‘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 with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried in Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.”
Our lectionary readings continue through Luke and (yet again) we find the focus on money, wealth and salvation. This is another parable that starts: “There was a rich man”, and again he is not an example to follow but a warning to avoid. He is not named, but Jesus does give the beggar at his gate a name, Lazarus, which means “God helps”, or “God has helped”. It is most unusual for a parable to have a named character especially a beggar character. [Interestingly later commentators gave the rich man a name, Dives, (which is the Latin word for “rich”) – somehow it felt wrong to name the beggar but not the rich man; sadly I suspect the reverse is not so true. But Dives is not his name, though it does sum him up!]
At this stage we should also note that this story that Jesus is telling is shaped by other popular stories of the time about the underworld / realm of the dead, and it should not be taken with geographical directness, nor as a full description of the afterlife for us, but nor should it be ignored.
In death there is a reversal of fortune. Was the rich man particularly bad – we do not know? Was the beggar particularly virtuous? Again we do not know, but the parable is not about inner virtue it seems. The rich man, even in Hades, has some concern for his brothers, but he also still seems to think he can boss the beggar about: he wants Abraham to make Lazarus take messages for him! But Abraham replies that the dead do not return to the living, and that the brothers have the prophets and the Law of Moses; if they want to know how to live, it is clearly spelt out. The Law and the Prophets are summed up in “Love your neighbour”. We have this teaching; the implication is that even the return of Jesus will not necessarily change those hearts that do not wish to change. It is not ignorance but wilfulness and a desire to gain wealth and then keep it when we know others have not enough. We love Mammon but then Mammon gets us!
It is a powerful and challenging message to those of us who are more akin to the rich man than to the beggar Lazarus. Wealth is not wrong in itself: how it is gained, and whether it is shared is what Jesus challenges us about, and it is uncomfortable. Just as many commentaries want to give the rich man a name, so they also wriggle their way round the teaching of Jesus on Mammon (last week’s reading) and the blunt / sharp statements about wealth.
We will meet two more rich characters in the gospel as Jesus continues his journey, real people not from a parable – the rich man who could not let go his wealth – we call him the rich young ruler – and Zacchaeus, the most unpromising of the lot (given how he made his money as a Roman tax-collector), but he finds the welcome of Jesus irresistible and joyfully gives and hands back. I suspect Luke is trying to tell us something!
Revd Peter Reiss