Name and Identity
A name is an identity. Customarily, parents/grandparents are responsible for naming a new-born child and they choose a name that is connected to an important event cherished by the family, villagers, clan, tribe, and community. To not have a name is similar to a lifeless object without an identity. Usually, we give names to our pets and they become part of the family. We give names even to trees, flowers, fruits, plants, animals, mountains, etc. By giving names they become precious and part of human life. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve gave names to every living creature. As name-giving bear’s responsibility for taking care of them, some people do not call others by name. For instance, husband and wife do not call each other by name out of love and respect, children do not call their parents, grandparents, and close relatives by name out of respect, and students do not call their teachers by name out of respect. In some contexts, the subordinate staff does not call their superiors by name, instead, they address them as “sir/madam”; in earlier times the slaves did not call their master by name. Calling names also has negative meaning; subordinate staff, friends, or even neighbours, called by their name usually is a sign of anger, displeasure, and frustration. In some societies, rich people are not called by name, rather they are identified as selfish, boastful, and aggressive when they turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the cries of the poor. Thus, naming and not naming have different implications.
Nameless People in Today’s World
In today’s society, many people are rendered nameless and their collective identity is crushed. The indigenous people who were once rich with their cultural traditions are now reduced to “NO” people in many countries. In the early 90s, a friend of mine wrote an excellent article on the struggle of ethnic minorities in Myanmar. I wanted to publish it in the Journal of Tribal Studies but on seeking his permission for publication, he wrote me back saying “You are permitted to publish it but change my name to an Indian name, otherwise, I will be arrested.” Myanmar was under military rule at that time. Hiding one’s identity is common in many countries such as Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia; they fear the repercussions of elimination, arrest, and killing when they raise a critical and constructive voice for justice, particularly on the issue of indigenous people’s rights and justice. Sometimes, people adopt the dominant community’s names out of fear of discrimination. In some countries, dominant names are imposed on indigenous communities. An indigenous friend of mine in Taiwan is identified as ‘Kapi’ by his parents, villagers, and friends. In one of his childhood incidents, during his education years, a Chinese teacher came to his classroom and started taking roll calls. The teacher started calling for “Ching Ming-Sheng” and everybody, including Kapi turned around looking for the person. The teacher pointing his finger at him said, why are you turning around? What are you looking for? Your name is Ching Ming-Sheng. From that day onward he was asked to identify himself with that name. This is how indigenous identity is crushed by the dominant societies. The people are not allowed to identify themselves by their indigenous names. It is not only personal names but the names of the native villages, towns, streets, mountains, and rivers that are also changed and given a new name by the dominant societies. This process was strategically done in countries like the USA, Canada, Taiwan, Myanmar, Australia, Brazil, the Caribbean, Argentina, and many others to integrate the indigenous peoples into the dominant society. In some places, indigenous names, icons, symbols, and cultural practices would be considered as undignified and demeaning to inculcate a feeling of lower self-esteem and a negative image of indigenous culture and wisdom; in other cases, the indigenous people would be forced to change their religious beliefs, educational practices, economic and political system. The making of people nameless is a dangerous process of domination.
Having a Name, not having a Name in the Bible
Naming involves the restoration of respect, dignity, and rights. It is making ‘nobody into somebody’.
In the Gospel of Luke, we read,
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 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. Luke 16:19-21
This parable tells about the tale of two persons – the Rich man and Lazarus and is unique to the Gospel of Luke. Following the parable of the Prodigal son who wasted his wealth and the end of chapter 15, Luke addressed the faithful use of wealth in service to God in chapter 16.
This story is a three-act play. The first portrays the earthly contrast between the wealthy man and Lazarus, the second act describes the reversal of their conditions in the afterlife and the third act depicts the Rich man’s request to Abraham for a sign so that those still living will not share his torment, a request which Abraham refused. Importantly, this parable presents us with several truths.
A Nameless Person
Luke begins the parable by saying “There was a Rich man who was dressed up in purple and fine linen” (v.19a). This Rich man was introduced without any details regarding his age or place of residence and he was nameless. Yet, what is striking is that the Rich man is only identified with the dress he wore – purple and fine linen attire, providing information to us that this was the ordinary apparel that he wore. During those days, this true sea purple dye was extremely precious and rare and was scarcely used even by the princes and nobles of a very high position. In the Bible, purple and fine linen is mentioned in a few places (Rev. 18:12; Prov. 18:12; Ezek. 27:7). This most luxurious fabric is associated with royalty or quasi-royal dignity. In it, the idol images were sometimes arrayed. In the parable, the Rich man is not identified with his name! For the rich, wealth is God and it is more prestigious to identify oneself by wealth. Revealing his “Wealth” is more important than his good works. This signifies that the Rich man has amassed wealth. In those days, many became rich through dishonest works and exploitation of the poor.
The Rich man had everything at his disposal. It says he “feasted sumptuously every day” (v. 19 b). Notice the reference to ‘every day’. During Jesus’ time, half of the population was starving to death, 15% of the population were daily laborers. “A denarius was a subsistence wage; one day’s worth was only sustainable for one person, or three measures of barley, enough for three people for one day. Just bread, nothing else.” (Revelation Velunta, Reading the Parables of Jesus inside a Jeepney, p. 20). The society was so corrupt that common people had to shell out up to 55 percent of their income on taxes and tithes. At that time when the poor passed the day without proper food, the Rich man was making a feast every day, a feast with his rich friends, but not with the poor. A banquet was a daily occurrence. The parable says he feasted lavishly, not just on special occasions. Feasting on special occasions seems reasonable, but every day? Thus, this nameless mighty and rich one lived with all the accompaniments of grandeur. We can imagine that his halls were occupied with noble guests in rich attire and filled with entertainers and servants. Everything that could make life splendid and joyous was in profusion and abundance.
Historians tell us that in the First Century Palestine, practically all the land was either owned or controlled by the ruling elite. The parable of “the Rich Fool” exposes the greediness of the rich. It says that the land of a rich man produced abundantly. He had no place to store and decided to bring down the old barns and build bigger ones while half of the population was starving to death. His problem was he never thought of sharing with the poor (Luke 12:16-21). He was blind to see the plight of the poor like Lazarus. The rich man’s wealth was certainly earned from the backs of the poor through the oppressive patronage system of his time. The system was based on wealthy patrons who loaned money to poor clients with heavy taxation. When the clients failed to pay their loans, their land was confiscated. A Rich man like this one would have accumulated massive wealth due to this unjust system. The Rich man never recognized or acknowledged his sin.
The Rich man lived in a ‘house’ with a “gate”, not a door. The power of the Rich man is emphasized by his gate implying a position of power and prominence. Some New Testament scholars opine that the gate suggests a large ornamental mansion. Here Jesus was alluding to some of the most powerful families of the times who were both rich and corrupt. What does a gate symbolize in today’s society? The rich. Well-protected and secured. Despite all his riches, he was not identified with a name because of his greediness. It was an insult. Richness is worthless if one is not willing to share. The Rich man died and was buried surely with grand fashion, but went to Hades, the place of eternal fire. Even after his death, he continued to see Lazarus as his servant. He asked Abraham, “Send Lazarus over here to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue. I am in anguish in these flames.” (Lk. 16:24). A peculiar characteristic we see in the elite mentality even today.
A Person with a Name
In striking contrast, Lazarus lays at the gate of the Rich man. “And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus” (v. 20a). The Greek name Lazarus is derived from two Hebrew words El-ezer meaning “God helps/God helped.” He was described as a “poor man,” perhaps similar to the poor beggars we see in our cities today or even worse. Lazarus is laid at the Rich man’s gate without any explanation of how he became a beggar. But he became a beggar because of exploitation. Lazarus is a victim of an unjust system.
To live at somebody’s gate waiting for the left-over food or burnt bread is terrible and painful. It was indeed a humiliating condition. He was waiting with the dogs. In the past, the bread used to be baked in fire and it is said that nobles and high priests would not eat the burnt portion of the bread. Eating such a portion was considered to be a sign of impurity. This means the Rich man is pure and holy, while Lazarus is impure, unholy, and untouchable, associated with stigma.
“Covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table” (v 20b and v 21a), Lazarus was not only hungry and thirsty but was also covered with sores, carrying a loathsome disease (perhaps leprosy). He was not only untouchable but was also extremely sick. He was indeed a disabled person – impure compounded with pain and suffering.
Lazarus could not get around for himself because of starvation and illness; he was as good as dead. Since he was an impure and untouchable person, Lazarus would not have had any relatives, friends, and helpers. He was left alone, except with the dogs. Some commentators opine that the dogs were the wild, homeless stray breed common in all Eastern cities, operated as the street scavengers, and were regarded as dirty and unclean. The Bible says that things associated with dogs were unclean. This is another sign of this man’s outcast condition (see Exodus 23:31; 1 Kgs 21:19, 24; LXX Ps 21:16; Matt 15:26-27; Mark 7:27-28). The story also suggests that Lazarus was defenseless in that he could not even ward off the dogs. The dogs licked the pus that oozed from the afflicted man’s sores and ulcers. It appears that the dogs might even have been acting like doctors and nurses for this poor man. Hungry, sick, and with dogs licking his sores, one can only imagine how pathetic this poor man’s condition was. Lazarus’ presence polluted others.
The Jews looked down on Lazarus as a sinner and cursed by God. At the time of Jesus, a beggar was regarded as a sinner. Poverty was a sign of divine displeasure and suffering from an incurable disease was often spoken of as a punishment from God. People were encouraged not to touch or associate with such people. Lazarus died and was not buried. Eaten by stray dogs? The last rite was not arranged. No one was around him to bury him but God’s angels were there to take him to eternal bliss to be with Abraham.
Jesus called him by his name! One striking thing is the fact that this poor, crippled man has a name contrary to conventional understanding. It was a poor man who has a specific identity. Naming implies identity which involves recognition, respect, and right. With a name a person becomes somebody.
Lazarus represents the poor people in our context today, the marginalized, the afflicted, and the oppressed. Lazarus was not a solitary individual. He represents the many suffering poor who abound in this world today, and to find Lazaruses, the rich need not go far from their gates; the poor are right within their vicinity. Lazarus represents the opportunity for the rich to exercise giving and sharing, unfortunately, the rich people care not to avail themselves or rather see/notice the poor people’s plight. This is precisely the kind of arrogance and presumptuousness of the wealthy that Jesus spoke against frequently in his ministry. In Matt. 19:23, Jesus taught that “a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of God. Jesus reminded the disciples that greatness is tied to our willingness to be servants and not to be served (Matt. 20:20-28). Yet the Rich man was still seeking to be served. Jesus told his disciples “The first will be last and the last will be first” (Mark 10:31). Jesus wanted his listeners to understand that their refusal to see and heal the poor people in this world is in absolute and direct contradiction to God’s will.
The conclusion of Jesus’ parable speaks about the importance of taking seriously the plight of those who are poor and excluded. We are charged to respond to the plight of the sick, hungry, thirsty, homeless, imprisoned, and oppressed. The 8th century prophets Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, and Micah often illuminated how people were made poor. The prophet Amos pointed to the complicity of the rich at the expense of the poor. To authenticate our faith in Jesus as the Saviour of the world, we need to practice justice, mercy, and love. Jesus calls the disciples to do the same. As Christians we are called to engage with the beggars laid at our gates, to be just, demonstrate love and mercy, and to walk humbly (Micah 6:8). Jesus did not mention the name of the Rich man because he made wealth as God but introduced Lazarus with a name. Lazarus is no longer a nobody, but somebody with rights, dignity, and worth. There are many nameless persons or communities. Let us give a name to a nameless person or community.