by: Denise Robinson
What Does This Mean? The Parable of the Rich Man & Lazarus
This morning we conclude our sermon series on the parables of Jesus with Luke’s account of the rich man and Lazarus. Before we jump into the parable, however, we need to take a look at the context. Jesus has been instructing in a series of parables, talking about lost sheep, a lost coin, a prodigal young son and a lost older brother, and a dishonest manager. Now we come to another parable: that of a rich man and Lazarus. Who has been listening to all of these parables? Well, the disciples, of course. But Luke makes a point of telling us that a large crowd has gathered around Jesus which includes tax collectors and other sinners, as well as Jewish religious authorities (Pharisees) and legal experts (scribes). Jesus has said to them, “No man can serve two masters ... You cannot serve God and wealth.” The Pharisees, who Luke describes as “lovers of money,” respond to Jesus’ statement by ridiculing him; they mock him, make fun of him. His response is that while they pretend to follow the law as given to Moses, God knows their hearts and God knows what is really important to them – they give lip service to the law commanding them to love God and others, but prioritize their wants, wealth, pride, status. Now Jesus begins another parable (READ Luke 16:19-31).
Now remember, this is a parable. The Lazarus named here is not the Lazarus who was the brother of Mary and Martha and who Jesus raised from the dead. That is a real event – this is an imaginary narrative with a teaching purpose. On the face of it, we might make an easy assumption. The Pharisees with their money are bad; the poor, who have no wealth, are good. And yet we know that there are people who are wealthy who love God and love others more than their money – and we know that there are poor people who are consumed by getting money and have no love for God or others. In this parable, the rich man is not in hell just because he is rich. The poor man is not at Abraham’s side just because he is poor. Something else is going on here. This parable has been called by far the most disturbing and frightful of all Jesus’ parables. Why?
There are two characters in this parable. First, in v. 19, we are introduced to the rich man and Jesus lets us know that he was not just rich, he was over the top wealthy. We are told that daily this man was clothed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously. Purple was the most expensive dye at the time and purple clothing was worn on grand occasions by royalty. From what I have read, purple dye was over 40x more expensive than any other dye. For the man in this story to wear purple garments daily, meant he had several. Linen, while not uncommon, was the most expensive fabric for tunics – camel hair or wool were much more common. We are told that the house in which the rich man lived had a gate. Very few houses at the time had gates; most just had a door that opened to the street. A gate meant a mansion – with wealth to protect on the other side of the gate. Behind the gate, inside his house, the rich man dresses in purple linen clothes and eats self-indulgently – every day – including on the Sabbath.
Our second character is a poor man by the name of Lazarus. Lazarus is, however, beyond poor. He is, it seems, at least partially paralyzed and he is obviously suffering. Luke tells us that he lay at the rich man’s gate daily and he was covered with sores. The Greek verb that is used meaning “lay” is passive tense; meaning that someone basically discarded or laid Lazarus at that gate, likely assuming that we would receive charity from the rich man. However, there is something unusual at this point in the parable – because they are not real events, characters in parable are not named. But in this case, only in this parable in fact, we have a name. The name Lazarus means “he whom God helps.” It’s a name that suggests divine favor. By naming him “Lazarus,” Jesus is making it clear whose side God will ultimately take. Lazarus gets a name while the rich man does not.
Almost immediately into our story we are told that Lazarus dies and is carried away by the angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man almost immediately thereafter dies as well, but instead of angels taking him to Abraham, he goes to Hades or hell. This is our next shock in this parable, because we would assume such a rich man to have gained his wealth due to divine favor. Surely, he would go to heaven. If we were part of Jesus’ audience, we might assume that the rich man was a Roman, Greek, or some other pagan nationality. That could explain why he is in hell. But then, in v. 24, the rich man calls out the words “Father Abraham” and Abraham responds by calling him “child.” The rich man knows Abraham and Abraham knows him and so immediately our assumption is dashed. It is evident that the rich man is Jewish. As a wealthy Jew, we can assume he was active in the synagogue and respected in his community. He naturally should be in heaven. But here he is in hell, while Lazarus is in heaven. What went wrong?
There are a few details at this point to note. Jesus doesn’t say that the rich man commits any terrible sin or that he is evil. It’s clear, of course, that he is selfish, uncaring, and self-absorbed, because he does nothing to help Lazarus. But, on the other hand, he doesn’t do anything against Lazarus either. He doesn’t have Lazarus thrown off his property, nor does he abuse him in any way. He was okay with Lazarus receiving, at least it seems, leftovers from his table as long as it required no effort on his part. We also aren’t told much of anything about Lazarus really. Sure, he’s poor and all – but we aren’t told if he once had a job and was injured at work. Or maybe, instead, he drank too much wine and injured himself when he was drunk. Perhaps he’s suffering from some mental illness, maybe he’s rude to people who pass by him on the street. We don’t know.
What we do know is, for the rich man, Lazarus was just part of the landscape and he thought it perfectly acceptable that Lazarus lie at his gate in misery while he lived inside in luxury. Roman hearers of this story would’ve expected the rich man to have given at least something – as a general rule, even Rome expected the wealthy to give some aid for the benefit of the poor. Jews would know well the command given in Deut. 15:11: “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” Jesus tells us that at least dogs came and licked Lazarus’ sores – the fact that the saliva of dogs had healing properties was known and accepted in Jesus’ time. The dogs did more for Lazarus than the rich man. We are left with only one conclusion: the sin of the rich man was not that he did anything evil; his sin was that he did nothing. But for doing nothing does the rich man deserve hell?
It is interesting to note, as we read from v. 24, that the rich man must’ve accepted, at least at some level, that he deserves his fate. Notice that he never questions why he is in hell or asks Abraham to move him from hell to heaven. He asks for water and he asks that a message be sent to his brothers. He must have known that Lazarus was a child of Abraham, a child of God, just like him – and that he had the knowledge of the Torah, the resources, and the opportunity to provide help. And yet, the parable makes it clear that he still doesn’t get it. Even in hell he is just as self-centered and self-absorbed as ever. He doesn’t ask Abraham to send him water; he asks that Abraham tell Lazarus to get water and bring it to him. Lazarus is, in his eyes, still the lesser human being, one who can be commanded to serve him. And here we have another startling fact to this parable. Lazarus was not just some poor, unknown beggar sitting by his gate. The rich man calls Lazarus by name. Did they grow up together? Did Lazarus once work for the rich man? Did their parents know one another? The bottom line is Jesus doesn’t tell us. But what we do know is that Lazarus was known and Lazarus was noticed; and Lazarus was ignored.
When Abraham tells the rich man that his request for water will not be granted, a second request is made, again involving Lazarus. He wants Abraham to again send Lazarus on a mission for him: to go to his brothers and warn them of the danger of hell. Had he been clever, the rich man might have asked that Abraham allow him to go. But he can’t see past his status or change his ways; Lazarus is still the one who should go. Notice also that the rich man only wants to save his brothers from torment – his request is not for the millions suffering pain, starvation, or isolation. Nor is his request for anyone outside his family. Why not friends … everyone he knows … anyone who will listen? As a Jew, he would know that Abraham was the father of all nations, not just of the Jews. While his concern may move slightly past himself, his request is still only for immediate family.
What we have at the end is that the rich man, even in hell, still thinks of himself as rich and privileged and of Lazarus as a servant to be ordered around on his behalf. He has not repented of his failure to aid Lazarus and asked for forgiveness. He has not recognized that the sin is within himself and in his heart. Abraham’s responses to his requests make his situation clear; just as for his brothers, just as for all who hear Jesus’ words, he and they had the word of Moses and the prophets and those words were ignored. They had Scripture and failed to follow it.
So, what does this parable mean for us? We would like to tell ourselves that this parable isn’t about wealth and it isn’t about hell, but the uncomfortable fact is it is – about both. We get uneasy when we try to put ourselves into one of the characters. For most of us if we’re asking if we’re most like the rich man or most like Lazarus, the truth is we’re more like the rich man. We have a standard of living in this country that is above almost all the rest of the world. We can compare ourselves to famous Hollywood actors or Fortune 500 CEOs and say we are not wealthy – but we are far removed from laying in the dirt at a gate begging for scraps of food. Perhaps, though, we’re more like the Pharisees Jesus was talking to; we have a good standard of living, we’re educated, and we know the law. We have heard Jesus say the first shall be last and the last shall be first; give warning that whoever wants to save their life must lose it; that we are called not to be served, but to serve. What are we going to do with that knowledge? We will close our eyes to those in need or see them and turn away? Or will we act? This parable tells us that doing nothing is an option with eternal consequences.
Most uncomfortably of all, this parable tells us that just as there is a real heaven, there is a real hell. There are many who don’t want to think about hell – who think it outdated, who jump on the promise of heaven while rejecting the threat of hell. But Jesus spoke repeatedly of hell and he spoke of hell as a fearful reality. He spoke of hell more than he spoke of heaven and he described it in vivid terms. Perhaps he spoke of it so often because he was the one who came to us to show us the way to avoid it. And while salvation from hell comes by faith in Christ rather than by works, our works, our obedience to God’s commands, affirm the existence of our faith. This parable demands that we who have chosen to follow Christ open our eyes and see those in need around us – the poor and the oppressed and the marginalized and the hurting sitting by our gate. And this parable reminds us if we do not act, then we are lost. It’s a matter of heart.