“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.’” (Luke 16:19-31)
Have you noticed how often Jesus gets into our wallets and bank accounts? This parable climaxes a chapter dealing with the use, misuse and abuse of money. In it we meet a man who could easily have been the brother of the rich fool we meet Luke 11 – a man who was wealthy, arrogant, and selfish. Jesus tells us that he dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. It’s interesting that his decadence is over the top even for Jewish affluence. The purple and fine linen was characteristic of Roman upper crust. This man, a Jew himself, had adopted the lifestyle of their Roman oppressors – he fashioned himself after the Roman aristocracy and lived with a disdain for Jewish fashion and culture.
This merely compounded his attitude towards the poor, whom we meet in a man named Lazarus. Now, I hope you’ll notice how unusual this story is. This is the only parable Jesus tells in which one of the characters has a name. In fact, some question whether this is a parable, or in actuality a real life situation. Either way, we will get the point. And what is even more telling is that it is the poor man’s name that we know, not the rich man’s – he remains anonymous. Isn’t it usually the other way round? We know names like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates and Sam Walton, but couldn’t tell you the name of a single homeless person we’ve ever met. And yet, it is Lazarus who stands out in this parable.
Lazarus has lived a hard life. Disease and infirmity had robbed him of his life and his livelihood. He could not work, he was banished from society, and relied on the generosity of passers-by to stave off starvation. And Lazarus sits and begs just outside the gate of the rich man, who is inside, perhaps less than 30 feet away, on the other side of a wall, living in luxury while Lazarus suffers.
The point is that the rich man could have done much to relieve the suffering of Lazarus – but even the bare minimum – letting him have the scraps off his table, he failed to do. In fact, the picture Jesus paints is of this rich man letting his dogs have the scraps and then turning them out on the street to do their business and they run over to lick Lazarus’ wounds. And they are so close he can smell the delicacies they have just eaten on their breath.
We might be tempted to think the rich man wasn’t even aware Lazarus was there or who he was, but a little later in the story, he will refer to him by name. He knows. He doesn’t care. His selfishness is compounded by his indifference. His heart is stone.
It was like this day after day, week after week, year after year. The rich man ignoring Lazarus’ plight, unaffected by his existence. Lazarus watching the rich man come and go, longing just for a scrap from his table, a word of compassion from his lips.
Jesus fast forwards their lives to the moment of their passing. Verse 22: “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.” If Lazarus had a funeral at all, it was a pauper’s funeral with a burial in a mass grave. I can imagine the extravagant affair the rich man’s funeral must have been – every dignitary and city leader extolling his virtues and generosity. We get a sense even as Jesus tells the story that things are about to change.
The beggar in his passing is carried by angels to Abraham’s side (or your version may say to Abraham’s bosom.) It is a picture of a banquet. Remember the supper Jesus had with his disciples in the upper room and they reclined at table – no chairs, just pillows alongside a low set table, and they would stretch out to the side, laying, as it were, in one another’s chests. That is the picture of Lazarus, who during his earthly life was forced to beg for food, now at the banquet feast of God, the place of honor next to Abraham reserved for this humble man who had suffered for so long.
In contrast, Jesus says, the rich man died and was buried. The luxury with which he lived is placed in stark contrast with the severity of his death. No angels, no banquet, no place of honor. [Picture – flames] But it gets worse: “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.’”
Not only is his death severe, he enters an eternal existence which not only reverses his earthly fortunes, but compounds his misery. Notice, that now he recognizes Lazarus, whom in this life he conveniently ignored. Now, he is in agony, suffering in hell.
This is a fascinating picture of life after death. It presents two distinct locales, one a place of peace and comfort, the other a frightening place of fire and pain, called hell. You probably already know that the word translated hell is the Greek word “Gehenna”, the name of the garbage dump outside of Jerusalem where trash was burned. A fire burned there constantly, and the stench of rottenness and smoke was suffocating. It was a graphic picture for Jesus’ listeners. They understood immediately the agony and misery of the rich man.
This isn’t intended to be a complete theology of the afterlife, and we can go to other descriptions that introduce other elements associated with this time from death to judgment to eternal residence. But in Jesus’ parable he condenses it all to show us this radical reversal of fortunes for these two individuals.
And in his agony, the rich man finally acknowledges the existence of Lazarus and begs Abraham for a favor from his former neighbor – a drop of water from the end of his finger to cool his tongue. He does not ask for a pardon or release, he doesn’t really ask for much – a drop of water, a brief second of relief from the burning. But Abraham’s answer is no. And it’s not because of a vindictive spirit or a pitiless heartlessness – it is an unalterable fact of this existence – verse 26, “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 here.” He cannot come.
It is a cruel irony that in their lives on this earth, they existed less than 30 feet from each other, one in poverty, the other in affluence – the rich man could have walked out his front door and cared for Lazarus at any time. Now, beyond the grave, there is a chasm that separates the two, one in comfort, the other in agony, and the chasm is impassable.
The rich man’s thoughts turn next to his brothers. If his condition is unalterable, then perhaps he can redeem the fate of his family. And once again, he enlists the help of Lazarus. “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.” The compassion he failed to show to Lazarus, now takes on an urgency when he thinks of his brothers.
And again, the irony is that the one to whom he failed to show compassion, becomes the one he begs to deliver compassion. Let him go and persuade them to change their ways and repent of their selfishness. (Are you seeing here, as we do in several of Jesus’ references to judgment and afterlife, that the issues raised are not the correctness of their doctrine, but the way they live their lives and treat other people?)
Wasn’t it in Matthew 25 that Jesus’ condemnation of those being sent to eternal punishment was on the basis of the fact that when they had seen him hungry and thirsty, a stranger and naked, sick and in prison that they had not cared for his needs? Or think of James’ definition of true religion. He doesn’t detail the marks of sound doctrine, but says keep a tight rein on your tongue, keep oneself from being polluted by the world and… “look after orphans and widows in their distress.” And how did Jesus say they will know you are his disciples? “If you have love for one another.” All the right doctrine and correct forms and organization in the world doesn’t substitute for a godly life and compassion for the needy.
And once again, Abraham denies the rich man’s request, not out of meanness or lack of love for the lost, but says, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.” Abraham points out that their hardness of heart is not due to a lack of information. You can’t read far in the OT without realizing that God has a heart for the poor and entrusts their care to his people.
The fact is, our sins are rarely out of ignorance. We know what we should do, but our hearts are hardened to it. It’s not because we just need a few more scriptures to convince us God means business. It’s not because we haven’t been told to give generously that we are selfish toward God.
But the rich man insists that all it would take to change their hearts and minds would be a visit from someone risen from the dead. And obviously it is only from this side of the empty tomb that we get the full impact of what Abraham says next. Listen to Abraham’s reply: “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
And we begin to realize that Jesus’ point really is about the Pharisees’ refusal to accept and receive the Son of God. And regardless of the miracles and healings and even the resurrection itself – if their hearts are hardened to the truth, they will not be convinced – even if he should rise from the dead. And they weren’t. It’s only this side of the resurrection that we grasp what Jesus was getting at. Even his closest disciples couldn’t understand that he was at that point talking about himself.
But let’s return to the surface issues that this story confronts. Luke, alone among the Gospel writers, includes this story. Luke’s Gospel pays special attention to the poor and the outcast. Luke takes special care to show us the compassionate heart of Jesus for the needy.
And it is a concern that ought to confront the church and every individual Christian today as well. The disconnection and the division that continues to widen between the rich and the poor is something that ought to grip our hearts today. The literal physical needs of the poor ought to weigh heavy upon us. For instance:
It is estimated that there are 565,000 people who are homeless in the U.S. When we lived in Memphis, in that city alone there were almost 2,0000 people who were homeless on any given night. In Memphis, the latest statistics placed 172,000 or 26.2% of the population below the poverty level. One out of every four people I met did not have enough to live on. And of course, you might think, that’s the big city, that’s what you would expect. But here in Garfield county, we don’t have to worry about that – or do we? In the latest statistics on poverty in Garfield county, out of a population of 59,000 people, 6,000 of those live below the poverty level. That’s not 19%, but it is 10% of our population. So, every 10th person you walk by doesn’t have enough to live on.
And you know what’s most disturbing? You probably have the same reaction I have. It’s their fault – they choose that life – get a job – it’s not my problem. But it is our problem. Yes, there are any number of reasons for poverty and homelessness. Some are self-induced, others are circumstances beyond their control. It’s funny though, Jesus doesn’t differentiate fault and say help those who didn’t bring it on themselves, be compassionate to those who really are victims, but disregard those who are lazy or irresponsible.
Jesus has a remarkable heart of compassion for the poor, the outcast, the dispossessed – all of them – whoever they are, however they got there. And so should we.
If we are followers of Jesus, we will have his heart for the poor. We can no longer allow the Lazaruses of this world to remain anonymous and invisible while we go about our business, comfortably unaware and unconcerned about their needs – feeding our dogs more and better food than most of them eat in a week.
I’m not sure what the answer is. I’m not convinced the answer is in more programs and more shelters and more food banks and another application to fill out. I do know that it must begin with hearts that are touched by the needs of our neighbors who sometimes sit right outside our door. Yes, Jesus gets into our wallets and bank accounts, but first he has to get into our hearts.