Sermon Preached at Grace Community Church (EPC)
Sun City Grand, Surprise, AZ
Sunday, March 7, 2010
by the Reverend Cooper McWhirter
In a Manner of Speaking: The Parable of “The Rich Man and Lazarus”
Of Jesus’ forty-four parables, four of which are repetitious, the “Rich Man and Lazarus” is by far the most unique. For instance, this is the only parable in which a person’s name is mentioned which some bible scholars believe was not an imaginary tale, but a true story. But whether this was fact or fiction, Christ handled this story in much the same way He did with all of His parables insofar as there was a “message behind the message.”
Then, too, this was the only parable which talks about an “intermediate state, condition, or place” following a person’s death, but prior to the final Judgment. Within Christendom some persuasions refer to this temporary “staging area” as a place called “Purgatory”.
For the unbeliever this parable serves as a dire warning! But for the believer it offers a certainty and a hope! Notice carefully both the subtle as well as the not so subtle ironies: The first thing we observe in this parable is that: IN LIFE THERE WAS A STARK CONTRAST BETWEEN THESE TWO INDIVIDUALS (repeat).
In this story the rich man remains anonymous. However, he represents a person whom many of us have encountered at one time or another. His wealth had elevated him to social prominence which only served to feed his ego; for in every respect this man was “puffed up” and full of himself. Because of his foolish pride he tended to look down on those who were less fortunate with a condescending attitude and an air of superiority.
Someone once said: “Pride is the dandelion of the soul. Its roots go deep … and its seeds lodge in the tiniest of cracks ... It’s not easily detected while it lays dormant in the ground but once it sprouts up, pride is difficult to remove because it feeds on goodness.” Perhaps this is one reason why God wisely designed the human body so that we can neither pat ourselves on the back, nor kick ourselves in the rear!
The opening verses reveal that this rich man was not only “well-to-do” but that he lived luxuriously. He wore the finest of linens which were not only expensive, but the color purple itself denoted royalty. Then, too, his house must have been rather stately for the text tells us that it was “gated” which suggests that his estate was not only expansive but also private as if to say, “Strangers are not welcome here … Keep out!”
Now contrast this rich man with the person of Lazarus, who was clearly not the same Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead in John chapter 11. The Lazarus in this story was truly a man to be pitied for he was sorely afflicted with all kinds of physical ailments. Some have suggested that this man’s fragile condition and open sores indicated leprosy, or some other dreaded disease. But this seems unlikely because in Jesus’ day lepers were usually confined to cave dwellings, catacombs and the like. The Pharisees believed that people like Lazarus were accursed by God and for whatever reason deserved their fate.
But whatever afflicted him, Lazarus was unable to fend for himself. Only the dogs expressed pity for this man by licking his open sores. And like that of a dog Lazarus was reduced to eating the leftover scraps from the rich man’s table. Yes, if ever there was a man who had a right to curse at God, it was Lazarus. And yet there is nothing to indicate that this pitiful character was angry at God, or envious of this rich man, or resentful towards his fellow man. Instead, Lazarus appeared to have resigned himself to his lowly, feeble condition.
But in addition to the stark contrast between these two individuals in life, THERE WAS A STARK CONTRAST BETWEEN THEIR FINAL DESTINATIONS AFTER DEATH (repeat).
In verse 22 we read that this rich man eventfully died and was buried. No doubt there would have been an elaborate funeral service with much pomp and circumstance. Like that of all mankind the rich man’s body was placed in the grave which is the Hebrew word “sheol.”
However, the Bible tells us that this rich man was also confined to a place called hell or “Hades.” Throughout the New Testament this denotes a place of punishment and torment. It is sometimes used interchangeably with the word “gehenna” which got its name from a place called the valley of Hinnom, located southwest of Jerusalem where child sacrifices once took place. People seldom ventured to this foreboding place for legend had it that the spirits of these departed children cursed those who would dare enter their domicile. And although he was absent from his body, this rich man’s soul endured continuous torment, for we read that his tongue was parched and dry from the fire and the unrelenting heat!
By this time Lazarus also had died but he was immediately taken up by angels and carried to Abraham’s side. This clearly denotes that both the rich man and Lazarus were Jews. However, Scripture repeatedly reminds us that the only true descendants of Abraham are those who have placed their faith in God; and not by birthright. Thus, Lazarus was placed alongside Father Abraham by virtue of his faith in God; and not because he was poor. Conversely, the rich man was now experiencing this hellish torment not because he once was rich, but it was because he was uncaring and dispassionate towards his fellow man.
But there’s also something that’s rather subtle and peculiar. For in this parable Jesus has more to say about this rich man than He does about Lazarus, which begs the question, “Why?” Could it be that we have more in common with this rich man than with this poor wretched person named Lazarus?
In whole or in part we are far more self-serving than we’d like to admit. Have you ever stopped to consider that most of our prayers center around that of our own needs and wants rather than in true intercession on behalf of others? We are far more “self-absorbed” than we might realize! There’s not one among us who lacks either food, shelter, or clothing. Each day that we draw breath is a blessed from God! So let us offer our thanks to God by extending love and compassion towards those who are less fortunate.
But perhaps the startling fact of all is that in the afterlife: THEIR DEMEANOR HAD NOT CHANGED (repeat).
One might have thought that the rich man would have expressed sorrow or regret for the life he had lived but clearly this was not the case! He was neither repentant nor remorseful. Notice that the rich man was still contemptuous of Lazarus insisting that Abraham have him fetch water for him so as to cool and soothe his tongue. In other words, the rich man was still expecting to be waited upon in spite of his predicament.
Abraham reminds the rich man there remains a great abyss or chasm which separates them; a great divide which is permanently fixed so that no man can venture either from above or below. When his initial request was denied this did not deter the rich man. He pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus back to his brothers so as to warn them of their impending doom. But this, too, was denied for by failing to believe the Law and the prophets they would also refuse to even believe if someone was raised from the dead, which some scholars have interpreted to mean Jesus’ own bodily resurrection.
When all is said and done, it really doesn’t matter if Lazarus was a real person or not, or even if this story was true or a mere fable. What does matter is what Jesus is teaching us here. In other words, what is the message behind the message?
Let me tell you what I believe. I believe that upon my death I will immediately know where I am. I will be aware of my surroundings and of my fate. And at that point it will be too late to alter God’s pending Judgment.
I will either reside in a place called Hell, or I will be in a place called “Paradise.” You’ll recall the repentant thief on the cross who made this plea: “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with Me in paradise” [Luke 23:42, 43].
It is interesting to note that the Talmud mentions both “paradise” and “Abraham’s side or bosom as being the home of the righteous. In the Greek the word “paradise” speaks of a garden or forest. However in the New Testament as this word appears both here as in 2 Corinthians 12:4 and Revelation 2:7, “paradise” refers to “a place of bliss and rest.” This occurs after one’s physical death, when the soul and body are separated for a time, but before our bodily resurrection when once again body and soul are reunited. In a word, “paradise” means to be present with the Lord!
I leave you with this parting thought to ponder. G. K. Chesterton, the well-known twentieth century English writer and poet once remarked, “Hell is God’s great compliment to the reality of human freedom and the dignity of human personality. ‘Hell, a compliment you say?’ ‘Yes, it is as if God is saying to us, ‘You are significant. I take you seriously. Choose to reject Me – choose hell if you will, and to hell I will let you go.’ ”
When I pause to consider the fate of this rich man, I am reminded of these words by Jenny Sanford, the former wife of Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who said: “You can choose your sin … but you cannot choose your consequences.”
But be mindful of this: “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some
count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” [2 Peter 3:9]. My friends, time is running out! For most of us here, today, there are more years behind us than in front of us. And so decide this day where you will place your trust. Will it be the god of this world, or the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and in His only Begotten Son is the Lord, Jesus Christ the Righteous One!
Let us pray …