Tuesday, 20 September 2016

The rich man & Lazarus

Most of us make assumptions.  We make assumptions about what we are, where we are going and how other people perceive us.  We make assumptions about other people and what they are and where they are going.  Some of our assumptions come from educated guesses, others from pure ignorance, whilst others from information that has been passed onto us in one form or another.

Many of Jesus parables are all about blowing apart assumptions and deconstructing religious myths.  They are about reorganising people’s hearts and minds and souls through challenging their world view.  Today’s parable is one such example and in it Jesus attacks the wealthy.

Now here is an assumption that we all make about ourselves.  Are you wealthy or not?  And if consider yourself to be wealthy is this an indication that you are a good person or, well, otherwise?  Most of you along with me would probably think that we are not that wealthy.  For example if you read the figures in the Business Review Weekly’s top 50 entrepreneurs you would be staggered at how much some people earn.  But all things are relative. 

As I was preparing for today I stumbled upon an interesting website that allowed me to find out how rich I am on a world scale.  I entered my yearly income and I was told exactly where I fitted in.  To give you a rough idea I am richer than around 5.4 billion people and there are around 600 million richer than me.  That means I am in the world’s top 11% of rich people.  Now I do not know what you earn but to give you more of an idea if you earn more than $10 000 a year you are still in the top 14% of the world’s richest people.  In our society we all know $10 000 doesn’t seem to go far at all.

Now I don’t know how all this makes you feel, but listening to the parable and Jesus attack on wealthy last week, “you cannot serve two master, God and money”; it makes me sit up and take notice.

Now when Jesus told this story Luke clearly indicates that he was attacking the Pharisees who loved money but we should not slip into any sort self-righteous Pharisee bashing.  Whilst the Pharisees might have been a convenient target Jesus’ real concern is to expose the problems that lie behind the love of money.

Looking to the parable, we are told of two men, a rich man and Lazarus, a beggar.  The story at face value does not tell us too much about these men and their morality and their way of life but there are some indicators.

For instance we must consider that rhe rich man is really very rich.  He wears purple every day and those of you who know your ancient fabrics would know that purple was the most expensive dye.  It was, and still is, associated with royalty.  Not only does the man wear purple the cloth is of the finest linen and we are told he feast sumptuously everyday.   

We are not told how this man came by this wealth and there is nothing to lead us to suspect him of any dishonesty, in fact for all we know he could have inherited the lot or maybe just been a good businessman.  So we should not be leaping to any quick conclusions.

Jesus audience, including the Pharisees, who loved their money, may have thought that this rich man was OK.  And according to some readings of the Old Testament one could argue that this man’s wealth stemmed from God and therefore indicated that God favoured him.  This is an assumption that Jesus is about challenge and he was certainly not the first to do so.

The other man, Lazarus, is a beggar and he lay at the gate of the rich man.  Now we do not pick the nuance up in the English but in the Greek the sense of the word is that man was laid there.  By whom we do not know, but we might assume that whoever has done it has done so because there is a hope that the rich man or one of his guest might show mercy to Lazarus.

We are told that this man longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table but this is not happening. We are also told that the dogs came to lick his sores.

This is an interesting aside.  Usually it was the dogs that ate the scraps underneath the table and by inserting the dogs into the story at this point it is possible that Jesus is implying that the rich man saw Lazarus as lower than dogs. 

This vision of the dogs licking Lazarus sores may appear to us to be the final indignity.  But there is another possibility.  It could infer that that the dogs are more compassionate than the rich man.  Dogs lick their own wounds and there is some evidence from the ancient world that the saliva of dogs was consider medicinal.  In other words Jesus is reversing the assumptions and judgements of the crowd.  It is not Lazarus who is lower than the dogs but the rich man, because the dogs act compassionately towards Lazarus whilst the rich man does not.

The parable then takes a fascinating turn as both men die.  Lazarus ascends with the angels to be with father Abraham whilst the rich man is tormented in Hades.  This would have been a huge shock to Jesus’ listeners who probably subscribed to the particular view that the rich are blessed by God and the poor cursed.  This is a view that we can find in the Old Testament but we also find other views about wealth and righteousness in the Old Testament. The most obvious of these views is found in Job.

Back in the parable, the rich man looks up to Father Abraham and sees Lazarus by his side.  Appealing to Abraham he calls for Abraham to send Lazarus to his aid.  The irony is clear and one can but wonder or not whether the rich man still perceives that Lazarus is lower than he because he expects him to serve him by bringing him water.

The refusal of Abraham is resolute, as resolute as was the rich man’s inability to respond to Lazarus predicament in life.  Abraham points out that between you and us a great chasm has been fixed so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so and no one can cross from there to us.

The rich man in his woe begs that someone be sent to his father’s home to tell his five brothers so they do not end up in the same place.  Abraham refuses and says if they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets then they will not be convinced if someone rises from the dead.

I am not about to buy into an interpretation that suggests that all rich people go to Hades, do not pass go do not collect hundred dollars!  Yet you and I should listen for the tensions that this sets up for us.

Just because someone turns up on Sunday, even as the minister, and sings the hymns or songs and prays the prayers, or at least has someone out the front do it for them, and listens to the sermon or parts of it not at all, and partakes of the bread and wine, and so on and so forth, this does not necessarily mean that this person really participates in what it means to be a part of the coming kingdom.  If we put aside the issue of wealth, and of heaven and hell, and look directly at what it means to be a part of kingdom life now then there are some serious questions as to how all of us live our lifestyle. 

How do we use the gifts that we have been given? Our wealth? Our time? Our intellect? Our practical abilities? Where is Lazarus at our gate?  Possibly half way around the globe? Or maybe in a detention centre? Or maybe even living under the bridges that cross the river?

The gospel imperative reminds us that Christ died for us and for this world, yet participating in his coming kingdom now involves the necessary reflection and response to those in need around us, regardless of whether we think they deserve their predicament or not.

It is confronting stuff for all of us.  Jesus last line sounds a bit like an addition by Luke.  If someone rises from the dead the brothers may still not believe.  Reading this I wonder whether there was an issue for the community that Luke writing for in terms of those who followed Jesus and those who refused to believe that Jesus had truly risen. 

The issue stays with us.  Do we really believe in God’s call in Christ who died and rose and again and has ascended?  Someone has come back from the dead and his coming back will draw us with him when he returns, but in the meantime we are called to be part of Jesus life and ministry now. 

Ultimately, I do not believe that we save ourselves. Grace is God’s sovereign gift.  The gulf between the rich man and Lazarus cannot be bridged by what we do only by God’s unconditional and compassionate decision.  Nevertheless, we as Christians are called to take seriously Jesus words if we are to be his disciples and to live our lives responding to his love.  Paul in his letter to Timothy gave him an idea of what this might mean and I want to conclude today by reading you a portion of that passage:

Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

But as for you, man [or woman] of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.


  1. In one sense, Luke is portraying the thoughts of a person on his deathbed and the likely internal conversation he envisages if the revolutionary ideas espoused by Jesus is played out. You make the revolutionary aspect very clear and express it succinctly.

  2. Wow! This really good! Thanks for posting these thoughts. It puts the passage into a really modern perspective for me.