Life as a Dog (Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

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I’ve often shared that I have great amount of love and curiosity when it comes to Jesus’s parables. I find them to be intellectually stimulating, multi-faceted, and timeless. As a preacher, learner, and follower, I appreciate how parables rely upon the metaphoric voice to broaden our understanding of God and our spiritual lives.

The first thing I want to do is point out a few oddities in today’s parable:
First. Apparently, people in hell can communicate with those in eternal bliss. This is the basis on which the entire parable is presented. I believe this connection is critical in interpretation.

Second. There’s a dog in the story. But, we’ll get to that in a bit.

In the parable, the rich man is ‘on fire,’ and still, he drives much of the parabolic conversation. This is both surprising and interesting, since we are initially led to believe a very definitive fence has been erected between the rich man and the poor man, creating a chasm that cannot be crossed. 

This separation is not unexpected.
What is unexpected is the rich man has found himself on the ‘wrong’ side of the fence.
In this first century world distinct fence lines are erected all over the place. 
The poor belong here, with here NOT being a blissful or abundant place.
And, the rich belong here, with here NOT being a hellish and deathly place.
And never shall the two yards meet.
It is quite, quite clear.

Lazarus did nothing to become poor. He was simply born into it. Just as the rich man did very little to get rich. He was simply born into it. It was all somewhat predetermined based on societal structures, social class, race, and religion.

And, if we’re honest, things aren’t really so different in our twenty-first century world.

While we may recognize that Lazarus was poor, because the rich men of the world devalued, oppressed, and stepped on him and others like him, they didn’t see it that way at all. They saw wealth and success as an expression of God’s generosity and favor, which was only given to certain chosen people.  Those who ‘had’ were entitled to what they had, because it had been given them by God.

Metaphorical fences were needed between the rich and poor; the chosen and the damned; the clean and the filthy. Fences are very effective at setting boundaries, especially if the fence is guarded or weaponized.

The rich man is completely surprised to find himself on the wrong side of the fence, separated from God. The text seemingly supports the notion of separation, “Between you and us a 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.”

How do we make sense of this? Especially as people who arguably live on the abundant and lavish side of the fence. Our grass is green. Does it mean we’re damned in the afterlife? We’ve already received our reward?

First, I think it’s important to state the obvious: inequality, especially gross inequality, threatens the very nature of civil society — our politics, health care, education, housing, employment, and legal system. Second, wealth and power have the potential to threaten our relationships with God and others. This isn’t to say that wealth is intrinsically evil, but it’s definitely dangerous. And, we are all susceptible to its seductive powers.  Third, I must wrestle with and confess that there are people in this world who could live for two days on my Starbucks latte. Many people suffer daily from the catastrophic consequences of poverty.
I, personally, do not.
This is not condemnation. It is purely truth.
A truth that I must admit I live in.

This is a hard parable, because it calls us to take a hard look at the ways we fence ourselves off from others, whether it’s by hoarding love, money, time, forgiveness, or mercy.

Initially, the rich man thinks life is found only on his side of the fence. He believed this to be true for today and tomorrow; on earth and in heaven; in this life and the next. He, and many others, believed the green grass of life is comprised of money, prestige, and power. Jesus would say the rich man’s grass had been fertilized with hoarding, isolation, and dictatorship, not God’s generosity and grace.

A long while ago, when I lived in Virginia and my boys were young, we had a fence around our backyard. All my neighbors had fences too. Of course, we were very ‘neighborly,’ so we had gates which connected all our yards, so the kids could easily pass through them.  At the appropriate times.

We also all had dogs. Well, dogs don’t always listen. Neither do kids, but…  Dogs look at fences differently than people.

We see fences as protection.  Dogs see fences as barriers.
Dogs know that beyond the fences, life and freedom await.

Now, lest we romanticize this, let me point out that the dog in the parable probably wasn’t much to look at. We’re not talking about a golden retriever here, with a thick flowing coat, big brown doe eyes, and a wagging tail.

No.  This was likely a mangy, skinny, mutt, who ran from place to place with its tail between its legs.

Let me also point out that the dog licking the wounds of poor Lazarus – pretty darn disgusting. Occasionally my dog gets fixated on a bump or scratch on her skin and starts licking. The whole licking process can be sorta of gross. She’s so adamant about it. Licks and licks and licks. And the constant slurping sound. It just makes my skin crawl after a while.

Lazarus is covered in wounds which are pussy and oozy; maybe flies and maggots have gathered about him; there’s debris stuck to him; and he probably doesn’t smell that great either.

And the dog licks him. Over and over again.

In ancient times, dogs were used in healing practices. The Greeks held the belief also and their temples, which were dedicated to their god of medicine, often contained dogs trained to lick wounds. They believed that dog saliva had healing properties. Who knows if that’s true, but at the time the parable was told, it was a school of thought.

So, yeah, since I adore metaphors, I’m going to offer the interpretation of Jesus being a dog – which is probably good news to Pastor Steve – not because I think it’s all about the dog, but because I believe the dog’s vantage point says a lot about God’s vantage point. And, because Jesus spent his life running from place to place, indiscriminately offering love and healing, seeking scraps wherever he went, and getting beaten. He lived the life of a dog.

The dog doesn’t leave Lazarus. Everyone else has.
But not the dog.
For those who love dogs, nothing beats their constant attention and devotion.
For those who love Jesus, it matters that he promises to never leave – no matter what. 

But, what about the rich man? No dog for him? No Jesus for him?

Let me ask you something… Was the rich man actually alive in this life?  While he was eating sumptuously, ignoring the needs of others, living safely behind his walls and never seeing what was going on in the world – was he actually living the kind of life worth living?  At least according to God?

No. The rich man is alive in death. He’s not only ‘alive’ in hell as the parable points out, but he was dead in his life on earth. Much his dismay, he discovers that his whole life has been a living death.

However, according to Jesus there is a way to die that leads to life. Jesus teaches us the truth that when you lose your life, then and only then, will you find it. The rich man never died the proper kind of death in this life – the kind that leads to true life today and life eternal.
And so, is all lost?  For the rich man?

What’s the one thing a dog hopes for as he sits behind a fence?  A dog hopes for a gap; a way through. The rich man’s only hope is a gap in the fence, as he lays tormented in hell.  And, Lazarus’ only hope is a gap in the fence, as he lays tormented on earth.

The story says Lazarus was hungry and poor and lowly. It says nothing about he was a ‘believing hungry person’ or a ‘believing poor person’ or a ‘believing lowly person’.  He too might have needed a gap in the fence, although not in the same manner as the rich man.

The sad, sad thing about this parable is that both the rich man and Lazarus were robbed of life on this side of the fence.  And Jesus doesn’t want that for anyone.

I feel as if Jesus must’ve chuckled as he recounted the rich man’s closing plea, “No, Father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’  And then he likely grinned again with Abraham’s words back to the rich man, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Don’t you think he had a hard time not cracking a smile? I mean, here Jesus foreshadows his death and resurrection. Abraham may not believe they will be convinced by someone rising from the dead, but Jesus does. This parable doesn’t really conclude or offer a solid ending, because Jesus is the ending.

We don’t know if the rich man stayed in hell, but we do know one thing about Jesus. Jesus, the lover of life, was sent for all. Died for all. Was raised for all.
I believe that there’s always hope.

Because the resurrection says once and for all that there’s a gap in the fence.
Jesus knocks down all the fences and says, “Come. Live life like a dog. Run, feast, heal, and love everyone you meet.”