In Luke 16:19-31 we see a powerful situation of role reversal. The world is turned upside-down-or rather, right side up. Mary sang about a situation like this in the Magnificat. The poor are filled with good things and the rich are sent away hungry. The powerful are brought down and the lowly are lifted up.
The Pharisees thought they were entitled. They had the strange idea that money was deserved. Money was a sign that they were blessed by God, and poverty was the result of God’s curse. Jesus said that this idea was false. All of us are stewards of what we have, and we are to use it to bless others, to bring life, to bring health and hope and joy. In contrast, the mention of crumbs, sores, and dogs made Lazarus a nobody in the eyes of the Pharisees. They saw such things as proof of divine disfavor. They saw such people as not only unclean, but also hated by God.
Jesus didn’t question how the rich man got his money or that he had it. The rich man wasn’t even necessarily a bad man. The rich man might have been a deeply caring man who was dismayed by unemployment and inflation figures, or he might have been a generous donor to charitable causes. Regardless of whatever else he was, in this story he was blind to the person in need who was sitting outside his gate. He was sentenced to eternal damnation for his casual indifference to the person right at his door.
Are the two men in this story real, or is this story a parable? If a parable, then it is the only one Jesus told in which one of the characters has a name. The text said that Lazarus laid at the rich man’s gate, but the Greek term conveys far more intensity, literally meaning that he was “thrown down” at the gate. His friends would bring him there every morning, dump him at the gate, and then go on their way. Despite his terrible circumstances, Lazarus trusted God.
As a poor Jew, Lazarus would not have been buried in a tomb. He may have been placed in the potter’s field-land often used to bury poor people. More likely, Lazarus was not buried at all but taken to the edge of the city and thrown on the dung heap of Gehenna, where the city’s garbage was burned. By contrast, the rich man, with all of his wealth, probably had a magnificent funeral.
The Bible clearly states that all people, created in the image of the eternal God, will be alive somewhere forever-either in the presence of Almighty God, enjoying endless fellowship with him, or in the torment of hell. These are the only two possibilities.
On earth, perhaps less that 20 metres stood between these two men-one at the gate and the other inside the mansion-yet in eternity the two were separated by a great, impassable gulf. People do not get a second chance after death. Humans have one precious life-a wonderful stewardship bestowed by God. The rich man had the resources to “uplift” Lazarus and the entire community but was insensitive and uncaring. Perhaps he saw his wealth as a matter of entitlement and effort and that the beggar was poor because of laziness or lack of initiative. The rich man’s failure to see and hear, to empathize, created a gulf that lasted into eternity.
There is a great chasm between the rich man and Lazarus in death because there was a great chasm between them in life. The rich man could have crossed the chasm in life any time he entered or left his home and saw someone who was sick and hungry. The rich man was condemned for ignoring the great gulf between rich and poor and not acting. He should have learned a lesson from the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Being rich toward God and having treasure in heaven is about selling possessions and distributing wealth to the poor. After he met Jesus, Zaccheus gave half of his possessions to the poor and repaid anyone he defrauded four times as much according to Luke 19:1-10. The early believers sold their possessions and gave the proceeds to the needy according to Acts 2:45 and Acts 4:32-34.
Even in death the rich man showed contempt for Lazarus. He wanted Abraham to send Lazarus to him with a drop of water. Then he wants Lazarus to be a messenger to his five brothers back home to warn them what awaits them. The rich man is so insensitive that even when he is tormented as a result of his previous callousness, he still does not see how he missed Lazarus. The poor man continues to be insignificant and the rich man doesn’t even address Lazarus directly, and Lazarus is not some anonymous butler to run the rich man’s errands in the next world.
Arrogance often accompanies wealth. The rich man was as arrogant in Hades as he was on earth. Christ described hell as a place of unspeakable torment. The rich man assumed that he could summon service. Perhaps that was part of his sin. Lazarus did not complain about his state in the world, and he did not gloat when he made it to heaven. Lazarus accepted whatever came as from God’s hand.
Jesus said there is no hope for the brothers. Anyone who is familiar with the Old Testament has missed the message if he or she is not prompted to care for a beggar at the gate. The rich man’s concern about his brothers was a form of self-justification. Miracles never make anyone believe. Romans 1:16 states that the gospel itself is the power of God unto salvation. Because unbelief is at heart a moral problem rather than an intellectual problem, no amount of evidence will ever turn unbelief to faith. Only the Word of God can make this change.
We are the five brothers of the rich man. The parable makes it clear that we have been warned about our urgent situation. We have Moses and the prophets, we have the Scriptures, we have the lessons about God’s care for the poor and hungry. We even have someone who has risen from the dead. The question is: Will we see? Will we heed the warning before it is too late?
The gate at the rich man’s home is a stop sign. It tells Lazarus and everyone else that they are not welcome. The gates tell them to stay out and not to bother the rich man or his way of life. The rich man wanted to remain separated from other people.
Jesus’ primary objective in this story was not to teach the details of the afterlife but to expose how the Pharisees were misusing the life they already had-an ostentatious, outward religion that had no lasting, inward reality. The rich man, selfish and oblivious, sinned when he looked at Lazarus and had no pity in his heart. Jesus teaches us that all of our lives are caught up with each other in ways that have consequences both now and in eternity. Jesus teaches that the more we have, the more responsibility we bear for society. Wealthy people like the rich man are bound to support the poor.
This parable has been used by God to change people’s lives, and God used this story to change the life of Dr. Albert Schweitzer. Albert Schweitzer was a man from England and he was enormously gifted. He had degrees in music, medicine, and theology; he could do almost everything and anything. One day, Albert Schweitzer came to church and heard a sermon preached about the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and his life was changed. For him, the rich man was Europe; the poor man was Africa, and he knew that he had to give his life to the poorest of people in central Africa. Soon he left the safety of England for the unknowns of the heart of Africa, and he gave his heart, soul, time, and abilities to the poorest of the poor in central Africa.
Not once did the rich man own up to his own mistreatment of Lazarus. Not once did the rich man repent. Not once did the rich man even talk to Lazarus, but he knows Lazarus’ name. That indicates that the rich man knew all along about this poor, suffering man who laid at his gates, hungry and covered in sores.
Do we have people who can be prophets to us, who can convict us, rebuke us, teach us and point us to a life that is worth living? The answer is yes. There are many people like Lazarus around us. We have to ask ourselves if they can help us. The rich man begged Abraham to send Lazarus to help him, but Abraham explained that Lazarus could not help the rich man. The rich man had a chance to learn from Lazarus and he refused. We have a chance to learn from the Lazaruses of our world.
All of us are both Lazarus and the rich man. We depend on God. We can’t by our own reason and strength believe in Jesus or come to Him. We can’t please God for ourselves. Our culture, our society, every aspect of our lives tells us that God doesn’t matter. It tells us that enjoying life, having fun, partying, and filling our homes with goods until we need public storage facilities to store them are the only things that matter. We are all the rich man because we are content with our lives, indulgence, wanting to move up. Our closets are filled with clothes we hoard while others have little or none.
Places in God’s kingdom are not given out according to what we have, but according to what we give away. Solidarity and love count. Those who made names for themselves but didn’t care enough to share their wealth have no name any more. Those who could not achieve anything in life have been given names of honour. Believing in the name of Jesus is only the beginning of faith. It calls for action. It calls for healing, for our participation in God’s creation.
We are called on to confront the reality that every day we pass by people who are in desperate need and we walk right by. Jesus warns us that our time is short. Our opportunities to serve the poor don’t last forever. Our economic choices shape our deepest identities and our eternal destinies. Jesus is inviting us to repent of our ignorance of God and our ignorance of the suffering of the world and step through the gate of knowledge and radical love into the kingdom of God, where God’s will for justice and peace is done on earth as in heaven.
The choice to hear the cries of the poor and to observe our own attitudes and responses occurs all the time. It happens when we check our news feeds online or pick up the newspaper. It occurs when we pay our bills and respond to the worthy causes that present themselves to us. It occurs in the use of time and talent. Will the use of our gifts and resources bring greater or lesser beauty of experience to the world?
- Jeremiah, David: The Jeremiah Study Bible: New King James Version (Nashville, TN: Worthy Publishing; 2013; p. 1419)
- Larsen, B. & Ogilvie, L.J.: The Preacher’s Commentary Series, Vol. 26: Luke (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc.; 1983; pp. 243-246)
- Stanley, C.F.: The Charles F. Stanley Life Principles Bible: New King James Version (Nashville, TN: Nelson Bibles; 2005)
- MacArthur, J.F. Jr.: The MacArthur Study Bible: New American Standard Version (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers; 2006)
- Barbara Rossing, “Commentary on Luke 16:19-31.” Retrieved from www.workingpreacher.org
- The Rev. Janet Hunt, “God is My Help: Seeing Lazarus.” Retrieved from www.dancingwiththeword.org
- Lois Malcolm, “Commentary on Luke 16:19-31.” Retrieved from www.workingpreacher.org
- Daniel Clendenin, Ph.D., “Poverty Reduction-Of the Soul: The Parable of Dives and Lazarus.” Retrieved from www.journeywithjesus,.net
- The Rev. Dr. Chris Tuttle, “Blindness and a Vision of Community.” Retrieved from www.day1.org
- The Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, “The Sin of Ignorance.” Retrieved from www.day1.org
- The Rev. Edward Markquart, “What Are You Doing Lazarus?” Retrieved from http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_c_the_rich_man_and_lazarus.htm
- Jude Siciliano, OP, “First Impressions, 26th Sunday -C-, September 25, 2022.” Retrieved from email@example.com
- “Another Kind of Gate.” Retrieved from firstname.lastname@example.org
- Bruce Epperly, “The Adventurous Lectionary-Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost-September 25, 2022.” Retrieved from www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/burceepperly/
- Chelsey Harmon, “Luke 16:19-31 Commentary.” Retrieved from https://cepreaching.org/authors/chelsey-harmon/