The Rich Man and Lazarus
This morning we are going to look together at the difficult parable labeled “The Rich Man and Lazarus.” To be quite honest with you, we often dodge the Scripture before us. Though this parable is quite a challenge, it is a very important part of the teaching of Jesus.
Turn in your copy of God’s Word to Luke 16 and follow along as I read. Hear now the Word of God.
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
The stories of Jesus are compelling. When we consider a parable, we need only hear a few words for us to call to mind the entire story. If I say, “A certain man had two sons,” you probably think immediately of the parable about the prodigal son. If I say, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves,” you likely call to mind the story of the Good Samaritan.
Most of the time we can find ourselves in the characters that appear in the parables of Jesus. It is quite appropriate for us to see ourselves in every character mentioned. Most can identify with the father in the story of the prodigal son. Many can identify with the prodigal son because we all have a rebellious streak. Some of us can identify with the older brother because we all harbor a bit of self-righteousness, a holier-than-thou attitude.
I have no trouble seeing myself as the rich man in this particular parable. Though I do not eat gourmet foods every day, I am can be a glutton occasionally. Compared to three-fourths of the people in this world, I live in the lap of luxury. You do too. The truth is that people who live in America are wealthy by almost every standard used across the globe. The notion of entitlement, privilege, is a great pitfall for all of us. The more we have, however, the more God expects of us. This parable offers ample evidence that without the grace of God, even the richest billionaire would be poverty-stricken. We do have the grace of God, and we do have a large share of the world’s goods. Therefore we need to pay attention to Jesus’ treatment of the rich man.
It is also important for me to see myself as Lazarus in this parable. In a very real sense, I am a beggar at the gate. It is only by the grace of God that I have any material possessions. It is only by the grace of God that I can explain the spiritual blessings that are a part of my life: the gifts of love, friendship, family, and above all else, salvation. I seriously doubt that Jesus told this parable as a way to cheer up the poverty-stricken. He does confront those who are blessed in special ways. Maybe he wants us to see ourselves more clearly. Maybe he wants us to make some changes in our lives. Maybe he wants us to feel uncomfortable in order to confront us with three painful truths, which I gleaned mainly from William Barkley’s commentary on the Gospel of Luke.
First, you will notice in the parable that Jesus provides the name of only one character. If you pay close attention to other parables, the characters are referred to as “the son,” “the elder son,” “the prodigal son,” “the father,” “the Samaritan,” or “the man who fell among thieves.” Nowhere does Jesus supply any names except here in the case of the poor man, who is named Lazarus. Another form of the name Lazarus is probably Eleazar, which means “God helps.” The Bible tells us that God wants to help all people who are living in poverty, all people who are living with hunger. In our culture, the wealthy are given names: Gates, Getty, Murdock, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt; in contrast, the poor in our culture generally remain nameless and faceless. Giving the beggar a name and leaving the rich man nameless is very significant. We know that Jesus is going to react differently to these two individuals.
Second, you will notice that both men died. We all die. You might expect that the beggar would die sooner because he was living a malnourished life. He was defenseless even against the dogs that licked his body, which was covered in sores. The rich man, on the other hand, had plenty to eat. I can imagine that underneath his clothes of fine purple linen he was obese. He had all the food he could possibly eat and probably the finest physicians money could buy. Death, the great equalizer, comes to all of us, regardless of our station in life. Our division of have’s and have-not’s breaks down at the point of death.
Third, one of the harshest truths of all is that one man went to heaven and the other went to hell. Lazarus, we are told, was united with the father of all Hebrew people, Abraham. Saying that he went to Abraham’s side is typically another way of saying that he was in God’s presence, that he was in heaven. Despite the life of poverty on this side of death, Lazarus had a right relationship with God. The nameless rich man, however, ended up in torment. The New Testament word – sometimes Hades, sometimes Gehenna – can have different meanings. Here the rich man is clearly in hell, a place of agony, a place of accountability. We see in the Scripture that a chasm, a great distance, exists between the two destinations of heaven and hell. The chasm is not just geographical in nature. The chasm is also spiritual in nature. The rich man had dug the chasm himself throughout his life by distancing himself from Lazarus, by ignoring the poverty just outside his gate. More importantly, the rich man distanced himself from God by shrugging off the responsibility of caring for the poor. Now in death, the gap became permanent.
Once the rich man realized his fate, he asked permission for Lazarus to warn his family of the torment he was experiencing. He proposed to Abraham, “Just do something supernatural. Do something sensational. If someone from the other side of death went back, surely my family would listen.” Perhaps this suggestion is a reference to the resurrection of Jesus. You will notice that Abraham denied the request. “If the Law and Prophets are not enough to encourage your family to do what is right, if they are unaware of the beggar at their door and the hunger in their midst, there will be no divine intervention.” The problem with the rich man was not that he did not know better. He had the words of Moses and the Prophets, and the human need was positioned right outside his door. The problem with the rich man was that he was unwilling to pay attention.
So the story straight from the lips of Jesus bothers us. The parable will not vanish, and we cannot delete it from the Bible. Today, this Sunday, is the right day for us to address the hunger and poverty outside our door.
Who are the beggars at our gate? How do we respond to them? The poor and hungry reside in every American city, in every pocket of rural America, in every third-world country. They reside in refugee camps where war and famine have taken their toll and driven people together. They even reside in Spartanburg County. The poor and hungry, comprising about one-fourth of the world’s population, live on the equivalent of twenty-seven cents a day. They are Lazarus, and we are the rich man.
Jesus gives us two very clear warnings in this parable. One warning involves apathy. The two men in this parable had no earthly contact between them though they were in close geographical proximity to each other. Though the rich man had the resources to help, he seemed not to care. His sin was not that he caused Lazarus’ poverty or hunger. He did not kick Lazarus when he walked through the gate. He did not curse and make derogatory comments about Lazarus. We are not told that he mistreated Lazarus in any way. He simply kept the wealth for himself and ignored the human need. The rich man’s sin is that he did absolutely nothing to help the beggar. You might say that he is a practical atheist. He might have been an honorable member of the community, maybe even an upstanding member of the synagogue or the temple. People around him might have thought that he was wonderful. He was the individual everyone invited to their home for special occasions. He sinned by ignoring the poor and hungry at his door. He likely said, “Lazarus needs a handout, but he will get only crumbs from my table. I am not going to do anything. Others can do it.” An old Jewish proverb says that the man is poor indeed who does not have a guest at his table. This man, though quite wealthy, is impoverished in his spirit because of his selfishness and apathy.
Some of us who are tempted to ignore the hungry can offer good explanations for doing so. We might say, “It is not my problem. Let the federal government and local agencies deal with the problem. That is what food stamps are for. I don’t have the time or the energy.”
Ayn Rand, the author of a book entitled Atlas Shrugged, says that too many of us are like Atlas, the giant Greek god that carried the burden of the world on his shoulders. She argues that we feel responsible for others’ dilemmas, that we feel obligated to shoulder the problems that encompass this globe. Rand maintains that these problems are not our responsibility. We must shrug off, get rid of, or dump that burden.
Rand’s assertions do not correspond to Jesus’ teachings. Our Savior compels us to shoulder this burden, not to shrug it off and dispense with it. Perhaps you remember this story’s parallel, The Parable of the Last Judgment, which offers the truth, “Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these”…the poor, the homeless, the hungry, those without clothing, those in prison (Matthew 25:40). I honestly do not know anyone in this church who does not care about the hungry. We all care. If there was ever a demonstration of that compassion, it was the cooperative effort of our congregation in preparing 10,000 packages of food this morning. We do care. We care deeply. The church is not the place for practical atheists.
The second warning inherent in this parable, the greatest point of danger for the church, is acceptance of the fact that hungry people exist in this world. Some would even misquote Jesus by taking him out of context: “The poor you have with you always.” They would add, “Of course, poor people will always be among us, but we cannot do a thing about the enormous problem. That is just the way things are. That is just life.”
We are vulnerable to the point of accepting the problem. We have heard many facts and statistics. Approximately 730,000,000 people woke up hungry this morning with no hope of having enough to eat today. Nearly 200,000,000 of those are Christians, our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. If we put the hungry in a single file, they would circle the globe twenty-five times. Consider this fact: during the course of this sermon, four to five hundred people will starve to death, most of them elderly or very young.
Lazarus and his tribe wear us down. We get so tired of looking at the tragedy of hunger that we just turn away from it and allow these nameless, faceless people to fade into the background. We want to get on with our agenda and forget them. We do pay more attention when the media focus on some crisis like a hurricane or an earthquake. We do tend to respond to catastrophes. Then we allow Lazarus to shrink back and become faceless and nameless yet again. Lazarus becomes a part of the landscape.
Hunger is not going to improve with a once-a-year emphasis. We are not going to solve the problem by working together in the Fellowship Hall one Sunday a year to pack meal bags. That effort will help, but it does not solve the problem. Eliminating hunger requires a long, sustained response. We cannot allow our weariness and well-doing get the best of us. We must be willing to accept the fact that we can eliminate this problem.
Part of the solution involves simply making lifestyle changes. It would not hurt either you or me one bit to miss a meal. We could give the money saved to help this cause. Did you know that enough grain is grown to feed every hungry person in this world a diet of about 3600 calories a day? Did you realize that America – comprising one sixth of the world’s population – consumes forty percent of the food in this world? Much of the grain grown goes to feed beef so that we can eat marbled steaks and manufacture alcoholic beverages. Our lifestyle must change.
Years ago I heard a young Lutheran pastor named Arthur Simon speak at a Christian Life Commission meeting in Washington, D.C. Simon began an organization called Bread for the World. In the first year, 500 people joined him in an effort to raise money to feed the hungry. Simon was so pleased when he could give a check in the amount of $9,000,000 to hunger relief. He said that the very next day the Congress of the United States of America voted to withdraw $90,000,000 of economic aid to third-world countries. “In one vote, Congress wiped out ten-fold what had taken me a year to put together. I realized that hunger and the solution to hunger is not just a matter of people being charitable. It is a political issue.” One of our church members came to me with tears in his eyes after the early service and said, “Think about how the money being spent on political campaigns in this country could help world hunger.” World hunger is a very thorny and entangled political issue. Our attempts to assist poorer countries where the leadership is so corrupt often get thwarted. The situation can be so discouraging.
We can make a difference, however. We made a start this morning to do something about world hunger. Other ways we can help begin with awareness. We must pay attention to the beggars at our gate, not treat them as part of the landscape and ignore them. We must “be doers of the Word and not hearers only” (James 1:22). We must certainly be in prayer. We need to respond in ways that the Lord Jesus would be pleased.
Why did Jesus tell this parable? Jesus told the story to warn us not to quit caring, not to quit doing, not to grow weary. We need to hear the message and respond.
Do you know Christ Jesus as your Savior? If not, I would like to invite you to accept him. You will never know anything but spiritual poverty unless you acknowledge Christ as your Savior. We invite you to accept him today.
Kirk H. Neely © April 2012