We had an amazing time during Bible study today.
The setting is the Rickman House, a single-room occupancy (SRO) subsidized apartment complex for adults who live with mental illness in Kalamazoo, Mich. The Rickman is often many residents’ last stop before (or first step after) being homeless. The names of participants have been changed and comments have been paraphrased.
There were two participants in today’s study, in addition to myself.
One participant, let’s call him Tom, is a socially awkward man in his late thirties who likes to dress in leather. He self-medicates his mental illness with alcohol and other substances. On Sundays, he sits on the steps of the Roman Catholic cathedral, but doesn’t go in, afraid that he doesn’t have enough faith. He says, “I just need a break from this place (i.e. the Rickman) sometimes.” He was raised in an evangelical Christian household but now isn’t quite sure what to make of faith. He says, “I believe, but I don’t believe… y’know?”
Our passage is Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, recorded in Luke 16:19-31
I’ve been wrestling with this passage all week as I prepare to preach on it this Sunday. As is often the case, participants in this Bible study hardly ever attend church (if at all). I lead this study using techniques I learned from Bob Ekblad, one of my seminary professors and author of Reading the Bible with the Damned.
Looking at the text, we read, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.”
Looking for equivalent images in contemporary society, we decide to imagine this rich man as a business man in a three piece suit who eats lobster and filet mignon at a swanky downtown restaurant.
Continuing to read: “And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.”
They decide that Lazarus was probably like a homeless panhandler in the city. They notice that Lazarus was sick, like so many of them who live with mental illness at the Rickman. Thinking specifically about the sores, they recognize that there are many “sore spots” in their own lives and minds: painful wounds that refuse to heal after so many years. Without access to proper medical care, Lazarus reaches out for some kind of temporary relief from the pain, even if it comes from a dog’s tongue.
“He’s self-medicating,” says Tom, noticing the similarity with his own tendency to ease the pain of his emotional “sores” with drugs. It may not be good or healthy (like letting wild dogs lick open sores), “but that’s the only thing that quiets my emotions,” he says. Like so many other people who are substance-dependent, Tom assumes that his addiction is due to his own moral failing. He thinks he shouldn’t call himself a Christian if he is still using. He sometimes worries that he will go to hell if he dies in his current condition.
I decide to test this assumption by looking carefully at the biblical text.
In the next sentence, the text reads, “The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.”
I ask, “Does it say that, when Lazarus died, the demons came up and dragged him down into hell?”
Looking puzzled, he says, “No, it says angels came and took him to heaven. They were compassionate. They showed him mercy.”
I note that Abraham was an important figure in biblical history. He is the founder of three world religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. So, to be with him is to be in a place of great honor.
I ask a very important question: “What did Lazarus have to do in order to earn his place of comfort and honor in Abraham’s bosom? Does the text say that he repented of his sins? Did he accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior? Did he join the church and put a big, fat check in the offering plate?”
“No, definitely not,” Tom says in reference to the last question.
“What did Lazarus have to do, then?” I ask.
“Nothing,” Tom says, “he was just poor and in pain, and God showed him mercy.”
I suggest that God wants to do the same thing for him.
There are two linguistic details that want I clarify for the group from the text. The first is the name of the homeless man: Lazarus. In Hebrew, that name is Eleazar, which literally means “God helps.”
“This is not a coincidence,” I say, “It’s very intentional and important to the meaning of this text. When Lazarus is dying, what does God do?”
“God helps him,” they say.
Does that mean God ignores Lazarus?
“No,” they reply, “God helps.”
Does God judge or criticize Lazarus for letting the dogs lick his sores?
“No, God helps.”
Does God shout, “Go get a job, you lazy bum”?
“No, God helps.”
The text says that angels picked Lazarus up and took him “to be with Abraham.” The original Greek text of this phrase literally translates as “Abraham’s bosom”. I compare it to the image of a mother holding a crying child close to her chest for comfort and love.
“Yeah,” Tom says, “my girlfriend used to do that for me, before she died.”
I suggest that maybe God wants to be his girlfriend and care for him in the same way, holding him close in God’s arms.
“I don’t know,” he says, “I’m not really into guys that way.”
I point out that God is not exclusively male; there are several feminine images for God in the Bible. Jesus described himself as a mother hen gathering her chicks. Deuteronomy describes Yahweh as a mother eagle, teaching her young to fly. And then there is Sophia (“Wisdom”), a feminine image for God in the book of Proverbs. She is a beautiful woman who stands in the door of her house and invites us in to share a feast. “I never knew that,” Tom says as he smiles and nods his head.
Before I leave, we pray that God will help Tom experience God’s care and compassion for himself, even in the midst of his struggle with illness and addiction.