Lazarus, a destitute man, is a central character in one of Jesus’ best-known parables (Lk 16:19-31). The poor man’s name reveals a great deal about him.
Actually, every person’s name is revealing. A name possesses a unique, hidden power. Names have a way of confirming that those they belong to are real persons and not valueless objects.
When others call us by name, they address us personally. In being called by name, we sense that we are known, remembered and not overlooked. There are times when just being called by name creates an uplifting feeling.
But characters in the parables of Jesus usually are not assigned names. Do you know the prodigal son’s name or the name of his older brother, for example? (Lk 15:11-32). The persistent widow who repeatedly asks a judge to enter a verdict against her adversary is not known by name either (Lk 18:1-8).
But Lazarus is introduced by name. We encounter him lying down outside the gate of a rich man’s home. Lazarus is covered with sores.
Typically, Lazarus is called a beggar. The parable says he gladly would have “eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table” (Lk 16:21).
Pope Francis speaks of Lazarus as both a homeless person and a beggar. This is a pope who is known everywhere for drawing attention to the homeless and to beggars. When he speaks of them or meets them, he highlights their dignity and worth.
“Become a beggar. That’s what is lacking, learning to beg from those to whom we give,” Pope Francis told youths when he visited the Philippines in January 2015. He meant he wanted the youths “to be evangelized by” those they serve.
“The persons we help, the poor, the sick, orphans, have much to give us,” the pope insisted. He encouraged respect for the poor, asking the youths to think not only of giving something to them but also of learning from them.
Homeless people were the subject of a question Pope Francis asked in another context that became one of the most-quoted statements of his papacy. In “The Joy of the Gospel,” his 2013 apostolic exhortation, he asked:
“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
Beggars and the homeless are among the “excluded” people of contemporary society for Pope Francis. He believes the excluded suffer from “a globalization of indifference.”
This indifference leaves many “incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor,” he wrote in “The Joy of the Gospel.” He expressed concern about the deadening effects of a “culture of prosperity.”
In cultures ruled by money and where lifestyles are structured around the ceaseless accumulation of possessions, the excluded no longer are just society’s “disenfranchised,” said the pope. Rather, the excluded “are no longer even a part of” society.
To be excluded is to rank among the “outcast” of society, its “leftovers,” he added.
It might seem that ethical reflection is needed for considering the excluded. The problem is, however, that “ethics leads to a God who calls for a committed response that is outside the categories of the marketplace,” according to Pope Francis.
Thus, he suggested, God comes to be viewed in the eyes of many as “uncontrollable, unmanageable and dangerous.” For, a “nonideological ethics” could lead toward a social order that “makes money and power relative,” while condemning the “debasement of the person.”
The biblical parable that introduces Lazarus also introduces the rich man, “who dressed in purple garments and fine linen,” and “dined sumptuously each day” (Lk 16:19). Each of these men is challenging in his own way.
Pope Francis discussed the parable in a March 2015 homily. The parable does not say that the rich man “was bad,” he noted. “If he had parents, he surely sent them things so they would have the necessities of life,” the pope thought. Maybe, too, “he was a religious man in his way.”
But the pope wondered how it was “possible that this man did not realize Lazarus was there, below his house, poor and starving.” The rich man was not “bad,” but “he was sick, afflicted with worldliness,” said the pope.
Worldliness, Pope Francis continued, causes people to “lose consciousness of reality,” and “anesthetizes the soul.” In the parable, he pointed out, we do not learn the rich man’s name, but we do learn the poor man’s name.
Amy-Jill Levine, author of a 2014 book on the parables titled “Short Stories by Jesus” (Harper One), calls attention to the name given to this poor man. She writes:
“The name forces us to notice the man by the gate. He is not just ‘some guy,’ he is Lazarus.”
Levine is a Jewish professor of New Testament studies and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, she writes, affirms “that Jesus proclaimed the poor blessed.”
Gibson served on Catholic News Service’s editorial staff for 37 years.