The Parables of Jesus:
Lazarus in Paradise
July 9, 2000
Luke 16:19-31 The Rev. Ralph DiBiasio-Snyder
Introduction to the Scripture:
You are about to hear a classic tale, the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Stories like it have been told in many times and places - a story in which the rich and privileged in this life trade places with the poor of the world in the life to come. The story is not original with Jesus, although he does make it his own to make his point. We know for a fact that similar stories had been circulating long before Jesus. There is an Egyptian version, for example, and we think that Jews living in Alexandria took it home with them to Jerusalem where rabbis adapted it to their teaching. Jesus would have been very familiar with the story of a rich tax collector, named Bar Ma'jan and a poor scholar. The two die. The rich man has a grand funeral, attended by the entire city, while no one comes to the poor university professor's funeral. But in paradise roles are reversed, and the poor man enjoys the beauties of heaven, while rich Bar Ma'jan forever strains to reach water he can never have. Jesus, we think, took that story and used it to create the parable we are about to hear.
Now remember that this is a parable, and not a lecture about what
heaven and hell are like. The setting of the story - with Abraham in
heaven, and the rich man tormented in flames, able to look up into heaven
- these are simply trappings that Jesus used to tell us not about heaven
and hell, but about what is important in this life. The challenge
of this story is learn how to live now, not how to fantasize about
what may happen then. So let us listen to the parable of the rich
man and Lazarus.
Koinonia Farms in rural Georgia is a Christian community founded some fifty years ago. Its mission was and is to minister to the poor of that area, black and white. A man named Clarence Jordan started it - some of you I know are familiar with him and his writings - and Koinonia was a pioneering effort to model a racially integrated community that was met (as you might imagine) with great resistance and even violence. The community has persisted, and still exists today. As a matter of fact it was at Koinonia that Habitat for Humanity founder Millard Fuller first caught his vision of creating good, affordable housing for all people.
Clarence Jordan was quite a colorful character, and so that the people of rural Georgia might better understand Jesus, he created The Cotton Patch Gospel, a contemporary translation, in southern dialect of the New Testament. Let me read how Jordan begins this parable:
Once there was a rich man, and he put on his tux and stiff shirt, and staged a big affair every day. And there was laid at his gate a poor guy by the name of Lazarus, full of sores, and so hungry he wanted to fill up on the rich man's table scraps.
So we have the rich man decked out in his tux and stiff shirt. Tradition has named him Dives, but in Jesus' story while he has everything else the world can offer this rich man has no name. He dresses in the finest clothes: purple is the color of nobility, and expensive linen was available only to the wealthy. We're told that he "feasted sumptuously" not once in a while, but every day. Here is a man of influence, power, taste; hosting his friends to "big affairs" daily.
And then there is Lazarus, the "poor guy." He is the antithesis of the rich man. His poor diet has caused a skin condition that is soothed only when the dogs like his sores. He is desperately hungry, as he lies by the gate of that mansion brimming with guests and laughter and food. The contrast between our two characters couldn't be more glaring: a contrast that heightens the irony of the next scene in the story. For as you know in the afterlife fortunes are exactly reversed. Lazarus is now the guest of honor at a great banquet hosted by none other than Abraham, the father of the Hebrews. He who competed with the dogs for table scraps on earth now is seated at the banquet of God. The rich man suffers the opposite fate, made worse because he can see from afar the bliss of his old neighbor Lazarus. Listen again to the Cotton Patch version. The rich man pleads,
"Mr. Abraham, please take pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in some water and rub it over my tongue, because I'm scorching in this heat." (Note that the rich man asks that Lazarus do for him in death what he would not do for Lazarus in life. He who was used to ordering people around on earth thinks he can order them around even in Hades.) Abraham replied, "Boy, you remember that while your were alive you got the good things (the good jobs, schools, streets, houses) while at the same time Lazarus got the left- overs. But now he's got it made, and you're scorchin'."
Earlier versions of this story would end right there. If Jesus' parable ended there we'd say that the moral of the story is that people who think they have it all, and neglect the poor at their doorstep, will someday find out how wrong they've been. In the end - in the next life - wrongs will be righted, justice will be done. And that's encouraging IF, that is, you are listening to this parable as a member of an oppressed class - the poor of Jesus' time, slaves in the south, the oppressed of every time and place. For those people this is as far as you need to go to be encouraged! But Jesus doesn't stop there. The dialogue between the rich man and Abraham goes on.
His request for a little comfort for himself got nowhere, so then he thinks of his family - he may not have cared for his poor neighbors, but he cares about his family, namely his five brothers. They apparently were living the way he had, unaware of their future fate. So the rich man asks that his brothers be warned. He says, 'Father Abraham, I beg you to send Lazarus 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."
And now comes the clincher, and the pont of Jesus' story. Some people say this parable shouldn't be called "the rich man and Lazarus," but instead "the parable of the six brothers," because it is in this last statement about those brothers, the five still alive on earth and the one who died, that we begin to hear what Jesus wants us to hear. Says Abraham, "They have Moses and the prophets; let your brothers listen to them." The Cotton Patch version says, "They have the Bible and the preachers; let your brothers listen to them." "No," says the rich man, knowing his five brothers. (The Bible and the preachers hadn't caught his attention; his brothers are likewise unimpressed.) "They will only change if someone - like this Lazarus - comes back from the dead to warn them!"
And then we hear these sobering words, "If they will not hear Moses and the prophets - Bible and the preachers - they will never hear, even if someone should rise from the dead!"
Now: what did you hear being taught in today's parable? Just what had the rich man done - what was his sin, that caused him eternal regret? Let me offer some options for your discussion.
Some say that the rich man's sin (and this will sound a bit like Jesse Jackson!) was that he mistook a neighbor for a nobody. His life was too busy for him to notice the poor man at his gate. His social calendar was too full for him to see Lazarus - a neighbor of his, Jesus would say - and so he wrote him off as someone of no consequence, of no importance in his world. He mistook a neighbor for a nobody.
Others might say that the rich man's sin was that he mistook opportunity for privilege. Wealth is an incredible opportunity to do good - we learned that in last week's parable. Status and having the right connections are tremendous powers that can be used for good. But we are in trouble when we think those opportunities for doing good are signs of privilege for doing nothing. We who have been empowered with resources, both financial and otherwise, to do good in the world must always guard against confusing great opportunity with mere privilege.
Still others say that he mistook what he owned for what he was. His possessions so possessed him that he thought that he everything that mattered, only to learn at the end of his life that he had nothing that mattered, not even his soul - certainly not any compassion for Lazarus and the poor of the earth. So the rich man mistook a neighbor for a nobody, opportunity to do good for privilege to do nothing, and what he owned for what he was.
All that is very true - I wouldn't want to argue with any of those interpretations. But that last verse still bothers me, and some others too, among them scholar Gail O'Day. She writes,
The rich man is in torment because he did not listen to Scripture. (Huh!? What's the Bible have to do with it? She goes on:) He had not learned from Moses and the Prophets ("the Bible and the preachers") that God loves the poor and that he is called to do likewise. He did not hear that his abuse of power and wealth and his oppression of Lazarus were against the will of God."
The rich man had not heard - or had not believed, or didn't want to accept - the fundamental call of the Scriptures that all people (even that repulsive poor man at his gate, covered with sores, in our day caused by neglect or AIDS, eating garbage from his dumpster behind our restaurants) are God's children, worthy of love, in need of compassion. He had not listened to the Bible when it said that true righteousness comes in ministering to the poor, the sick, the widowed and orphaned. He had not believed it when the prophets - Isaiah, Amos, Micah - railed against the rich who turned their backs on the poor. He found it easier to believe that it was their own fault that the poor are poor and the sick are sick.
Yes, the rich man had mistaken his neighbor for a nobody, his many opportunities for hard-earned privilege; Yes, he had confused what he owned with what he was. But the reason he had made those mistakes was that he had refused to listen to the word of God in the Scriptures.
It is a powerful story, this parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Especially if we hear it - as all of us should - identifying not with poor Lazarus, but with the man of means and wealth and status. Because while we may not be as rich as Bill Gates, we are surely rich to most of the people of the world. And as the missionary couple Solomon and Margaret Odalele from Nigeria gently reminded us just weeks ago, quoting Jesus, "To whom much has been given, much will be required." May we learn to hear the admonitions of "Moses and the prophets" - the Scriptures - to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. (Micah 6:8) Amen.