The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus can be compared to a play with three acts. (I first heard this suggestion to approaching this particular parable in a New Testament class I took at seminary which focused on the parables of Jesus.)
We are presented with a very wealthy man who dressed in a mantle of purple. Only royalty and the richest of the rich could afford purple garments. The reason purple dye was so expensive was because it came from a gland of a sea snail called murex. This rich man also wore linen garments imported from Egypt—no BVDs for this aristocrat! He feasted sumptuously and ostentatiously every day. Each meal was a lavish banquet.
In contrast to this man of luxury and extravagance, we have the second character in our parable: a beggar named Lazarus. (With the exception of Abraham, Lazarus is the only character in Jesus’ parables who is given a name. “Lazarus” means “he whom God helps.”) This destitute and lame man is prostrated at the rich man’s gate. His body is full of sores, and he is very weak and ill.
This beggar saw the daily feasting of the rich man. It was common for the rich to eat their meals with doors open to the public so that people from the outside could see how well the rich lived. The rich man was showing off his wealth. As Lazarus witnesses this obscene, daily exposition, he desires to eat the scraps that fall from this man’s table. It is also possible that these scraps were pieces of bread which the wealthy used as napkins to wipe their hands and mouths. Soiled bread is the most he could hope for, but even this is denied him.
Perhaps worst of all, dogs hover over him licking his sores. Such dogs would have been understood by Jesus’ hearers as street mongrels, and their licking of Lazarus’ sores was not an act of kindness. (Dogs were seen as unclean animals in the Judaism of that day. The term was often used of Gentiles.) Their presence heightens the sense of utter helplessness and an incredible degree of neglect as they loom over this poor man’s powerless body. He was not even able to drive the dogs from his body. Lazarus daily experienced the rape of human dignity and received no asylum or comfort.
The parable progresses with a shift of scenes. We are told that Lazarus dies and is carried by the angels into the bosom of Abraham. The phrase “bosom of Abraham” perhaps suggests the comfort and nurturing of a child at her mother’s breast, but probably it is a reference to the place of honor at a banquet. People eating at formal meals reclined on their left sides with their heads pointing to the food before them. Think of how the spokes of a wheel are all directed to the center of a circle. The person immediately in front of you would be “in your bosom.” Lazarus in our scene is enjoying the most privileged place at the banquet table hosted by Father Abraham.
The rich man also dies and is buried. We can imagine his splendid funeral: the most expensive coffin, the elaborate memorials, the many flowers, the flattering eulogies, the largest mausoleum so that hundreds of years later, people passing by would wonder what great man is entombed there. Notice that nothing is said about the burial of Lazarus. Perhaps he wasn’t even buried. Maybe the dogs consumed what was left of his dead, emaciated body. If he was not buried, that omission would have been the worst of all indignities in the Jewish mind since the lack of a decent burial was a scandal and a curse in Judaism.
At any rate, the rich man was buried, and when he comes to in the next dimension, he has a surprise waiting for him. First of all, he is in torment. Accustomed as he was to a pampered and self-indulgent life, he experiences, perhaps for the first time, discomfort (other than the indigestion he probably endured from his gluttony). When he looks around to see what the problem is, his eyes focus on Father Abraham presiding over the banquet table which all Jews looked forward in the hereafter. And Jiminy Cricket, guess who’s at the table of honor—that old, diseased, useless beggar Lazarus.
All through this parable, Lazarus and the rich man are both connected and separated by a table. In Act 1, the banquet table belongs to the rich man. In Act 2, Lazarus sits at the place of honor at the banquet table of Father Abraham.
The rich man figures something is terribly wrong. A tragic mistake has been made. Why is this old, useless beggar in the place of honor while the rich man, accustomed to honored places and lavish accommodations, is uncomfortable to say the least. So, the rich man cries out to Abraham, a most significant figure in the Jewish faith since he was considered the Father of the nation and the one to whom Jews could trace their lineage and establish their belonging in the family of God. Three times the rich man calls Abraham “Father.” Perhaps he presumed that his family connection to Abraham would be sufficient for his exalted place in the afterlife.
“Father Abraham, have mercy on me. Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water and to cool my tongue, because I’m burning up.” The rich man longs for a drop of water from the finger of Lazarus as formerly Lazarus longed for soiled bread from the rich man’s table.
There is something at this point in the parable that I missed for years. The rich man says, “Send Lazarus.” HE KNEW HIS NAME. Lazarus was not a stranger to him—not even a nameless face. The rich man recognized the beggar who had been at his gate, and he even knew his name.
Father Abraham replies: “Child, remember in the previous life you received many good things while Lazarus suffered many evil things. Now the tables are turned. He is in comfort while you are in torment. Besides, between you and us is a great chasm which has been fixed—a chasm that is unbridgeable. We can’t go to you, and you can’t come to us.”
The rich man then thinks of his family and says, “Then I beg you, Father Abraham, send Lazarus to my father’s house, because I’ve got five brothers and they are just like I was. Send Lazarus to warn them so they can mend their ways.”
Abraham answers, “No. They have Moses and the Prophets.” [Moses represents the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures) while the prophets represent the second major division of that great tradition. In other words, Abraham is saying that the rich man’s brothers already have the Bible and thus already have all they need to understand what should be important in their lives.]
But the rich man says, “No, Father Abraham. That won’t work. But if Lazarus were to go to them from the dead, they would repent.” I love Clarence Jordan’s treatment of this part of the parable. He has the rich man say something like this: “If Lazarus would go down to my brothers—say, on a Saturday night after an evening of partying and getting drunk—and ooze through the walls a few times and just scare the hell out of them, they might listen and change their ways.” Jordan then paraphrases Abraham’s response to this suggestion this way: “If they won’t pay any attention to the Bible and the preachers, they will find some way to dismiss even the testimony of one raised from the dead.” In other words, no sign will be given because no sign will avail. The problem is not inadequate revelation. The problem is inadequate response.
(Notice, by the way, that the rich man, who ignored Lazarus in life, now sees him as no more than an errand boy in the hereafter. He simply doesn’t get it.)
So, what do we do with this parable? How can we get a handle on it? We must first of all remember that this is a parable—an extended metaphor. We would be wrong if we expect this parable to reveal the furniture of heaven, the temperature of hell, or the populations of either. Jesus’ parables are meant to be taken seriously, not literally. (We should also be aware that similar stories like this one existed in the ancient Near East. There is an Egyptian parallel with a poor scholar playing the part of Lazarus.)
Bernard Brandon Scott in Hear Then the Parable suggests that we look at two words in this parable to help us interpret the message Jesus intended with this story of a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus. The first word is in Act 1 while the second word is in Act 2.
“Gate” is the word in Act 1. Lazarus was at the rich man’s gate. Now, a gate can function to let in or to keep out. It can be a passageway and a means of contact from one person to another. or it can be a boundary and a way of separating brother from brother and sister from sister. While the gate is present and still open, it is a means of grace and a way of establishing community and expressing solidarity in the Kingdom of God.
What the rich man lacked was the ability to go through the gate and enter into solidarity with Lazarus. He failed by not seeing the gate’s possibility and by not making contact. The gate is not just an entrance to his house. More importantly, it is a passageway to others—a passageway never traveled by the rich man.
In Act 2, the key word is “chasm.” Whereas in Act 1 the open gate is a possibility, in Act 2, the chasm is a reality. No longer is contact possible. All the powers of heaven and earth cannot bridge the chasm between the rich man and Lazarus. God has sanctioned the separations the rich man chose in life. And that’s an important point to understand. The divisions in the afterlife simply replicate those divisions chosen on earth. The chasm is not a result of divine will, but a consequence of human insensitivity. Had the rich man walked through the gate to Lazarus, his fate would have been very different. But he would not reach out, and now his decision has been ratified by God. He is alone in torment with the self which was the center of his existence.
You may recall that at the beginning of this sermon, I said that this parable was in three acts. Act 1 is on earth. Act 2 is in the afterlife. But what about Act 3? We are Act 3. Like the rich man’s five brothers, we are in the land of the living with the gate before us. We can walk through to our neighbor. We can move from isolation to solidarity—from complacency to compassion—from selfishness to sharing. We can meet our sisters and brothers at the gate of Kingdom’s love.
We live in a world that continues to be plagued with divisions and prejudice; with violence and neglect; with inequitable distributions of wealth; and with a tragic lack of both authentic communication and community. Racism, the original sin of America, once again raises its ugly head in both blatant and subtle ways in our society as the walls of prejudice continue to divide us in crippling ways. Lazarus in many incarnations still is prostrate at our gates. Hunger daily claims the emaciated lives of thousands of children every day on this planet.
Let there be no doubt in anyone’s mind today. Our destiny and the destinies of those who are discounted, disenfranchised, and neglected by the world are connected both now and forever. A God whose goal is to reconcile the whole world cannot allow walls of indifference, neglect, prejudice, and hatred to exist within the human community. Like the walls of Jericho, they must come tumbling down. God’s truth is marching on—relentlessly on to the final goal of a beloved community of peace, compassion and sharing. So, for the sake of Lazarus and all his sisters and brothers as well as for own sake, let us walk through the gate in solidarity with all God’s children everywhere. And let us do so before the final curtain falls.
(One clarification regarding this parable: After their deaths, Lazarus is not in heaven and the rich man is not in hell. They both are in the intermediate state of Hades. Apparently in the Jewish mind, in this next dimension, there are different “accommodations” depending on the type of life one has lived on earth. Lazarus is comforted and affirmed while the rich man is in torment. This intermediate state precedes the “Last Judgment” and the resurrection at the end of time. The question of whether the rich man’s eternal destiny is hell is not addressed in this parable.)