Lazarus and the Rich Man

The Raising of Lazarus by Duccio di Buoninsegna
The Raising of Lazarus by Duccio di Buoninsegna

Lazarus: Helped by God?

On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus told several parables.  Lazarus and the Rich Man was one of them (Luke 16:19-31).  It is also the only one of His parables where Jesus gives a character a name.  Lazarus, which means “God has helped.”

Our Lord tells the story of a poor beggar, so weak and malnourished that the dogs aren’t even afraid of him.  I don’t know if you have ever seen dogs in a developing country. They are afraid of people, they scavenge for garbage, and they are dirty, and have fleas and parasites. People yell at them and throw rocks at them. People are not generally their friends. Dogs in Judea would’ve been the same. Canaan Dogs. Pariahs. Lazarus was so weak that the dogs had no problem coming up to him and licking his sores.

The rich man, on the other dined sumptuously every day, dressed in the finest robes of purple, and lived exorbitantly. This was before refrigeration. If this man dined sumptuously, he was eating meat. Meat doesn’t last a long time in the era before refrigeration. He was having meat killed and butchered on a regular basis. When we were in Papua New Guinea, if a pig or a goat was killed, there was always more than the family could eat. It had to be shared with the neighbors or it would go bad. Food was not to be wasted, especially protein. Animals weren’t killed very often, but when there was a special occasion, lots of people got a piece.

Blessings and Curses

Lazarus’s friends put him at the rich man’s gate.  The rich man saw Lazarus every day, but never shared anything with him. He never told his servants to give Lazarus a piece of food that was going to go bad anyway, or considered that an old robe might help protect his sores from bugs or dogs. Now many would have believed that the rich man was blessed by God, after all, God blessed him with all those riches. In collective cultures, when a man is especially blessed, the man has the responsibility to look out for those in his community and family who are not. Instead, the rich man built a wall around his house and put up a gate so that his attention could be on his own affairs.

Both men died. Lazarus went to heaven and was comforted at the bosom of Abraham.  The rich man went to hell, because his faith had been in his riches. Even in the afterlife, he saw Lazarus as something that could help him. He thought it perfectly fine for Lazarus to give up his salvation only to put water on his burning tongue, or to journey back to earth to warn the rich man’s relatives about their doom.

And we are left Abraham’s declaration that the Word of God should be enough to lead them to salvation, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.”

What’s In a Name?

Jesus told this story as He was journeying to Jerusalem toward the cross. Luke doesn’t tell us this, but John also tells us about something that happens on the road to Jerusalem. Jesus gets word that Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus is very sick. They beg him to come help. Jesus stays where He is and continues to teach. Then, He announces to his disciples that it is time to go to Bethany, Lazarus is dead. No one had sent word.  He just knew. He also proclaimed that Lazarus’s fate was not to be death. His death would be used for the glory of God.

The one time that Jesus chose to name a character in one of his stories, it happened to be a man who would die and that Jesus would bring back from the dead. Abraham’s words from the story rang true: “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.”. The Pharisees did not see and believe. Instead, they sought Christ’s death all the more fervently.

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