The Man with the Hammer

Numbers can be numbing. 870 million people in the world do not have enough to eat. 3.1 million children under five die each year because of poor nutrition. [1] 783 million people in the world are without access to clean drinking water. [2]

Numbers can be numbing. Years ago, Annie Dillard wrote,

On April 30, 1991 – on that one day – 138,000 people drowned in Bangladesh. At dinner I mentioned to our daughter, who was then seven years old, that it was hard to imagine 138,000 people drowning.

“No, it’s easy,” she said. “Lots and lots of dots, in blue water." [3]

Numbers can be numbing. Who can imagine 138,000 people? Somewhere in the United States there’s a city with a population of 138,000. Who can imagine an entire city washed away in one day?

Annie Dillard wrote,

There are 1,198,500,000 people alive now in China. To get a feel for what this means, simply take yourself – in all your singularity, importance, complexity, and love – and multiply by 1,198,500,000. See? Nothing to it. [4]

But we cannot multiply singularity, importance, complexity, and love with a simple mathematical equation. In order to get closer to the reality of a life lived or barely lived at all, we must look into faces, we must learn names, hear stories, hold hands, look at pictures, stay in touch. Quick multiplication won’t do it, only slow, attentive addition will, one plus one plus one…

I’m intrigued by the fact that the poor man at the gate in Jesus’ story has a name. We live in a world where the rich have names and the poor are statistics. The rich have their names listed in Fortune magazine and written on buildings on college campuses. Tour busses drive by their homes and the guides point to the gates and speak their names and everyone on the bus knows who they are. The poor are nameless and countless, but Jesus tells a story of a nameless rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. A rich man dressed in purple and fine linen, feasting sumptuously every day, and Lazarus, covered with sores, lying at the rich man’s gate, longing for crumbs from the rich man’s table. Ever since I first heard this story as a child, I thought of the dogs licking his sores as kind, caring creatures, kissing poor Lazarus’s boo boo to make him feel better. The scholars tell me that I might be mistaken about the motives of these half-wild scavengers who search the streets for something to eat.

Lazarus died, and Jesus doesn’t tell us if he died of starvation, or if one of the sores got infected, or if it was one of those nights when temperatures outside the gate dropped into the upper 20’s. Lazarus died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died, but no angels came to carry him away. He died and was buried. Period.

Both died, and at the moment of death a surprising reversal took place. Lazarus’ suffering was over, and the rich man was in agony in the flames of Hades. “Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue,” the rich man called out. You have to wonder how long he had known that name – Lazarus – and if he had ever spoken it before. And when had he last spoken of mercy? And why didn’t he say, “Lazarus, would you come over and help a brother out?” Why did he ask Abraham to send him? Had he been shaped by a life of privilege to such a degree that still he could think of Lazarus only as a servant to be sent?

Abraham responded to his cry, “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.” Who was it that fixed the great chasm? It had been there all along, only now the opportunity to reach across it with a helping hand was past. Now the time to bridge the great chasm with kindness and mercy was over. Abraham is stating the terrible fact that opportunities to overcome the great divide between comfort and agony once abounded, but now it is too late.

In Anton Chekhov’s story, Gooseberries, Ivan remembers something his brother had said,

“Apparently those who are happy can only enjoy themselves because the unhappy bear their burdens in silence, and but for this silence happiness would be impossible. It is a kind of universal hypnosis. There ought to be a man with a hammer behind the door of every happy man, to remind him by his constant knocks that there are unhappy people, and that happy as he himself may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws, catastrophe will overtake him – sickness, poverty, loss – and nobody will see it, just as he now neither sees nor hears the misfortunes of others. But there is no man with a hammer, the happy man goes on living and the petty vicissitudes of life touch him lightly, like the wind in an aspen-tree, and all is well." [5]

We don’t know if Lazarus bore his burdens in silence. We don’t know if the rich man ignored the poor man at his gate, stepped over him on his way to work, or if the poor man’s poverty and need had blended into the background of the rich man’s life, as much part of his world as the sun by day and the moon by night. We don’t even know if the rich man was happy. All we do know is that he was well-dressed and well-fed and that Lazarus was neither, and when the great reversal came it was too late to do anything about it.

The rich man said to Abraham something like, “There ought to be a man with a hammer behind the door of each of my five brothers, to remind them by his constant knocks that there are people in great need. Send Lazarus that he may warn them.” And Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.”

The commandments are clear: Do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. [6] The prophets’ words are constant knocks at the gate: Share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house. Alas for those who (…) lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, (…) who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of my people. [7]

“No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”

Will they? Will we? Jesus who told us this story, Jesus who lived and died for the kingdom of God, was raised from the dead. The question is, are we listening to the man with the hammer? Are we making the best of the time given to us to bridge the great chasm that separates us one from the other? Are we grieved enough over the existence of that abyss to do what we can to reach across? Are we in tune with the vision that sees every valley lifted up and every mountain and hill made low? [8] Are we lending a hand to help build bridges of mercy, bridges of reconciliation, bridges that bring us back together or are we sitting idly by on the rim of the great abyss, numbed by the numbers or happy enough with the way things are?

I listen to myself, and my hand goes up and I say, “Preacher, you are talking about some very complex issues. Poverty, hunger, homelessness – those are problems with muliple layers, and we need to study them carefully and consider all the possible ramifications of our actions. We can’t just do something.” True. Poverty is not a simple matter of the rich are blessed and the poor are not. The things that separate us one from the other are multilayered clusters of histories, causes, motives, and visions. But lying at the gate is not a bunch of issues and problems; lying at the gate is a human being with a name. Lying at the gate is a person with dreams and needs, a person of singularity, importance, complexity, and love.

This story Jesus tells us is not an invitation to speculate on the nature of heaven or hell, nor is it a call to go and solve the world’s problems. It’s a call to repent. It’s a call to refuse to sit in the loneliness of our wealth and our poverty, and to walk instead the path of reconciliation God cleared in Jesus. It’s a call to discover building beloved community as the work of Christ and as our way of life.

One of America’s saints wrote in a letter from jail,

I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. [9]

His name was Martin, and we remember him because he was grieved over the ruin of the people and refused to sit idly by. He responded to Jesus’ call to repentance and reconciled community, and his first step turned into a movement of tens and hundreds of thousands of bridge builders. Because we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality every step of courageous love one of us takes toward another moves us all one step forward; and because we are tied in a single garment of destiny no act of kindness is ever lost. So imagine a sunny morning with the rich man stepping out of his gated life and saying, “Good morning, Lazarus. Come on in, tell me your story. I just made a fresh pot of coffee.”




[3] Annie Dillard, For the Time Being (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), p. 46

[4] Annie Dillard, For the Time Being, (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), p. 45

[5] Anton Chekhov, Gooseberries, 1898

[6] Deuteronomy 15:7

[7] Isaiah 58:7; Amos 6:4-6

[8] Isaiah 40:4

[9] Martin L. King, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963