We Can Do Better Than Dogs, Can’t We?

If you are poor and in need of assistance, you may receive more help from a dog than from rich Christians or churches. Despite being irrational creatures, dogs may be more humane to suffering people than humans. Dogs can outdo people in obeying the love of neighbor commands of Scripture. As unbelievable as that sounds, Luke might persuade you.

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How Should We Use Our Wealth?

Luke 16 answers the question, “How should Jesus’ followers use their possessions and wealth?” Two stories regarding the use of possessions and wealth are placed bumper-to-bumper. The second story (16:19-31) functions as a warning, demonstrating how the love of money paralyzes love of neighbor.

Both stories begin with identical signposts,

“There was a rich man…” (16:1).

“There was a rich man…” (16:19).

Both stories point to what we actually serve: either money/possessions or God. Both illustrate the point:

“You cannot be enslaved to God and wealth[1].” Luke 16:13

The second story shows the dangers inherent in the love of money. One of these dangers is that, when comparisons are made, even the neighborhood dogs will act more humane than people in terms of loving one’s neighbor.

Wealth and Poverty are Ambiguous

For both 1st century and 21st century people, tragedy is often viewed as a sign of God’s displeasure, and financial prosperity is the smile of God. Fat bank accounts, large, palatial homes, luxury cars, high-dollar meals, and a wardrobe with the latest fashions are the signature of God’s blessing. Right?

Luke clarifies. Wealth is ambiguous by itself. How we use our wealth—based on our attitude toward it—reflects our true Master and is linked to our future destiny. And poverty, on the other end of the spectrum, is not a sign of God’s disregard or displeasure. Poverty, too, is ambiguous.

Erroneous Assumption

Luke’s story of Lazarus at the gate[2] of the rich man has been misunderstood in more ways than one.[3] A common assumption is that the dogs who licked Lazarus’ wounds were unclean, thus putting Lazarus’ poor health further into jeopardy. But this assumption warrants further examination. But hold on to that thought for a moment. Observe the account:

“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 wounds and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. But even the dogs came and licked his wounds.” Luke 16:19-21

It is easy to ignore the dogs and shift our attention quickly to the portion of this story devoted to what happens to Lazarus and the rich man in the afterlife (16:22-31). After all, the bad guy loses big time and the little guy, the good guy, wins. This is the stuff of feel-good stories. We enjoy seeing thugs receive their due, especially when we are not identified with those thugs.

Study the Dogs

But not so fast. If we slow down and put the zoom lens on the dogs at the gate, this familiar story will grab our attention and gain fresh traction in our hearts. So, let’s take our foot off the gas, come to a full stop, and then put it into reverse for a wider picture.

Two prior food episodes are linked canonically to our story:

“But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be paid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Luke 14:13-14

“So, he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to the fields to feed pigs. He longed[4] to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything (to eat).” Luke 15: 15-16

Like the prodigal son, Lazarus, too, longed to eat the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table, but he was not invited to the banquet.

“At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with wounds and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table.”

Dogs and the Supper Table

Dogs were typically found at the supper table and enjoyed the scraps and morsels that fell to the ground.[5] Both wealthy and poor families kept dogs as pets and fed them scraps from their tables. In fact, in antiquity, the use of “doggy bags” was commonly practiced. Mark’s story of the Syro-Phoenician mother (Mark 7:27-30) confirms the timeless practice of dogs snapping up table drop-offs.[6]

In response to Jesus’ initial refusal to heal her demonized daughter because she was a “Gentile dog,” the faith-driven, Gentile mother[7] replied:

“Yes, Lord, but even the little dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table of their master.”

Dogs vs. People

It is also important to observe that in antiquity the saliva of dogs was considered to have healing power. Dogs were celebrated for their medical discernment and efficacy as healers.[8] So, returning to Luke’s story, Lazarus is depicted as even lower in value to the rich man than the dogs which lay at his table. You read that right. Lazarus is treated lower than a dog by a rich man.

Here is the kicker:

“But[9] even the dogs came (but not the rich man) and licked his wounds.”

The licking of his wounds by dogs did not make Lazarus’ condition worse. Rather, the mention of the dogs’ licking Lazarus’ wounds underscores the rich man’s callous, uncaring attitude toward Lazarus. Dogs came to Lazarus, but a rich man did not come and he offered no help. The love of money paralyzed his love of neighbor. The only medical assistance that Lazarus—whom the rich man had to step over every time he left his mansion—received at the rich man’s gate was from the dogs. The dogs, not the rich fellow, were Lazarus’ best friends. Their wet tongues were the only first aid Lazarus received for his wounds. Dogs were better at love than materialistically-driven humans.  

Dogs Unclean?

Were the dogs unclean? It has assumed that dogs were considered unclean, thus adding insult to Lazarus’ injuries. Not so. Israel’s Scripture labels many creatures as unclean, but dogs are never included in that untouchable category.[10] So, the dogs are not making his condition worse. Dogs, though irrational creatures, were compassionate and relieved a measure of his suffering. Dogs were Lazarus’ only friend, more humane to a suffering man than a human. The rich man loved money and, consequently, failed to love his neighbor.

Sounds like a parody.

“Yes, it says that even the dogs licked his sores, and did not injure him, yet sympathized with him and cared for him…The rich man was crueler than the dogs because he felt no sympathy or compassion for him but was completely unmerciful.”[11]

Dogs Do Better Than Religious People

Luke’s point is that the rich man’s failure to use his wealth to express love to humanity demonstrates that money was his god, and even though he was religious, he was outside of God’s kingdom.[12]

His neglect of the poor is vividly cast as a shameful thing when contrasted with the merciful care provided by the dogs. He is identified with the Pharisees who also loved money and were opposed Jesus and His teaching regarding the use of wealth (Luke 16:14).

People Lower Than Dogs

When wealth is our god and captures our affections—even as religious, sophisticated, cultured, Bible-reading people—we act less than human, lower than dogs. Our lack of compassion and mercy (rooted in our love of money) toward the poor and the miserable plunges us below the behavior of irrational creatures.

“People who want to get rich fall into temptations and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction---because the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager[13] for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” 1 Timothy 6:9-10

Dry Tongue

But we have not heard the last of the matter of tongues. Tongues, ironically, are brought back to our attention in the tormented condition of the rich man in the afterlife. We’ve heard about his wardrobe, his luxury, his table, his gate, and the wet tongues of dogs. Now Luke examines the rich man’s tongue.

In unexpected[14] fiery torment, separated[15] by an insurmountable gulf from comfort in Abraham’s bosom, the rich man begs:

“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.” Luke 16:24

How ironic. He begs for pity, yet, was unwilling to offer the same to a neighbor when there was no gulf separating them. The only relief from the misery Lazarus experienced at his gate was the wet tongues of dogs. The rich man’s body had been clothed in royal purple; Lazarus’ body was covered with visible wounds. Unexpectedly, dogs were the first-responders.

But now, helpless in the afterlife, the rich man—who had everything in life—cannot even secure a wet tongue to relieve his torment and misery. How we use our wealth demonstrates who or what we serve (as a god) and also foreshadows our destiny. Imagine! A dry tongue forever without even dogs to offer relief.

Dogs can be great friends. But dogs should not be the best friends of the miserable and poor at our gate. That is a role Jesus calls us to fulfill.  

Who is at Our Gate?

So, it makes sense for us to ask, “Who has Jesus put at our gate?” Or, have we even bothered to look? Have we even noticed them? Do we have to step over them on our way to work or worship? What steps are we taking personally, individually, and congregationally to relieve the hunger and misery of people in our own neighborhoods, at our own gates?

Do we spend more on foreign missions than on local outreach? Do we spend more on our wardrobe than on people? What portion of our church budget is used to offer hope and help to the folk at our gate?

Are the neighborhood dogs more compassionate than we are? If the poor in our communities were asked, “Who shows you more mercy?” would they answer, “the church” or “the dogs”?

We Can Do Better Than Dogs

I conclude the way I began. Do the poor and those in need of assistance in our church neighborhoods receive more compassion and assistance from the local dogs than they do from us?

We can do better than dogs can, can’t we?

God Weeps

The modern songs released today are often out of touch with the intent of the Scripture text.[16] And the theologically astute hymns we sing also offer little resonance with today’s wounded culture, unconnected to the suffering people experience on a daily basis.[17] Not so, though, with the hymn lyrics of Shirley Murray.

 

GOD WEEPS

“God weeps,

at love withheld,

at strength misused,

at children’s innocence abused.

And till we change the way we love,

God weeps.

 

God bleeds at anger’s fist,

at trust betrayed,

at women battered and afraid.

And till we change the way we love,

God bleeds.

 

God cries,

at hungry mouths,

at running sores,

at creatures dying without cause.

And till we change the way we love,

God cries.

 

God waits for stones to melt,

for peace to seed,

for hearts to hold each other’s need.

And till we understand the Christ,

God waits.

 

 

Thank you for reading.

 

NOTES:

[1] The word Luke uses refers to wealth, possessions, property, anything material.

[2] The presence of a beggar at the gate of a Jewish person was an indictment against him/her. “If there is a poor man among your brothers in any gate in the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. 8 Rather, you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks… Give generously to him to him and do so without a grudging heart…” Deut. 15:7-10

[3] One common misunderstanding of this story is that the rich man missed heaven because he was not generous enough to the poor and needy. Half of this assumption is true. But this understanding contradicts the concept of grace. God, in mercy, according to His eternal plan of salvation, in accordance with His sovereign choice to choose and predestinate them, pursues underserving sinners, breathes eternal life into them, forgives them through the atoning merits of Jesus’ death on the cross. Grace—God’s undeserved favor and initiative-- is the only explanation for God acting in mercy to dead sinners. Salvation is a grace gift to the undeserving. The rich man, though, never really believed what he said he believed. His behavior reflected a corpse faith (James 2:14-24). His true god was wealth. His behavior demonstrated Jesus’ assertion: you cannot serve God and possessions/money.

[4] ἐπεθύμει Luke uses this intensive verb in the story of the prodigal son and the rich man. It has the idea of a deep, intensive, powerful desire. The idea of “craving” comes close.

[5] Messy eaters at the supper table are nothing new in human history.

[6] Most dog owners are quite aware that when food is served at the table, you can count on the hasty arrival of the dogs, eager (longing) to snap up whatever scraps fall from or are thrown from the table. 

[7] This unnamed woman is the only person who understood Jesus’ parables in Mark’s Gospel. She conceded her status as a Gentile dog but remained undaunted and determined to obtain what she wanted from Jesus. Her faith overcame the obstacle Jesus placed in her path. Jesus rewarded her determined faith by healing her daughter, though her daughter was at a great distance. This woman is one of Mark’s heroes of faith. Women are depicted as warriors of faith.

[8] See J.D. Strong’s article in NTS, 64, Number 2, April 2018, pp. 178-193.

[9]  ἀλλὰ καὶ οἱ κύνες ἐρχόμενοι ἐπέλειχον τὰ ἕλκη αὐτοῦ. “But even,” drawing a contrast between the callous response of the rich man and the dogs, is the correct translation.  ἀλλὰ καὶ is contrastive as a rule and not the exception in Greek grammar.

[10] Dogs are mentioned explicitly in the Pentateuch; Exod. 11:7; 22:31.

[11] Cyril Alexander’s Commentary on Luke’s Gospel; translated by Arthur Just, Jr. ACCS NT III 261.

[12] The rich man undoubtedly claimed to have believed Scripture and that it was the Word of God and that heaven and hell were real. But he never really believed what he professed to believe. His behavior showed that his faith was dead.

[13] ὀρεγόμενοι, strive toward, desire, yearn for, long for; same word used in 1 Timothy 3:1 for the eagerness to serve as an Overseer (Elder/Shepherd) in Jesus’ church. The contrast is striking. It is a good thing to strive to be an Overseer, but a fatal thing to strive to be rich.

[14] The idea that he would spend eternity in misery probably sounded preposterous to him while living.

[15] There was no separation between Lazarus and the rich man in life. They were so close, yet so far from each other.

[16] Recently I was sent the lyrics of a new song, allegedly based upon the story of the Prodigal Son. The song claims to celebrate an aspect of God’s love as revealed in Luke 15. But even after a cursory analysis of the story, it is self-evident that the lyrics of the song are foreign, even blatantly contradictory to the nature of God’s love, divorced from Luke’s clear intent in the story, and predictably misleading. This, alas, is standard fare for Christian Nashville: grandstanding, sensational, glitzy staging, celebrity focused, seeking human applause and sales, shallow, and blatant misuse or ignorance of the intent of Scripture texts.

[17] Hymnody generally is objective, biblically informed, and doctrinally spot on, focused on strengthening us to love God with our whole being. Yet, the 2nd great commandment, to love our neighbors in the same way we already love ourselves, is frequently ignored. All forms of musical worship must strive to achieve a balance between the two greatest commandments of Scripture.