Luke 16.19-31 (NRSV)
“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. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘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.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus on anyone’s list of favorite parables?
Wow! What a parable!
I think that in this parable about the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus is telling us something about change.
Every time the rich guy could do something to change … every chance his story could go a different direction and he could say or do something that would be even a bit redeeming, he misses it. He seems so stuck … so clueless.
This parable is brutal.
Is there any grace in it?
The characters are flat and undeveloped.
I want to know more about them; why is the poor man poor? Is he down on his luck? Why is the other guy rich? Did he earn his money? Inherit it? Did he swindle it? Was the poor man kind? Was the rich guy mean?
More information might help me understand why things turn out the way they do.
Jesus doesn’t seem interested in giving us more information. Maybe that’s because being deserving or undeserving is not the point of the story. There must be something more to the parable than a poor guy who can’t catch a break and winding up in heaven and a rich guy getting his just dessert. It doesn’t seem very Jesus-ish. There isn’t much grace in that.
In the Ancient Middle East, there were a number of folktales like this that made their way around communities … maybe kind of like an ancient version of our “pearly gate” jokes. There was one about a poor teacher and a wealthy merchant (Craddock, p. 195) … another one about two holy men and a tax-collector (Bailey, p. 378). In these folktales, a dead person was sent back to the living with a message (kind of like Marley in “A Christmas Carol”). Jesus surprises us with a twist, he sets up a story that follows a familiar pattern, but then takes his story in a different direction – the dead don’t deliver messages to the living. The end is so harsh … so final …
That’s not the only jarring moment in the parable:
- Lazarus is the only character in Jesus’ parables that has a name – and his name means “the one God helps.”
- Dogs licked Lazarus’ wounds. This might be a sign that Lazarus was too weak to chase off stray dogs. It might show just how bad things were for Lazarus. But maybe it is even more heartbreaking. In ancient times, people noticed wounds that dogs licked would heal faster – they didn’t know it was because scientists have found “peptide antibiotics” in dog saliva (Bailey, p. 385). What if this detail is less about being disgusting and more about being agonizing – the only creatures who showed Lazarus any mercy or comfort in his life were the dogs who licked his wounds? That is crushing – here is this rich guy who has abundant means and he can’t even share table scraps with Lazarus, but dogs tend to his wounds. Ugh!
- Even when the rich man is dead, even when he sees Lazarus sitting in the seat of honor at a heavenly banquet, he still insists on bossing Lazarus around – ordering Lazarus to bring water, telling Lazarus to deliver messages. The rich guy is so stuck on status and class, even when class and status don’t matter anymore he still sees people as his servants and orders them around. He even know’s Lazarus’ name. He wouldn’t do anything to help Lazarus, but now he wants Lazarus to serve him. The rich guy in the parable just doesn’t get it. He seems like a caricature. He is impossible to relate to. His story gets worse and worse. He seems so stuck. So unaware.
I’m curious if Jesus intended this story to be heartbreaking?
What if Jesus is shocking us into seeing something we might be missing?
In Luke chapter 16, Jesus teaches about how disciples relate to and understand money. Just before he shares the parable, Jesus warned his disciples they could not serve two masters – they could not serve both God and wealth.
Some Pharisees overheard Jesus’ lesson. Luke says these Pharisees were “lovers of money” and they ridiculed Jesus.
“You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God. “The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped” (Luke 16.15-17 NRSV).
What if Jesus’ parable about the rich man and Lazarus has more to do with how to interpret scripture than anything else?
Jesus told this parable to people who were ridiculing his teaching about how faithful people understand wealth. Luke has shown us throughout his Gospel that Jesus is a reliable and accurate interpreter of Scripture. What if these Pharisees interpreted scripture differently? What if they believed what we would call “the prosperity gospel” – the conviction that success is a sign of God’s favor and suffering is a sign of God’s judgement? This way of understanding scripture emphasizes a few parts, like Psalm one, the righteous “prosper in all they do” but overlooks passages like Deuteronomy 15.7, “If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward them.” If this was the case, Jesus saying, “The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man died and was in Hades where he was being tormented” would have played with their expectations … it would have been shocking.
Fred Craddock writes:
There can be no denying it: Scriptures can be found that support the position that the righteous prosper and the wicked suffer … Jesus, who blessed the poor and urged free sharing of one’s goods with those in need, regarded the Pharisees’ view as a gross misinterpretation of the Old Testament … Jesus now provides a story that vividly dramatizes to the Pharisees a gross misreading of scripture and the consequences of it … According to Luke, it is not only on the subject of wealth and poverty that Jesus and not the Pharisees properly interprets Scripture; Luke has been careful to show, from the birth narratives on, that what Jesus says and does is according to Scripture (Fred Craddock, Interpretation: Luke, pp. 194-197).
What if the point of this parable has to with accurately interpreting Scripture? What if Jesus is shocking us to show us that Scripture should be doing something in our lives? Scripture should be softening our hearts … scripture should be changing us.
What if that’s why there isn’t much grace in this parable? The Pharisees who ridiculed Jesus knew Scripture, they studied it, they worried about keeping its rules, but it doesn’t seem like it did much to change their hearts … their hearts seem really hard. They seem like the rich guy who just won’t change … who just can’t get it.
If we connect with any characters in this parable, I think we might be like the five brothers. We have Moses and the prophets speaking to us … we even have Jesus Christ, the one who rose from the dead, who teaches us and guides us.
Maybe that is where grace shows up?
Maybe there is grace in Jesus’ understanding and interpretation of Scripture?
Jesus taught that the most important commandments, the most important teachings of Scripture, were to “love God with everything we are and everything we have and to love our neighbors as ourselves.”
We learn what love and grace look like by watching Jesus.
Jesus understands Scripture as something God works through to shape us … to change us … to guide us to be people who love God and love our neighbors.
Luke 16.14-31 Reflection/Devotional Questions:
- Read all of Luke chapter 16. Who are Jesus’ listeners? What common themes do you notice in these verses? Who is the main character in 19-31? What pieces of information seem to be most helpful to make sense of the parable?
“Jesus was not the first to tell of how wealth and poverty might be reversed in the future life. Stories like the one in verses 19-31 were so well-known that what would have struck the hearers was how he changed the format. In such stories, generally the request to send someone back to warn the family is granted. What effect would Jesus’ change to the ending of his story have had on his audience?” (For Everyone Bible Study Guide: Luke, p. 100)
- What could Jesus be teaching about trust and faithfulness?