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.” (Luke 16:19-31)
“You know that this is a folk tale with Babylonian roots,” said the young assistant professor of religion with the ink still wet on his Ph.D. diploma.
It was my freshmen year of college. No one in the class had asked about this. As new religion professors are prone to do, he attempted some historical criticism “shock and awe” to disabuse us of our “naive” faith.
His point was lost on me. I didn’t know what he was talking about and I didn’t care either. All my life I’d known Jesus as a great story teller. Story tellers borrow good stories . What’s the big deal about that?
And what an amazing story this is. There is nothing like it in all of Scripture.
Here was a man who wasn’t a crook or a cheat as far as we know. However he came by his money — inheritance, hard work, savvy investment — he was wealthy and lived large every day.
In his doorway lay Lazarus, a pathetic beggar, ravaged by oozing skin lesions probably from acute malnutrition, longing for crumbs and table scraps from the rich man’s feasts.
In that place and time, guests didn’t use napkins. They wiped their sticky fingers on bread chunks that they threw under the table for the dogs and for the odd beggar, lying there, embarrassing the rich man and making his guests uncomfortable.
The Greek word for beggar and the Greek word for spit bear a close relationship. Lazarus was lower than spit, despised, rejected, and wretched.
Dogs were considered unclean and tolerated only for their use as garbage disposals. Where the wealthy, religious Sadducee and his elite guests reclined in sumptuous luxury and spit on Lazarus in contempt, the dogs licked his burning sores in compassion.
It is right here in the gross contrast of sticky human spit and healing canine saliva that the parable comes to life for me as a prayer story. Weak, sick Lazarus has nothing, absolutely nothing going for him but spit . . . and God. He is the only named character in any of Jesus’ parables. His name means “God helps.”
Jesus takes poetic license to state that God’s help is enough for Lazarus. He comes to angelic rest at Abraham’s right hand in the eternal congregation of the righteous saints. Across the way sits the rich man in torment in the superheated, empty wastes of Hades.
The rich man sees Abraham next to Lazarus and remarkably still views the former beggar, now prince of the kingdom, with contempt. He, who once spit on Lazarus, wants Father Abraham to send Lazarus to dip a finger in water and cool his parched tongue.
“It doesn’t work that way,” says Abraham, to the rich man. “Everything went your way and against Lazarus on earth. Now he is comforted and you are in agony. You trusted your wealth but Lazarus trusted me. Everyone makes choices, but there comes a time when those choices are irrevocable.”
The rich man, too late, felt some remorse and turned beggar himself. “Then, father, send Lazarus as a ghost to warn my five brothers so they don’t end up in torment like me.”
Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.”
The rich man still put no faith in the Word of God. “No, father Abraham, that won’t do it. But someone coming back from the dead will scare Hades out of them and bring them to repentance.”
Abraham said, “No, it won’t. If your brothers won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, nothing will convince them.”
The rich man had “feasted sumptuously everyday.” His consumption was conspicuous and exhausting. There was no rest for the labor or the fields that produced his wealth and filled his table.
Moses said that every seventh year was to be a Sabbath rest when agricultural work was suspended and the farm lands could lie fallow (Lev 25:1-7). Every fiftieth year was to be a time of Jubilee when mortgaged land returned to its owners and slaves and indentured servants were liberated from bondage (Lev 25:8-17). Prophets like Elijah, Elisha and Isaiah called Israel back to the grace and compassion of these teachings.
Jesus had come to proclaim the Lord’s year of grace prophesied by Isaiah (Cf Isa 65:1-4; Luke 4:16-21). Both the rich man and Lazarus desperately needed the grace of Jubilee, but the former didn’t recognize his need and met his end as the tormented rich man. Weak, spat on Lazarus did recognize his need and went into eternity as the one God helps.
But Jesus’ story wasn’t focused on the rich man or the beggar. It was a cautionary tale for the five living brothers who still had choices. That means that it is a cautionary tale for us.
Will we live out our days as consumers, heedless of grace; as exploiters spitting upon those we deem lesser and too late recognizing our need? Or will we recognize that we are Lazarus, beggars among dogs, afflicted with the burning lesions of sinful imperfection, starved for grace, and reach out for eternity with a three word prayer — “God help me.”
As a benediction, here’s a verse of a hymn that speaks to the right choice, the Lazarus choice–
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.
(Augustus Toplady, 1763)
“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him.” (Ps 34:8)
Under the mercy of Christ,
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The Lord is the strength of his people;