Written by Steven Liechty
Martin B. Copenhaver
"There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay poor man Lazarus." - Luke 16:19-31
Jesus begins this parable, "There was a rich man . . . ." The rich man's name is not given, which should tip us off from the beginning that something different is going on here, because rich people's names generally are known and known quite well. If you are rich, it seems that everyone knows your name. The names of rich people are spoken like magic words. Those names have the power to open closed doors. And yet, Jesus gives no name to the rich man in the parable.
It is safe to assume that the rich man of the parable does not know the name of the beggar who sits at the gate of his house. But in the parable the beggar has a name—Lazarus, a name that means "God helps." It is a rather poignant name, for clearly no one but God made an effort to help him. It is the only time Jesus ever uses a name in a parable. To the rich man, the beggar is nameless, just a person to be ignored, invisible. But to God he has a name. He is not known as "a beggar." He is Lazarus.
Like so much of Jesus' teachings, this parable upends the usual order of things. In the world, rich men's names are known and beggars are often treated as nameless. In the parable, as in God's realm, it is the beggar, of all people, who is addressed by name.
I am not very good with names. But you are. Thank you for knowing me—and each person—by name.
Martin B. Copenhaver is the President of Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including the forthcoming Jesus is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered.