The Rich Man and Lazarus
Things That Will Be or Things That May Be?
How often do you think about money? Your response will depend on your circumstances. It is estimated that sixty-three percent of American households are living paycheck to paycheck with no savings! If this is your circumstance, you probably think about money frequently. Will I be able to pay my bills this month? Will I have enough money left over to buy food, medicine, and gas for my car? If something unexpected happens that requires a large sum of money, how will I come up with it?
Or perhaps you have enough money to cover your monthly expenses with some left over. Then your thoughts may be of saving money for a vacation, making a significant purchase like a new home or a new car, or putting money into a retirement account. Finally, you may have plenty of money with more than enough to spare. In those circumstances you may think in terms of growing your investments, minimizing your tax burden, or giving to the charity of your choice.
This morning’s reading from Luke 16 is about wealth. This is clear from the context. In verses 1-9, Jesus tells his disciples the story of an unscrupulous steward who mismanaged the affairs of his wealthy employer. In verses 10-15, as Jesus plainly tells his followers, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (vs. 15). Verse 14 tells us the Pharisees were lovers of money and they ridiculed Jesus’ teaching about wealth.
Our story is one of extremes. It tells of abundant wealth and devastating poverty. The parable is unique. It is the only parable that names the characters in the story. The poor man’s name is Lazarus. In the second act of the narrative, Abraham, the primary patriarch of Judaism, figures prominently. The rich man is not named, but tradition has given him the name “Dives.” “Dives” is the Latin word for “rich person.” The name is derived from the ancient Latin translation of the Bible called the Vulgate.
Dives was very wealthy. He dressed in purple, the color of royalty. He also wore fine linen, probably a luxurious Egyptian undergarment. In addition to his fine apparel, Dives feasted sumptuously every day. He also lived in a grand home with a gate. Gated communities have been around for a long time!
The first act of the story is purely descriptive. It makes no judgments about wealth. However, the predominant view of wealth in first century Judaism saw prosperity as stemming from God’s favor. This was almost certainly the view of the Pharisees and why they mocked Jesus’ teaching. Fred Craddock in his commentary on Luke describes this view of wealth that was deeply rooted in the Old Testament, especially the book of Deuteronomy. He wrote, “God and mammon are comfortably joined. Godliness is in league with riches; prosperity is the clear sign of God’s favor. The righteous prosper and the wicked suffer.” In this view of wealth, Dives was blessed by the Lord.
In sharp contrast, Lazarus was destitute. He would have gladly eaten anything that fell on the floor from Dives’ table. He longed to satisfy his hunger. Moreover, Lazarus was sick. His body was covered with sores. One is reminded of the trials of Job. And if hunger and sickness were not degrading enough, Lazarus suffered the indignity of dogs licking his sores. These we not the modern pets we dote on. They were not “man’s best friend.” They were disgusting, impure scavengers of the streets.
Again, the story makes no judgments about Lazarus, but if you looked at him through the Deuteronomistic lens of the gospel of wealth, you would have to conclude that Lazarus was the object of God’s displeasure and judgment.
As luck would have it, Lazarus finally succumbed to hunger and disease. He died in obscurity. He was there at the gate one day, and the next he was absent, never to return. Not too long afterwards, Dives expired too. He was given a proper burial.
So far so good. Things have played out as we would expect them to in the world of “haves” and “have nots.” But suddenly there is a shocking reversal of fortunes. Lazarus is carried away by the angels to be with Father Abraham in paradise. Literally the text says that Lazarus was in the bosom of Abraham. The imagery is of Lazarus resting his head on Abraham’s chest. But Dives finds himself in Hades, the abode of the dead.
“Hades” is the New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament “Sheol.” Sheol was the abode of the rich and the poor, of kings and slaves. It was a place of dust, darkness, and silence. Human beings continued to exist, but they were literally shadows of their former selves. The Psalms call them “the shades” (see Psalm 88). But Hades in Jesus’ story is more akin to Hell. The word “Hell” used in the gospels is Gehenna. Dives is tormented. His tongue is parched by the agonizing flames of his new abode. He longs for even a drop of water to quench his all-consuming thirst. From Hades, Dives can see into Paradise. He sees Father Abraham, and right next to the patriarch, he sees Lazarus!
Dives begs Abraham to alleviate his suffering, but a vast and uncrossable chasm separates Hades from Paradise. No one can pass from one region to the other. In desperation, Dives pleads with Abraham to send someone from Paradise to the land of the living to warn his five brothers of the terrible fate that awaits them. He hopes to spare them from the awful danger they are completely oblivious to.
But Abraham, rather coldly, dismisses Dives’ entreaties. In response to his first plea, Abraham reminds Dives that he received good things during his lifetime. To the second entreaty, Abraham says, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them” (vs, 29). And so, the story ends.
What are we to make of this dark, stark, uncompromising, and, frankly, uncomfortable story? Is Jesus really saying wealthy people go to hell and poor people go to heaven? If we set the parable in the larger context of the New Testament, Jesus cannot be teaching that all wealthy people are damned, and all poor people are saved. Wealth is not damning, and poverty is not saving. Only Jesus Christ can rescue a person, rich or poor, from Hades. He died for our sins. He rose from the dead. He alone is the Savior. We are saved by grace through faith. Period.
So, what is Jesus saying? As I said at the outset, the parable is about wealth, but more precisely, it is about how we use our wealth. Dives was completely self-absorbed. He must have known that Lazarus (hungry, sick, and degraded) sat at his gate day after day. After all, Dives recognized Lazarus in the afterlife. But Dives did nothing to help Lazarus. I never noticed it before, but even in the agony of Hades, Dives was still unable to see Lazarus as anything more than a servant. Dives asks Abraham to send Lazarus like a slave to quench his thirst. Again, Dives pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus like a slave to his father’s house to warn his brothers so they will repent.
Dives’ fault was not his wealth. What he lacked was compassion for the poor. He did not have the capacity to see Lazarus as a child of Abraham who desperately needed his assistance. He was focused on his designer clothing, gourmet meals, and fine surroundings.
Although the parable is told in absolute terms to get our attention, Jesus’ purpose is to call us to repentance. Remember that repentance is not an emotion. It is not sorrow, remorse, or guilt. Repentance may include these painful emotions, but real repentance is change. It is changing the direction of our lives. It is turning away from sin and turning toward God and toward our needy neighbor.
Dives’ pleading with Abraham to send someone from the dead reminded me of Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. In the fourth stave, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge scenes from three deaths. The first scene is of a man much like Scrooge who was very affluent but despised by all. The second scene is of the Cratchit family mourning the death of Tiny Tim. Finally, Scrooge finds himself in a graveyard and is forced to look at his own tombstone. Scrooge asks the spirit, “Are these the shadows of things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be only?” Is my fate written in stone, or is it possible to change?
I think that is what Jesus is teaching us. The parable is not about things that will be but about things that may be. The call then is to have eyes to see the need that surrounds us. Ignoring human need when it is staring us in the face is a serious matter. We must love our neighbor as ourselves. It is not optional or suggested; it is commanded. If we refuse, or even if we are simply oblivious like Dives, we will have to give an answer to God. Sins of commission and sins of omission are equally grave. What Jesus wants is for us to change and to focus on the weightier matters of the law and the prophets: justice and mercy and faith.
Brothers and sisters, next time you find yourself thinking about money, do not neglect to think about how you are using your wealth to help neighbors who are in need. This applies to us all from the poorest to the wealthiest. This is what God wants of us. Keep a lookout for the Lazaruses in your life. Feed them, bind up their wounds, and restore their dignity, whether it be literally, emotionally, or spiritually. There are a lot of hurting people all around us.
"Beloved, let us love one another. For love is of God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God for God is love" (1 John 4:7-8). Beloved, let us love one another!
All glory be to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.