Lazarus and the Rich Man: separated by a gulf that may never be crossed

June 3, 2013

Those who follow the traditional Eucharistic lectionary hear one of my favorite parables on the first Sunday after Trinity. Jesus is using a common perception of the afterlife in his depiction of the eternal fates of two very close but widely separated men. The next life, as understood by first century Jews, includes an enormous chasm between the blessed and the condemned. The bad people suffer in the flames of eternal torment. This is a parable and you cannot prove the existence of and ever-burning hell from this passage, but it would certainly seem that, if the commonly held idea was seriously wrong, Jesus would have corrected it.

Jesus had recently been taking some flack from the Pharisees because of his penetrating comments about the wealthy. Of course, Jesus is not set against rich folks because they are rich. It is the hardness of heart and the neglect of one’s neighbors that is so offensive. The parable begins with a beautiful serving of the finest melodious prose.

“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. (Luke 16:19-21, ESV)

Scripture has a habit of withholding certain pieces of information, as is the case of Luke’s “rich man.” The suffering man is known by name. It is not laziness that brings poor Lazarus to the rich man’s gate to beg droppings from the continuous feasting. Too physically weak to bring himself to the gate, he is laid there. Perhaps it is friends or strangers who allow their lives to experience a few moments of inconvenience. Again, we have no idea. We know that the feeble man is covered with sores. He is a social outcast. These dogs who lick his wounded body are not your cute little house pets, but vicious roaming packs. The life of Lazarus is a daily ordeal of humiliation,fear and pain.

Jesus deals directly with the injustice of this situation. This splendidly dressed man has deliberately numbed his mind and conscience so that it is impossible for him to observe or approach the crime being committed at his own front door. But, in his intellect, the wealthy person had complete knowledge of the situation of one who struggled within feet of his own incessant banqueting. Writhing in hell, he calls Lazarus by name. The rich man has strong bars across that front gate in order to keep out the riff-raff. The exquisite sensation of the finest fabrics in the most stunning colors occupy the mind constantly. Yes, one is protected against the possibility of personal misfortune. The smells of expertly prepared cuisine must have excited the homeowner and tortured the suffering man who longed only for tiny morsel. But there is a gulf of hardness of heart and callous disregard between these two human beings. The rich man has dog a protective ditch, a kind of moat, around his life so that the little troubles of little people like Lazarus never enter into the temple where the rich man worships the high god of himself.

Lazarus dies and is carried by angels to the intimate friendship and fellowship with Abraham.The rich man dies and is buried – end of story. In hell, it is the same situation as the moral existence for the rich man. He expects Lazarus, finally at peace from his dreadful life, to shuffle on down to hell and put a drop of water on the rich man’s tongue. Never mind that the blessed man might be singed by the flames. What are the lower classes for anyway, if not to serve the more fortunate just like some kind of celestial Stepin Fetchit. Even in the pit of Hades, the rich man is ready to dispatch Lazarus away from the comfort of Abraham’s bosom to warn his equally useless brothers.

Jesus gives a searing indictment of the wealthy in this parable. It is all about social justice, but careful bible readers know that God is not against the rich. Gos is against people who are greedy and misuses the blessings he so graciously provides. Jesus is telling all of us that, if we built that gorge between ourselves and the suffering people next door, the outcome will not be a good one. God is just and he judges both deeds and hearts.

The Pharisees, just like the rich man of the parable, were looking for a sign to prove that Jesus was the Christ.Jesus told them to read the scriptures. That is good advice for all of us, of course,but those who do not love and follow the Lord cannot expect some special Divine lightning bolt to come down with a warning just moments before the descent into a land of eternal darkness. Jesus knows that the heartless brothers will not listen to a man to comes back from the dead.

It is noteworthy that Jesus does raise a man named Lazarus in the presence of his own devoted friends. In John’s telling, this resuscitation is tied to the sermon about the Good Shepherd. The lambs recognize that voice because they listen every day and love that familiar reassuring cadences. What a distinction there is between one who is so deluded with the pretense of power and possessions snaps his fingers for immediate gratification and one who bears infirmity with dignity, without condemning and trusts in God’s faithfulness through it all.

So what?

It is natural to look away from the smelly and unappealing people in tattered rags who limp along the roadways. Getting involved opens some kind of Pandora’s box of inconvenience and disappointment. Lazarus has a lot of problems; health, hygiene and housing. He is a mess and it seems almost impossible to make a difference, so the response is to do nothing. To get involved means taking on some risk and bringing one’s self down to the same level as the lowest classes. What will people think? Many of us suffer from a morbid fear that poverty might be contagious. In America, there are not many things worse than being poor.

The followers of Jesus have no structures to keep out the real world. We live in a Christ-centered culture which makes room for good friends, good things, and the non-productive losers of life, like our friend Lazarus. Christians have read Moses, the prophets and the New Testament writers motivated not by the fear of fire but the love of our Shepherd. We hear his voice in the text of scripture and we will recognize it when we are called into the intimate fellowship of the wedding feast of the lamb. It is a time and place where believers, those who have opened their hearts to the lowly brothers, will be clothed in the finest apparel and feast sumptuously every day.

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