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Luke 16:19-31

It turns out, the story of the rich man and Lazarus cuts deeply, as do all good stories worth their re-telling. Note my surprise because I have always regarded this particular parable as something of a, well, dud: Twelve verses that lack creativity in stating the obvious: Heaven and hell exist, hell is hot and miserable, and once you receive your just and eternal rewards, there is no going back. “Be good and choose heaven, Stupid.” But, the rich man and Lazarus have teeth that grip and drag us toward wisdom about how we choose to live or not live as mercy givers and mercy receivers. The thrust of the entire parable is an offering of hope for the poor intertwined with a sobered warning for the rich. Bernard Brandon Scott, in his book, Hear Then the Parable, says that “the kingdom of God is the manifestation of God’s righteousness in the face of injustice”. In the current global reality that has us wrestling with political ideologies, economic rationales, the death of charitable discourse, and a whole league of justice issues, the rich man emerges as quite a relevant anti-mentor for our 21st century selves. Wisdom would warn us to dig and drink deeply.

The parable gives us two men who, in life, exist in separate realities with a stark yet inter-connected parallel of wealth and poverty. One man is clothed in purple linen and the other man’s body is riddled with sores. One man is outside of the gate, the other is inside the gate. One man ‘lives in luxury’ (NIV) / ‘feasted/fared’ sumptuously (NSRV / NKJV) and the other longs for scraps. One is rich, the other is poor. In lines 19-21, the state of the rich man is mentioned first. In line 22, at death, the reality of Lazarus now takes first mention. One goes to heaven, the other to hell (Hades), One is carried by angels, the other is buried. One goes to the bosom of Abraham, the other goes into the ground.

In fact this economic chasm is the primary focus of the story for the first half of the narrative. We have no other evidence for their eventual destinies – there is no overt, direct moral commentary about the state of either man’s heart, his level of faith, or the ethical perimeters by which each man lived. Simply, one was born into wealth and lives richly and the other was born into poverty and lives poorly. One goes to hell and the other to heaven.

Hell and heaven are where the parable begins to provoke its crowd. In the ancient world, one’s economic status is an assumed indication of moral fortitude. A beggar is a beggar because God is punishing him or someone in his/her ancestral line. The outward circumstances of poverty denote an inner reality of sin; beggars, such as Lazarus, were sinners receiving God’s just punishment. So too, the good and the morally upright receive the blessings of God: power, authority, and thereby wealth. In this parable, the Jewish audience will assume that the rich man is a Pharisee – notably wealthy and powerful with his purple linens and his sumptuous dining and, by implication, that he is righteous. The fact that Hades is his eternal destiny will provoke the wealthy audience. The fact that the beggar, Lazarus, is carried into the bosom of Abraham will be a source of hope for the impoverished listener. It seems that the parallel structure of the parable maintains its purpose as it crosses a boundary from story to individual reality. How one hears this story, to some extent, correlates with how you identify in life.

Quite interestingly, a quick though certainly not comprehensive search of modern-era commentaries and sermons does show a common tendency to use this parable as a starting point for proving the love of money is evil, or the certainty, finality and the horror of hell (queue reasons to live ‘good, rule-following’ lives). The focus of the rich man’s wealth is assumed to be a love of money, which is a sin, and therefore a valid reason for his damnation.

The original Jewish audience does not assume his wealth makes him evil, quite the opposite. They assume that his wealthy status identifies him as a Pharisee, and therefore, a righteous man with certain responsibilities. A modern-era audience sees the wealth of the rich man and equates it with the love of money. The Jewish audience is shocked that he goes to hell. The modern-era audience has made it fit logically. But, both audiences will be disappointed.

The setting of this parable takes place within a limited-goods society, which would be familiar to the original hearers, but less so to those of us in the 21st century West. In such a society, each individual has a role, a set of expectations, that must be fulfilled. With generosity and hospitality being moral virtues in the ancient world, it is understood that the rich man has a moral responsibility to financially care for those who are attached to him or dependent upon him. The beggars of society also have a role to fulfill – their activity of begging creates an opportunity for the wealthy to give alms. Fulfilling one’s role in society then, could be understood as a moral virtue, especially because in a fixed limited-goods society, there is no thought to moving upward from one’s status. Beggars survive or perish based upon the moral fortitude of their patron. A patron’s (wealthy man’s) righteousness is both displayed and enhanced in his provision for the beggar and in his giving of alms for the poor.

We now begin to feel the bite of the parable for its original hearers. The rich man dines sumptuously, which is not necessarily wrong, but he fails to provide anything for the impoverished Lazarus who is longing to be fed with the crumbs.* (Note here the parallel wording and concept of eating crumbs from the table found in both Matthew and Mark through the story of the Canaanite woman. This may be worth exegetical exploration.)

From the first two verses, the parable sets up a parallel narrative structure that can best be seen with direct literal translation. This is a parallel and a comparison that it will maintain throughout the course of the story:

A a man / certain / was / rich

B a poor / certain / by the name / of Lazarus

Note that line A ends with ‘rich’. Line B begins with ‘poor’. Line A begins with ‘a man’. Line B ends with ‘Lazarus’. This parallel structure highlights the economic differences of the two men and links them in life. But, it is the possession of a name that stands out. In fact, this is the only parable that Jesus tells in which a character has a proper name. That a name is attached to the poor Lazarus and that the rich man lacks a name should cause us to pause because it certainly caught the attention of that first Jewish audience. In light of the fact that names held and still hold such importance in Jewish culture, the fact that Jesus chooses to give a name to a poor, helpless, and passive man in this one sole parable should point us towards deeper exploration.

Notice that throughout the entirety of the parable, Lazarus is completely passive. He longs for the crumbs, the dog lick his wounds, the angels carry him to Abraham’s bosom. Even in heaven when the rich man addresses him, it is Abraham who replies. Lazarus himself neither speaks nor wills himself to accomplish any activity whatsoever. The only thing of value that Lazarus has in this life is a name which means ‘he who God helps’. It is this very name that seals the indictment upon the rich man. It is also the piece of the parable that should make us, even here in our 21st century comfort, tremble.

In order to appreciate the importance of the name, we must deal with the existence of a gate in the parable. This gate becomes the moral compass for the listeners. A gate serves two purposes; both as a means of keeping unwanted people out, but also as a means of entry or welcome into the kingdom. In fact, the rich man and Lazarus are connected in life by this gate, for the presence of Lazarus here indicates that he is the rich man’s responsibility. The rich man fails to fulfill his righteous duty: He does not provide for Lazarus. In fact, he seems thoroughly unconcerned by the existence of Lazarus at the gate, and this must be viewed as a willful or chosen ignorance at best, and an intentional failure of responsibility at worst. The rich man’s gate keeps Lazarus out instead of serving as an instrument of grace that welcomes him in.

The gate is God’s invitation for us to participate in grace and this is a key point. From a Wesleyan perspective, this would be an invitation to join God in what he is already doing in our broken world toward reconciliation and redemption. The rich man has every opportunity to cross through the grace gate to Lazarus. This would be an act of solidarity; an intentional placement of his presence with the poor and an intentional cooperation with God to bring healing, justice, resources, and wholeness to Lazarus. The rich man’s choice to stay separated from Lazarus indicates his lack of mercy and his failure to fulfill his righteous responsibility. His decision is a failure to cooperate with the grace of God in action – all of which lead to his spiritual demise and to God’s just judgement. Note that what was a gate in life now becomes a chasm in death. In keeping with the structure of the entire parable, a gate and a chasm have eerie parallels, yet distinct functions.

A gate can keep out, but also welcome in that exists and functions by the will of humans. A chasm exists independently of human decision or effort. The parable is conscientious to communicate that it cannot be breached. It is a permanent statement of in and out, belonging and not belonging.

Indeed, the parable has teeth that drag us towards a sobering message. The presence of the gate in conjunction with the name Lazurus, he who God helps, is a promise of God’s justice. It is a certainty that God will act on behalf of the poor, the broken, the helpless, the outsider, the unwanted, the unseemly, the unhealthy. Those to whom God has given a means of resource, of power, of riches, of opportunity, of influence, there is the expectation of grace, the expectation that we fulfill our duty to be God’s presence. When we fail to act with mercy, with hospitality, when our gates serve to keep people out, when we are willfully ignorant, then our just God does help Lazarus. But, when God has to act because we will not, the grace gate is removed and a chasm takes its place. Woe to the rich man who finds himself on the other side of the chasm, where not even Abraham dares or is able to bridge the gap.

**Much of the foundational thought of this particular essay on ‘The Rich Man and Lazarus’ is taken from Bernard Brandon Scott’s book, Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus.

Questions for Further Study or Discussion

1. If Bernard Brandon Scott is right and the kingdom of God is the manifestation of God’s righteousness in the face of injustice, in what current communities or issues should we be looking for God’s righteousness to be manifesting?

2. How do we understand wealth today? Is it evidence of a right to power and authority or is it evidence of greed and corruption? Do those assumptions of character change dependent upon the religious background, the ethnic community, the political ideology, etc. of the individual? If so, would God want to speak to us / have correction regarding our assumptions?

3. Is generosity and hospitality a moral virtue today? Should it be? Explore how much of and how the entirety of our Biblical story is embedded in the concept of hospitality.

4. Excavate the value or the meaning in the fact that Lazarus is the only properly named character in all of the Jesus parables. What does that mean for us today? And, what does the translation, ‘He who God helps’, within this parable seem to say to us.

5. Talk about the name Lazarus and the existence of a gate that transitions to chasm.

6. Explore the concept of a grace gate in conjunction with our Wesleyan understanding of prevenient grace, of God’s enfleshment in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, and the role of the church following Pentecost.

7. Finally, explore the theological concepts of redemption and reconciliation from a Wesleyan perspective. If God is already reconciling creation to himself, an activity that is in process but fully accomplished with the return of Christ, how or where do we see that reconciliation taking place in our world right now? Do we see it? Where are we looking? If we are not seeing it, what might we need to do in order to be positioned to see or participate in it?