by Linda McMillan
“If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door you will not find him in the chalice” – St. John Chrysostom
Valerian murdered a lot of people in 258. Everyone from members of the imperial household, and senators, to those who were slaves, were under a death sentence if they failed to worship Roman gods. About this time, a young archdeacon named Lawrence had managed to survive the persecutions and was the last deacon left in Rome. Valerian, a greedy old murderer, gave orders that Lawrence should get all the church’s gold and treasures together and to give it to him. That’s when Lawrence got busy. He took all the money, the gold, the gemstone encrusted appointments… everything of value, and he gave it to the poor. Then, the last representative of a now penniless church, Lawrence gathered the poor, the lame, and the sick and presented them to the prefect saying, “You are correct to say that the church is rich. Indeed, she is richer even than your emperor. Behold, here is the treasure of the church.”
And, thus, on August 10, 258, Lawrence was cooked to death on a red-hot gridiron. You see, it’s not nice to play tricks on the emperor. His sense of humor intact, though, Lawrence is said to have quipped, “I am done on this side, you may turn me over now.” That is the story of how Archdeacon Lawrence became Saint Lawrence, and the patron saint of cooks, and comedians.
Lawrence now rests in the bosom of Abraham. Valerian, of course, was captured by the Persian king, Shapur, and suffered many humiliations before finally dying and… Well, one suspects that he may not be in the bosom of Abraham. Like the characters in today’s parable, Valerian and Lawrence had a reversal of fortune.
In today’s parable, Lazarus had a hard life and the rich man had an easy one. Throughout the story of their earthly lives, there was a gate separating Lazarus and the rich man, but gates open and close, and then they can be opened again. That’s how gates work. In other words, the rich man could have gone out, at any time, and taken some food to Lazarus, or invited him in for medical care and shelter. It would have been easy. The only thing separating them was a gate. Some scholars even speculate that Lazarus was left at the gate by people who believed that the rich man would care for him.
There’s a twist in the story, though. In the afterlife, the rich man and Lazarus had a reversal of fortune similar to Valerian and Lawrence. This time, though, there is not a gate separating Lazarus from the rich man. This time, is’s an uncrossable chasm.
In the story of Saint Lawrence, Lawrence had the vision to see that it was the poor, those with nothing, who were the treasure of the church. The rich man in today’s story couldn’t see it. He failed to see it when there was only a gate separating them, and he still failed to see it when there was a chasm between them. Seeing Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham did not change the rich man’s attitude that Lazarus was his servant, an errand boy who could be sent to warn his brothers. The rich man still can not see that Lazarus is a treasure.
How is it, though, that the poor came to be such treasurers? I mean, having money is not a sin. The New Testament is full of stories of well-off people inviting Jesus and his disciples to feasts. Aren’t they treasures too?
Maybe. But there was something special about Lazarus. The parable hints at his specialness by giving him a name. The rich man wasn’t named. He was just a rich guy who enjoyed (heavenly?) banquets every day. He was not a treasure in the same way that Lazarus was.
The thing that makes the very poor so very valuable is that they have nothing… Nothing at all. Like those very, very poor, we too may have a kind of poverty. We may worry that our lives are for nothing, mean nothing, stand for nothing, are of no consequence… that we ourselves are big nothings. Yet, it is out of nothing that God created everything that is.
Then there are those who are like the rich man and believe that they have quite a lot to offer. In fact, they are almost worthless. Creation, new life, does not emerge out of one’s goodness, or effort, or even real ability, and not out of wealth either. It comes from nothing. Resurrection doesn’t happen to those who are alive. You have to already be dead. New life doesn’t grow on top of verdant foliage. New life is nourished by dead things. That is why it’s hard for a rich person, a person who already has quite a lot, to enter the kingdom of Heaven. And, here’s something to think about, it is equally hard for those who have an abundance of intelligence, or charisma, or oratory, or teaching, or preaching, or musicology, or healing, or being especially spiritual, or any of the other things we so admire in this (church) society. In fact, it seems that the reason for this parable is to instruct the rich — in whatever ways they may imagine themselves to be rich — in the ways of nothingness, more than to instruct the poor who already have nothing.
Who are the big nothings in your church? They are the treasures. If you need a source of new life, look to the big nothings… There’s creation power there!
In what ways do you have nothing to offer? How are you poor? I am not talking about some area in which you’d like to engage in self-improvement. What I am talking about is an area in which you have nothing to offer… nothing at all. Look for new life there, because that’s where it’ll be.
Do not overlook these areas of extreme poverty in yourself or in others. Ask God to give you eyes to see the poor in your community, ears to hear the cries of poverty in your own heart.
The good news today is that while you might have a lot of things, you also have nothing. And, that — wherever you find it — is your treasure. The blessing is right at the gate!
Linda McMillan is a native Texan living in Shanghai.
Image: James Tissot [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Some Notes of Possible Interest
It’s important to remember that a hagiography — that is, a story about the life of a saint or saints — is just a story. Hagiographies are not historical accounts, rather they point us to theological truths about the life of the saint. They usually contain some historical data, but that is not the point.
Both Romans and Jews would have expected that the poor would be provided for. By ignoring Lazarus, the rich man was operating outside the cultural norms of his society.
Note that it is difficult for the rich to get into the kingdom of Heaven, it is not impossible. Jesus had lots of well-to-do friends. At any rate, they had enough to support an itinerant preacher and his band of disciples. Mary of Bethany, and her sister, Martha were well off. Jesus’s friend, Joseph, was also rich. Or what about Zacchaeus who hosted a banquet for Jesus? The New Testament is full of stories of people inviting Jesus and his disciples to feasts. Jesus never told them they shouldn’t have so much. No. He just ate the food. Wealth, it turns out, isn’t as bad as it’s sometimes made out to be.