This parable is a story of contradictions. The nameless rich man and Lazarus, whose name means “God has helped us”, are placed side by side in such a skillful way that the contrast is shocking.
The setting for the parable presumes an advanced agrarian society in which the farm land was the economic base and the city became the seat of power. The dominant culture of Jesus’ day believed that wealth was necessarily a sign of God’s favor and poverty and other misfortune indicates God’s disfavor.
Rich men wore purple dyed linen which was so expensive that almost no one but kings could afford it. The rich man might have been a king. He ate sumptuously every day, even on the Sabbath. His servants prepared lavish, expensive, magnificent meals. His food and clothing depict him as extremely wealthy.
Lazarus lived in pathetic tragedy. How did he get to this point in life? He might have been unfortunate to have been born a second or third son whose family did not have enough land to split, according to tribal custom. That would have forced him to become a hired hand, and eventually when that failed to support him, he ended up in the city where circumstances became even worse.
His life became hopeless. The great chasm in this life widens.
His final home in this life became the rich man’s gate. What about the gate? Was it a city gate? Was it the gate to a mansion?
Finding little food, Lazarus’ body continued to deteriorate. He might have started out at the gate being an honorable beggar, but when his sores began to develop, he was difficult to look at. Now he was not even an honorable beggar. Most don’t like to look at starving people covered in sores. He had become an outcast.
His food supply came from the rich man’s table. We can speculate that food was dropped carelessly from the table during these extravagant daily feasts. Bread was used as a napkin to wipe the mouth and fingers of grease and food and then pitched under the table. After the meal, the dogs were let in to clean up the mess. Lazarus and the dogs competed for every crumb. Considering the gate, the dogs may have been guard dogs for this mansion. That explains their aggressiveness and accounts for the fact that poor Lazarus could not defend himself against them licking his sores.
This parable is a story of contradictions. The gate at which Lazarus lived was the chasm that separated these two men in this life in much the same way the chasm separated them in eternal life.
The rich man died and was buried. Had he eaten too much fat or red meat? Did he have cholesterol problems? Were there too many all- you-can-eat buffets? Anyway, he was given a proper funeral.
This reinforces the idea that good fearing people are blessed by God’s favor by granting them wealth. The rich man was given a big funeral as a righteous person respected by the community. Surely Goad had blessed him. He went straight to Hades!
Poor Lazarus died and the scripture suggests he remained unburied. In contrast to the rich man, he “was carried into Abraham’s bosom”. Now, instead of a gate there is a chasm.
In life the rich man would not go through the gate to minister to Lazarus according to the law of Moses. In death Lazarus could not go to give the rich man a drink of water. In life Lazarus did not receive a crumb and in death the rich man would not receive a drop.
The parable now shifts to a dialogue between Abraham and the rich man. There are astonishing interchanges.
“Send Lazarus to give my five brothers a warning about this place of torment!” Strange, the sad man ignored Lazarus in life, so why would his brothers take notice or follow his advice now?
To the sad man, Lazarus continues to be the house boy and he continues to be numb to his reality. “They have all they need, the Torah and the prophets,” said Abraham. The Torah of the prophets reads, “you shall have no poor in your midst.” That law is simple to understand and to the point.
“No, Father Abraham.” Still no repentance, no insight. Only blindness and numbness. Indirectly, he blames God for his predicament. The Torah and the prophets did not make it clear that he, the rich man was headed for Hades. He is implying that sending Lazarus in some form would improve God’s communication system.
To the rich man Lazarus was unclean, but he was clean. Had he not obeyed the priests? Had he not kept himself clean, made his required sacrifices, tithed most carefully, observed the Sabbath, and done all the other things the priests required? So in Hades he continued the argument that he was right and Abraham had it all wrong. There was no repentance. There was no change of heart.
We have come to a dilemma in the story. This is where I make sure that this parable and this sermon are not misinterpreted.
Did the rich man find himself in Hades because he was rich or because he’d been immoral? No, to both questions. He was in Hades because his heart was hardened and numb. But that’s not why Jesus told the parable.
Was Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom because he was good and righteous or because he was poor and suffered so much? No! Martin Luther would turn over in his grave at such a suggestion. We are saved by God’s grace through our faith in Jesus Christ. But that’s not the point of the parable either.
We might draw from the parable that there are eternal consequences for disobedience to the law of Moses which says, “There shall be no poor among you!” That’s still not the point of the parable.
The point of this parable in the first century is that the teaching of the religious elite, the priests, was not to be trusted. The parable was understood only by the poor who could grasp the picture Jesus painted with words and could read between the lines.
On Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem triumphantly. Hailed as Messiah, he acted messianic by riding up to the temple and throwing out the buyers and sellers and hawkers. He challenged the unholy alliance between the religious elite and Roman authorities which made this oppressive system possible. Jesus touched the idol of the holy temple with its greed and profiteering. They swore to kill him. By Friday afternoon he was dead.
In speaking this parable, Jesus places Abraham at the center of the plot. Since Abraham was a rich man, we cannot say that being rich is evil and being poor is good. The story of the rich man and Lazarus makes sense only to conclude that the message to Jesus’ hearers was, “Your religious leaders, the priests and the Levites who made a deal with Rome to maintain the temple fraud in the name of holiness—cannot be trusted.
We cannot live free when we cannot trust our leaders. God has blessed us, Divinity, with trustworthy leaders who work hard to serve the needs of our congregation, our community, and certainly the Lazarus’s we encounter along the way. With so much serving, we learn who we can trust and who we can’t trust. We learn to live free in Jesus Christ.