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.

And if you did find such a list, would you know -- or even care to know -- any of those names (as we do know the wealthy and the powerful and the beautiful celebrities)?

Jesus keeps the rich man nameless, but gives the beggar a name. Lazarus. El-Azar -- God helps … And, in the end, God did help. Lazarus was saved and comforted after all his suffering was over.

Now, it’s the other one who is in torment, lost forever into the clutches of pagan Hades, in the empty darkness of the Pit. The reversal of fortune (in the hereafter) was entirely unexpected!

You see, most wealthy, powerful, influential, beautiful people assumed that the kingdom of heaven would reflect the blessings they have enjoyed on earth. As Billie Holliday used to sing: “Them that’s got, gets more; them that’s not, shall lose. So the Bible says, but it still makes news.” I guess Billie got it wrong, too.

Whether we’ve got or not, this life is not a direct parallel experience to God’s heaven. We all might be surprised at who gets in and who’s left out; who’s got angels… and who’s just got dirt. During their lifetimes, all good things came to one; while to the other, in like manner, only evil things. In heaven, all things were going to be righted… cosmic balance, harmony.

The rich man is unaccustomed to suffering, but he is quite accustomed to giving orders. So he says to Father Abraham, “Have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water, for I am in anguish in this flame.” But Father Abraham says that it’s too late to show mercy, after one is dead.

The time for that was while both he and Lazarus were alive, able to exchange good wishes & good things in mutual good will. (!) Mercy is possible at any time in every life, but (says Father Abraham), there is a great uncrossable chasm fixed at death. It’s too late when you’re dead to be of any help to any-one anymore.

Well, this reversal of fortune is hard to take! The rich man is feeling sorry for himself -- which is understandable. Nobody told him that heaven was not going to be a continuation of his sumptuous extravagance. He thinks it isn’t right! The rich man had always equated prosperity with blessing; power with righteousness; wealth with God’s favor; “as it is on earth, so may it be also in heaven” was his daily prayer as he enjoyed his daily bread. It doesn’t seem right for him to discover, after he’s dead, that God had a different set of values… and that he had not been attending to them!

So the rich man decides to complain about the manage-ment of the afterlife.

It didn’t seem fair for Abraham to treat him so badly, when he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong by ignoring Lazarus… and he was, after all, simply enjoying his own hard-earned fortune! Maybe he can get heaven to do a better job of communicating God’s values to the rest of the world, who might otherwise -- blissfully ignorant of their neighbors in need (or of their opportunity to help them) -- find themselves similarly left out of heaven.

He thinks of his family, his brothers who are still alive. “I beg you, Father Abraham, to send Lazarus to my father’s house, to warn my five brothers, lest they also come into this place of torment.”

Just a moment.

Lazarus had already been “sent” to his house. (!) He’d been lying there at the rich man’s gate, lo, these many years! Did any of them care a wit about it then? What makes you think they’ll listen to Lazarus NOW if they didn’t even notice him before? Did they not step over Lazarus many a time, coming and going? And what difference did it make? Not a crumb fell from their table to feed Lazarus… and the dogs on the curb beside him. (!) And, who knows, there are probably some other beggars at their gate at this very moment … and do they take any notice? Not on your life!

“No, not as a beggar. Get a clue, Abraham. If he goes back as a beggar, of course my brothers won’t care what he says. You’ve got to send him back as somebody important, someone with clout. Influence, you know -- like Oprah, or the President, or Bill Gates; you know, a celebrity like Leonardo DiCaprio or Tom Cruise; maybe another Billy Graham or the Pope! Power, you know. That’s what gets them! Then they’ll take notice.”

But who is more powerful, more influential, more important to the Jewish people than Moses!?

The people listen to the words of Moses every week on the Sabbath. They take their cases to the judges who sit on Moses’ seat in the Temple. They pray the daily prayers that Moses taught, obey the priesthood that Moses began, and live by his Torah Laws… don’t they? They know what Moses says about the poor and the needy, the widows & the orphans, don’t they? (!) So, friend, it’s not a matter of not KNOWING, it’s a matter of not WANTING to do what they know is true.

So far as I can tell from this story, God was trying to help the rich man with his problem long before he died -- long before he was even born, for that matter. (!) The legacy of justice and compassion is deep in the Bible. Jesus simply highlighted it with stories like this…

… made it into God’s primary criteria for salvation (“what you do to the least of these, my brethren, you do to me” he says in Matthew 25:40). Jesus then dismissed most of the other stuff in their religious tradition that got in the way of this compassion.

God was helping the rich man understand the errors of his self-consuming ways by placing Lazarus every day in his path, where the rich man would literally have to step over him as he left his house. The rich man even knew the beggar’s name, Lazarus. But he chose not to care! That was on him.

God was giving the man the opportunity to practice the Law & the prophets every day, to show mercy and compassion, to make a real difference in someone’s life for the good -- and he wouldn’t see it. Not to his dying day!

Or, if he saw it, he didn’t care. Or, if he cared, he didn’t act on it. In every case, the rich man failed. His eyes were blind to the need of his neighbor, and his ability to help. His heart was hard. The rich man was dead long before he died, but he just didn’t know it.

To see what is right in front of us may be the first step toward repentance. Love of money blinds us to the love of people. This man apparently loved the riches and the linens and the sumptuous meals and his home more than he loved the neighbor who was just outside his gate…

The rich man didn’t realize how narrow his life had become -- how self-centered, family-centered, “in-grown” his focus had become. Most likely, his life felt good to him! How could he imagine that he was playing the part of evil… like an unbelieving Gentile?

But it was evil inasmuch as his neighbor (in need) meant nothing to him. (In that, the rich man was a bit of a “narcissist.”) He didn’t care whether Lazarus lived or died. It didn’t concern him whether others were happy or sad, whether they were surviving or suffering. That lack of concern (apathy) is sin. Except for his brothers (and the like), the rich man was living without love for other people. He found a substitute love in material goods: in food, clothes...

Now, we know that money itself is not the problem. (!) It’s the love of money that is the root of so much evil. Money is really nothing in itself except a medium of exchange. But we use money to express something else: our values.

It seems to me that the love of money is actually expressing the love of self, the love of ease, the love of material things, and the love of power. Money is about influence, clout, & status. It’s primary value is love of self.

All that I’ve said presumes that we identify ourselves with the rich man, for whom the reversal in heaven was a surprise.

If we allow ourselves to identify with Lazarus, instead -- to feel our poverty, our spiritual hunger; to see ourselves ignored, helpless to pull ourselves up -- we won’t have to wait for a prophet to rise from the dead to tell us how people ought to behave! It’s enough to know the Golden Rule: “Do unto others what you would have them do to you.”

In other words, if we can see in even the most un-lovely person we meet a part of God’s great humanity, a person for whom Christ came, and a reminder of God’s diversity of beauty, we (too) may be saved.

For, wasn’t Jesus poor, in some ways? He was power-less, homeless. He lived from the generosity of others. And he, ultimately, became the Suffering One.

Jesus lays himself out at every front door so that you & I have to walk over him. Will we notice him? Will we care? Inasmuch as you do it to the least of these…

In the July 3 issue of The Christian Century magazine (page 33), environmental activist/theologian Bill McKibben puts it like this: “The rapidly rising temperature of the planet and the rapidly rising inequality on the planet are symptoms of a deep problem, a problem I would name as hyper-individualism. That’s what has allowed the richest and most powerful to feel as if they have no need for solidarity with the rest of us. That approach to life has gotten us in enormous trouble, and the only thing that can get us out of that trouble is solidarity, the kind that builds social movements and speaks truth to power.”

This parable is a challenge for us to engage our neighbors as human beings -- as deserving of “Abraham’s embrace” as you & I are! -- regardless of our social status, wealth, and comforts. To believe is to care; to care is to do. May we find solidarity with others, especially those who are in need, for whom we can make a real difference for the good.


Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page