19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He 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.’ 25But 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. 26Besides 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.’ 27He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He 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.’”
Can people change? I recently read again the story of Lazarus and Dives, and as I read, I felt the usual repugnance for the rich and selfish man often referred to as “Dives” (Latin for “wealthy”). How could anyone be so oblivious and insensitive to the needs of a Lazarus lying right at his front door?! I admit I had to stifle a tiny smudge of satisfaction as I pictured the miserable Dives tormented in the flames of Hades.
But as I read the story this time, I also began to hear something else, something I’d really never heard in this story before. A surprise. A happy surprise! For after he has pleaded with Father Abraham for a mere drop of water, Dives actually begins to plead on behalf of someone else—his brothers! I would expect him to be snarling Scrooge-like at God and almost cackling with delight at the thought that his brothers, now still living the sumptuous life, would soon join him in this hell hole. Hah! He wasn’t going to be the only member of his family suffering the torments of hell. No way. They, too, would have to pay the price. But no! Dives is actually concerned about his brothers. He’s actually thinking about someone other than himself! Dives, I believe, has become something of a changed man.
The question about whether or not people can really change is a frequent question, and when it’s approached theologically, it becomes entangled with the deep issues of predestination and free will. In Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, the question is prominent. Jack Boughton, a man prone since early youth to create trouble wherever he might happen to be, returns home after a twenty year absence, much of which was lived in an alcoholic haze. But at some point, he had found an incentive to correct the errors of his ways and truly wanted to become a changed man. So he returns home in hopes of finding the help he needs.
Jack confers with the Rev. John Ames, an aging pastor of deep integrity and considerable theological expertise. “Am I simply predestined to be bad?” is Jack’s question. “Can I be different? Can I change?” Ames is cautious and considerate and speaks of mysteries and of a divine grace which we simply cannot fathom. But that’s not good enough for Jack. The question continues to trouble him and haunts the pages of Gilead.
One night Jack is visiting with Pastor Ames and his wife Lila, a very quiet woman who seldom speaks. The conversation is pleasant enough, but always Jack’s question hovers just around the edges of their friendly banter. Then suddenly Lila softly speaks. Speaks and utters those three little words that Jack has longed forever to hear. “People can change,” she murmurs, hands folded meekly in her lap. “People can change.”
Lila is able to say this because she herself had experienced profound change in her life. We’re never told what was involved in this change, but that it was significant and real is beyond question. Lila was not the woman she once had been. And Jack’s response? “Thanks,” he says, “That’s all I wanted to know.”
“People can change.” Important as theology may be, and I do believe it is important—very(!), sometimes the testimony of one who has been changed is more powerful than any theological treatise on God’s sovereignty and human free will could ever be. Lila spoke what she knew, not from reading Barth or Calvin or Tillich, but rather from reading her own life.
Dives’ story, I believe, gives further testimony to this reality. People can change. Dives was changed, clearly changed, from a man who had once had thoughts only for himself to a man truly and desperately concerned for others in his family. People can change. We can change. Sometimes, before we are able to surrender to God’s life-changing grace, we may have to hit a pretty low place in our lives, a place so low it may feel as hot as the flames leaping around Dives. But always, always the possibility of change is open to us. And always, always the possibility of change is open as well to those we love.