Luke 16:19-31 - The Rich Man and Lazarus
“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.’ 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.’”
The Bible is a funny thing. Not literally – although there are some amusing bits – funny more in the sense that it feels awkward. So much of it is thoroughly inspiring, plenty of it is confusing and quite a bit of it is just plain harrowing. I often hear people say they take the Bible literally. Of course these same people don’t stone their children for misbehaving (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), they don’t tear their own eyes out if they look at something inappropriately (Mark 9:47) and they don’t cannibalise the body of Christ (John 6:54) but "Yeah, the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it."
It’s always helpful when we are inclined to take a passage literally to ask ourselves are we doing so because it is meant to be taken this way or because it helps a certain narrative that we bring to the text? Or maybe we’re just petrified that if it’s not literal it looses all credibility?
Our passage for today is one such example. I’ve heard it referenced plenty of times to say that Jesus is describing the nature of divine judgement and a picture of hell being a place of eternal fire. One helpful thought with parables is that sometimes to take them seriously is to not take them so literally.
A hint that it’s not all as it seems is that Lazarus is in Hades, the place of the dead prior to judgement day, not after it. Hence his warning. It’s a warning before the great and final day of judgement not afterwards. We are also told in the passage that Moses and the prophets are sufficient for salvation which I can’t exactly see any Protestants taking at face value.
The context of the passage, from the start of Luke 16, is the management of wealth, idolising mammon (money) and the abomination of those choosing wealth over surrendering to God.
Jesus is, as he tends to do, speaking to the here and now. He’s speaking to those with power, again, as he tends to do.
Sometimes it’s easier for us to hypothesise about the after-life, especially a place like hell because ‘Well, at least I’m not going there’ and we imagine (or worse still preach about) those who will be going there. The problem with parables like this for my inquisitive mind is that I realise that the more I project them on to the ‘other’, the more I realise they speak to me. Jesus is saying that today we need to be looking out for the poor at our city gates. We Westerners, who are generally rich by global standards, may some day be outside the gates of those who today are poor and we will be asking them for justice and mercy.
We love to exclude and make it about 'them' and 'us'; hence we like to talk about hell a lot. A place for ‘them’ to go. The offensive nature of the gospel, then, is that all are welcome to the table, all are included and we don’t get to judge who is in or out. It would be nice if that wasn’t so offensive, but it is. And when I really think about it, it offends me because I am who Jesus is talking to.
I pray we follow Pauls exhortation in our text from his first letter to Timothy to “…do good, that we be rich in good works, ready to give, [and] willing to share”.
Ferg Breen is married with two kids and is a counsellor, psychotherapist, lecturer and pastor in Dublin. He also performs motivational seminars inspired solely by the work of David Brent.