Season 8 - Week 2
“Who do you judge?”
I was leading a discussion with some young people recently about God as the ultimate judge and, among the passages that came up in the discussion was this parable: the rich man and Lazarus.
As usual, our conversation diverted off topic, and we started talking about how judgemental we are of other people. The young people were talking about how they judge people at school, and when they go out. They judge people based on how they look, or how they behave on a single moment. And that culture of judgement holds them back too – they don’t do things when they fear being judged harshly by their peers.
We fear being judged and yet we can’t help but do it to others. And then when we bring God into the equation, the stakes get even higher. We fear his judgement – even though we are reassured by stories like The Prodigal Son, and we know there is a promise of forgiveness. But then we are troubled by this promise at the same time because we are not convinced that God should forgive everyone who asks - one young person threw into our conversation a question about prisoners on death row; how can they be forgiven for murdering someone?
And then we read the story of the rich man and Lazarus, told by Jesus in Luke 16. A rich man lives in luxury and ignores the beggar at his gate each day. He dies and goes to Hades (Hell). The beggar, Lazarus, dies and goes to Heaven and is with Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. When the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to relieve his thirst, he refuses:
‘But Abraham said, “Remember, my son, that in your lifetime you were given all the good things, while Lazarus got all the bad things. But now he is enjoying himself here, while you are in pain.”’
The rich man was judged by God because he didn’t share what he had with Lazarus, instead leaving Lazarus to suffer. This behaviour itself was a form of judgement – the rich man did not consider Lazarus to be worthy of what he could share with him. And so God puts things to rights. God here is not only the judge, an impersonal arbiter of what we deserve, but he is active in turning the world upside down and upending the world’s abuse of power – just as Mary prophesied when she was pregnant with Jesus (Luke 1).
The rich man asks God, if he can send Lazarus to his father’s house, as a warning to stop them from making the same mistakes as the rich man, but Abraham is firm about second chances.
‘Abraham said, “Your brothers have Moses and the prophets to warn them; your brothers should listen to what they say.”
It often takes a conversation with young people to show us (or me, at least) what’s going on. Through our honest chat about the judgement these teenagers experience themselves, and that they participate in, it suddenly became clear that the parable wasn’t as much about God’s judgement on us, as it was about the power of our judgement of others. This man walked past Lazarus each day, ignoring him, giving his leftovers to the dogs while he went hungry. And then, at the end of all things, the script is flipped, and he is begging for mercy from Lazarus.
Once again, Jesus is talking to the religious leaders, challenging them about what is really in their hearts. How they think about other people. His story promises consequences for the judgement they hold in their heart now – and tells them, again, that the kingdom of God belongs to those they ignore, belongs to the ones they consider unworthy. I mean, it’s hardly a wonder they killed him, is it?
It’s a harsh message to those in power, but a beautiful promise to those on the receiving end of judgement. So where does that leave us? Reassured by how God will flip things around, or conscious of the darkness in our own hearts? I’m guessing we might experience a bit of both. And perhaps the power of the story is that it helps us to resist the judgement of others and refuse to let it define us. But is that enough? Surely we need to invite the disruption to our own lives as well, and ask the question – who do I judge, and what suffering does that cause? What injustice am I a part of that God will flip around one day? How can I learn to be a generous judge now?
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Read the passage again and ask yourself where you are in the story. Where do you instinctively identify? Are you one of the religious leaders, or a disciple? Are you the rich man, or Lazarus? How does it feel to hear Jesus tell this story - threatening? reassuring? bewildering? Can you imagine how it might feel to hear Jesus tell the story if you were one of the other characters?
Think about who you judge ungenerously. Is it someone in your youth group, or someone from the church who doesn't appreciate how great the young people are? Is it a neighbour, someone you pass begging? Someone from your family that you know too well? Can you think of a way to express generosity and grace towards them this week, to flip your own judgements on their head and act towards them in a way that believes and hopes for the best?