Luke 16: 19 – 31 The rich man and Lazarus
‘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 Hades, 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 set in place, 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 family, 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.” ‘
* * *
There is no doubt that the rich man is a hard case.
He had much more than he needed. Indeed, he lived in luxury, with fine clothes and food.
Lazarus, meanwhile, was destitute. Lazarus would have been happy with the scraps from the rich man’s table, but he was allowed nothing. He lived at the rich man’s gates, so close as to be almost a part of his household. The rich man couldn’t fail to be aware of him and of his desperate need, but he deliberately ignored him.
Even after the rich man’s death, when he’s in agony, he seeks to treat Lazarus as a servant, and have Abraham send him with water to ease his pain. And he argues with Abraham and contradicts him.
Oh, yes. They don’t come more presumptuous than this rich man.
What might this parable have meant to Jesus’ contemporaries?
This parable was initially told to the Jews. Among the listeners were Pharisees. Their assumption was that they were righteous by virtue of the covenant between God and Abraham. From the preaching of Jesus, we can infer that many of the Pharisees and teachers of the law were rich and powerful, and exploited those who were less fortunate.
What does the rich man of this parable do wrong?
- He oppresses and exploits the poor.
- He closes his eyes to human suffering.
- He assumes that because he is descended from Abraham he is righteous.
- Even after death he doesn’t repent; he still wants to exploit Lazarus
- He argues with Abraham, the very person on whom he claims to rely.
And what does Abraham tell him?
- Your suffering and Lazarus’ comforting is just. It balances the books.
- You can’t avoid the suffering.
- The Law and the Prophets is sufficient to guide people.
- Anybody who doesn’t listen to Moses and the Prophets will not be convinced, even if someone rises from the dead.
For the first hearers, the parable is not so much about the need to care for the poor, as about the standing and meaning of the Law and the Prophets. It takes their teaching on social justice as the starting point, and uses the story to emphasise that the Law and the Prophets, when correctly understood, are sufficient to define how God requires humans to live. It follows on exactly from the teaching of Luke 16: 16 – 18.
What might this parable mean to us today?
First and foremost, it warns us in a most powerful image that we must not overlook the needs of the poor. If we harden our hearts against them, we will pay a price after death. Love for our neighbour must be at the very centre of our faith.
Note, I am not interpreting this parable as an account of heaven and hell; it is a story that was designed for the mindset of first century Palestine. The story itself does not actually claim to be about heaven and hell. What it does claim is that the way we live this earthly life has consequences for us in the world to come.
I’m also not suggesting that being generous to the poor will somehow earn us a place in heaven. We are saved by God’s free gift of Jesus. In response to that salvation, we want to do God’s will. Our generosity to the poor is an indication of our faith in Jesus. This parable makes it clear that God is deeply concerned about the fate of the poor, and therefore we should be too.
There is an excellent sermon on line that suggests another fruitful way we can look at this parable. Here is a link to it. https://interruptingthesilence.com/2013/09/29/the-chasm-within-a-sermon-on-luke-1619-31/
Thank you for Jesus’ teaching. I’m sorry that I am often so slow to hear what you are saying to me. Please help me to be more generous to the poor.
In Jesus’ name, Amen