The sixth week of Lent is a week of anticipation. The hymns of this week anticipate Lazarus’ death and rising. Yesterday we read, “Today Lazarus lies sick…” and today we read, “Lazarus has died and is laid in a tomb.” Several of the hymns end with the prayer, “Make us worthy to offer you palms of virtue.” The focus of the prayers is shifting from our sin and repentance to Jesus and the events leading to His saving passion.
Another interesting aspect of the hymnology this week is that Luke’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is elided with John’s historical account of the death and rising of Lazarus of Bethany. Elements from both are referred to as though they were referring to the same Lazarus, or at least pointing to the same spiritual meaning or lesson.
Now from a scholarly perspective, the two are not related in any way except the name of the central character in both the parable and the historical account is the same: Lazarus. In the parable, Lazarus is a beggar who longs to be fed from the crumbs that fall from the table of an unnamed rich man. Both die. Lazarus finds himself being comforted in the Bosom of Abraham, while the Rich Man finds himself in flames of torment longing for a drop of water. Abraham, in the parable, tells the Rich Man that during his life he had his good things, but Lazarus suffered; now Lazarus is being comforted while he suffers. However, in the historical account, Lazarus is not a beggar. He has a house and is able to support his two sisters, Mary and Martha. On the surface, the parable and the historical account are not related.
They are certainly not related if you read the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus as a mere morality tale. If the purpose of this parable is merely to teach us to care for beggars, then it is impossible to see any connection to the historical Lazarus. But what if the parable is about more than morality? What if, in addition to material poverty, the parable can be read as referring to spiritual poverty? If read this way, then connections with the historical Lazarus become possible. And this is how the Church reads the parable: spiritually, as a lesson in attending to our own spiritual poverty.
In the hymns leading up to the rising of the historical Lazarus, the Church spiritually interprets the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in two ways. One way the Church interprets the parable is that I am the rich man, and my mind (nous, soul, or spirit) is Lazarus. The spiritual aspect of me is starving and laying at the gates of my life begging that I give it a little attention. I, however, am consumed with food and clothing and riches (intellectual pursuits of all sorts). I don’t care that my mind (nous, soul, or spirit) is starving. Eventually, I will die and to the extent that I have ignored the spiritual aspect of my being, I will be in torment; but if have cared for my spiritual life (at least in some small ways), I will be comforted.
The other way the Church interprets this parable is that the Rich Man refers to Israel, or the religious leaders of Israel. Clothed in the Law and the Prophets, Israel feasted sumptuously on the revelation and religious tradition that it had been given. Jesus is Lazarus, the One who emptied Himself and in humility was crucified “out side the gate.” Having rejected Christ’s life and teaching, Israel now is in torment, thirsting for a drop of Truth.
These spiritual readings of the parable, I think, help us see how both Lazaruses can be elided. The historical Lazarus was a Son of Abraham, and Israelite, who believed in Jesus; thus he is identified with Jesus in the spiritualized reading of the parable. By embracing Jesus in friendship (Lazarus is called Christ’s friend), Lazarus is identified with the rejected Christ. Historical Lazarus becomes the spiritual Lazarus.
So what’s the point? Aside from the spiritualized exegesis, what is the Church trying to teach us?
I think one thing we need to learn from this last week of Lent is that attending to our soul is worth it. We will all die. Even if we do not invest as much care as we should in attending to our soul, at least we must not let it starve. Crumbs from the table. A few minutes to say prayers. A little spiritual reading each day. A couple hours on Sunday. It’s not much–but it can keep from starving our hungry souls begging at the gate of our lives.