I’ve used the phrase “the hard sayings of Jesus” to describe the gospel teachings for the last several Sundays . . . well guess what! Today we’ve got yet another hard saying of Jesus – but this one is difficult for a different reason. The parables we read the past two weeks have been hard because they were hard to understand – they didn’t seem logical – didn’t seem clear or congruent with the rest of the Gospel. So we had to work hard to decipher the meaning.
But this parable today about the rich man and Lazarus is pretty clear in it’s meaning. As much as we might like to try to explain it away – much as we’d like to stand apart from it, even stay away from it entirely, we really can’t avoid its basic message – especially since it’s totally in line with what Jesus says about money and possessions throughout the Gospel of Luke. The fates of the rich and Lazarus after death are very much tied to their wealth and poverty in this life.
The rich man in this story has no name. We know him as “the rich man” because his money was all that was important to him. Money was his sole identity.
By contrast Lazarus is the only one who is given a name in any of Jesus’ parables. The Hebrew name El-azar – or Lazarus – means “God has helped.” (By the way, there’s no connection between this Lazarus and the Lazarus that Jesus resuscitated from death. That story from Jesus’ actual life, appears only in John’s Gospel. This story in Luke is a parable – a made-up story that Jesus tells to teach a spiritual message.)
This parable begins with a drastic reversal that happens after the rich man and Lazarus die: In his lifetime, the rich man shows off his wealth by wearing very fine, beautiful clothes and eating fine, lavish food. . . . On the other hand Lazarus is covered with sores – he is hungry – all he has are the dogs that lick his sores.
After his death, Lazarus is carried away to an honored, comfortable place with Abraham – with Abraham, who is God’s right hand man in heaven at this point, the father of Israel. . . . On the other hand, the rich man finds himself in Hell, in torment and eternal punishment.
A conversation takes place between the rich man and Abraham: The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to ease his pain in Hell, but Abraham answers that this can’t be done. Their fortunes have shifted. In their lifetimes, Lazarus suffered bad things . . . the rich man enjoyed good things. And now Lazarus is comfortable . . . and the rich man is in agony. A great chasm separates them now and it can’t be crossed.
Then the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus back to earth to warn his five brothers about Hell. But Abraham replies that they already have plenty of warning through Moses and the prophets. When the rich man insists that his brothers will change their ways if someone comes back to them from the dead, Abraham replies that if they haven’t listened to Moses and the prophets, they definitely won’t be convinced by someone being raised from the dead.
“Being raised from the dead”: Now this is a foreshadowing of Jesus resurrection, and in the context of the parable it is a prediction that so many people – even today – will not believe the Good News of Jesus Christ, the saving grace of Jesus’ resurrection.
This parable focuses on the reversal of fortunes that takes place after Lazarus and the rich man die. Also it links either agony or comfort after death with how we treat the less fortunate around us in this life – how we treat the hungry and thirsty . . . strangers . . .the naked . . . the sick . . . those in prison. The Gospel of Luke, in particular, stresses the way the status of the rich and the poor is turned upside down in the kingdom of God. We hear this message loud and clear in the Magnificat – that song that Mary sang while she was pregnant – also in the Sermon on the Plain when Jesus tells the poor that God favors them . . . and that the kingdom of God belongs to them. And the rich – they’ve already had their consolation in this life. Over and over again, Jesus declares that the poor are the focus of his ministry – that he has been sent to bring good news to the poor.
At the same time that Jesus preaches good news to the poor, the rich get a different message. Remember Jesus comments about how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God? And the rich fool that built bigger barns to hold all his treasure, all his stuff: He stored up “treasures for himself” but he was not “rich toward God.”
If you remember the gospel teaching last week, the message was this: While having money, in and of itself, is not evil, what matters is our stewardship of money – how we use the financial and material resources God gives us to manage. What the teaching this week makes clear is that good stewardship demands that we share our wealth with the poor and needy.
The story of the rich man and Lazarus may be difficult for many of us in this country. Our lifestyle stands in sharp contrast with the majority of the people in the world who live on much less. The truth we must own is that we are responsible for allowing the drastic inequities between rich and poor to continue – in our country and throughout the world…
In the parable, the rich man refused to even see Lazarus, refused to even acknowledge his existence… In our immediate community, how often do we ignore the poverty just out side our own doors? The first step in obeying Jesus’ command to feed the hungry is to develop an awareness of the poverty in our midst.
In this parable, God’s eternal judgment has everything to do with how we use wealth in this life – and whether we attend to those among us who are in need. Our temptation might be to explain away a story like this – or to ignore it entirely. But we must not avoid the very clear truth that:
God will be true to his promise to vindicate the cause of the poor!
The message is clear. And like the rich man’s five brothers, we too have been given all the warning we need . . .