top of page

"The Rich Man and the Beggar Lazarus"

The story that Jesus told about “the rich man and Lazarus” actually has a third character of some significance “behind the scenes”: Father Abraham, the keeper of heaven in Hebrew tradition.

In Christian tradition, of course, St. Peter took on that role, since he was said to have been given charge of “the keys of heaven” by Jesus himself (Matthew 16:19). But that’s a later Church doctrine. In today’s text, Jesus was speaking to Jewish people who were looking forward to their “reunion” with Father Abraham in heaven after they died and were resurrected there.

“When the poor man died,” says Jesus, speaking of the beggar Lazarus in the parable, “he was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.” That’s their vision of their heavenly home, their reward, their version of “eternal life”. The actual Greek phrase used by Luke indicated “to Abraham’s bosom, or breast” which connotes an embrace, a hug, a welcome of comforting, nurturing, nursing tenderness… It’s a nice image!

By contrast, Jesus says starkly: “The rich man also died, and was buried.” Period! (!) Everyone dies. Everyone gets buried in some form or other; even if it’s to be buried at sea, or dumped in a mass grave, or placed in an unmarked pauper’s grave. What happened to the rich man happens to us all. (!) Death is the final stage of living. I hate to break the news, if you didn’t know: none of us are going to get out of life alive. (!)

Bummer! I’ll bet you didn’t come to church this morning hoping to hear that!

Since there are two very different kinds of “fates” depicted in this parable, the question for the listener is: whether our “afterlife” will feel like the nurturing embrace of a beloved -- when we are gathered to our ancestors (carried to “the bosom of Abraham”) -- or whether the best we have to look forward to is staying (and decaying) in the ground, untended, abandoned in the dark underworld -- a place called “Hades” in Greek, “Hel” in Norse mythology, or “Sheol” (the Pit) in Hebrew.

I spoke briefly with the children about Hades, but let me give you a bit more of the literary background of this parable as you mull over that question regarding the here-after…

Luke is the only Gospel writer that has this parable from Jesus. It is a story which indicates Jesus’ view of what “life after death” is like. He contrasts the traditional Jewish heaven (where the righteous are gathered by the angels to rest in peace eternally with their ancestors) over against the Greek myth of “Hades” where demons dwell and pain is suffered. (Frankly, if I were given a choice between the Hebrew Heaven and the Gentile version of Hades, I’d flee to Abraham’s bosom!)

Hades was a well-known concept in the Hellenistic world. It was where one went when the earth swallowed your body. The Hebrews’ closest parallel notion (in the Old Testament) would be “Sheol” or “the Pit” from which one never returned. Sheol was not populated in Jewish thought; it was simply a grave, a tomb. (!) For most of the time-line of the Bible, it was assumed that “dead is dead”; the idea of resurrection into a heavenly hereafter was a fairly new thought in Judaism, from only about 100 years before Jesus. The Pharisees taught it.

Jesus picked up on those two different ways of imagining life-after-death. In the parable, one character received eternal life and peace in the realm of God, at the bosom of Abraham; the other simply died, and was buried, and had no future consolation… He was in the pit; he was in Sheol, his body ended up underground like in the pagan/Gentile land of the dead -- no angels to greet him, no ancestors to hug, no nothing!

Given a choice, of course, a good Jew would want an eternity at Abraham’s bosom with heavenly angels, and not end up buried among dead Gentiles… like the rich guy does in this parable… in torment, in flames.

Since Luke was writing his Gospel for a mixed Jewish and “Gentile” audience, he portrays both of the options for the after-life. Hades is -- in Greek tradition (in their religion!) -- the end of all flesh. Period! This is where all persons went once their time on earth was done. “Abraham’s bosom” would have no relevance to Greeks & Romans… unless you counted yourself as one of the Jews. The “children of Abraham” went to Abraham’s bosom; all others went to Hades (or Hell).

So, one point Luke was making in this parable is that Christians -- believers in Jesus Christ -- whether Gentile or Jew, were inheritors of the promises made to Abraham, so long ago. They were included in the Bible’s “chosen” community… as though they were Jewish. (!) The hope for eternal life -- for resurrection into God’s heaven… in fact, any comfort beyond the grave -- was not provided in Gentile religion! (Period!) It was not available from Hades, but resurrection was anticipated by the Jews.

So, one significant point of Christian faith was a matter of religious hope in the afterlife. We who believe and follow Jesus can hope to go where Lazarus went! (Hallelujah!)

The real challenge in this story, however, is for us to discover by what criteria one was rewarded with everlasting life in heaven -- like every “good” Jew anticipated for them-selves -- & not be “sent packing” to Hades like an unbeliever !

First, let’s look at the character in Jesus’ parable who makes it into heaven: Lazarus. He is poor, hungry, a beggar -- a sick beggar at that, covered with sores -- lying at the gate of a rich man’s house. I doubt that his Excellency Theophilus (to whom Luke sent his original manuscript) would find Lazarus appealing. He is the ultimate outsider, a real loser! And yet, we know this beggar’s name.

This is the only parable in all the Gospels in which Jesus gives a character a name. (!) He is “Lazarus.” In Hebrew “El-Azar” means “God helps.”

It’s kind of ironic, don’t you think? God doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job of helping poor Lazarus!

God may have been keeping an eye on the poor man, as God is said to have God’s eye on each & every sparrow, but Lazarus wasn’t reaping much benefit from that. (!) Maybe sending dogs over to lick the beggar’s open, running sores clean again was therapeutic (yuck!), but Lazarus probably thought that the dogs were considering having him for dinner!

“El-Azar” -- God helps. Maybe that’s what the rich man was thinking, every time he saw the beggar: “Let God help him.” The rich guy certainly didn’t! (!) He could have; Lazarus was lying right there, underfoot, at his gate! But he didn’t.

That’s the second character in the parable: the un-named rich man.

For all outward appearance -- dressed in purple and fine linens, feasting sumptuously every day! -- the rich man had it made in the shade… livin’ the life o’ Riley. Of the two, he’s the one who probably had some clout in the community. He had r.e.s.p.e.c.t. --- was respected for his wealth, his looks, his conspicuous consumption, his designer wardrobe, his gated housing, and all the other accoutrements of “the good life.”

Like the rich farmer in one of Jesus’ other parables (Luke 12:16-19), he could say to himself: “Self, you’ve got ample goods laid up in store for many years to come. Relax. Eat, drink, and be merry.”

He had to call himself “Self” because this man has no name in the parable. (!) Whereas we know Lazarus by name, we don’t know this guy.(!) As rich and powerful as he was in his day, he’s a nobody to us nowadays. I guess being well-dressed and well-fed, living in a nice house, the rich man could be any of us, if we’re lucky enough. When you stop to think of it, according to the world’s standards, anonymity should have been the beggar’s fate.

If you went to the library, you could easily find a list of the 100 most influential people, or the most powerful (The President, or Angela Merker, Former Presidents Barack Obama, George Bush, Jimmy Carter, or Desmond Tutu). You could find the 100 hottest stars in Hollywood (Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Hilary Swank, Leonardo DiCaprio). You could find a list of the 100 richest people in America (Bill Gates, Steve Forbes, the Koch brothers, Warren Buffet), America’s Top 100 High Schools, even (I kid you not!) the 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America (Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Brian McLaren, T.D. Jakes)

But you would be hard put to find a list of the poorest one hundred people in the country.