Weekly Bible Devotional
“Godspell: The Story of the Rich Man and Lazarus”
February 2, 2020
Scripture for Sunday: Luke 16:19-31
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 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.’ 25 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. 26 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.’ 27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 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.’”
Notes on the Text:
The Gospel of Luke has the most focus on the poor and the oppressed among the four Gospels. This story/parable is unique to this Gospel. It continues Jesus’ parables on money, built around his teaching that, “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (16:13). But in dealing with the religious leaders, who were part the ruling and moneyed elite “who were lovers of money” (vs. 14), Luke places the parable in a context dedicated, in part, to money. From the Widow’s coin and the Prodigal’s inheritance in chapter 15 to the Dishonest Manager’s handling of debts in 16:1-13, Luke has been engaged with the topic. The transition between the Dishonest Manager and the Rich Man and Lazarus involves Luke’s characterization of the religious leaders as “lovers of money” which was a typical insult in that culture.
Chapter 16 in Luke deals with greed and people’s attachment to money which often leads to overlooking the pain of others and to the creation of economic systems that are set up for the advantage of the few at the expense of the many. Jesus understood that the people who were attached to their wealth at the expense of others, did not set out to do so with bad intentions. Often, they were just misled by their worldview of what was rightfully theirs and how to get it and use it. Another illusion in life is that we are separate from others and that their suffering does not affect us. In the telling of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus was trying to help reverse people’s expectations about wealth and about who is important and who is not in the eyes of God. In this parable we hear Jesus naming the man who is on the bottom of the social ladder, while leaving the rich man nameless. The poor man is given a name, Lazarus. This is the only person in all of the parables of Jesus who is called by name. In contrast we see that the rich man was just being labeled as rich. What is even more intriguing about this is the fact that the name Lazarus in Hebrew means, “God helps.” So, Jesus was clearly assigning tremendous significance to the one who is seen by society as the outcast. The whole parable exaggerates this point in order to make it clear for all who were listening. The two men in the parable clearly come from two social classes. The rich man is someone who is not just rich. He would be in our terms today one of the wealthiest men in the world. He lived in a gated house which was only the privilege of nobility. He wore purple clothes which was another sign of nobility. He feasted sumptuously every day. On the other hand, we are given a vivid image of how severe life was for Lazarus. He waited every day for crumbs to fall off the rich man’s table in order to eat. He also had severe sores on his body. What is worse is that the dogs licked his wounds. Dogs in that culture were considered unclean and vicious. But even the dogs took pity on Lazarus and licked his wounds. The contrast continues into their experiences with God after death. That is when the true reversal takes place. The rich man becomes the outcast outside the gate, while Lazarus is the honored guest at the banquet.
The purpose of this sharp contrast was to show the people that the reality of the kingdom of God about which Jesus was preaching was so different from that of the reality of the world as they knew it. In the kingdom of God which Jesus invited his disciples to proclaim and to live, the poor are important to God. Their names are known to God and are just as important as rich and powerful people. What is also interesting about this parable is the fact that Jesus reverses a religious and theological concept about prosperity and blessing. In that time, and even in our time to a certain extent, wealth was seen as a sign of God’s blessing, while poverty was seen as a sign of God’s displeasure. In a way it was seen as God’s will to have some people rich and others poor. But here in our parable Jesus was challenging such worldviews by telling a parable to show how God’s blessing was not connected to wealth. In fact, the opposite was true. The one who neglected the suffering of the poor was the one who did not receive God’s blessing.
How does this parable apply to us today? I think the key is to enhance our ability to care. This parable is not a story about a focus on the other side as in eternal life. It is a story about learning to see people on the other side of the gates of our social class.
We sometimes ignore those who are struggling around us because we feel an overwhelming sense of helplessness to solve the big problems of the world like poverty. Yet, seeing poverty as an overwhelming challenge that cannot be solved creates a sense of apathy or focusing only on ourselves. If we have a pessimistic view of the world, it is hard to get motivated to do something. Also, if the real problems and opportunities are not known to us, it is hard to move forward. The Gospel of Jesus for this week challenges us to open our eyes and to connect with our fellow human beings. Breaking down the barriers that separate us, whether they are our mindsets or social systems, is essential to the work of the kingdom. We could look at the parable as a way to vilify the rich, but a more faithful way to look at it is to examine ourselves and the barriers we create that limit our compassion and work for justice. It is not about us and them. It is about seeing that we are all in this human struggle together. In the kingdom of God all are important, especially those who are neglected or scorned by society.
This week I invite you to consider how God is calling you to get outside of your gate to reach out and connect with others. Ask yourself: How do I let go of the concerns and comforts of my own world to see and notice those who are suffering around me? How do I keep the flame of compassion alive in my heart? What systems of apathy or oppression do I need to challenge?
Megan McKenna writes, “Lazarus and all the billions of poor humans who live on our doorsteps are God on our doorstep, at our gates. If we do not learn compassion at the sight of them then we will never learn anything about the revelation of God who became flesh to dwell among us. The depth and riches of our religious traditions will remain dried up and useless wells, because we will be as blind and as closed to them as we are to the poor of the earth.”
Prayer by Virgil Fry:
Walk with us, God.
Our trek is not always easy,
our vision shortsighted,
our love often hidden.
May we seek the deeper places where our compassion, our joy
reflect You, the God who is Love. Amen.