“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered in sores.” (Luke 16:19-20)
Jesus tells an apocalyptic story of the afterlife where the fortunes of the two characters in death are reversed. A rich man, who lived a lavish style overlooking the need of a suffering poor man named Lazarus finds himself in the place of torment in the afterlife; while poor man Lazarus who went hungry and had dogs licking his sores, was carried by the angels to live with Abraham. Even with “a great chasm that has been fixed” separates them (Luke 16:26); what Jesus shares is the conversation between them and Abraham. Even in torment, the rich man orders Lazarus and pleads with Abraham to help him and warns his family. Abraham responds, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31).
What does this story mean?
If you are among the poor, the downtrodden, the despised, the trampled on, the forgotten, the hungry, the ill, and the poor – there is hope in this story. In our culture and throughout history, humans have assigned greater value to the wealthy, powerful and prestigious people, regardless of how many other people’s lives are crushed to keep them there (both by individual wickedness and by systemic oppression). In this story it is the poor man, Lazarus who is named while the rich man remains nameless. There is a reason Christian faith tends to grow vibrant among the impoverished and oppressed and becomes weak among the comfortable and elite. Following Jesus brings hope to the hopeless and always challenges our notions of who doesn’t belong. Jesus ate with the tax collectors and sinners; fed the hungry; cared for the sick; exorcised the evil holding people’s lives hostage and raised the dead. When we are Lazarus in this story – salvation is coming.
There is something about this story that suggests the rich man gets what is coming to him. His blatant extravagance and luxurious lifestyle ignored the real human suffering and need right at his doorstep. This lack of compassion catches up with him. As the prophets called for justice, and caring for the poor, oppressed, orphaned, widowed and exiled, Israel ignored this calling to pursue its own wealth, prestige and power in the world. Judgment came. Destruction came. Exile came. As Jesus tells this story we see a similar path to destruction. The rich man who gave no mercy receives no mercy. The overlooked and forgotten poor man is restored and made whole. There is no comment on what either character believed. Justice has been served. The great reversal is fulfilled. The last are first and the first are last. Mary’s song of God’s reign has arrived. “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away hungry” (Luke 1:52-53). When you are among those who look past the suffering of others by your own comfort this story serves as a warning of the cost of ignoring those in need around you. Judgment is here. Exile is coming.
Like Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, there is still hope for the condemned. Scrooge became the most generous of them all. We too can repent, turn away from our selfishness and enter into God’s kingdom of mercy and grace. When we meet our neighbors with the same relentless love and compassion God gives us in Christ our lives become richer, our purpose clearer, the kingdom more present around us. When the church stops pursuing all the frivolous things we do to feel comfortable and starts giving itself away we become more and more the the body of Christ.
What will the religious leaders who ridiculed him (Luke 16:15) say to that?
What will we say? do? change? hear?