The Rich Man and Lazarus
‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.
I enjoyed this cartoon.
A minister is depicted giving a report to a police officer about a stolen wallet. “Shortly after he hugged me and said that it was the best sermon on giving he’d ever heard, I noticed my wallet was missing.” (This is why I don’t carry a wallet to church.)
The irony of this cartoon is what makes it so amusing to me; the minister has just delivered an excellent sermon on giving only to have his wallet stolen by one of those who heard the sermon. Did the thief help the minister to “give”? One side of me congratulates the minister for reporting the crime—“thou shalt not steal,” after all. The other side of me wonders about just letting it go; for clergy who proclaim our Lord’s word that you cannot serve God and money should you get all exercised over the loss of money?
1. Philip Yancy, a prolific Christian writer, wrote about being conflicted with regard to money. “The issue that haunts me is money. It hangs over me. It keeps me off balance, restless, uncomfortable, nervous. I feel pulled in opposite directions over the money issue. Sometimes I want to sell all that I own and join a Christian commune and live out my days in intentional poverty. At other times I want to rid myself of guilt and enjoy the fruit of our nation's prosperity.
… Mostly I wish that I did not have to think about money at all. But I must somehow come to terms with the Bible's very strong statements about money."
When it comes to very strong Biblical statements that touch on the subject of money our Lord’s parable about the rich man and Lazarus ranks up there among the strongest. On the matter of the rich getting richer and the poor poorer, the gap between the rich man and Lazarus couldn’t be wider. The context for the telling of this parable in Luke’s gospel is a time when some Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard Jesus’ teaching his disciples about wealth. These Pharisees heard Jesus say, among other things, that “you cannot serve God and wealth,” and they ridiculed him. The great reversal depicted in the afterlife of the rich man’s torment in Hades and Lazarus comforted at Abraham’s side doesn’t sound like something one ought to ridicule.
In fact the parable is rather unnerving, to put it mildly. Perhaps the edginess of the parable is our Lord’s first point. He wants to underline that there is a danger with respect to wealth that ought not to be trifled with. As the Apostle Paul would put it—“the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” We noted last week in our Lord’s teaching that we ought to use wealth as a tool for the advancement of the kingdom of God; that this world’s good can be used to treasure up treasure in heaven. (Luke 16:9) So the evil is not in the money but in the potential claim it can make over our love. Therein lies the conflict I believe Yancy wrote about. At moments he wants to be rid of the responsibility of having the money; at other moments to not feel guilty about enjoying the fruits of his labours that money could afford.
Judging by the number of times Jesus addresses the subject of wealth it becomes clear that our Lord thought it an important subject to address. So Jesus must have seen the lure of wealth’s domination lapping at the hearts of his followers. He wants us to steer clear of loves that destroy life; to cling to the love of the One whose steadfast love is better than life itself. So make this first note about this parable, it shows that our Lord treats this matter of riches seriously.
2. The second thing I will ask you to note is that there is no correlation between riches and the life to come. The Pharisees that were listening to Jesus thought there was. The idea went like this—God blesses right living with prosperity, I’m prosperous so things with God are good. Hence, prosperity was taken as confirmation that you were on the right track. In fact poverty was seen as God punishing you for some error in your life.
In our culture people talk of economics as if our life existed without God. While prosperity may not be linked to the religious idea of God’s blessing, it is linked in many people’s minds to competence in life and for life. We walk past people begging on our city streets and it is hard not to think that there is something about them that is the source of their poverty. Whether it is mental health issues or addictions there is a strong link, in our minds, between fitness for life and prosperity. Those among us receiving social assistance benefits are often regarded as lacking in some way or another.
In our Lord’s parable he assures us that neither prosperity nor competence for life is a measure of a person’s kingdom connection. The picture Jesus paints of Lazarus is of a person unable to manage much—he can’t even chase away the dogs who add insult to injury by licking the sores on his body. He can only lay at the gate and wish for the scraps of food that fell from the rich man’s table. Yet he is the one who, when he died, was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.” Poverty is no guarantee of faith but is no barrier to it either. Indeed the gospel is first and always good news for the poor.
I also note that there are two men in the parable who were rich in this life. The rich man who feasted sumptuously every day and Abraham. Abraham may not have been the richest man in his world but he did not lack means for life. He is the one the scripture tells us “believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:3) When Jesus speaks of him as Father Abraham he speaks of him as the ancestor of faith now present before God. So being rich does not equate with go directly to Hades.
We must also be careful not to press the details of any parable to say more than the point being made. Clearly Jesus is warning those who love money about the perils of that love. When it comes to the subject of the afterlife we need to understand this parable in light of the rest of scripture. Hades is a word used to mean the place of the dead; the image of being taken to be with Abraham is the place of the blessed. We are told there is a great chasm between the two that cannot be crossed be either Abraham or Lazarus nor the rich man. Hades is not a happy place but one of torment (please note that God is not said to be tormenting residents of Hades). On the other hand to be with Abraham is a place of comfort. It isn’t said that Lazarus found himself in the lap of luxury but in the place of comfort.
The Pharisee presumed upon his ancestry and wealth; namely, because he was a physical descended of Abraham and considered his wealth God’s seal of approval that his standing with God was secure. He was unwise to take wealth as an indicator of what God think or feels about people.
The Pharisees would have known the Psalm that declares “Happy are those who consider the poor; the Lord delivers them in the day of trouble.” (Psalm 41:1) They would know the laws that were designed to care for the poor; i.e., at the grain harvest the corners of field were to be left so the poor could have something. They would be familiar with the prophet Jeremiah through whom God said that to know him was to take up the cause of the poor. (Jeremiah 22:16) In the temple in Jerusalem almsgiving (care for poor) was an institutional part of the collections that were taken. Jesus was with his disciples observing those collection bins when he saw a widow donate put her two pennies.
Sometimes our giving to support the poor can be something we do for ourselves as if to earn some points. Recall the man Jesus told us about who went up to pray and reminded God of his meticulous tithing—as if God owed him something. This is not to say that the poor are not blessed by giving even from selfish motive. And it is true that our Lord says to bless the poor is to treasure up treasure in heaven. (Luke 12:33) At the same time the love of money is a devious thing. It tempts us to think we have done God a favour with our giving. We can be sucked into trusting in ourselves rather than the one who gives all things freely. Our giving is first and always response to the one who freely gave himself for us, not in order to get him to do something.
The Apostle Paul addressed something similar in his letter to Timothy. Some Christians imagined godliness to be a means of gain. (1 Timothy 6:5) A first century manifestation of we speak of today as the prosperity gospel. The Apostle Paul noted, “Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.” Note that he did not say the gain was from godliness but from godliness combined with contentment. We know that to live godly lives content with what we have within our means leads to gains. The danger of the gain is that it can undermine the contentedness and take a bite out of godliness.
3. The third thing that I invite you to take note of is the way that love of wealth can blind a person to people. The poor man was at the gate of the home of this man who “feasted sumptuously every day” and though he knows his name, as the scene in Hades will reveal, he doesn’t see him. Lazarus is there every day and the rich man lacks the curiosity to even find out if he might be of help. Riches have a way of commanding our attention—our stuff occupies us and people become secondary.
It is interesting to note this is the only instance in all our Lord’s parables where a character is given a name. Lazarus. And it is that poor man that no one sees that is given a name. We are confronted with what God takes note of—he knows the name of the poor man. God takes note of him. This is not to say that God is unfamiliar with the name of the rich man. Here Jesus gives the poor man a name so to emphasize the contrast between what God notices and what the rich man notices. By implication Jesus teaches us how God’s people are to take notice.
When I read this story I am convicted and find myself trying to slide out from under its implications. The first thing I say that I am not rich. The man in the parable belonged to the super rich—that’s not me. But then I must acknowledge that the love of money is not necessarily a function of how much of it one has. Further, with respect to the rest of the world I occupy a place in the top 10% when it comes to wealth measures.
I also must let go of resentment. I find myself walking along a city street engaged in conversation with my wife or a friend and someone sitting in the sidewalk shouts “can you spare some change.” I find myself resenting the intrusion. Setting aside all those theories about how best to help such people, there is nothing preventing me from taking notice of him/her with a greeting—whether I have anything to give or not. Have I become so preoccupied with me and what is mine that I take no notice of others? I need the timely correction of my Lord’s parable to take note of people, particularly the suffering.
4. The fourth thing I invite you to take note of is the way that the love of money turns the heart away from God. Indeed, this parable illustrates the saying of our Lord that you cannot serve God and wealth. A slave can be devoted to only one master. To love God with all your heart soul and strength means that our love will be governed by his; we will love what God loves. Clearly God takes up the cause of the poor and needy. The rich man was lost in his love of money.
I note also that even in Hades his attitude has not changed. He sees Lazarus as a servant. Lazarus is not a person but rather someone there to serve his need. Listen to his request, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” He is still preoccupied with himself. Notice there is no thought of repentance.
And then there is this exchange where he asks Abraham to send Lazarus on a mission to warn the rich man’s brothers so they too will not come to this place. Lazarus is still a servant at best in his mind. Abraham says “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” But the rich man knows that his brothers would take no notice of the scriptures. Here again we see that the love of money renders the heart callous to spiritual truth of the scriptures. When Luke is recounting this parable surely he wants to underline for believers the importance of “listening to Moses, and the prophets,” and the Apostles.
No, the rich man thinks, if someone came back from the dead, something really spectacular happened then they will repent. No, says Abraham, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Indeed how true are the words our Lord puts in Abraham’s mouth in this parable. Love of riches has a way of dulling the spiritual hearing to the voice of God. As the Apostle Paul noted, “some in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith.”
No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’