The Parables of Jesus
The Rich Man and Lazarus
July 12, 2009
Now we turn to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. It is true that this is parable about discipleship as well as the future kingdom. But it is a parable specifically about money. How discipleship impacts our use of our wealth and how that discipleship impacts our future in God’s kingdom. Turn to Luke 16: 19-31.
A woman was working one night in a Honeybaked Ham store. The store had security cameras, and she was watching the small, black-and-white monitors when she saw a woman come in the store, walk down the handicapped ramp, and go between two shelves. To the clerk’s amazement, this woman grabbed a ham off the shelf and stuffed it up her dress. With the ham wedged between her thighs, the woman waddled toward the door.
The clerk was stunned and wondered what she should do.
Just then, the ham dropped out from between the woman’s legs. It hit the metal handicapped ramp with a loud bang, and then rolled and clanged to the bottom.
The thief didn’t miss a beat. She quickly turned her head and yelled out, "Who threw that ham at me? Who threw that ham at me?" Then she ran out of the store.
"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 sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
"The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ’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.’
"But Abraham replied, ’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 fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
"He answered, ’Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
"Abraham replied, ’They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
" ’No, father Abraham,’ he said, ’but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
"He said to him, ’If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ "
Okay let’s look at some basic issues regarding this text and then move into some of cultural issues so that we can have a proper perspective.
• This a parable
This is a story used prophetically to speak the word of God in order to confront the love of money that Jesus says the Pharisees have in verse 14-15. This is not a real situation but a parable. While the basic truths of God’s kingdom including judgment and separation of the good and wicked inform this story, we should be careful about assuming that this is a literal picture of eternity as well as not assuming that these were real people.
As it is a parable we also need to not assume that the poor are inherently righteous. The parable makes not mention why Lazarus is blessed. He just is is blessed in God’s kingdom. But the parable does confront the common cultural assumption that poverty in life is an indication that a person is curse. Also:
• Similarities to John 11 are superficial
Lazarus was a very common name and we should not assume that this is Mary’s brother that was brought out of the tomb.
• The parable deals with wealth
The rich man who enjoys his wealth is contrasted with Lazarus who lies outside the gates of the rich man. The rich man makes no effort to alleviate the suffering of the poor something the Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing. The Pharisees were supposed to be using their money and the money of the Temple to help the poor such as widows but often made the taxes and tithes an even larger burden on them.
Here the rich man does nothing for the poor such as Lazarus, whose name means “God helps.” He lived in luxury every day. He paid no attention to the poor and suffering and did not try in the least to help them. When the situations are reversed, the rich man asks for a minuscule relief—a drop of water from the finger of Lazarus. But he is informed that just as he offered not even the crumbs from his table that were to be thrown out, he would get not relief.
Now here are some cultural issues that may help us gain a clearer picture. The crumbs that fell underneath the table were pieces of bread used to wipe one’s hands. They did not fall there accidently. They were thrown under the table indicating both excesses of the rich man and his utter lack of compassion.
Purple cloth was a sign of royalty and those proud of their wealth. The best purple dye came from marine snails. It was a difficult process to obtain this purple dye making it rare and expensive.
The oozing sores and the dogs licking those sores would have made Lazarus ritually impure. Of course it indicated the severity of Lazarus’ suffering but also showed that he would have been treated with utter contempt and culturally received his due. The dogs were scavengers not pets. Packs of wild dogs would roam the land even digging up those whose graves were too shallow.
Culturally it would be assumed that the rich man was blessed by God and the poor man was cursed. Burial was hugely important. Not being buried was a sign of God’s curse. It would have been assumed that Lazarus would not have been buried or buried in an unmarked, shallow grave as executed criminals often were disposed of. Culturally, he would be called the lowest of the low and the most cursed. However, the image of Abraham’s bosom is a sign of honor and intimacy probably implying the hearer to believe that Lazarus had a place of honor next to Abraham at God’s great eschatological banquet.
Lastly, in verse 31, Luke is clearly making a reference to the resurrection of Jesus also indicating how hopelessly lost the wealthy can be especially those like the Pharisees who should not only know better but should living examples of those use their wealth to help others but do not. So what are the lessons we learn here:
• Only those who do are saved.
For some this is hard. But this parable confronts a false notion that no descendent of Abraham could be lost. Obviously, the rich man calls Abraham “father” and Abraham refers to the rich man as “son.” But the true children of Abraham are those who obey Moses and prophets and share their wealth with the poor.
• Neglect of the poor is denounced.
The rich man had no excuse as Lazarus sat right outside his gate. He can’t claim that he didn’t know or didn’t see the poor. Sound familiar? “I don’t know any poor.” We live in the suburbs so we don’t have to see the poor. We applaud laws that keep the homeless from sleeping where we can see them like in the parks. We pay our taxes declaring that it is the government’s problem and I’ve done my part. We might even donate fifty bucks here and there to the City Mission believing that we are not like this rich man who did nothing.
In centuries past, people could honestly claim that they did not know the suffering of people in Third World countries. But with the technology of TV, satellite, and the Internet, the poor literally are sleeping at our gates.
Claims of ignorance by the rich man and for his brothers are rejected. God has given all of us the information that we need, we can’t even blame Him. God has given us the warnings that we need. Will the five brothers repent? While we are not sure, the flavor of the words seem to imply that there is a good chance they might not. But ultimately Jesus is still speaking to us, you and I, and asking if we will repent?
• Misuse of resources is denounced.
Repentance in view of the kingdom means the right use of wealth. It means that we call attention to exploitation especially when we realize how much we benefit from it. It means that we aren’t just good stewards of our resources making sure that we don’t use them to support unjust situations but that we use our resources to help those who are on the front lines of these battles. Whether it is persecuted Christians and missionaries or organizations like Living Water International that seek to get clean drinking water for villiages in Africa or whether it is World Service and their fight to help the orphans of AIDS victims and prevent the further spread of the disease, Jesus tells each and every person that we are responsible to use all of our resources for the benefit of others.
How far do we take this? Jesus doesn’t say. I can’t tell you but I can make suggestions that push you to a greater dependence on God and a greater obedience.
Albert Schweitzer left his status as a professor, gave up his organ playing and went to Africa as a missionary doctor. He believed this parable spoke directly to Europeans. He said, “Out there in the colonies, however, sits wretched Lazarus.”
Poverty is not a gift of God but a problem often propagated by the sin of numerous people. This parable attacks prophetically (“Thus saith the LORD!”) the kind of wealth that does not see poverty and suffering. It reminds us of another very important idea as well.
• Our possessions are not our own.
What you have is not just because of your own hard work. What you have is really not your own at all. “All the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,” says the Psalmist. The follower of Jesus knows that our stuff, our money, as well as our lives & abilities are not for our own use. They are to be used for the glory of God and to improve life. We have a responsibility to God and others whether we claim to follow Jesus or not.
Increasingly society and the world are divided between the haves and the have-nots. This parable reminds us that the true follower of Jesus cannot tolerate this continued propagation of injustice. And the disparity is becoming increasingly obscene. We can’t evangelize and have no concern for the poor. Any gospel that is not good news to the poor is not the gospel of Jesus.
Great miracles won’t really help people see our personal and cultural inconsistencies. This parable reminds us that great miraculous signs won’t convince anyone. Let he who has ears, hear. Let he who has eyes, see. In many ways we are all the rich man for we have so much abundance. And when we are the rich man in this parable, then we are ultimately worse than Lazarus at the gate. Is it any wonder that Jesus called the Laodicean church, which was wealthy and needed nothing being “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.”
We need our discussions. We need our dialogue because throwing money at these problems without proper wisdom and stewardship only escalates the injustice and invites further corruption. God forbid that we would pretend not see or maybe even worse, just feign to care without really acting to alleviate the plight of the poor.
Open our eyes, Lord. Let us see Lazarus at the gate. Break our hearts if need be. Let us see.