“What’s in a name?” asked Shakespeare’s Juliet. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” And perhaps she was right, perhaps names, in and of themselves, are not what makes things what they are, perhaps names don’t mean much to who we are. But then again, who doesn’t like the sound of their own name? Who doesn’t shiver when their name is called in derision or delight when their name is pronounced in love? Who wouldn’t have fallen on their knees when Gabriel first pronounced the Name of Jesus to His blessed Mother, or who wouldn’t have marveled when even the demons knew that sacred Name? Perhaps names do matter, perhaps some of the sweetness of the rose and the nature of the person is wrapped up in their name. Today we heard Jesus talk about a poor man, a man so poor and at dis-ease that even stray dogs licked his wounds. That poor man’s name was Lazarus.
Jesus told many parables; for a while He spoke to His disciples only in parables. This apparently got a little frustrating for many; the Pharisees and others would get angry and say things like “Tell us plainly.” Stop telling us stories we don’t understand, tell us plainly what we should know about you, about God’s Kingdom. But Jesus preferred parables, stories which illustrated things that are otherwise all but unknowable, and in all of Jesus parables save one, none of the characters are named. The Prodigal Son? No name. The rich man who built a tower? No name. The only character ever to receive a name was the lowliest of characters, maybe the poorest, most pitiable character in all the parables. Jesus named that character Lazarus.
It’s kinda funny, actually, that Jesus chose to name this poor man Lazarus, considering that one of His best friends was named Lazarus. It’s kinda like me telling a story about a stray dog who chases garbage trucks and naming it Billy after my brother. What’s not funny is the fate of the other man in this parable, the man who does not receive a name, that other guy, that rich guy at whose gate Lazarus would beg. That rich man ended up in hell. There’s no nicer way to say it, at least Jesus didn’t try to find a nicer way. Hades, hell, is where the rich man went when he died, and not because he was rich or arrogant or had nice things when others had nothing. Being rich is not a sin (so don’t let anyone tell you it is) and so it was not this man’s sin, being rich didn’t put him in hell. So what was the rich man’s sin?
The rich man’s sin, not surprisingly, is wrapped up in a name. “Father Abraham,” the rich man cried out from hell, “have mercy on me, and send Lazarus…” The rich man looked up from the fiery pit and laid eyes on two men standing in heaven. Abraham he knew, but everyone knows the great Abraham. His trouble came from knowing the other man, from knowing him well enough to know his name. The rich man knew Lazarus by name, he knew him from sitting at his gate day after day, he knew him well enough to recognize him across the chasm that separates hell from heaven, but even from the fires of hell, the rich man didn’t bother to speak to Lazarus himself; even in death, Lazarus was invisible even as he was known.
So the question becomes Who is it that we see at our gates and ignore? Who are the people we know who lay poor at the gates of this place, invisible even as we lay eyes on them? Who are the people who cry out day by day from the ramshackle motels on 206 and 130, with nowhere to go and no one to call them by name? Who do we see every day in this city of ours who we know by name, maybe we’ve known them all our lives, who are poor in the things of God, who are hungry for real life in Jesus?
The rich man knew the poor of his city, he knew the poorest by name, and he dug a pit between himself and those people, he intentionally carved out a chasm to separate himself from Lazarus. What he didn’t realize was that in carving out that chasm what he separated himself from was God, from a life lived fully, he dug a chasm between himself and the hope of heaven. We can do the same, we can hold this city at arms length and not let them in, we can know the names of the people and yet never let their names pass our lips, we can know the Name of Jesus and tell no one of the peace that comes from praising that Name which is above every name. But what a waste that would be.