Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 – As the Babylonians are about to break through the walls in 588 B.C. Zedekiah asks Jeremiah why he’s be prophesying the exile. Jeremiah responds by saying he’s so certain that God will restore the fortunes of Zion that he’s even bought a plot of land. Jeremiah the speculator.
Amos 6:1a, 4-7 – Amos warns those who lie on ivory beds, lounge on couches, who sing idle songs, anoint themselves with the finest oils, and drink plenty of wine (the rich). They will be the first to be carried into exile.
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16 – This is the “Eagle’s Wings” psalm: You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord and abide in the presence of the Almighty, he will deliver you from the hand of the fowler, under his wings you will find refuge. You will not fear the terror of the night or the arrow that flies by day, though thousands fall around you…
Psalm 146 – Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish. Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God who … executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry… lifts up those who are bowed down… who watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow…
1 Timothy 6:6-19 – We brought nothing into this world, and we can take nothing out of it (fits with the rich man and Lazarus). The love of money is the root of all evil. Be rich in good works, generosity and sharing.
Luke 16:19-31 – Parable of the Rich man and poor Lazarus
Consider using “Eagles’ Wings” for Psalm 91.
The Rich Man and Lazarus
Is the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus even a parable? St. Ambrose suggests that it is a narrative. The story is not introduced as a parable or a simile, “The kingdom of God is like…” Jeffrey (“Luke”) points out, if it is a parable, it is the only parable in which a character is named. This story is unique to Luke’s gospel.
We cannot consider the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus without considering what comes before it. In Luke chapter 15, the Pharisees and teachers of the law criticize Jesus for eating with tax collectors and sinners. He responds with the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son(s). God cares about the lost. The Pharisees are like the resentful elder brother. Then in chapter 16, last week we had the Unrighteous Steward/Shrewd Manager, in which the owner (God?) rewards the unrighteous for using the owner’s dirty money for good. The point seems to be, if you have money, use it on behalf of those who don’t. Next comes the Lazarus story, but not without an interlude.
Interlude: Luke 16:14-18
This text does not appear in the Revised Common Lectionary, but this paragraph, at the center of chapter 16, is a transition between The Shrewd Manager and The Rich Man and Lazarus.
The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God. “The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped. “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”
Luke tells us that the Pharisees were lovers of money. Having heard the story of the Shrewd Manager/Dishonest Steward, and Jesus’ punch line: “You cannot serve both God and money,” the Pharisees then ridiculed Jesus.
So Jesus said to them, “You justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts.” He then upholds the law and follows up with a statement on divorce.
This is important information. Jeffrey (“Luke” in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible) says, “There is little in Jesus’ teaching anywhere to warrant the self-affirming culture of the prosperity gospel.” Like the preachers of prosperity doctrine today, the Pharisees saw their wealth as a clear sign of God’s blessing. They saw others’ poverty as a sign of God’s judgment. People do this today. If one is rich, then one must be successful and have some brilliant insight into the way the universe works. Most pay great deference to people of wealth, even if they got it by inheritance or just good luck.
Jesus’ sayings about wealth and poverty are not designed to push white guilt buttons. Instead, they fly in the face of those who would see wealth as some confirmation of superiority or divine favor. In the U.S. people often jump to the conclusion that the poor are lazy. Their bad fortune is the result of their poor choices. The idea that the whole system is unfair, and in need of overhaul, is hard to swallow. We believe capitalism as a matter of faith. God, however, loves the poor. Luke’s gospel won’t allow its hearers to assume that being wealthy or being a child of Abraham gets them anything. “Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” (Luke 3:8) “Blessed are the poor.”
We must hear this next story in light of what Jesus says here. The Pharisees are about money according to Luke’s Jesus. And although the Pharisees claim to be about keeping the law, they have missed the point of the law: loving God and neighbor. Caring for the poor.
The comments on divorce may seem out of place. Some have suggested as much. Mikeal Parsons (professor at Truett Theological Seminary and author of “Luke” in the Paieia Commentary on the New Testament) points out the topic of divorce is well within the theme of wealth, and certainly within the theme of the law. “Anyone who divorces his wife,” tracks Mark 10, but then Luke adds remarriage, “and marries another commits adultery.” Parsons says this has the sense of divorcing in order to marry another, which one might very well do for financial reasons, back then as well as today.
According to Jewish law, a man could put a woman away by simply writing a certificate of divorce. This would leave the woman without financial support in a society where women cannot inherit or hold jobs in the male-dominated market. She would have to return to her father’s house in shame. Again, Jesus shows concern for the powerless and vulnerable in society.
The Rich Man and Lazarus in This Life
Here is the first part of this coming Sunday’s gospel reading:
“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.’
Enter the rich man. With purple (expensive dye) and fine linen garb, the rich man, who is not named, lives much like the wealthy condemned in Amos. Meanwhile Lazarus is poor, starving to death, and diseased. He is dressed in sores, which the dogs lick. Nice. Jesus has a gift for vivid imagery. (If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out…) Lazarus longs to eat the rich man’s scraps, as would a dog.
I’m mindful here of all the food we scrape into the garbage in American society. I recently got to meet Matthew Martin, who is with Outreach Inc’s “End Hunger” program. He shared with me that even in the U.S., 1 out of 6 people are food insecure. “Food insecure” means they don’t know where their next meal will come from. If they get it, it probably won’t be nutritious. 1 out of 4 are children. There are plenty of people here in the U.S. who would love to have what you throw to your dog. Outside the U.S. the problem gets worse. Half of the world lives on $2/day or less; ¼ of the world lives on $1/day. The Lazaruses of the world are not rare or hard to find.
The Rich Man and Lazarus in The Next Life
Both the rich man and Lazarus die. Lazarus is carried into Abraham’s bosom, while the unnamed rich person goes to Hades. (No Purgatory just yet in Christian theology.) Note that unlike the Old Testament which has one afterlife destination, Sheol, and other places in the New Testament that speak of several heavens and so forth, this passage indicates two places: Hades and the Bosom of Abraham.
This story, which insinuates that the rich are poor in the afterlife, and the poor are rich, must weigh heavily on the ears of Jesus’ wealthy religious listeners – the Pharisees. Poor Lazarus is in the Bosom of Abraham. The wealthy are not. Why? We soon find out.
As Lazarus longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table, now the rich man longs to suck a drop of water from Lazarus’ finger. Abraham responds. Jesus puts these words in the mouth of father Abraham himself: “Remember, nameless rich dude, you got the good stuff in your lifetime, and Lazarus got a raw deal, so now it’s flip-flopped,” or words to that effect. Jesus confirms the flip flop.
Richard Krabill calls this flip flop, “The Upside-down Kingdom.” Those who are rich in this life are poor in the next. Those who are poor in this life are rich in the next. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. It’s the same message as the Magnificat. “The rich he has sent empty away…” And the Beatitudes. And this concept is not unique to Judaism or Christianity.
Mikeal Parsons tells us that H. Gressmann, in 1918, was the first scholar to note parallels with an Egyptian folk story of Setme and Si-Osiris. Si-Osiris, comes back from the dead, perhaps like in Dicken’s Christmas Carol. Si-Osiris takes his father on a tour Amente (the realm of the dead). There they see the reversal of fortunes of a rich man and a poor man. The rich man is in torment, and the poor man is seated near the throne, wearing the rich man’s garments. Parsons points out that this reversal of fortunes theme runs throughout the Greco-Roman world.
After reminding the rich man that he was rich in his earthly life, Abraham continues. The poor many cannot dip his finger in water to cool the rich man, because “the chasm (χάσμα is a hapax legomenon, one of 686 words that appear only once in the New Testament) fixed between you two makes it impossible.” While one cannot derive an infallible metaphysical map of the afterlife from this story of Jesus, one can say it is hard to arrive at a theology of universal salvation in Luke’s gospel. There are, in this story at least, two eternal destinations. Between them is an uncrossable chasm. If, however you want to use this to form a popular American revivalist theology, brace yourself. What gets you to Abraham’s bosom? We’re never told that Lazarus was a saint. Or had faith. He’s just poor. And we’re never told the rich man was a bad guy. The assumption seems to be there is a flip flop in the eschaton that has nothing to do with faith or works, just wealth. It just is. Be careful not to read Paul into Luke. Paul isn’t Luke, and Luke is not Paul. Jesus is issuing a warning to the rich, one that American Christians don’t like to hear and will work hard to explain away.
The fact that this story, his story, is so edgy leads me to believe it is less layered and edited than some sayings. It has not been harmonized by time and church politics. This story is peculiar to Luke. The other three canonical gospel writers didn’t know it, or chose not to include it for whatever reason. I think we’re hearing the unedited voice of the Galilean healer. His voice echoes down through time. “Love your enemy.” “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” This is the uncut Jesus. The no-spin zone.
Necromancy: Luke 16:27-31
The second part of this gospel reading continues with verse 27 and takes us to the end of the chapter.
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.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Good heavens, can someone come back from the dead and warn these people? The rich man wants someone to warn his five brothers. Here is where our story parts company with the Egyptian folk tale and Greco-Roman stories. In those stories, someone does return from the dead to warn others. In our story, Abraham denies the request. “They have Moses and the Prophets.” There is plenty in the writings of the Hebrew Bible, what we call The Old Testament, to understand God’s call to care for those in need. Everything you need is there.
But there is also, perhaps, a bit of foreshadowing going on here. Someone return from the dead? Hmm. Where might we find a story about that?
But the point is made. The hearers are duly warned. In fact, the very point of an apocalypse is that the living are warned. Change your ways before it is too late. Repent.
So where’s the good news? Well, first of all, this is good news… if you’re one of the many, perhaps majority, of the world’s population: the poor. And that’s what Jesus was called to preach, according to Luke (4:18). “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…”
Unfortunately, the good news turns out that it’s bad news for the rich. If this theology bothers you, welcome to the club. Take it up with Jesus. Don’t shoot the messenger. And preachers: Don’t soften the blow. Jesus was the masterful communicator. The edginess makes it memorable. Makes it stick. We’ll be lucky if they’re quoting our sermons two days from now, let alone two millennia. Let it sting. It’s supposed to sting. If you explain it away, you rob it of its power.
But there is also good news for all who are under the power of sin, and find themselves unable to be perfect and adhere to the law. Adherence to the law is a good thing, but it’s too easily bent, and too hard to keep to count on as a way to a right relationship with God. Hear this story in the context of Luke’s overarching message. It’s clear why Jesus is telling this story. Only five verses prior to this parable we’re told the Pharisees were lovers of money, and they ridiculed him. (Luke 16:14) And why would they ridicule him? Well, he’s already made the point over and over again that their dogged adherence to the law doesn’t guarantee them a place in heaven.
And therein lies the good news. Jesus’ critique of the Pharisaic movement is that successful law keeping fills you with self-righteousness, which is the true enemy. Humility is what is called for when one hangs around with the Alpha and the Omega (as we’ll be reminded in Luke 18:9-14). Jesus, and later Paul, make this clear by raising the ante. The law is not as easy to keep as one might think. “You have heard it said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ but I say to you: If you even look at a woman lustfully, you’ve already committed adultery in your heart.”
Paul does much the same, and thus many take him to be a prude. In fact, his point, made over and over again, is that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. His long list is designed to build humility, not walls. The bar is way too high. The only way to be saved by the law is to keep the whole law. And that’s impossible (“If anyone could have been saved by the law, it would have been me,” says Paul). We’re all sinners, and therefore on the same playing field. There is no hope if not for grace. It’s fourth down, and 10 million yards to go.
“We brought nothing into this world, and can take nothing out,” Paul reminds Timothy in today’s epistle.
As Robert Farrar Capon says, “If the world could have been saved by successful living, it would have been tidied up long ago.” The Back-to-Eden Program is bankrupt. Religion in the cloak of morality has too often demonized the kind, the disenfranchised, those whose skin or gender was wrong, and exterminated those whose religion was inconvenient. The religious impulse means well in trying to recreate paradise, but it always ends in disaster.
The rich man asks Abraham to send someone to warn his sons about this great flip flop. Abraham says no. Even if someone were to return, they couldn’t hear it. Here Luke tips his hand. God is not about bookkeeping. God is about raising the dead. No amount of do-gooding will get us where we need to be. There is no indication that the rich man would escape Hades if he had fed the poor man and tended to his sores.
So maybe someone does get sent back from the dead to warn the living. The ultimate good news is the resurrection.
Rather than asking who is going to hell, a better question might be: “What shall we do with our wealth, since Jesus is risen?”
One last thought. Once at a staff meeting, Kerry Nelson (now pastor at Faith in Bellaire, Texas) recalled an interview on the Tonight Show with the mother of the year. Johnny Carson set her up with a trick question: “As a mother with 12 children, do you have any favorites? Do you love some more than others?”
“Of course I do,” the mother of the year replied, surprising everyone in the audience.
“I love the one who is sick, until she is better.
I love the one who is far away, until he comes home.
I love the one who is hurting, until she has healed.”
God is like a loving mother, who always loves the one who is lost, hurting, sick, or hungry.