The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is stunning and loaded. Pastor Kristine and I have been leading a Wednesday Bible study over the last month, where we have an hour to discuss the upcoming parable. I feel like we barely scratched the surface of this parable in an hour, and I have a little under twenty minutes for the sermon today to do something with this, so there’s that.
Before I dig into the text, I must dispel any notion that this parable is about karma. The surface meaning appears to be if you suffer now, you will be rewarded later and if you are rewarded now, you will suffer later. Lazarus suffered in life and received care in eternity; the rich man had a lavish, full life and suffered in eternity. To understand this parable through that lens not only oversimplifies what is happening but also it grates against the plain meaning of scripture elsewhere. It’s wrong.
It also stands against another false way of thinking that is easy to accept. It is tempting to believe that riches are a direct reflection of God’s blessing and that suffering equals God’s punishment. Not only is that belief wrong, it’s the opposite of what happens in this parable. In this the arrogant rich man is the one God does not bless, and Lazarus, the poor, diseased, crippled beggar, is the one whom God and others help and love.
So, now that I’ve knocked out a couple of wrong ways of thinking about this parable, let’s explore what it is about. This parable comes after the parable of the dishonest manager, which we covered a few weeks ago. Following that teaching, Jesus says, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much, and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much….If you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own” (Luke 16:10, 12)? Luke reminds us that Jesus’ audience includes the Pharisees, whom Luke says are “lovers of money” and who mock Jesus for his teachings. So, the context of this parable includes people who were serious about their religious adherence but who also were enraptured by money.
This parable is the third in a series of parables about how we handle what we have. The prodigal son wastes his father’s possessions. The dishonest manager wastes his master’s possessions. And now the rich man wastes his own possessions.
So Jesus begins, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.” Jesus is saying a lot in that one sentence. This rich man could afford the finest clothes. If he were around today, his suits would be tailor-made of the finest fabric available at Bergdorf’s, for purple cloth was rare and expensive in Jesus’ day. Then, with a flourish of some subtle humor, Jesus says that he also wore “fine linen.” It’s a reference to his undergarments. This guy was so rich that even his underwear was made from the finest Egyptian cotton.
Every day he feasted sumptuously. Today is the Super Bowl. I plan to feast today on chips and Taquitos and cheese curds, but no one is going to accuse me of hosting a sumptuous feast with that junk food. Fatty and filling, sure. And this is only occasioned by the Super Bowl, so I’ll have a year to recover! But also note that this is every day. That is, with no attention to the rhythm of God’s timing — six days you shall work, but on the seventh you shall rest — this man feasted. He is no respecter of God or of God’s way in the world. He does not observe the sabbath. This rich man is the center of his own universe, and it is clear he cares nothing for how God created him to live.
But then there’s Lazarus. Others in the community lay him by the rich man’s gate, where he hopes for some help — food to eat and salve for his sores. In all of Jesus’ parables, it is only Lazarus who gets a name. What does his name mean? The one whom God helps, which seems sadly ironic because it sure seems like Lazarus needs a lot of help that he’s not getting.
Notice, however, that there is a community of care around Lazarus. There are people who bring him to the gate of the rich man’s house where they hope he might receive some help. Jesus even includes this detail, “[Lazarus] longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.” We read this and think the dogs are an added insult to injury, but Jesus is actually saying that the dogs had compassion on Lazarus even if their master did not. This is where digging deeper into the history matters.
Dogs lick their wounds. Dogs lick people as a sign of affection. New Testament scholar Ken Bailey notes that a dog’s saliva contains a substance the helps in healing. An archaeological dig in Ashkelon — which is in Israel — unearthed 1300 dogs that were likely part of a Phoenician healing cult, where dogs were trained to lick wounds and their owners would receive a fee.
There was a Medieval scholar who was both a monk and a medical doctor from the area near Baghdad named Ibn al-Tayyib, and he observed, “I understand that the licking of Lazarus’s sores gave him relief and eased his pain. This reminds us that the silent, unspeaking animals felt compassion for him and they helped him and cared for him more than the humans. He was naked without medical attention other than what he received from the dogs.” So, the contrast is clear. The community and even the dogs are doing what they can to care for Lazarus. The rich man, who has all the resources to help Lazarus, feasts and dresses nicely every day and does nothing to help.
Lazarus is the one whom God helps, and it comes in the form of the community and the dogs. But that help is also stymied by the rich man’s lack of acknowledging that God’s way in the world expects him to be a part of the helping. Our psalm today is instructive. Let’s recall just a few of its lines. “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God….who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry….The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.”
How does God do this? It’s not often through a miracle, although that happens from time to time. Rather, it’s through every day people actually living according to God’s way in the world. As Christians, it’s called kingdom living. The help comes from the ordinary people who have oriented their lives around God’s will, which clearly includes loving our neighbors and lifting up those who are bowed down.
The rich man had the law and commandments at his disposal, but he ignored them, preferring to live for himself. It has terrible consequences for Lazarus — he did not receive the help that this man could provide him — and terrible consequences for the rich man.
The parable moves on. Lazarus dies and angels take him to be with Abraham in a version of paradise. The rich man also dies and is buried. He is in Hades, the place of the dead, where he is tormented. From there the rich man can see Lazarus. We can see that he knows who Lazarus is, even knows his name, because he makes several requests of Abraham — the patriarch of the Jews — to have Lazarus come help him. He wants Lazarus to bring him a little water. He wants Lazarus to go to his family and warn them. In other words, he still views Lazarus as a servant. Lazarus could be the one who helps him, when, ironically, he wasted his life not being the one who could help Lazarus. Even in his torment, this man still fails to recognize his own need for conversion. He wasted his life on himself. He ignored the commands of God that are a reflection of the way to life — your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. And still he refuses to see that Lazarus is a child of God, that Lazarus is the one whom God helps.
The psalms say that “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” (24:1). We are merely stewards of what is already God’s property. Whether we only have two pennies to rub together and a tent to live in or we have more rooms than we can count, all that we have is not really ours. It’s God’s, entrusted to us to be used for God’s purposes in this world. This rich man never understood that, and even in his wealth, he lived an impoverished life that shrunk his heart so much that he couldn’t even recognize his errors.
Jesus asks, “if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?” That’s the question that hits home for us. What we do with our lives matters. Ken Bailey frames it this way, “The events of our lives have meaning. We access or fail to access that meaning by the way in which we respond to those events. What we do with the good gifts and the pain of life is what matters. The rich man responded to the good things given to him with self-indulgence, indifference to the needs of others, arrogance and class pride. Lazarus responded to his pain with patience, long-suffering, gentleness, and implied forgiveness. He made friends with the wild dogs, and inevitably showed gratitude to his friends in the community who carried him each day to the rich man’s gate.”
What is more, the way we handle our lives does have eternal consequence. No, we do not earn salvation. That’s a gift, one that Lazarus received. But we can reject God’s salvation both by decision and by our actions. This rich man’s self-absorption was so great that even in torment he failed to see the error of his ways. He was able to feel some compassion for his brothers, but remained unable to see Lazarus’s humanity. When we have woken up to the way of Jesus, we begin becoming more like him. Becoming more like Jesus transforms everything about us. In this parable and this entire chapter, Jesus seems particularly concerned for how people treat the poor, the downtrodden, the outsider because that behavior is a great reflection of transformed lives that want live the way Jesus would. We only have one life to live, and what we do with that life matters right now and forever.