I was struck the other day by the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16: 19-31). I’ve heard sermons and talks and done Bible studies on this passage, and the focus is always on the rich man. In life, he did nothing to help the poor beggar who was literally on his doorstep. In death, he ends up in torment, and seeing Father Abraham with Lazarus in Heaven, he tries to strike a bargain with Abraham to ease his own tormented soul.
But I was struck by several things I had never considered:
- Jesus named Lazarus, but not the Rich Man. This is a parable– a metaphorical story– so Jesus did not need to have specific names for any of the characters. He often told such stories with no names. This one contains a specific person, Lazarus, and very specific details about his earthly life. He was not just a beggar, but a beggar covered with sores and starving. Jesus even related that the “dogs came and licked his sores” (v.21). And Jesus makes it clear that the rich man recognized and knew Lazarus by name. Yet he had done nothing to help Lazarus when he had the chance. We never hear in the story whether or not Lazarus was ever cured or helped; we don’t know if he had been a wealthy or prominent man at one time, of if he had always been a diseased beggar. The point is that Jesus, and Abraham, and the rich man all KNEW Lazarus. He mattered enough to call by name. The Rich Man in this story also had a name. He probably was well-known in the town or city where the story took place. And we know that he had five brothers who were likely well-known and highly respected. But NONE of them are named in the story. Only Lazarus.
- The Rich Man looks up into Heaven. He can see and recognize Lazarus and Father Abraham. But he never looks for, sees, talks to, or wonders about the Heavenly Father. He never asks for comfort from God– he doesn’t even ask a favor of the Patriarch– he only considers that someone like Lazarus should be made to help him and/or his brothers.
- Abraham explains that Lazarus cannot and will not be allowed to do as the Rich Man requests– but the parable does not tell us that Lazarus can either see the Rich Man or hear his requests, nor does it say that Lazarus is unwilling to help.
- Jesus tells this story in a straightforward manner, even though it is a Parable and has hidden meanings. The Rich Man wants help in his hour of torment, even though he was unwilling to help others in their need. But he isn’t without feeling or pity– he loves his brothers enough to try to warn them. Jesus could have used this parable to say much more about Social Justice, and the plight of the poor and the wealthy. He could have said much more about greed or apathy. He could have pressed the point about loving one’s neighbor. He did NOT make some of the connections we add to this story. We often assume that the Rich Man is in hell only because he did not help Lazarus during his lifetime, and that Lazarus is in Heaven solely because he was oppressed and afflicted in life. But is that really what Jesus says?
What struck me the most about this story is that I always look at it as an outsider. I don’t relate with either of these characters. Of course I don’t want to think that I am cold and selfish like the Rich Man in this story, but neither do I think I am Lazarus. So who do I think I am when I read this parable? Do I pat myself on the back for sending a check to a charity a couple of times a year, or speaking up for the poor or marginalized in my community? Do I indignantly point out all the “others” who are not doing their part to help? Do I see myself, not as a poor diseased beggar, but as someone who has been “oppressed” by nameless, faceless rich people– someone who deserves to be rescued and comforted while “they” suffer through eternity?
I don’t have any answers as to how I “should” see myself (or others) in this parable. But I think Jesus wants us to grapple with some of the realities it presents:
- Our world is filled with situations like that of Lazarus and the Rich Man–situations of injustice, struggle, disease, poverty, inequality, suffering, and luxury. And while it is clear that we should do what we can to help others, and to bring justice and mercy, and to reach out and connect with our neighbors in love, it is also clear that such situations are not for us to make blanket judgments. I know many who see poverty as a judgment– those who are poor are lazy or unworthy. And I know others who see luxury and wealth as a judgment–those who are wealthy are greedy and selfish and unworthy. God will not judge us by our circumstances or the injustices done against us. He WILL judge us by our response to Him– when we look toward Heaven, do we see Him, or do we see the place we think we deserve to be?
- Our ultimate situation has very little to do with our earthly circumstances. Are we sick, poor, suffering, grieving, or in pain? God is aware, and He offers eternal comfort. We can endure and hope because we know that this is not all there is to life. Are we blessed with comfort and ease right now? We should not take our circumstances for granted, but be willing to share in our abundance, knowing that our future is sure, and that God will care for our needs as we care for others. But wealth or poverty, status or shameful circumstances, do not predict our eternal destiny.
- God sees us! He sees our circumstances, and He cares! He sees our heart and our motives. He knows our every thought.
- We need to look with God’s eyes. The Rich Man in this story thought he was important– in life and even in the afterlife. He thought Lazarus was worthy only to serve him or stay out of his way as he enjoyed life’s luxuries. But he also thought he was more important than Heaven! Sitting in eternal torment, he was not humbled or repentant– he was still trying to see the world through his own self-importance. Lazarus may have spent his life thinking that he was NOT important– a beggar, alone, forgotten, and unwanted. But God knew his name and saw his suffering. Lazarus could have been bitter, cursing God for his circumstances, or spending his days trying to steal or take revenge on the Rich Man.
- I need to look with God’s eyes, not only at who I am in relation to God and others, but at OTHERS in relation to God and to me. I may see someone like the Rich Man– selfish, pompous, self-important– and dismiss them as unlovable and unworthy of mercy or grace. But God sees someone He created; someone who is needy and lost– someone He loves enough to die for. I may see someone like Lazarus–hurting and forgotten– and think they are a lost cause or fear that they will prove to be “undeserving” of my help. But God sees someone He created; someone He aches with; someone He loves enough to die for!