Stories Jesus Told: The Rich Man and Lazarus

Scripture: Luke 16:19-31

Once upon a time there lived a very rich man.  He was so rich that he only wore the finest bespoke robes colored with only the most expensive of dyes, and all the tailors clamored to be the one who made them.  He was so rich that he ate seven-course meals, not just on special occasions but every day, prepared by chefs schooled in the most modern techniques and laden with expensive spices.  There were always leftovers from all that food, but the rich man never ate leftovers.  He was so rich that one room in his house was the size of most other people’s houses, and of course he had many possessions in his house to protect, which he did with heavy, hand-wrought gates that a servant had to open.

Some looked upon this man and his great riches and said that he must be a very good man for God to have rewarded him like this.  They knew that the Scriptures said that “With [wisdom] [come] riches and honor, enduring wealth and prosperity” (Proverbs 8:18); that “the Lord will take delight in prospering you…when you obey the Lord your God by observing his commandments and decrees” (Deuteronomy 30:9-10); that “the Lord delights in the prosperity of his servant” (Psalm 35:27). They thought he must be a man who was very righteous.

Some looked upon this man and his wealth and said that he must be a very bad man to have acquired all this money and all these possessions.  They knew that there were warnings in Scripture for those who exploited the poor for their own gain, who “bought the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals” (Amos 8:6).  They knew that the Scriptures said not to trust too much in wealth (Psalm 49), and here was a man who clearly trusted in his wealth.  They thought he must be a man who was very wicked.

But the truth was the rich man was neither very righteous or very wicked.  All things considered, he was what we might call a fairly decent guy.  He loved his family, and was hospitable to his friends.  He was generally honest.  He employed a lot of people to make all those robes and cook all those meals, and he didn’t treat them badly.  He was a patron of the arts and humanities.  That sort of thing.

Nearby, there lived a very poor man.  When I say nearby, I mean in the dusty street just outside those heavy, hand-wrought gates.  The poor man’s name was Lazarus, which means “God helps,” but no one ever helped Lazarus.  Lazarus was so poor you could see his ribs because he didn’t have anything to eat.  He was so poor he didn’t have any way to dress the sores that covered his body.  He was so poor that all he could do was lie outside the rich man’s gates and hope for some scrap of leftover food that he never got.

Some people looked upon Lazarus and said he must be a very bad man to have deserved this punishment from God.  They said that God was a just God and that bad people got what was coming to them.  They could quote Scripture for this, too—Psalm 1, Psalm 37, Psalm 92.  They said that if God ordains prosperity for those who follow his commandments, he must ordain poverty for those who disobey.  They said that it is laziness and idleness that lead to poverty.

Some looked upon Lazarus and said he must be very blessed, for they knew from Scripture that God draws near to the poor, and they figured God must be very near to Lazarus.  “Blessed are the poor,” they had heard someone say, but Lazarus thought that was an odd sort of blessing.

The truth was that Lazarus, like the rich man, was neither very bad nor very good, and he certainly didn’t feel very blessed.

The rich man and Lazarus lived very nearby to each other, but they lived in very different worlds.

But death, they say, is the great equalizer, and as all people do, both the rich man and Lazarus died.  Only, they weren’t very equal even in death, for the rich man had an extravagant funeral complete with professional mourners, as the rich people did in those days, and Lazarus – well, if he was buried at all, it was certainly unceremoniously.

But after that, everything changed.

Lazarus, the poor man, was lifted on the wings of angels and brought to be with Abraham, the father of his faith.  He reclined on Abraham’s bosom, like the disciple Jesus loved would later do with Jesus at the Last Supper, at the feast that God sets for all of God’s people at the end of days.  After years of starving for scraps, poor Lazarus got a feast of his own, better than any feast the rich man had ever known.

The rich man was brought to a place of suffering where flames licked at his skin, and all he could do was hope for a drop of water to provide some relief, but the water never came.  It was worse suffering than Lazarus ever experienced on that dusty street.

If they could have known what became of the rich man and Lazarus, surely there would have been some people who nodded knowingly.  They could have seen this coming.  They knew, after all, that the Kingdom of God tends to turn things on their head.  “He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty,” a woman of God named Mary once sang, echoing her ancestor Hannah in the Jewish Scriptures.  And that certain teacher who said “Blessed are the poor,” also followed it up with “Woe to you who are rich.”  Woe, indeed, to the rich man.  Of course, it would be a hard choice for any of us to make, if it is indeed our choice, whether we’d rather be like Lazarus in this life or the rich man in the next.

Still others would have said that it didn’t seem fair.  The rich man, after all, wasn’t so different from you or from me, even if he was much richer.  He was a decent fellow who never hurt anyone, including Lazarus.  His sin, if we can call it that, was one of those treacherous sins of omission.  He wasn’t mean to Lazarus.  He just ignored him.  He just looked past him.  Perhaps once in a while he wished that such a poor man wouldn’t lie right outside his gate – property values, you know, and there was a kind of stench when the rich man walked by, and sometimes it made things hard with the neighbors, and there was the question of security. But in what he considered an act of benign neglect, the rich man let him be.  After a while, Lazarus became almost invisible to him.

But anyway, it’s not like it was the rich man’s job to singlehandedly end poverty and suffering in Jerusalem, or anything like that.  He couldn’t have, even if he wanted to.  He was very rich, but he wasn’t that rich, and besides, it wasn’t just about a redistribution of wealth; structural changes were needed to make things better for people like Lazarus.  The rich man was just one person.

Still, Lazarus was at his gate, and he didn’t have to singlehandedly end poverty to just notice Lazarus.

Fair or not, their fates were what they were.  There was a great chasm between them – but then, there always had been, right?

From the flames the rich man looked up and saw poor Lazarus feasting with Abraham, just as the rich man imagined he himself would someday do.  “Father Abraham,” he called – for he was a child of Abraham too – “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, just to ease my suffering a little bit.”

Does it make things better or worse that he knew Lazarus’s name?  Is it a mitigating factor, proof that he didn’t ignore the poor man quite as much as his fate would imply?  Or does it make it worse that the rich man knew who he was – not just a poor man, but Lazarus – and still stepped over him every single day as he came and went from his gates?  Is it better for the rich to live a life where they don’t encounter the poor at all – or a life where they ignore the ones that they do?

Father Abraham just sadly shook his head and said “Child” – for this man was his child – “It doesn’t work like that.”

This is what you chose, he said, in not quite so many words.  You got riches in that life.  Lazarus gets them in this one.

Besides, it’s not possible to cross between these two places and besides, it didn’t exactly strengthen his case that he still spoke of Lazarus in the third person, about him rather than to him.

Still, a person wonders, if it had been possible, would Lazarus have done it?  Would you, if you were in his place?

“Father Abraham,” cried the rich man, “then send Lazarus to my five brothers, to warn them, so that they don’t end up like me.”

But Father Abraham smiled ruefully.  “Your brothers have what they need,” he said.  They have read the Torah.  They have heard the prophets proclaimed in the synagogue.  They know the words of Deuteronomy 15:  “I command you to be openhanded to toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.”  They knew the words of Isaiah 58: “Is not this the fast I ask of you…to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house?”

What more could the brothers need to hear to change their minds and, perhaps, not ignore those in need outside their own gates?

“No, but surely,” said the rich man, “surely if someone came back from the dead to tell them…”

But if they didn’t listen to Moses and Isaiah, why would they listen to Lazarus?  Why, in fact, would they listen to Jesus?

Some might say that if Lazarus had gone then everything might have been different.  The words we read in the Scriptures can become just words, after all, blessings and commands we stop really hearing after a while, things we justify away when they’re not convenient for us, or they don’t fit in with our worldview.   And the same words can be so ambiguous, sometimes, with one verse saying one thing and one passage saying another.  Who among us hasn’t just wished for a clear message from God to knock us over the head and tell us exactly what God’s will for our lives is, now?  Surely we, and they, would have our eyes and ears open if that really came to pass.

But some might say that those signs from God we always wish for are even more subject to doubt than the words we learned in Sunday School or read in Bible Study or hear proclaimed from the pulpit.  Some might say that it’s not that we don’t know how God wants us to respond to others in need – it’s that too often we just don’t want to do it, no matter how the message comes, no matter the ultimate consequences.

I suppose the end of the story, then, is up to us.  What is the fate of the rich man’s five brothers?

Will they see the poor neighbors who live so close to them?

Will they see the ones who live far away?

Will the words they know in their hearts be enough?

Will they be willing to give up some riches and security in this life lest the tables be turned in the next?

Will they accept the grace God offers them to live differently?

Will they?

Will we?


[With thanks and credit to Amy Jill Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus for several of the questions asked in this sermon.]

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