Lectionary Reflection on The Rich Man and Lazarus
Unlike other parables we have explored, this one does not stay in the realm of first century village life. It spans this life and the next. It is realistic in its portrayal of the vast gap between rich and poor. The phenomenon of the poor waiting for crumbs at the doors of the rich is a detail taken straight from first century life. It is strange in that the reversal of fortunes it depicts contradicts the widespread belief that wealth was a sign of God’s favor and poverty a sign of sin. The story reflects the ancient belief that the righteous and the wicked can see each other after death.
It is not meant as a literal portrait of what life after death is like. It reflects the Greek notion that souls go to the underworld for punishment at death. Hades is not mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament as a place of torment. In Jewish and Christian understanding the resurrection of the dead with judgment and vindication will happen when the Messiah returns, not on the immediate death of each individual. So we have here a parable meant to illuminate truths about the kingdom of God and shed light on how we are to live this life, not a cinematographic preview of the next life.
The background of this parable is a tale from Egyptian folklore about the reversal of fates after death. It also has connections to rabbinic stories. Rabbinic sources contain 7 versions of this folktale. In Greek the name Lazaros has the same root consonants as the name Eliezer who, Genesis 15:2 tells us was a servant of Abraham. Some rabbinic tales feature Eliezer (Greek Lazaros) walking in disguise on the earth and reporting back to Abraham on how his children are observing the Torah’s prescriptions regarding the treatment of the widow, the orphan, and the poor. Lazarus is a poor beggar (16:20); he returns to Abraham’s bosom, and the rich man requests that Abraham send him as an emissary to his brothers(Luke 16:28).(John Donahue, The Gospel in Parable, 169-170)
This parable is found only in Luke. It underscores a theme expressed earlier in the Gospel (Luke 1:52). God has “put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree”. It also reflects Luke’s heart for the poor echoing his version (Luke 6:20) of Jesus’ earlier beatitude “Blessed are you who are poor (Matthew 5:3 has “poor in spirit”) because yours is the Kingdom of God.” The story is a three act play. The first act portrays the earthly contrast between the wealthy man and Lazarus. The second act describes the reversal of their conditions in the afterlife. The third act depicts the rich man’s request to Father Abraham for a sign so that those still living can avoid his torment, a request that Abraham refuses.
First century hearers of this parable would not have assumed that the rich man was evil and that the poor man was righteous. On the contrary, wealth in the ancient world was often viewed as a sign of divine favor, while poverty was viewed as evidence of sin. The rich man’s sin was not that he was rich, but that, during his earthly life, he did not even “see” Lazarus, despite his daily presence at the entrance to his home. It is interesting, however, that he knows his name. The rich man remains anonymous, but Lazarus has the distinction of being the only person given a name in any of Jesus’ parables.
The first time the rich man ever really sees Lazarus is when, from Hades “he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side” (verse 23).(Donahue, 171) In that way he is like those who pass by the man in the ditch in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. They “see” and cross the road. The Samaritan is the only one who “sees,” “has compassion,” and crosses the road to help the wounded man. The rich man, in his stepping over Lazarus, is like the priest and Levite in the Good Samaritan parable.
This sequence of seeing, having compassion, and acting is a common one in the Gospels. In Luke 7:13 Jesus “saw” the woman weeping at the death of her only son, he “had compassion for her” and brought her son to life. When the father “saw” the prodigal son “still far off… he was filled with compassion” and ran and embraced him (Luke 15:20)
Matthew and Mark repeatedly tell us that Jesus himself, when he “saw” the crowds, had compassion on them and healed, fed and taught them (Matt 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; Mark 6:34; 8:2)
In the parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:14-46, what makes some blessed is the fact that, though they didn’t realize it, in seeing the poor and helping them they saw and helped Jesus. By contrast others never really did see Jesus suffering and in need because they never really saw the poor. (Alyce M. McKenzie, The Parables for Today, 54-55)
What is it that causes some people to have something or someone in their line of vision and yet not really see them? And what causes others to both have someone or something in their line of vision and to really see them? It remains an open question, one that presents a pointed challenge for both preachers and those who hear our sermons.
As for Lazarus, we aren’t told he was pious but his name means “God helps” which certainly could imply righteousness. Whether or not he is righteous, however, is beside the point. Lazarus’ hunger and willingness to eat whatever was at hand (Luke 16:21) are reminiscent of the younger son’s famished, desperate condition in Luke 15:16. (Madeleine Boucher, The Parables, 134)
The rich man calls Abraham his “Father.” Earlier in Luke (3:8) we get the message that claiming a religious heritage cannot by itself gain us salvation. Living a life characterized by active compassion to others is a sign that we are responding to God’s covenant. John the Baptist tells the crowds, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (3:8).
Some people never change. The rich man still thinks he’s the boss in the life to come. He thinks Lazarus will take the role of his lackey and see after his needs when he never cared for Lazarus’ needs in his entire life.
Am I the only one who is a little gratified that Abraham does not grant the rich man’s request to send Lazarus as a messenger to his brothers? Just a little. His refusal affirms the abiding power of the Old Testament prophetic witness in Jesus’ ministry as Jesus himself does earlier in Luke 16:16. “They have Moses and the prophets. They should listen to them.” (16:29)
Listening to them would impel someone to “see” the suffering of another and take action, for this social compassion is at the heart of the law and the prophets. We are to show mercy (hesed) as God shows mercy. Here is another link to the parable of the Good Samaritan. “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? asks Jesus. (Luke 10:36) The lawyer answered “The one who showed mercy (eleos in Greek, hesed in Hebrew) (Barbara Reid, Parables for Preachers, 116)
The reference to one rising from the dead in 16:30 would remind readers of the New Testament of the raising of Lazarus in John 11. Luke’s readers would see in this an unmistakeable reference to Jesus’ resurrection. The rich man’s request is refused because even a miracle cannot melt unrepentant hearts or bring sight to eyes that refuse to recognize any needs beyond their own.
What makes the difference between not really seeing and seeing? This parable is one of several in Luke that shows us that the kingdom of God shows up when and where we least expect it. We don’t expect it to show up in the gap between the bearable, even pleasant, or luxurious living condition of some and the unbearable, inhumane living conditions of others. We don’t expect it to show up in the offer of the ability to see that gap and move from seeing to active compassion before it is too late. But we ought to have learned by now that the kingdom of God is not a prisoner to our expectations.
I mentioned earlier that the story of the Rich man and Lazarus reflects the ancient belief that the righteous and the wicked can see each other after death. If they are attentive to the presence of the kingdom of God, they can also see each other before death!
Madeleine Boucher, The Parables
John Donahue, The Gospel in Parables
Alyce M. McKenzie, The Parables for Today
Barbara E. Reid, Parables for Preachers
Alyce M. McKenzie is Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX.