Summary: How we respond to God’s Word in this life determines our life in the next.
The scene is a familiar one. The mansion with the ornate ironwork front gate. Marble steps and carved mahogany doors. Overlooking a well cared for street. A street marred only be the presence of a filthy beggar, sprawled beside the entrance to this palatial mansion. A beggar who hardly moves, except when the garbage is put out, because that’s dinner time. Inside the gate is the sweet perfume of flowering plants, augmented by the essential oils used by the rich man to quarantine him from the reality of the outside world. Outside the gate is the smell of the street. The smell of human waste and rotting flesh.
But the story isn’t so much about externals, as it is about people and their response to God’s word.
There are 2 actors in the story, as well as 5 brothers who take a subsidiary role.
The Rich Man
The first actor is a rich man. In fact that’s the sum total of all we’re told about him. "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day." In fact if you think about it that’s not a very impressive obituary, is it? You’d hope at the end of your life that people will be able to say more about you than that you were rich. Even if your riches were achieved by your own efforts and not those of your family or people who worked for you, you’d still hope that there was more to say than just that. Yet that’s all we’re told. This man’s whole life is summed up in a sense by his riches. Perhaps that’s how he saw it himself. He wouldn’t be the first person to assess his life’s achievements by his bank balance, or by the power he’s able to wield, or by the fine food and clothing he affords himself. Yet as we’ll see, such things are passing and in the long run don’t amount to anything.
The Poor Man
In stark contrast to the rich man is a man who lives in abject poverty. He’s sprawled at the rich man’s gate, starving, longing to eat even the scraps that are left over after the rich man has finished feasting. His skin is covered with sores, no doubt caused by malnutrition. And the implication is that he’s starving because of the rich man’s neglect. No doubt the rich man holds his handkerchief to his nose and looks the other way whenever he passes, trying his best to ignore this man. Forget the call of God’s word to care for the poor. Let someone else worry about that. It isn’t my concern. Who knows how he got himself in this state anyway. In any case he got himself into it, he can get himself out of it. And so the rich man ignores the beggar, while, we’re told even the dogs care for him to the extent of licking his sores clean.
Now we miss some of the impact of this throw away statement, because we live in a different culture as far as dogs are concerned. We think about a dog and our thoughts are warm and rosy. We think of that cute pet who greets us at the door when we get home. Who plays chase with a tennis ball or a stick. Who’s the faithful companion, who never disagrees with us when we complain to him. But in Jesus’ day, dogs were despised animals, outsiders, curs, confined to wandering the streets. Yet even these despised animals showed care to this poor beggar.
One Name - Lazarus
But you know the most striking thing about this man isn’t his poverty, or his sores. It’s the fact that Jesus names him. In fact this is the only occasion on which Jesus gives a name to a character in one of his parables. Now that isn’t because this is based on a real story as some have wondered. Rather it’s to show that there’s more to this man than his poverty. You see a name is important because it indicates a relationship. You only need a name if you’re known to someone. A name distinguishes you as an individual.
Now that doesn’t mean that the rich man didn’t have a name. But as far as this story is concerned, he might as well not have. On the other hand the poor man’s name is significant because of its meaning. His name in fact tells us who he was known by. ’Lazarus’, in Hebrew, would be Eleazar. And that means ’He whom God helps’. Jesus gives him this name to indicate that Lazarus is one who waits on God to help him. He doesn’t blame God for his situation. He doesn’t plot revenge. He simply waits for the vindication of the Lord. He knows that as bad as his plight might be in this world, there is a life to come that will make this life fade into insignificance.