Seeing Lazarus

  Luke 16:19-31  

In the earlier part of chapter 16 Jesus has been teaching about materialism and money. He tells the story of the Unjust Steward (16:1-9) ending with this rather surprising statement,

“Use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (vs. 9).

In other words, material wealth is temporary, use it with an eye to eternity.”

He goes on to talk about stewardship:

“Whoever is trustworthy with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So, if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?” (vss. 10, 11).

Maybe the reason you haven’t been blessed spiritually is because you haven’t used your money properly.

He concludes with,

“No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (vs. 13).

Verse 14 says, “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.” Our parable for this morning is part of Jesus response to the Pharisee’s love of money and lack of care for the poor.

A parable is a story intended to convey a spiritual truth. The story doesn't have to be about real people or even real situations (think of a camel passing through the eye of a needle). But to achieve its teaching goal, a parable must be striking and memorable, so that as the story is retold and remembered, the spiritual truth is reinforced again and again. The hearers must be able to imagine the situation.

I say that because I think it's important to distinguish the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus from a divinely inspired portrayal of heaven. If you compare, for example, the portrayal of heaven presented by the lush word pictures in the Book of Revelation, it seems much different than the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

Many scholars believe that Jesus was using as his pattern a popular Jewish folk tale in that day about a rich man and poor man whose lots after death are completely reversed. The story doesn't have to be true in all its particulars but the popular mind can relate to its stereotyped characters -- rich man, poor man, and Father Abraham.

An example: A preacher and a New York cab driver appear at the pearly gates. St. Peter speaks to the cabbie first, “Welcome to heaven! Take this silk robe and golden staff and enjoy your eternity.” The preacher steps up. Peter says, “Welcome to heaven! Take this flannel robe and wooden staff and enjoy your eternity.” The preacher protests, “Wait a minute. Why did that cab driver get a silk robe and golden staff while I, a preacher, was given only a flannel robe and wooden staff?” St. Peter answers, “Well, my son, when you preached, people slept; but when he drove, people prayed.”

As I told the joke you didn’t stop me and shout, “But that’s not how it is!” You’ve heard jokes like it before and you understood that I wasn’t trying to paint an accurate picture of heaven and judgment – I was telling a joke, and you just waited for the punchline.

Jesus isn't trying to make a joke here -- the subject is deadly serious. But neither do I think that Jesus is trying to teach his disciples the details of the after-life in this parable. I believe he is using a popular story genre to make a spiritual point.

 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day (vs. 19).

First, Jesus paints a quick portrait of the rich man; a very, very rich man. Purple dye was extremely expensive, obtained from the shellfish murex. A purple wool mantle was costly. A finely-woven linen tunic was considered the height of luxury. Jesus pictures a rich man living opulently. The rich man is not named, though he is sometimes called Dives, the Latin word for "rich man."

“At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores” (vss. 20-21).

Jesus contrasts the rich man with a beggar, the poorest of the poor. The beggar's name is Lazarus, the only character in any of Jesus' parables who is given a name. Lazarus is the Greek form of the Hebrew “Eleazar”, which means "He (whom) God helps”, which will become evident as the story progresses. He is lying at a suitable place for begging, next to the rich man's gate, probably placed there by friends. He is sick, as evidenced by his numerous ulcerated sores. And he is hungry, longing to eat the scraps from the rich man's table. In those days, they had no napkins, so people would clean their hands with scraps of bread which were then thrown under the table to be eaten by the dogs.

The dogs that lick his sores are not pets. In the First Century Middle East, dogs are considered unclean, wild street dogs that scavenge the garbage, and then nose around the poor man's sores. It is not a picture of comfort but of abject misery.

This is the point where things change.

"The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried." (vs. 22)

Jesus pictures angels carrying Lazarus to Abraham. NIV "side" is Greek kolpos, "bosom, breast, chest." The ancient banqueting practice of reclining at the table would have one's head on someone's breast. So, this puts Lazarus in the place of honor at the right hand of Abraham at the banquet in the next world. The poor man's fortunes are reversed.

The rich man, too, experiences a reversal.

"In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.'" (16:23-24)

The rich man is in Hades. The Greek word, Hades is the place of the dead, and in Jewish thought, the intermediate place of the dead prior to the final judgment. Though Greek gehenna is usually used to refer to the place of final punishment, in Jewish literature torment can be a feature of the intermediate state as well as of the final state of the wicked.

He is in torment. He is parched with thirst, his tongue is hot and dry, and he is suffering. The source of the suffering is fire.

The rich man asks Abraham to order Lazarus to relieve his suffering (16:24), and later to send a message to his brothers (16:27). Even in death, he views Lazarus as lesser than himself, someone who can be ordered around at his whim.

“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us’” (vss. 25-26).

Abraham explains the situation and describes a great, impassable chasm that prevents anyone from passing from either side to the other. In other words, there is no hope of moving from torment to the blessings of Abraham's bosom, or of Lazarus helping the rich man. The die has been cast; the outcome is irreversible.

“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead’” (vss. 27-31).

Jesus concludes the parable in a curious way. The rich man wants Lazarus to warn his brothers of the dangers of hell. But Abraham says that if they won't heed the truth that they have -- Moses and the Prophets (i.e., the Old Testament revelation), then they wouldn't believe even if someone rises from the dead. In the context, the rich man proposes that Lazarus rise from the dead to warn his brothers. But Luke's readers (and we) will immediately think of Jesus, and how even his resurrection was not enough to sway hardened hearts from their opposition to the truth that was clearly before them.

The rich man knows from personal experience that his family do not take seriously what the law and the prophets say. Something more is needed.

So, what’s the point? Of course, Jesus is saying that riches don't count for anything after we die, but that isn't the thrust of this parable. I think he is making two points.

  1. Wealth without active mercy for the poor is sin.
  2. The truth we have been given in the Scriptures is sufficient to avoid damnation.

In the context, Jesus is condemning the Pharisees for their love of money but lack of mercy for the poor. Remember his comment about their scrupulous tithing?

"Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone" (Luke 11:42).

It isn't their piety that he is condemning, but what they AREN'T doing -- showing mercy to the poor, seeking justice for the downtrodden. It is ironic that the Pharisees who prided themselves on being such Bible scholars largely missed the spirit of the Old Testament -- mercy and justice.

As disciples of Jesus we should ask: What should we learn from this? Jesus, what are you saying to us today?

In a sense, the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus teaches a similar lesson to that of the Unjust Steward (16:1-9). We can use our money in a way that secures for us eternal damnation, or in a way that secures us friends in eternal habitations who will welcome us. But there's more.

William Barclay, in his Daily Study Bible Series volume on the Gospel of Luke, titles this passage, "The Punishment of the Man Who Never Noticed." Lazarus was at his door and he didn't notice. Who is at our door that we don't notice? Who needs our help that we can help, but whom we either cannot see or refuse to see?

The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats teaches a similar lesson.

"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'

They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'

He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." (Matthew 25:41-46)

Wealth is not bad. After all, Abraham was wealthy. But wealth brings with it certain responsibilities, a certain stewardship. We will give an accounting for how we handle the wealth God has given us.

Most of us would not consider ourselves rich. But, relative to a huge slice of the world's population we are the richest of the rich. This week, while preparing for this message, I went to a website caled On that site, you can enter your annual income and see where you rank compared to the rest of the world. According to the website my income puts me in the top 1% of income in the world (actually, 0.75% richest by income and the 45,108,022nd richest person in the world). Even if you make $10,000 a year, which in America doesn't go very far, in terms of the rest of the world you're still in the top 14%. We have relative wealth. Perhaps not relative to our own culture, but relative to the global village that we can affect with our giving. We will give an accounting for the way we have used our wealth. New Testament scholar Archibald Hunter writes:

"If a man (says Jesus) cannot be humane with the Old Testament in his hand and Lazarus on his doorstep, nothing -- neither a visitant from the other world nor a revelation of the horrors of Hell -- will teach him otherwise. Such requests for signs are pure evasions."

We are Bible-believing Christians who have the benefit of the Old Testament and the New. If we don't notice and minister to the poor, what excuse will we have? In the final analysis, the rich man's punishment is not for his riches, but for his neglect of the scriptures and what they teach.

That doesn't mean we should give out of guilt or give unwisely or give to whoever cries the loudest. Instead, we are to give out of the love of God within us. Not selfishly to assuage our guilt, but selflessly to care for someone else's need.

The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is about money, all right. Money and wealth and self-centeredness. And mercy. Especially mercy.