19 “Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. 20 And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, 21 and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores.
Okay, so there are many ways people interpret this passage. Some, because of Jesus’ use of a name, take it as a literal, historic event with real people. I don’t. The story itself is consistent with other parables that Christ used and shares themes that we’ve been covering in Luke: a concern for the poor; the seduction of wealth; the need to recognize what really matters (people, not property, eternal treasures) and the reversal of fortunes that happens after death; and the lack of faith that some (particularly, the Pharisees in this case) will persist in despite the miraculous occurring in front of them.
So we’re given the story of a beggar. A man sick and utterly destitute. Perhaps disease has struck him hard, as he seemed to be immobile. We’re told that the dogs that roamed the streets of his city would lick his wounds. He didn’t have enough to eat. He longed for simple crumbs to fill his stomach. And he was put in front of the gate to the home of a rich man who had all of the best worldly goods his money could buy and lacked for nothing.
You see the picture, right?
Every time the rich man left his home, he would see Lazarus sitting there, begging even for the leftovers from the wealthy man’s table that had fallen on the floor that would otherwise be trampled into the dirt or swept outside or eaten by vermin. And the rich man, every time he left his house, ignored the poor man. He had no empathy or compassion for a fellow human being. Though he had much he could have given the poor man, he didn’t see him as worthy of helping. Not even to take the time to simply order that a little bit more be made during his meals and taken outside and given to the beggar.
The rich man was utterly indifferent to his fellow man’s agony.
22 Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried.
Death is, in a sense, the great equalizer. So far, everyone who lives, dies. And all of the possessions you have stay here. Both men died. Both men ended up in graves. Both men’s bodies rotted away to dust. Their spirits, their souls lived on. And it’s here that we see a reversal of fortune.
23 In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. 24 And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’
The rich man who had valued only himself in life, who had valued the temporal goods and comforts that they brought, who spent his days fixated on things, is impoverished. What he valued has passed from his hands and he never cultivated relationships. He never built heavenly treasure by investing in others. He never learned to be satisfied with what mattered. So he is presented here in a place of painful desire. He wants something to satiate his desires and end his torment. As the poor man used to lay at his gate every day in dire need of food, here the rich man is presented as even more pitiable desiring something even more basic than food: water. His soul thirsts for satisfaction, but he’s still looking for it in material things. He’s still looking for it solely to satisfy himself.
The soul so fixated upon itself that it is isolated in a hell of its own creation.
25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’
Now, I’ve heard this taught literally before. Personally, I wouldn’t base my cosmology on a parable. One of the things that I’ve always had difficulty with and one of the things that led me to reject a literal hell that consisted of everlasting torment was the idea that the saints of God, the church who was called to love their neighbor, to go out and risk great personal harm to share the Way with the world, would suddenly collectively shrug their shoulders at the plight of the damned, say “You’re just getting what you deserve” and then go back to singing praise songs while the smoke of their torment and the sound of their cries rose forever and ever.
What I’m saying is that I think this is less literal and more the narrative point of this parable echoes back to Luke 6:20, 24.
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God… But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
It remains a warning to those who covet and value goods above people. Everything you cherish will be taken from you at death. Then what will you have left? What will satisfy you then? Like the parable of the unjust steward, who’s going to take you into their eternal abode when you’re turned out of your comfortable situation?
27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ 31 But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Lastly, the rich man starts to think of others. He begs that Lazarus return from the dead and warn his brothers about what will happen. Abraham simply says that they have the bible to guide them and they should listen to it. When the rich man objects and pleads that a miracle such as a resurrection would convince them, Abraham states that if they’ve rejected the bible, then even a resurrection would not convince them to mend their ways.
It’s hard not to see this as an indictment of the Pharisees, who believed in the general concept of a resurrection and were devout students of their bible, who nonetheless had rejected Christ and were mostly interested in their own power, position, and reputation. Christ’s warning to them was that even such a sign as his own resurrection would be unheeded and not believed.
It’s easy to be distracted. There is so much in this world that seeks to distract us from the things that matter. There is so much cultural pressure built around fulfilling our own wants and desires. We’re constantly bombarded by advertisements designed to convince us that things will satisfy us and make us happy. Constantly told that the things of this world are what matter.
It is absurdly easy to listen to those voices saying that. You don’t even have to think about it really. We’re seemingly naturally selfish as a species. And our default programming (whether genetic, cultural, or both) seems to be just fulfilling our desires. And I find it very easy, personally, to withdraw from others and cocoon myself in a wall of distractions and stuff: books, video games, television, movies, radio, music, food, drink, whatever is handy.
And then Jesus comes and says, Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Me.
And the reason He says this is because He can see that all of those things, while not evil in themselves, won’t be around forever. There will come a day when all of that is gone. And I’ll be alone. Devoid of possessions. Devoid of distractions. And what will I have left?
Who will be there to take me into their eternal abode where we can share true friendship and true fellowship, except that people that I build strong relationships with now? Except the people that I love the way Jesus loves them? Except the people that I invested my time, resources, love, compassion, forgiveness in?
On that note, the parable ends, and we’re left in the position of the brothers. We have a choice. We can walk through life oblivious to the needs of everyone except ourselves and walk into an afterlife of utter destitution, mourning, and unfilled desires (because we trained our soul to set its desires on temporal things.)
Or we can love people. We can build them up. We can lay bricks by our acts of kindness in their eternal abodes, so that when all is said and done, if nothing else remains for us we’ve got friends who will let us crash in their eternal guest rooms and share their time with us in perfect friendship and perfect fellowship.