The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus

Luke 16:19-31

There was a rich man, Jesus said as he began the parable recorded in Luke 16:19-31. Traditionally, we have called the rich man “Dives,” which means “rich man” in Latin. Jesus’ draws us a picture of his wealth. Most of Jesus’ audience lived in one room homes with dirt floors, little light and no privacy. Dives lives in a dwelling large enough to have a gate. Most of Jesus’ audience owned a simple tunic of wool. Dives wore purple and Egyptian cotton. Then, as now, fabrics made the difference. Dives was a sharp-dressed man whose clothes screamed “money.” Most of Jesus’ audience ate simple meals of bread and vegetables. For most people, meat was a rarity reserved for festivals and other special occasions. Dives feasted on delicacies every day.

The other central character in this parable is a poor man named. Lazarus. The reader should remember that this Lazarus is simply the name of a character in Jesus’ story. It is not the same Lazarus described in the Gospel of John. Lazarus was not simply poor. Almost everyone was poor by modern standards. Lazarus was a beggar, unable to provide for his own needs at all. He was unable to walk. The Greek text says that he “was thrown” at Dives’ gate, tossed out like refuse, and there he remained. He was sick from some disease that gave him sores, and thus rendered him ritually unclean. Contributing to his uncleanness were the dogs that licked his open sores. The dogs, in fact, are doing something kind for Lazarus, but they are the only creatures in this story who show Lazarus any pity. Lazarus was starving to death; he wished that he could eat Dives’ garbage.

You get the picture of Dives stepping over Lazarus every day as he came and went. The point of such a picture is pretty clear isn’t it? The people who heard this story were supposed to be angry at Dives and feel pity for Lazarus.

The Rich

Most of us think of the rich as somebody else. I did a quick search on “Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog.” I came up with an Italian leather armchair for your dog for $7,000, a chartered trip to space for six passengers 63 miles above the Earth via Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo for $1.7 million, and – best of all – a $15,000 jewel encrusted set of Mr. and Mrs. Potato head toys. Who spends $15,000 on Mr. Potato head?

The rich are the people in Hollywood and New York whom we read about in People magazine, whose lives are so much different than ours that we can’t even begin to comprehend them.

I’m not super-rich like Dives, but in some respects, I’m richer. How much do you think Dives would have paid for a 2001 Honda Civic? For a 19″ television with a chip in the glass? For a telephone? For a refrigerator?

I earn enough money that I have to decide what I’m going to do with some of it. Most of it goes to the basic needs of life, health insurance for the daughter, college bills for the son, and so forth. But there is enough left over that I have to make some decisions. What kind of clothes do I need? What kind of food do I require? What kind of house do I want to live in?

In enjoy taking pictures and I took my little Sony camera to a folk festival this weekend. I got some great photos. There were other photographers there, whose cameras had much longer lenses than mine. I got a bad case of lens envy. Do I need a better camera? Of course not. Do I want one? Sure, but how does that want stack up with other needs?

I’m not super-rich, but I do have to make some choices about how I use the resources I have. In other words, I do have the ability to help some people in need, don’t I?

The Poor

When people ask me “Where’s home for you?” I always answer, “Georgia.” When I visit, I find that things haven’t changed much in 20 years. You find beggars not just in the large city of Atlanta, but even in small cities like Athens and small towns like Winder where I served my first full-time church. Unfortunately, the only reaction that most people have to the begging poor are feelings of guilt, anxiety, fear and hopelessness. “There for the grace of God – or the twist of fate – go I. Why did I do to deserve all I have? What if that happens to me?”

The problem of homeless and poverty is complicated. In the 1980’s I helped operate an ecumenical food closet. One Christmas, we also helped buy presents for children in needy homes. I remember one woman calling and asking us to buy a Teddy Ruxpin – a $100 talking doll – for her child. At the time I earned less than $20,000 annually (including fair rental value of the parsonage) and my daughter certainly wasn’t getting a Teddy Ruxpin. There are people who game the system, and everyone who works with the poor quickly learns that fact.

Still, when you are walking down the street and a person holds out a hand, you want to do something. So you pull out a few bucks and wonder, “Did I help? Did I do enough? Did I just help that guy get a meal or another bottle of booze? Did I give lend him a had or help him dig a deeper hole for himself?”

Jesus doesn’t tell this story to make people feel guilty. The larger problem of poverty, disease and need is beyond the ability of any one person or group to solve. Feeling guilty for something over which you have no control is irrational. In any event, feelings of guilt and anxiety are not the same thing as acting in faith and love.

The Opportunity to Change

Jesus’ parable does not end with Dives stepping over the poor man at his gate. There is a second act to this drama. The two men die. One is carried to Abraham’s bosom; the other is in hot torment in the grave.

We need to be careful about drawing too many conclusions about the afterlife from this one parable. Jesus is telling a story, not giving a lecture on the theology of death or providing a description of the spiritual realm. He’s using language and drawing on images that his audience already understands.

To me, the focal point of this second act appears in the phrase, “a great chasm has been fixed.” It seems to me that the point of the second act is this: while we live, we have the opportunity to change. The day is coming, however, when the opportunity to change will disappear forever.

Look at Dives character. It is fixed in death just as it was in life. He used to step over Lazarus, pretending he wasn’t there. Now, he calls Lazarus’ name. He knew who Lazarus was all along, but Dives feels no shame, no remorse, and no responsibility for Lazarus’s fate. He doesn’t even speak to him. “Father Abraham,” he says, “Send Lazarus to get me some water.” Lazarus is just as insignificant to Dives as he ever was. Dives hasn’t changed, and his opportunity to change has ended. The great chasm between Dives’ character and the kind of life God honors has been fixed in death, and that divide can never be bridged.

The Law and the Poor

The parable ends with Dives asking Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers, for surely they would be impressed by someone rising from the dead. Abraham responds, “They have Moses and the prophets. If they don’t get what God wants from that, nothing will get through to them.”

This passage from Deuteronomy is an example of what God intended:

“If there is a poor person among you, one of your brothers within any of your gates in the land the LORD your God is giving you, you must not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Instead, you are to open your hand to him and freely loan him enough for whatever need he has. Be careful that there isn’t this wicked thought in your heart, ‘The seventh year, the year of canceling debts, is near,’ and you are stingy toward your poor brother and give him nothing. He will cry out to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty. Give to him, and don’t have a stingy heart when you give, and because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you do. For there will never cease to be poor people in the land; that is why I am commanding you, ‘You must willingly open your hand to your afflicted and poor brother in your land.’ “If your fellow Hebrew, a man or woman, is sold to you and serves you six years, you must set him free in the seventh year. When you set him free, do not send him away empty-handed. Give generously to him from your flock, your threshing floor, and your winepress. You are to give him whatever the LORD your God has blessed you with. (Deuteronomy 15:7-14)

The Call of Jesus

The Law, the prophets and the wisdom writings all reveal God’s concern for the needy. For Jesus, however, the law didn’t have the last word. Jesus’ teaching might be summarized like this:

  • Trust God and desire him and his kingdom more than anything
  • Love others as God loves you

That’s the bottom line. If you are not doing that, now is the time to change.

Some of those whom Jesus encountered, he invited to follow him on the road. They surrendered all their worldly possessions, gave them to the poor and proclaimed the good news of the kingdom in word and powerful deed. Others retained their jobs and their homes and supported Jesus’ work in other ways. If Dives had been a real person instead of a character in a story, Jesus might have invited him to “sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Luke 18:22), or he might have asked to eat with him at his house, as he did Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10, with the result that Zacchaeus proclaimed, “I give half of my goods to the poor.” (Luke 19:8).

Not everyone is called to be a Mother Teresa, abandoning all possessions to serve the poor. Everyone who belongs to Christ is called, however, to be generous. In the Epistle lesson for this day, Saint Paul says, “Religion does make your life rich, by making you content with what you have. We didn’t bring anything into this world, and we won’t take anything with us when we leave. So we should be satisfied just to have food and clothes. … Warn the rich people of this world not to be proud or to trust in wealth that is easily lost. Tell them to have faith in God, who is rich and blesses us with everything we need to enjoy life. Instruct them to do as many good deeds as they can and to help everyone. Remind the rich to be generous and share what they have. (1 Timothy 6:6-18)

Brothers and sisters, open your eyes and your heart to those in need who are lying on your doorstep. They may have a financial need. They may have a need for companionship, a listening ear, or something else.

We have the law and the prophets to show us the way, but we also have one who gave his life for us and rose from the dead. He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit enable us to love others as Christ loved us.