The Rich Man and Lazarus
‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’
Trouble and grace. No not that is not the name of Netflix’s latest comedy. Trouble and grace refer to a method in crafting a sermon. When reading a piece of scripture, the preacher asks the questions, where is the trouble and where is the grace? A good sermon will have both trouble and grace and not lean to heavily on one or another. My sermons tend to error on the side of grace as I believe it is grace that gives hope, and people who have hope can do extraordinary things. Grace has the power to heal and unharden hearts. However, once awhile a piece of scripture comes up that is nothing but trouble: The parable of Lazarus and the Rich man.
This is not a feel-good story of healing and restoration, is a story of rebuke for the way we as humanity treat the poor. One commentator on this parable sums up the lesson well: “God does not create poverty, human beings do. What humans create, humans can fix, if they so desire.” This parable in Luke continues wider themes found in his gospel: themes of reversal, the first become last, God’s preferential option for the poor, and woe to those who are rich. This parable is serious in its woe to the rich. Jesus tells the crowds – a mix of disciples, sinners, tax collectors and religious authorities – the story of Lazarus and the rich man.
Lazarus which means, “God has helped.” Lazarus’s life, to put it plainly, is horrible. He languishes hungry, diseased, and in agony literally outside of the gates of a rich man’s home. Lazarus receives no mercy from his fellow human, it is the dogs who offer mercy – licking the sores that cover his body. In contrast the rich man lives a life of luxury, dressed in fine clothing of purple, filled with food for all his life. In life a chasm exists between Lazarus and the rich man, one that can be fixed.
The story continues. Lazarus and the rich man die, a friendly reminder that we all do, end up in the after life. Lazarus finally receives some relief, he is carried by angels to abide with Abraham, the father of the nation, the one who God called to the promised land. The rich man he is not carried by angels but buried and ends up in Hades, the Greek underworld, where he is tormented. Hades is associated with the Jewish concept of Sheol, loosely the place of still darkness where departed souls go. When the New Testament writers quote the Old Testament passages that mention Sheol they translate it as Hades. It is unclear exactly what Sheol is, most times it is simply the place where are souls end up regardless of morality during life. Likewise, Luke’s use of Hades is the only time in the New Testament where Hades and the afterlife are associated with rewards and punishments. The Christian concept of hell, of which is what the word Hades is translated into in the King James bible, as some torturous place of eternal punishment for lack of belief etc is not really biblical.
Returning to our story, the rich man is in Hades in agony. Amongst the flames the rich man calls out for mercy to Abraham, he beseeches that Lazarus be sent to “dip the tip of his finger in water to cool my tongue.” Abraham reminds him of his life when he received good things and Lazarus evil things. Abraham offers no comfort. In death a chasm exists between Lazarus and the rich man, one that cannot be fixed. The rich man then asks, if he cannot change his circumstances then to at least send someone to warn his brothers, less they end up in the same fate. Abraham reminds that that they have Moses and the prophets. They have the law and the prophets that remind them (and us) over and over again to take care of the poor, the widow, the orphan, and to welcome the stranger. They – and we – have been warned. The parable ends with a reference to the Christian concept of resurrection, that the rich’s man brothers will not be convinced to act justly even if someone rises from the dead.
There is not much grace in this story, yes Lazarus is comforted after death but that it is little comfort for those who live in poverty. The rich man is doomed to eternal agony and cannot even save his brothers. The only mercy given is from dogs, perhaps a lesson that those creatures that are so often considered less than humans have more humanity than us. This is a story that seeks to name the trouble in Jesus’ time and in our time; poverty.
Did you notice that in the story that Lazarus has a name, but the rich man does not? The rich man is that a rich man with no name. Naming Lazarus humanizes him. Perhaps it is a reminder that love of wealth over love of people desensitizes us to the suffering of others. Perhaps it is a reminder to see poverty as an evil that happens to people, people with names, people named “God has helped”.
If you are looking for a way out of this parable you might look to that last verse of the parable: “If they (the rich man’s brothers) do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” We can tell our selves that this not about being literally rich or poor but rather about being rich or poor in faith. If we are rich in faith we ought to believe in the resurrection and read scripture (Moses and the prophets). Now of course reading scripture and proclaiming the mystery of our faith, that Christ died and rose again are important things to being a Christian, but to spiritualize this story is to ignore a very clear message in scripture. Jesus in his own words in Luke proclaims that he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor (Luke 4:18).
To spiritualize this story is to ignore the words the psalmist in Psalm 146, who declares that God is the one who executes justice for the oppressed: who gives food to the hungry. It is to ignore the history of the emerging church in Acts when new converts would “sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (2:45). This parable and the over 2000 verses in our scriptures addressing poverty do not give us a way out.
If you came looking for grace in this scripture, you will not find it. What you find is an indictment of our way of life and the chasm between rich and poor that we allow to perpetuate.
What you find I hope is a call to think about how we can change this, how we might find a way through the ballot box, through the ministries of the church and communities to change this. If you came looking for a story about faith, what you find is faith manifested as action. Faith is a verb that changes who we are and how we act. The faith of Moses, the prophets, and those first church converts compelled them to name the evils in this world and act to change them. Jesus asks us today if we were the rich man what would we do? Amen.