.

In the punchline of the parable, the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to his brothers so that they will change their ways. This may remind you of the beginning of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol when the ghost of Jacob Marley, draped in the chains of his earthly riches, visits his still-living business partner, Ebenezer Scrooge, and warns him he will be visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come in order to learn a lesson about generosity. In fact, Dickens based his famous story on this parable. But unlike Scrooge, who is given a chance to learn from the ghost, and does, Abraham says that if those who love their wealth cannot learn from Moses and the prophets that God takes care of the poor, then someone rising from the dead won’t change their minds either. For right now, God is on the side of the Lazaruses. For right now, God’s vision is for people’s tears of suffering to be honored, for true community to be built, for those who have to be warned of the decay that infests their hearts.

And as it turns out, Jesus is so determined to get that point across, Jesus is so insistent that this world get turned upside down, for the good of us all, that he offers his own life to bridge every chasm—the chasm between you and me, the chasms between rich and poor, the chasm between the West End and eastern Henrico, the chasm between black and white. The chasms that separate our schools and our politics and our neighborhoods and our families. Jesus dies and rises to build bridges between them all and raise us to new life, and new respect for all. And when you are feeling bowed low, forgotten by the world, Jesus proudly and boldly says your name.

Ben Rector

My family loves the singer-songwriter Ben Rector, and we came across one song this summer that appears on album he released several years ago The song is called “The Men That Drive Me Places” and it’s really simple—just two verses, a chorus and a bridge, and him on piano—but it too, like a parable, tells a story. It’s the story of him, as a world famous musician, reflecting on the men who taxi him around. It communicates a profound message that Ben sings about his own privileged life, and it contains a nuanced twist on how best to respond to these chasm between the Lazaruses and the rich men that Jesus comes to close:

Danny showed up early, fifteen minutes till five thirty
Making sure that I’d be on my morning flight
He said he’d love to fix computers, but that he can’t until he’s fluent
So he spends his driving money taking class at night
He wore a neatly ironed dress shirt, and he helps his kids with homework
Deep inside I couldn’t help but ask myself
Why that at night I’m up on stage, everybody knows my name
While Danny’s early picking up somebody else

Oh isn’t that just the way it goes
You’re dealt a good hand and you get celebrated
Oh, how am I the only one who knows
I’m half the man of the men that drive me places.

Dear Lord Jesus, you have dealt us an unbelievably good hand. You have died for us, and we are children of your resurrection. Free us from the bonds our riches have on us, from the pride that holds us back. Send us forth again. Send us forth into this broken world with eyes to see the ones you see—the ones who drive us places, the ones who serve us, the ones who cry to be noticed.

And, Lord, give us lips that speak so as to honor them as your children too: Lazarus, Lazarus, Lazarus.


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “Friendship across class lines may boost social mobility and decrease poverty” in The Economist. August 11, 2022

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