This week we learn from one of the most unique of all Jesus’ parables found in Luke’s Gospel: The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) This week, Jesus really hammers home what it means to live in the kingdom of God. He tells us how we are to treat our money, how we are to treat other people, and he even gives us a vision of how to view the Scriptures!
As always, let’s start by laying the groundwork for the scripture teaching by setting it in its context. This parable comes as part of a series of teachings about money that make up chapter 16 of Luke’s Gospel. I encourage you as you have time to read the entire chapter; it shouldn’t take you more than a few minutes and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about, what Jesus is talking about, and how the chapter fits together.
This parable follows almost on the heels of the Parable of the Shrewd Manager. In the portion of the Scripture excluded from the lectionary readings for this week and last week, we find even more teachings about money. You might have asked yourselves, “why all of this focus on money all of a sudden?” Well, from this passage in-between the two parables, the reason for this is abundantly clear.
Just a chapter earlier, the audience for the parable of the Lost Sheep and the Lost coin was made up not only of tax collectors and sinners but also the Pharisees. For the parable of the Shrewd Manager, the audience was mostly just the disciples. But in-between, it’s clear that Jesus never forgot about the Pharisees in their midst. The Pharisees’ reaction to Jesus’ teaching was anything but enthusiastic. They didn’t feel convicted of sin or change their minds about how to handle their money. No, instead they scoffed at Jesus’ teaching. And the Gospel gives us a plain reason why: it says, “they were lovers of money.”
Now when Luke says that the Pharisees were lovers of money, it means that they valued earthly riches perhaps over the things of God. We know that the Gospels can be very harsh on the Pharisees. Oftentimes we have allowed this to become a stereotype for all subsequent Jewish people and this has led to several harmful teachings about Jews and money that last even to this day. That’s precisely NOT what Jesus was intending to do! Rather, Jesus is pointing to the Pharisees as a group example of elite and privileged people who aren’t using their resources for the right things. In point of fact, many of the poorest of the poor in Jesus’ time were devout, God-honoring Jews, as we’ll see in the parable. To make a blanket statement about “The Jews” at the time of Jesus and their value of money would be not only a harmful stereotype but also a colossal mistake, a complete untruth.
So, the context of the parable story we are hearing today is one of several told together. It is addressed to a mixed audience of Jewish disciples (just like the parable of the Shrewd Manager) and also the powerful Pharisees as well. And it was with the rich and powerful in mind that Jesus crafted this wonderful story. Now, let’s see what Jesus has to teach us as we listen in to the conversation.
The parable story opens with an introduction to a man of wealth and power: There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. This little phrase, “there was a rich man” lets us know that what follows is a parable. In the Greek, it’s a phrase that introduces stories; in English, we say “There once was a poor man with… There once was a little girl who…, etc.”. Interestingly, this is the same Greek phrase that introduces the parable of the shrewd manager—and that’s not accidental. Jesus is inviting the audience to compare and contrast these stories.
And not only was this man rich, but he was also extravagantly rich. We miss something by not knowing much about the cultural backgrounds of the ancient world. That’s why resources such as commentaries can be very helpful. You see, not only was this man just well-dressed, he dressed like absolute royalty. The color purple was very rare in the ancient world. The dye used to make purple was produced by a small gland of a particular Mediterranean shellfish called a Murex. So precious was this color that in the Roman world, laws existed that stated just who could wear purple and what amounts. Senators, for instance, were allowed a stripe of purple on their clothing. For a man such as our rich man to have an entire outer garment of purple would mean that he truly was royalty—or at least was bold enough to act like it. Even his undergarments were of the finest material. Egyptian linen was the most precious material known for these types of clothing, and it appears that our rich man had routine access to them. And finally, our rich man busied himself with other luxuries as well, such as feasting daily in a sumptuous manner.
Interestingly, all the verbs about the rich man are in the sense of being a continuous state of affairs. It wasn’t just that he had one nice outfit in a normal wardrobe. No, he continuously wore the finest of clothes. And it wasn’t just that he ate a really nice meal every now and again. Nope again. It’s clear from the Greek that he constantly ate the best and finest. And it’s likely that he would not do this alone. Instead, to gain friends and influence people, the rich would invite both patrons and clients to these banquets to secure their business relationships. Remember, this was an “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” kind of world. Connections were made and cemented by lavish hospitality. And how close you sat to the guest of honor or to the host was an indication of your social rank and the ability to gain favors and influence in the community.
So that’s the introduction to our rich man. Interestingly we don’t ever get a name for this character. He’s just “a certain rich man.” Remember how Jesus leaves some ambiguities to get his listeners to think? I bet more than one person drew a connection between this rich guy and a few of the well-dressed, rich and powerful Pharisees who were people of wealthy businesses, shapers of politics, and community influencers.
Now, in sharp contrast, the next character actually gets a name. Actually, this is the ONLY time in ANY of Jesus’ parables where a character gets a name. Hopefully, by the end of the story, we might have a theory as to why. But for now, let’s meet him: Verses twenty and twenty-one introduces the character this way: At his (the rich man’s) gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. Wow, what a contrast. Here Jesus went from the richest of the rich to the poorest of the poor. But before we get to know Lazarus better, we learn even more about the rich man’s wealth.
Did you hear it? The rich man is wealthy enough to require a gate on his house. And when we say “gate,” I don’t want you to imagine the garden gate you might have at your house. No, that’s entirely too small a thing. The Greek for what we’re talking about is a massive city-sized gate, like the many gates that surrounded the city of Jerusalem. And from that, we can infer that the rich man’s house, if we can call it a house, was massive. It’s probably better to conclude that we’re dealing with a huge estate with a palace here.
And at the gate was placed a beggar named Lazarus. Placed. Not, “he sat there, or he panhandled there, etc.,” So we learn that the man couldn’t walk on his own. He was lame. Naturally, he couldn’t work. What was left? If you remember, the shrewd manager was “too proud to beg.” For Lazarus, there was only one other option: death. It was begging or dying, and so he chose to beg. Was he carried and placed every day, or did he live there? Probably, from the description of what happened to him, no one wanted to touch him. Not only was Lazarus lame and poor, but he was sick as well. His body was covered with running ulcers. Not the unclean kind of leprosy, but the bed-sores and open wounds and bug bites of a very hungry, poor, sick person. And the scandalous thing was, that it seems no one bothered to help Lazarus. Not passersby, not the guests who came to eat, and certainly not the rich man whose gate kept him outside in the streets.
All Lazarus wanted was the scraps that came from the rich man’s table. But he got nothing. The only comfort he got was from the dogs. Many people claim that the dogs were there to torment Lazarus, but scholar Amy-Jill Levine begs to differ (See her “Short Stories by Jesus on this parable). At this time in history, dogs were no longer considered the unclean animals they had been in previous centuries. In fact, even many Jews had dogs as pets. And the licking of wounds by dogs was actually a prescribed medical treatment in the ancient world because it was believed that saliva had healing properties.
I think Jesus included this detail to demonstrate that animals had compassion on Lazarus while, in contrast, the rest of humanity ignored him. And because of that ignorance, Lazarus wasn’t long for the world. Even though his wounds were tended by dogs, he wasn’t eating and didn’t have access to medicine or clean water. It was in short order that he died from the complications of poverty. Ah, but it isn’t only Lazarus who met his end. No, the rich man, despite a lavish lifestyle—or perhaps because of it—soon succumbed to death as well. Death is after all the great equalizer.
Let’s listen to the next part of the text: The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. Lazarus dies. And there is no mention of a funeral. To go unburied in Jewish custom was shameful, but for a beggar like Lazarus, who we might surmise has no family or friends, it wasn’t uncommon. It’s likely his body was carted off to some mass-grave just to remove the smell and unsightly reminder of death. But in contrast to the ignominious send-off, we learn that Lazarus’ soul or spirit is carried into the next life by none other than angels.
In sharp contrast we learn that when the rich man died, his death was accompanied by all the proper rites and rituals, no expense spared. He breathed his last and his body experienced luxury—but what of his soul or spirit? You might have thought this was a parable about how death makes us all equals, see – but no! Surprise! Next, we learn the rich man’s fate. Instead of paradise, or Abraham’s side as the text calls it, the rich man finds himself In Hades, where he was in torment and then he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. He died in luxury and woke up in the next life in torment. His luxuries were an earthly paradise only. He was now in Hades, which is the Greek term for the place of death. In the OT it was called Sheol or “the grave.”
Oh, how the mighty has fallen! Oh, how the earthly fates of these two characters have been reversed! The man who had nothing in this life winds up in paradise and the man who had it all ends up in torment. And it’s at this point that we might be tempted to cheer. We might say, “Justice is served.” And if we did that—we’d be putting ourselves in the position of a judge—and that’s always a dangerous place to be. Jesus is asking: who are we more like? Is it Lazarus—or is it the rich man? I can’t answer that, because I don’t know your situation. But until we end the parable, I want you to hold on loosely to any identification you might feel in the story. By the end, we’ll meet a third option that might suit the bill better.
So – the rich man finds himself in torment and Lazarus finds himself in paradise. The reversal of fortunes that Jesus promises in the Beatitudes has come about. But does the rich man now see the error of his ways? Let me give you a hint—[shake head]. Instead, the rich man calls to Abraham, “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.”
So, the answer is no—he didn’t learn his lesson. In life, the rich man ignored Lazarus. He didn’t offer him food, or shelter, or a chance to heal his wounds. Does that mean he didn’t know Lazarus or his plight? We might be tempted to think that, but the rich man betrays himself even as he is begging for his soul. He calls Lazarus by name—and not to beg forgiveness—but to give orders to him. Even in death, when he realizes his fate, he can’t move his stone-cold heart to look on Lazarus as a fellow human being. Instead, he looks on him as an object to be used, a slave, an animal. Abraham, send Lazarus to comfort me. The one who showed no mercy is now begging for mercy. The irony is literally dripping in this story.
Abraham’s reply is at once compassionate and realistic to the situation. He replies, Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.
The rich man had addressed Abraham as “Father Abraham.” He was leaning on his ethnic, cultural, and religious identity, much as the religious elite did at the time. He believed that his status as a child of Abraham was enough to gain him access to paradise regardless of how he treated other people. We’ll learn from his mistake, I hope. But Abraham does acknowledge him as a child by calling him “son.” He is indeed a son of Abraham, just as we all are children of God, but there is nothing that can be done for this rich man anymore. He had his chance in life to show mercy, demonstrate love for God through the love of neighbor, but he failed. And now, he is in torment—and there is no way out.
But the rich man just keeps going. Well, if there is no way out for me, at least let me save my family. He answers back to Abraham Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.
Oh, rich man, rich man. Will you never learn? Here you are, still treating Lazarus like your errand boy! Don’t you realize you’re in torment and he’s in blessing? Don’t you realize that the tables have been turned? No—you don’t. Your heart is hardened and will be forever. That’s why you’re here.
Abraham’s reply is a bit confusing, but let’s try to unpack it together. He says in response to the rich man’s request about his brothers, They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them. “They have Moses” refers to the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch or Law. “They have The Prophets” refers to the books from Joshua to Malachi. So, this is a shorthand phrase for the entirety of the Old Testament. When Abraham says they have Moses and the Prophets, he means to let the brothers attend to the teachings of the Old Testament.
And when Jesus uses this as a story argument, he’s going after the Pharisees. The Pharisees, much like modern-day Fundamentalists, were big fans of what we call “proof-texting.” They take certain verses out of the Bible and build elaborate theologies out of them. One stream of thought they had was a passing idea found in Deuteronomy: those who are blessed with material wealth are living in God’s will, and those that suffer conversely are being punished. So, from the Pharisees’ point of view, a rich man is doing nothing wrong. Lazarus is suffering justly for some secret sin. And woe unto us if we interfere with God’s punishment!
Jesus calls foul on any such heartless interpretation. It’s true that in Deuteronomy we can find texts that back up such a thought. But IN THE VERY SAME BOOK, there are many more texts that clearly call everyone to take care of the poor, the needy, and the orphan, being generous and moving towards equality for everyone in the community. In fact, all throughout the OT, there are numerous texts that call out and judge the shameless wealthy people and call them to care for the poor. The Pharisees and their self-serving interpretations simply didn’t have a leg to stand on, and Jesus is calling them out. Is there any doubt as to why they wanted Jesus dead?
And alas, the rich man isn’t yet done! He’s got one final plea left in him. He says No, father Abraham…but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent. Abraham’s reply ends the story on an incredibly somber note. He says If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.
There we have it in a nutshell. The rich man’s last-ditch effort was to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn the 5 remaining brothers of their impending fate and torment. Once again, the rich man is using Lazarus as a tool—a pawn in his rich man’s game to get what he wants. Although it seems like compassion, caring for his brothers, Abraham—or rather, Jesus the storyteller—is having none of it.
Do you know where the rich man’s wealth went? After he died? … That’s right. To his family. To his brothers, most likely. Does he finally have a twinge of responsibility? Does he fear that he has now passed on the curse of wealth to his brothers, who may also fall into greed and selfishness as he did? Perhaps. But he still doesn’t see Lazarus – he doesn’t think of the “poor” person. So, at best, he knows what he shouldn’t have done – but he still doesn’t see what God wanted him to have done – he still doesn’t understand who he is, who his neighbor is, who God is, and how earthly wealth is really to be handled.
Abraham says, the brothers already have all they need in God’s revelation in the Old Testament. If they fail to grasp that God loves the poor person, they don’t understand God at all. In fact, Abraham is saying to the rich man – no, this isn’t some unfair turn of events. No, you aren’t a victim of unknown universal laws. You had everything – very words from God – and you ignored them.
And that’s really the point of this parable.
Are our hearts yearning for what God’s heart yearns for?
Or have our hearts been hardened to the point that we only long for what we want?
That’s a point to ponder this morning as we end this parable study. I asked you earlier to suspend judgment as to whether you identified more with the rich man in the parable, or with Lazarus. Now I’d like to propose a third and more nuanced option.
What if we are the brothers in this parable? We aren’t dead yet. We are neither the rich man getting what’s due to us or the poor man who suffered in this life. We are still in a state of limbo. What if it remains to be seen what becomes of us based on how we react to God’s revelation?
Over the centuries, this parable has been used and abused to tell us a lot about heaven and hell. It was used to condemn wealth and praise the poor, used to convince slaves and poor people that their poverty was the best place for them. It’s made heroes and villains. But what if I told you that that’s not the purpose?
Even the most conservative of scholars warn against gaining any doctrine of heaven or hell from a parable. A parable, after all, is a story. And parables, in particular, are stories with intent. They are designed to cut through our intellectual defenses and teach us spiritual truths. But they’re fictional accounts, not actual events. So, let’s not press it into service when asking questions about the afterlife.
Instead, let’s pick up the lesson that Jesus was clearly teaching. We can’t go wrong there! The Bible—particularly the teachings of the Old Testament, but also the New—have a great deal to teach us about what it means to love God and love our neighbor. We can never claim ignorance on how we treat the poor, the widow, the orphan, and dare I say even the foreigner among us?
The Bible is clear on the fact that we should do these things: We should engage and befriend the lowly, for they will be raised up. We should use our resources as we are blessed, to be a blessing to others. We should feed the hungry, clothe the naked, find homes for the orphan, and give hospitality to the foreigner.
I promise you I’m not being political this morning. I’m not some bleeding-heart liberal that thinks that Government is the answer to all things. No. Actually, I think GOD is the answer. More specifically, I think GOD’S PEOPLE are the answer. People made in the image of God should care for other people made in that same image. And that’s all people—no exclusions. That means black, brown, red, yellow, straight, gay, transgender, rich, poor, young, middle age, old, healthy people, sick people, variously abled people, people who speak French, Spanish, Urdu, Chinese, Swahili—in short, all people.
We can’t have limits on who we care for.
We can’t privilege foreigners while ignoring those at home. We can’t exclude old folks while focusing on the young. Instead, we start from where we are and share our abundance. We may not have money to give, and that’s fine. We have time and talents to give. We have friendship. We have a voice. We have a smile. We have a heart.
From time to time, we may find ourselves in the place of the poor man Lazarus, needing help. Don’t be proud and refuse, but instead consider this the answer to someone’s prayers—perhaps your own—that God’s abundant resources would be shared to all who are in need.
As you go from reading this meditation today, know that it is not riches that will cause us to enter bliss or to receive punishment, but rather, how we use them. Actually, how we view it, handle it, talk about it, and store it or give it away. After all, Abraham himself was a man of great wealth, and he was the host of Paradise in Jesus’ story. It’s not what we have, but how we use it.
I call you to do, as John Wesley said, all the good you can, to whoever you can, as long as ever you can. Let us work until Jesus comes and we join him at the banquet table of heaven in HIS bosom. Our greatest reward is to hear the words “well done, good and faithful servant.” We can achieve this result as we yield to the power of the Holy Spirit as opportunities are presented to minister to others in Jesus’ name.
(Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® NIV®
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