The rich man and Lazarus


Scripture: Luke 16: 19-31; 2 Corinthians 9: 6-15; Psalm 65

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is a morality story.  The moral of today’s Gospel seems to be, ‘You get what you deserve,’ but in a negative sense.  The wealthy will get eternal torment in the next life if they don’t show compassion for the poor while they are here on earth.  

The rich man feasts while Lazarus starves

Lazarus was a poor man who begged at the gate of a rich man.  The rich man ignored him. When the two men died, the poor man went to be with Abraham in Heaven. The rich man got eternal torment in Hades. He asked Abraham to give him just a drop of water to cool him from the heat. Abraham told him that it was his tough luck.  “You never helped Lazarus when you were both on earth, so why should Lazarus help you now?” The rich man pleaded, “Please let Lazarus warn my family so that this does not happen to them.” Abraham replied that the family had all they needed.  They had the Law of Moses and the writings of the prophets to guide their behaviour.

What was the rich man’s shortcoming?

Jesus’ story didn’t suggest that the rich man abused Lazarus in any way. His failing was that he seemed to not even notice Lazarus. In a sermon on this text, Martin Luther noted that Jesus did not criticize the man for being rich, per se, or because he lived and ate well. He had forgotten the second great Commandment, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”

This story is about more than money and good food. It is about having advantages in life, or the opposite. I, for example, have money and good food. But I had good luck. I grew up in a stable two-parent home, and had a good education. I was part of the main group in society – white and of Christian background. All those advantages came with me when I came to Canada, and I spoke English. Those advantages were what made me “rich”, but I did not earn them. The rich man in Jesus’ story probably also had many other advantages besides money and good food.

Lazarus exists in Canada today

Today, we are blessing the monthly food collection for St. Matthew’s House.  This shows that the members of our congregation care about people who do not have enough to eat. It’s painful to think that many of the refugees that we resettled in Canada three or four years ago must use food banks to get by. Canada was proud to have helped by taking them in, and supported them for a year. But their experience is uncomfortably similar to that between the rich man and Lazarus. A year isn’t enough if you come to a new country with a family in tow, with a different society from what you knew, and none of you speak the language.

How the parable relates to harvest festival

Today we look around our church which we have beautifully decorated for harvest.  It reminds us of the bounty of God’s Creation.  We might take a moment to reflect on the words of our Gradual hymn, “For the fruit of all Creation, thanks be to God.” Human labour was not enough to make the crops grow. We might take a second moment to see these fruits and vegetables as symbols of the abundance shared by most of us here today, those of us who do not have to use food banks.

Perhaps the rich man of the story had a modern attitude: “All this is mine; I worked hard for it.” But that takes us back to the harvest theme.  We must remember that our earthly possessions and even the fruits of our earthly hard work still come ultimately from God. Plus that element of luck. The writer of today’s psalm gives us the same message as Jesus gave the Pharisees.  “You [God] visit the earth and water it …”  It is you (God) not us.  We look at flocks of sheep and lambs in the fields.  There is so much grain in the valleys that they seem to laugh and sing.  The psalmist had a message for the the farmer [and for us].  “Stop and think a moment. You didn’t do this all on your own.  You had luck and advantages.”

Jesus presents the fate of the rich man very harshly

Lazarus went to heaven and the rich man got his comeuppance. But we always need to look at the context of the parable, not to see it as a unique piece of Scripture. Immediately before our reading, Jesus was talking about money. He ended by saying, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” When the Pharisees ridiculed Jesus about this, he replied that things prized by human beings are often abominated by God. This is Jesus’ oft-repeated refrain that God’s Kingdom has different values than earthly institutions.

This aspect of the story was directed squarely at the Pharisees. We Canadians might easily miss the point. In Old Testament theology, God blesses righteous people, and we see this in their earthly success. Let me quote from Deuteronomy Chapter 28.  “If you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandment, the Lord will set you high above all the nations of the earth … Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your livestock, in the increase of your cattle and your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.”

The theology of obedience to God and receipt of blessings

This idea made a logical equation for the Pharisees, who upheld the Law of Moses devoutly: “Obey the Law ⇉ Receive God’s blessing ⇉ You will have worldly success”. That’s why the rich man was so fortunate. Instead, Jesus told the Pharisees, “Not so fast. The Law also commands you to care to the less fortunate”.  In Biblical language, these were the orphans and widows.  Or in today’s parable, Lazarus.

We often read the passage from 2 Corinthians at harvest time. It uses a metaphor.  If ones sows plentifully, one will reap plentifully. But Paul didn’t write it about harvest. He wanted his Corinthian congregation to support less wealthy churches financially, saying that God loves a cheerful giver. It was a stewardship sermon. Paul was a pious Pharisee before he met the Risen Christ on the Road to Damascus. So Paul was using Pharisaic thinking. In this case, “Obey the Gospel ⇉ Receive God’s blessing ⇉ You will get worldly riches”. He just changed Obey the Law to Obey the Gospel.

What’s missing in the story of the rich man and Lazarus

What did Lazarus think when he heard the rich man’s plea? The conversation is entirely between the rich man and Abraham, not Lazarus. What might Lazarus have said, if Abraham had let him speak? Would he have agreed with Abraham that the rich man had his comeuppance?

There’s no sense of reconciliation in the Biblical version of the story. Lazarus had known what it was like to be at the bottom of the heap. So perhaps he would have shown compassion, and said,, “Friend, I’ll do what I can to help you”. That ending to the story would be more consistent with Jesus’ teaching about turning the other cheek. It’s what we find in the Sermon on the Mount. It is the sort of response we saw in Nelson Mandela.  Even after 27 years in prison, he did not take vengeance on his white oppressors, but extended the hand of friendship and forgiveness.

Why did Lazarus get to heaven at all?

Was it simply a reward because he was treated so badly here on earth? In the sermon I mentioned by Martin Luther, Luther wrote, “Even in the midst of such poverty and misery [Lazarus] expected all good from God, and comfortably relied upon him …” But the story does not say this. We only know that Lazarus was starving and covered in sores.

To me, the parable exemplifies the theology of “pi in the sky when you die”. The oppressed will get a good harvest when they get to heaven.  It will compensate them for their poor harvest here on earth. That seems to let us off from dealing with their situation here and now. That isn’t my theology. I get more out of Jesus saying, “The Kingdom of God has come near,” and it’s up to us to make it become real. That was why Canada agreed to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees in this country.  But we should remember the story of the rich man and Lazarus.  We risk being like the rich man in the parable when we fail to notice that some of the former refugees must use food banks like St. Matthew’s House to get enough to eat.