Jesus and Johnny Cash: Stories of Lazarus, Sue, and You

BY CHAD BIRD

The boy was named Sue. His drunk, deadbeat daddy branded him with that name. Then he skipped town and never looked back.

I needn’t tell you that Sue’s not a playground-safe name. The boy grew up quick and he grew up mean. He roamed from town to town, bar to bar, on the prowl for the man who named him Sue.

When he finally lucked upon that scoundrel, he was playing cards in a dark saloon.  Sue introduced himself. Then he introduced his fist to his daddy’s teeth. They cussed. They brawled. And when the dust finally settled, Sue’s daddy fessed up to why he’d given his boy that name: to toughen him up. To make him hard and quick and mean. And it’d worked.

Johnny Cash tells a memorable tale in that old song, “A Boy Named Sue.” The man in black reminds us that, we may choose our friends, our sports teams, and our favorite beers. But our names we don’t choose.

Names are given. We aren’t consulted. And even if we don’t like our name, I suppose having a bad name is better than having no name at all. Nobody wants to be called “Hey, you” their whole life.

Johnny Cash had his musical stories. Jesus sang a few of his own. The thing is, Jesus left out all the names.

The sower went out to sow…
A merchant was seeking fine pearls…
A woman lost one of her coins…

What was the farmer’s name? Tom or Peter? Was the woman named Miriam or Rebekah? When preachers retell these stories, ever notice how they like to make up names for the characters? A certain man had two sons. Let’s call the younger one, Mike.

But Jesus didn’t call him Mike. Or Tom. Or Sue. From the king, to the vineyard owner, to the unfaithful steward, they’re all anonymous. Jesus didn’t see fit to name any of them.

Except one.

Of the fifty odd parables that Jesus told, in only one of them does he name a character. I’d never noticed this until my friend, Michael Dennis, pointed it out. Now that I know it, this fact has become, for me, the most beautiful truth expressed in all the parables.

The only person Jesus names in all his parables is the lowest, loneliest, most helpless and pitiful character in them all. Only on him does Jesus bestow this honor.

But it’s an honor no one else would have given him. He’s a homeless, penniless beggar. He’s “laid at a rich man’s gate,” which means he can’t walk. His skin oozes with sores. His only companions are local street dogs. They encircle him to lick his rashes. Without money, without shelter, without food, without a scrap of dignity. Yet this man was not without one thing. He had a name. Jesus called him Lazarus.

It’s a telling fact about us that we know the names of people we’ll never meet, but we don’t know the names of people we see everyday.

On my delivery route, for instance, are about a dozen homeless people who stand on the corners of intersections holding cardboards signs. I look at them through my truck window almost every day. I know their faces. But I’ve never taken the time to learn their names. However, I do know the names of Kim Kardashian, Peyton Manning, and Tom Hanks, people I’ll never meet.

Luther reminds us that we’re always looking up. We look up to people with power, fame, money—things we admire, things we covet for ourselves. We don’t look down, in compassion, on the lonely, the forgotten, the forsaken. We don’t even know their names.

If we’d have walked by Lazarus on the way to one of the rich man’s shindigs, we’d have looked the other way. Not one of us would have stopped, shook his grimy hand, introduced ourselves, and carried him somewhere to buy him a cheeseburger and Dr. Pepper.

But that’s the difference between us and God, isn’t it? Our eyes are always looking up; God in Christ is looking down. And, as Luther says, we farther away from God we are, the better he sees us.

He looks down on Lazarus. But not only that: he names him. When Lazarus dies, he sends angels to wing him to Abraham’s bosom. By the end of this parable, the tables have been turned: Lazarus is the rich man. Rich in joy, rich in love, rich in celestial fame. Every angel knows his name.

Are you lonely? Do you feel forgotten? Do you sometimes wonder if there’ll be more than a handful of people at your funeral? Are you one of those anonymous faces in that swirling mass of humanity that no one will remember, much less shed a tear for, in a few short years?

Jesus knows your name. Whether you’re a boy named Sue or a beggar named Lazarus, the God who named that forgotten man has not forgotten you. How could he? Your name is tattooed on the palms of his hands. Inked there in crucifixion blood. His nail-pierced palm is a page from the Book of Life. A nursing mother could sooner forget the child at her breast than Jesus can forget you.

I’ll let my friend, Michael, sum it up. “It is interesting to me,” he writes,” that history has forgotten the names of the tycoons, businessmen, scholars, and politicians mentioned in Scripture, but we know of an insignificant beggar named Lazarus. For all those who feel alone, defeated, lost, and forgotten.”

Indeed, for them, for you, Jesus has a name, a place, and a heart full of love.

Chad is an author and speaker who's devoted to honest Christianity that addresses the raw realities of life with the liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ. Chad has served as a pastor and assistant professor of OT theology, contributed hymns to the Lutheran Service Book, and cohosts the podcast “Forty Minutes in the OT.” He holds Master's degrees from Concordia Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College. In addition to writing the books, Christ Alone and The Infant Priest, he has contributed articles to Modern Reformation, The Federalist, Concordia Pulpit Resources, and other journals. His new book with Eerdmans, Night Driving: Notes from a Prodigal Soul, is now available for pre-order at Amazon. His writings and other resources can be found at his website, chadbird.com. Chad and his wife, Stacy, enjoy life together in the Texas Hill Country.

Twitter: @Birdchadlouis