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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of a Name—Luke 16:19-31 (Fritz Wendt)

Jesus’ story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is a challenging account of the one neglected at the gate, who ends up being exalted, while the one at ease within is cast out. This story has a particular contemporary resonance in the context of the recent events surrounding the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

19 ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” 25 But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” 27 He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” 29 Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” 30 He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” 31 He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’

Many have heard of the unequal battle that is playing out in North Dakota between the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and a Dallas-based company called Energy Transfer Partners. The Native Americans are opposing the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline across their sacred and ancestral lands; they charge that building the pipeline will lead to destruction and desecration of their burial grounds.

The tribe’s attorney said: “This pipeline is going through huge swaths of ancestral land. It would be like constructing a pipeline through Arlington Cemetery or under St. Patrick’s Cathedral.”

On September 3, a procession of prayerful people consisting of men, women, and children, clashed with construction workers who had begun bulldozing the earth, destroying graves and sacred sites, while creating a path for the pipeline. The construction company brought security personnel who attacked the Native Americans with dogs and tear gas, leaving many bitten and temporarily blinded. The guards and dog handlers only left the scene when the dogs started to turn on them.


  1. A NAME ACHIEVED: Luke 16: 19-21

19 “There was a rich man who dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 But at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy what fell from the rich manʼs table; even the dogs came and licked his sores.

The rich man lives your stereotypical life of the rich and famous. He’s made a name for himself: a name achieved. The second player in the drama is the poor man that is hungry and covered with sores. The rich man eats well, and the poor man hungers. The rich man is covered with purple and linen, and the poor man is covered with sores.

Now, for Jesus’ original audience it was clear that the more you have, the more responsibility you bear for society; a wealthy man like this one is bound to support the poor man: the next step is that this rich man reaches out to the gate.

Jesus surprises his hearers. No contact takes place, for both die. The rich man has cared only for achievements and for others who achieve; he has never known the man at the gate.

Rich people who ignore the plight of the poor are known in our society as well. Back in April, a few Standing Rock tribal members set up camp in a small valley where the Cannonball River flows into Lake Oahe. They were protesting a 1,172-mile pipeline to connect oil fields in North Dakota across South Dakota and Iowa to other pipelines in Illinois. Approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to cross under the Missouri River a mile north of the reservation, source of water for the reservation’s residents, the pipeline could cause immediate and irreparable harm.

Who is the rich man in our real-life story playing out in North Dakota? On the surface you could name Energy Transfer Partners or the Army Corps of Engineers who approved the pipeline. But if you look deeper, much deeper, then you get to the history between Native Americans and white people, a history of broken trust and much bloodshed.


  1. A NAME RECEIVED: Luke 16:23-26

Verse 22a: ‘the poor man died and was carried by the angels to be with Abraham.’ That’s a lavish and luxurious description. Now, in contrast: 22b: ‘The rich man died and was buried.’ His death sounds like a death nobody will ever think about again.

From his place in the underworld the rich man sees something quite far away. He is quite bewildered seeing the beggar in the bosom of Abraham. Convinced that his power and status will go on forever and ever, he assumes that even in the next world Lazarus would serve him: ‘So he called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in these flames.”ʼ

Abraham tells him, “I am sorry but your name doesn’t buy anything any more. Comfort and exaltation were yours before; now they are the poor man’s.”

Notice that the Nobody has a name! Only the poor man in Jesus’ parable has a name. Lazarus in plain English means ‘the person whom God will help.’ The rich man has never made it out to the gate, but now instead of the gate there is a chasm. In the face of the injustice that has happened to him, God makes his righteousness visible in this man Lazarus, as he is given a place at the bosom of Abraham.

What’s implied here is that places in the kingdom are not given out according to what we have, but according to what we give away. What counts is solidarity; what counts is love. He who made a name for himself but didn’t care enough to share his wealth has no name any more. He who couldn’t achieve a thing all his life has been given a name of honor: a name received.

Just as God makes his righteousness visible in Lazarus, in our North Dakota story God made his righteousness visible with what happened on September 9. Minutes after a U.S. District Court Judge denied the tribe’s request to stop construction, the Department of State, Department of the Army, and the Department of the Interior, made a joint statement at the behest of the Obama administration saying, “we request that the pipeline company voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe.”

What began as a legal battle has turned into a movement. Fueled by social media, the protest caught fire, and the camp, called Sacred Stone Camp, is now larger than most small towns in North Dakota. At the camp, where thousands have come to protest the pipeline, visitors thread through an arcade of flags representing the 280 Native American tribes that have flocked here in what activists are calling the largest, most diverse tribal action in at least a century, perhaps since Little Bighorn. The Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, and the United Church of Christ, have come out in support of the protesters.


  1. A NAME BELIEVED: Luke 16:27-31 and Isaiah 35:5-6

30 He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” 31 He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’

The early readers of Luke’s book on the life of Jesus knew of a man who had come back from the dead. They all knew Jesus, God’s Christ, who had gone to the cross and come back to life. They recognized in Jesus’ parable their own experience: that people are divided when it comes to the name of Jesus, that people separate into those that do believe and those that don’t.

This is our name: “A name believed.” We all have an individual name, but we also have a name that is given to us by virtue of being here: Christian, meaning, “of Christ”. The name we believe in is the name of Jesus. “At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, every tongue confess him, king of glory now”, as the old hymn has it.

Believing in the name of Jesus is only the beginning of faith. It calls for action. It calls for healing, for our participation in God’s creation. Jesus wants us to look forward with him and to work toward that vision from Isaiah: “Then the eyes of the blind man will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap like deer, and the dumb shall shout aloud, for water will spring up in the wilderness and torrents flow in the desert”.

How do we work toward that vision? How do we participate in the work of the kingdom? We need to go look for the gate. What gate? The gate stands for all the opportunities for living in solidarity and love with people we think of as “other”.

Out in Sacred Stone Camp there is a whole new world. Journalists describe a wide field covered in tents, teepees and trucks, lined by those 280 flags. People whose tribes have been estranged for generations meet as brothers and sisters, united for this one purpose.

“Nobody can push back an ocean”, says Native American poet Naomi Littlebear, “it’s gonna rise back in waves.” What counts is solidarity; what counts is love.

Fritz Wendt, M.A., M.Div., LCSW-R, a native of Northern Germany, is a Lutheran pastor, psychotherapist and church musician living in New York City. He works full-time in the Pediatric ER and Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry of Harlem Hospital.

3 thoughts on “The Politics of a Name—Luke 16:19-31 (Fritz Wendt)

  1. Beautifully written. Thanks for showing us how this parable speaks to us today. Two thousand years after Jesus spoke these words, they are perhaps more relevant than ever. . The rich become richer, while many others struggle to put food on the table. Wealthy corporations are being allowed to do anything they want. We can be proud of our churches for taking a stand against the injustice being done to the Native Americans in North Dakota.

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