What’s in a name?


 San Francisco Holocaust Monument, Bev Meldrum Photography


Names are often significant in the Bible. Think David (beloved of God) or Isaac (he laughs). One has struck me recently: Lazarus. There are two men named Lazarus in the Gospels. The name means ‘God has helped’. This seems odd to me. You could look at the oddness of this name from the point of view of both the two men named Lazarus whom we meet in the Gospels.

The first of these is the one raised from the dead by Jesus. We know how this story ends (spoiler alert: I told you in the previous sentence), so it seems to us readers fairly obvious as to why his name is so suitable. Much is obvious if you know the end of the story. We don’t know much about Lazarus before his (first) death; but it’s fair to assume that after his recall from his own funeral procession he gained a whole new perspective on the appropriateness of his name. It may have previously come to his mind when he was looking for a place to park his donkey in rush hour, but soon that would grow faint by comparison.

This isn’t the Lazarus who concerns me, though. It’s the other one – the one who doesn’t exist. Well, he does exist, of course; but in a symbolic sense as opposed to a literal one. He appears in a strange parable at the end of Luke Chapter 16; a poor man who is carried daily to the outside of a rich man’s home to beg for whatever he can get. He’s in such a state that dogs would come and lick his sores. This is the one God has helped? Really?

We know how this story ends too. He goes to heaven; the rich man to hell. So we know that from an eternal perspective that God has indeed helped him. He just won’t see it until his death. We mustn’t rush to that, however. If we do we’re in danger of the terrible error of saying ‘well the poor will be alright in eternity, so let’s not worry about them now’. That would be to miss the point of the parable, and we don’t want that, do we now?

Parables are not one-for-one correlation stories. We can’t say x in the story equals the wider truth of y in every instance. With that in mind, we should also beware that we don’t miss what the parable might be trying to say to us. It’s here that Lazarus’ name becomes important. In this parable, Lazarus is important because he has a name. Abraham and Moses are both referred to by name. In a Jewish story you’d expect that. The rich man is named … well, we don’t know. He doesn’t get a name. He’s just ‘the rich man’. Lazarus – he of the dog-licking and begging – is named as one whom God helps. The rich man  – outside whose house Lazarus daily begs, just the other side of the wall and security spikes, just in view of the CCTV – has no name. He is anonymous.

Names matter. When we get to know someone we start with a name; couples who have a stillborn baby are strongly advised to give their child a name for very good reasons; a soft-drinks company has made a marketing splash by putting names on their cans for people to buy until they find one bearing their own title. Yes, names matter. Why this, then? Why no name for the rich man?

It’s part of God’s great reversal of all things. The world honours the rich and successful; we know their names well. The one sleeping under a blanket in the doorway. He’s ‘homeless’. Not ‘the one God has helped’ or ‘beloved of God’; just ‘homeless’, ‘poor’, ‘dirty’, ‘smelly’, ‘beggar’. God’s kingdom reverses this; the unnoticed, non-achieving dependants are named; the succesful and feted rich are irrelevant.

We know how this story ends, so it’s OK. We know this isn’t really about rich and poor, it’s about knowing Jesus and being known by Him? Right?

Maybe. Maybe not. It’s definitely about being known by Jesus. He knows who is living truly in the kingdom of God and who isn’t.

This is a parable that too often I keep at arm’s length, keeping away the uncomfortable truth that too often I am the unnamed one rather than the named one I prefer to see myself as.

Am I sure about that?

Try these name-cancelling labels. Which do you use?

Liberal, conservative, gay, straight, black, white, man, woman, young, old, middle-aged, happy, sad, able, disabled, sick, well, happy, sad, depressed, normal, bigot, Jew, Moslem, Christian, atheist, adult, child, teenager, abuser, abused, bully, victim.

Recently someone I’ve known for years told me of his plans to marry the man he loves. It took him years to decide I was safe enough to tell. That’s down to how people who wear labels like ‘evangelical’, ‘Christian’ or ‘church’ are seen and how we act and speak. Years to feel safe. He has a name, but I can’t use it here for he must remain safe.


The strangest tree in the forest: a South African parable

[Jesus said] … 

Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they’re blue in the face and not get it. I don’t want Isaiah’s forecast repeated all over again:

Your ears are open but you don’t hear a thing.
Your eyes are awake but you don’t see a thing.
The people are blockheads!
They stick their fingers in their ears
so they won’t have to listen;
They screw their eyes shut
so they won’t have to look,
so they won’t have to deal with me face-to-face
and let me heal them.

(Matthew 13:12-15)

We sit on the roots of an old tree. A tree planted well, but watered and cared for years ago by those to whom the land did not belong, who saw in this tree one that suited their purposes. It grew fast and strong, insistently and irreversibly. It grew wide and high, thick and tall. It grew so that there was plenty of room under its protection. It grew so that those descended from the ones who watered and cared for the tree took the best of the shade. They could sit against the tree’s trunk, lie under the abundant canopy, feeling the sun’s warmth and still able to spread out in the luxury of the wide shadow. Food was shared widely and freely in this space. Wine flowed, children played safely, families multiplied to the sound of laughter and ease.

It was not so for all, though. Those who first lived on the land were not so well accommodated. Some lived on the edge of the shade. Sheltered, but not all day. At the hour of the sun’s fiercest glare they found themselves more in the light than shadow, not able to edge in for this when the happy families of the few would spread out the furthest, snoring off the afternoon’s excess. They could not be wakened. The more those on the edge nudged and shook, shouted and pleaded, the deeper they seemed to doze.

So they tried a different tack. Axes in hand, some of those on the edge headed for the tree’s ancient trunk. Silent and slow at first, with each step they grew more confident and strong. Stride lengthened, speed picked up. As they did so they would catch an elbow or ankle of the ones sleeping. Some of them woke up. When they did different things would happen. Some would fling out a hand to bring the walkers down. Often that would work. Others, roused from slumber would angrily shout at anyone who could hear to watch their step and keep the noise down. Some of the walkers turned back, some lay to sleep, some kept going to the tree’s trunk, axe seemingly somewhat sharper for the interaction. Some who had slumbered rose, found an axe to hand and joined the journey to the centre.

The trunk was immense, twisted in on itself, possessed of a savage habit of ejecting inch long splinters into the ground or the people around. The splinters flew indiscriminately, embedding in grass or flesh, person or beast. When they punctured human skin they did so to those asleep and axe wielding alike.

At first only a few brave souls tried to chip away at the trunk. The splinters seemed drawn to them, as if somehow the wood knew who it was that was assailing it. With so few axe-bearers taking so many wounds, it felt like the tree was growing rather than diminishing.

Still they walked, though. More arrived, small numbers at first, but soon more and more until the air was torn with the sound of metal on wood. More axes meant more splinters; more splinters meant cries of pain as splinters found more targets in the flesh of those surrounding the thick trunk. Some of the axe-bearers were felled such was the rain of splinters, but another and then another and then another would step up to take their place.

By now the noise was cacophonous. Few remained asleep; some were awake but pretended not to be; some could read the signs and made for the shade of another tree; some rushed to help, some tried to work out which way the tree would fall and adjusted themselves accordingly.

Soon the tree started to groan and creek, shake and shout. It teased a few times. Those on the ground grew more fearful but there was no turning back now. Axe swing on axe swing on axe swing until … breathless silence, stillness. The tree, as if suspended for a moment, tipped towards the ground in slow-motion … then clattered earth-wards. Some were taken with the tree, shade dwellers and axe wielders alike. Not so many as you’d have thought, though. To this day it doesn’t seem to make sense that more were not taken.

No sooner was the tree felled than work began. To clear the mess, to burn some wood, to clear some space. The roots and some of the trunk remained. Many chose to work together this time – those who formerly had been forced to lie on the shade’s edge, some newly awake former shade-dwellers, blinking sleep from their eyes. They watered and pruned and admired. The tree was growing fast and quick, admired and cooed-over from neighbours far and wide. This was a tree that those under the shade of others around wanted to see find its new shape.

Something was happening to it, however. It was as if, over the years the roots had got all muddled. Some of them were ancient roots going back years into a scarcely remembered past; some seemed to carry within their fibres the sap of the tree of unequal shade; some roots were young and strong, others young and easily broken. As the tree grew again it did so in strange patterns: parts that seemed to carry the code of the old tree, some seemed malnourished and dying or dead, some young and vital and strong. This was a tree the like of which the forest had not seen before.

Some chose to live under this strange new tree as people had its ancestor: taking up more space than was theirs to take, forcing others to a harsh sun they couldn’t bear. Some were generous and wise and invited those on the outside in. Where these folks were gathered there was laughter and sharing, but friction and dis-ease too. Memories of the old tree ran deep in the veins of all, whether they choose to acknowledge it or not.

This tree is tall and beautiful, and is admired. This tree grows and blossoms and is celebrated. Parts are sick, though. Obviously so if you’re close enough; from a distance just a subtle part of the pattern.  The sickness is there all the same. Some sleep, some share. Some water and prune just a branch or two; some help others with troublesome growth.

The tree grows, but many in the shade are not at ease. For some are walking toward’s this tree’s trunk. Some of them carry axes, others watering devices, still more tools of different types. It’s only when those walking reach the tree’s trunk that it becomes apparent to those watching what the walkers are carrying. As they watch them walk, they look to their own hands and realise they too carry something. The items feel easy in their hands, for they are that which they choose to carry, speaking somehow of what’s inside them.

Slowly, gradually, one by one, they turn towards the trunk and walk.