When Jesus offers us two characters in a story that appear to be in opposite places, it is only natural to want to compare them.
One could conclude from comparing the fates of the two men in today’s story, that it is better to be poor than rich in this life, because those who are poor now will be rich in the heavenly life (and vice versa).
This is a message that has at times been confirmed and misused by the Church. For example, there were those in the church of the Middle Ages that used this passage in this way to appease the masses who were poor. The leaders in the Church said, “Your reward will be in heaven”. This of course helped maintain the current division of power and wealth, which the church benefited from.
I’m not sure how common of a message this is today in the various Christian churches in America. It seems that many churches today favor a different message of misuse: suggesting that prosperity is actually a sign of God’s favor, in comparison to not having (an equally destructive message).
I’m currently of the belief that comparison of the two men is not the point of the story.
Sure, it LOOKS like a “rich man, poor man” story, but in truth, it is a “rich man, Lazarus” story, which makes me hear it a little differently.
The poor man named Lazarus is a fictional character in the parable, and should not be confused with the more familiar Lazarus of John’s Gospel: the brother of Martha and Mary that is raised from the dead by Jesus.
What might be rather significant is not just that he’s named Lazarus, but the fact that he is named at all. This is the only time where Jesus names one of the characters in his parables.
I find that a telling feature of the story. Perhaps it suggests that God knows this man because of his poor situation, and is loved by name.
What might be of greater significance is that the rich man in the story knows Lazarus by name. In fact, I think this is a major part of the story, because in truth, I don’t think this is really a story of comparison between two people. This is the rich man’s story. The point of the parable lies with him.
Lazarus means “God is my help.” By naming the poor man Lazarus, Jesus is saying that, of course, Lazarus is cared for by God. It is a given in the story. In one of his earliest teaching, Jesus said: Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20). The truth of that has not changed.
It is the rich man’s attitude and actions (or lack there of) that is the focus of this story this morning.
There is great description of detail given of the two men. The dramatic contrast set up in the story that creates a vivid picture.
“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 sudden reversal of fortune brought about in their deaths is a significant piece of this story, but I think it is more about this life then it is a suggestion of what the afterlife is like.
In Hades, where (The rich man ) 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.”
This is not to be understood as an accurate picture of hell, but to establish that the rich man knows EXACTLY who Lazarus is. He knows him by name. Lazarus’ plight during life was not unknown to the rich man. The rich man simply chose not to care.
It is this not caring, not his wealth, that condemns the rich man of the story.
Penny Nixon writes:
Luke clearly tells us that this parable was given to “lovers of money” (in verse 14), so it was a direct message to them. Apparently Jesus wanted to reveal through this story that they loved their money more than people, their possessions more than the poor, their clothes more than compassion, and their extravagant feasts more than sharing food with the hungry.” (In Feasting on the Word, Year C., Vol. 4, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds., 2010, p. 119.)
What perhaps is even more damning is that the rich man still sees himself above Lazarus. Despite this clear reversal of fortune…despite Lazarus literally being above him in heaven…the rich man still sees Lazarus as less then him. “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.” Make him serve me. While he speaks to Abraham with respect, he speaks of Lazarus as if he isn’t there, and as if he has no a right or ability to speak for himself. Even with wealth reversed, the no longer rich man sees himself as a more important human being than Lazarus.
The story reveals an assumed self-worth that is often found when people have wealth and power over others. The danger here is very real: then, as well as today.
Fortunately, compassion, not fear, is the point of the story.
We are called to see each other as God sees us: equal, unique, and beloved. We are called to awareness and interaction with one another. And, I believe, we are called to do what we can to share the abundance of what we have been given with each other. For after all, everything...and everyone...belongs to God.