Gospel: Luke 16:19-31
Jesus tells a parable in which the poor one is “lifted up” and the rich one is “sent away empty.” Jesus makes it clear that this ethic of merciful reversal is not new but is as old as Moses and the prophets.
[Jesus said:] 19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He 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.’ 25But 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. 26Besides 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.’ 27He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He 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.’ ”
Lazarus is the only character given a name in Jesus’ parables – emphasizing his importance, his value. The rich man, while he had a home, nice clothes, and good food – is not named. This comes at the end of a series of parables about wealth and greed, lostness and foundness, and humility and discipleship. Jesus sets up these two men opposite one another in life – and then after death.
The Rich Man was covered in expensive luxurious fabrics. Lazarus’ skin was covered in sores. The Rich Man feasted continuously and sumptuously – while Lazarus was continuously hungry. The rich man didn’t even care enough to toss him crumbs, but the stray dogs in the street had compassion. Or something. Lazarus, who presumably had nobody to bury him, was carried away by angels. The Rich Man was buried. From Hades, the rich man can see heaven, Father Abraham comforting Lazarus.
Now we get caught up in the Heaven and Hell imagery in this parable, which reinforces a problematic stereotypical view of an angry God who sends people to burn. “Here we run into several linguistic problems with the biblical text. There are two greek words that we often associate with hell – Hades and Gehenna. Hades, like the Hebrew Sheol, is a term for the shadowy, gloomy place of the dead. The Bible doesn’t speculate about the condition or judgement of such souls in this place. On the other hand, Jesus also uses the word Gehenna, a real place, a smoking, stinking garbage pit outside Jerusalem. Jesus talks about Gehenna to describe a place of suffering and torment for those whose unbelief separates them from God. These two images come together in this parable which uses the word Hades.
But the Rich Man’s suffering is his own making. The chasm between the two is a direct metaphor for the distance between the two men in life. The Rich Man, who seems to know Lazarus name, and by extension know him, allowed this person to be treated as less than human. He would have seen him each day at his very doorstep, but ignored the need, separating himself from Lazarus – and separating himself from God in the process.
Abraham reminds the rich man that his siblings should listen to the prophets. And what have the prophets been saying?? Let’s revisit the last couple weeks of lessons. A few weeks ago Isaiah promised the people that if you “offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,” Both you and your society shall prosper. Moses reminded the people to love God and walk in God’s ways. Amos warns those who would cheat the poor and trample the needy that God remembers their actions, and today warns those who choose to relax on their couches rather than concern themselves with the ruins of Joseph. Elsewhere in scripture the prophet Ezekiel reminds the people of the real sin of Sodom – “she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” The psalms and proverbs are full of praise to God for his mercy and exhortation to the people to show that same mercy to those in need. And the things that separate us from our neighbors, will be the things that separate us from God.
They should listen to the prophets, says Abraham – but the rich man, still seeing Lazarus as less than himself, demands that Lazarus go serve him and serve his family. Send him to my Father’s house, the Rich Man says – as though he is in a position to be directing traffic. And then he argues with Father Abraham, as if he is in a position to negotiate – no they won’t listen to the prophets, send Lazarus back from the dead. Abraham’s response prefigures both the resurrection AND that people still won’t listen, still won’t see what’s right in front of them, still won’t take hold of the life that really is life in service to their neighbor.
This is an apocalyptic parable. It is meant to serve as a wake up call, to change your ways, to see what is infant of us. We are the brothers the rich man wants to warn. The gap that separates some people in the world from others can be bridged because the chasm is of our own making. When we call each other by name – when we truly see each other – when we trust that Christ has already broken down the dividing wall of sin between us, and believe that all humanity is a child of God and therefore a brother and a sister. “Perhaps this is why Jesus — our vulnerable Servant King — crosses over the great chasm again and again and again, offering us a way forward. A way of selflessness. A way of sacrifice. A way of losing our lives in order to gain them.” (Debie Thomas, https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2374-the-great-chasm) A way to take hold of the life that really is life.