By Lee Karl Palo
© 2013 Lee Karl Palo
The following is the text I prepared for the sermon I preached at Woodinville Community United Methodist Church on August 4, 2013. It is not a transcript (I tend to deviate a bit here and there when speaking, often adding more detail at points) All Bible text is from the Common English Bible, © 2011 Common English Bible.
14 The Pharisees, who were money-lovers, heard all this and sneered at Jesus. 15 He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves before other people, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued by people is deeply offensive to God. 16 Until John, there was only the Law and the Prophets. Since then, the good news of God’s kingdom is preached, and everyone is urged to enter it. 17 It’s easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for the smallest stroke of a pen in the Law to drop out. 18 Any man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and a man who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.
19 “There was a certain rich man who clothed himself in purple and fine linen, and who feasted luxuriously every day. 20 At his gate lay a certain poor man named Lazarus who was covered with sores. 21 Lazarus longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Instead, dogs would come and lick his sores.
22 “The poor man died and was carried by angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 While being tormented in the place of the dead, he looked up and saw Abraham at a distance with Lazarus at his side. 24 He shouted, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I’m suffering in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things, whereas Lazarus received terrible things. Now Lazarus is being comforted and you are in great pain. 26 Moreover, a great crevasse has been fixed between us and you. Those who wish to cross over from here to you cannot. Neither can anyone cross from there to us.’
27 “ The rich man said, ‘Then I beg you, Father, send Lazarus to my father’s house. 28 I have five brothers. He needs to warn them so that they don’t come to this place of agony.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets. They must listen to them.’ 30 The rich man said, ‘No, Father Abraham! But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will change their hearts and lives.’ 31 Abraham said, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, then neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’ ”
The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is a fascinating one that has sparked a lot of discussion on theological issues. Unfortunately much of this discussion has little to do with the points Jesus was trying to make with it. Parables, being “lessons disguised as stories” are for the education and instruction of people for how they should live their lives in the “here and now.” In this case Jesus is using some popular views of the afterlife common to the first century to make his point about what is important in life. C.S. Lewis does much the same thing in the wonderful book, “The Great Divorce.”
The Literary Unit
Let’s begin with some background. The question might come to mind why the passage begins with verse 14. Narrative art in the ancient world would structure compositions in certain ways. This was done for a variety of reasons. Since there was no punctuation as we have today, it was common to have the beginning and ending of a unit closely parallel each other. A famous example would be Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 2:4a that mark off what comes between as a distinct literary unit. Here the evangelist Luke begins with the theme of Biblical authority in verse 16 and the parable concludes with the same theme.
The Audience for the Parable
The beginning of the unit identifies who the audience of the parable was, “Pharisees, who were money-lovers.” We know from other ancient sources that the Pharisees in general were not money-lovers, so here Jesus is talking directly to a particular group of them who were. It is also interesting that Jesus would lecture them on the importance of their scriptures. The Pharisees emphasized the importance of the scriptures for daily living. So what is Jesus doing?
“The Law and the Prophets”
The Bible Jesus would have been referring to would not have been the same as what we have today. The books that comprise the Old Testament had not been settled by this time, nevertheless there was a good amount of agreement about some of the books. By this time the first five books of the Bible were seen as the most significant and authoritative collection of scriptures by all of the major Jewish groups as well as the Samaritans: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. They are sometimes called “the Law,” but a better translation might be “Instruction.” The “Prophets” are not the same books we commonly associate with the prophetic books, and include many of what we would consider to be historical books.
Additionally, we can see that Jesus has added another type of authority to “the Law and the Prophets.” The message of the Kingdom of God, that both Jesus and John the Baptist have been preaching, is authoritative along with the scriptures. Obviously the way Jesus talked about the scriptures does not include many of the books we have in our Bibles today. Does this mean the other books of the Old Testament were not authoritative? Not so. Jesus references other books like Daniel with some frequency, so there are other authoritative books, but perhaps not on the same level as “the Law and the Prophets.” As Christians today, we would say that the message of the kingdom of God is enshrined in the writings of the New Testament.
We can presume that the Pharisees would not disagree with Jesus over the authority of the “the Law and the Prophets.” So what is Jesus getting at? Our first clue comes with the very odd line about divorce in verse 18. Luke has likely inserted this famous saying of Jesus here as an example of how Jesus is the authoritative interpreter of the Law. While the Law is forever, it still requires interpretation. Jesus is rejecting certain interpretations of the scriptures by the Pharisees!
Unfortunately verse 18 doesn’t have much context for understanding what Jesus means, except that he isn’t happy with the Pharisees’ interpretation of divorce. So, what can we say about divorce? Matthew 5:31-32 has a little more context coming in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is rejecting the patriarchal system that allowed men to divorce and remarry freely, putting their ex-wives in very precarious situations. Within marriage this understanding of divorce could mean that a husband could threaten his wife with it unless she did what he wanted. That is hardly the ideal of marriage that Jesus refers to elsewhere, particularly in Matthew 19:3-9. Jesus interprets the Law to eliminate the abuse of women by the misuse of the allowance for divorce.
I can’t see Jesus being the kind of person who would be happy when someone is stuck in an abusive situation. Today, I do not interpret scripture in such a way so as to facilitate the abuse of women or men, and so I find cause to allow divorce in our contemporary world. Obviously given the strong language Jesus has about divorce, it shouldn’t be taken lightly. Nevertheless I am very concerned when I hear of people counseling against divorce when there is a clear pattern of abuse toward one of the marriage partners. The is especially the case when that partner does not admit of the abuse, nor is willing to seek out help to prevent it further infliction on his or her spouse.
The bottom line is that Jesus is portrayed, with good reason, by Luke as THE interpreter of the Law. Now Jesus tells a parable that interprets the Law and the Prophets. As we will see the theme of divorce and the character of Lazarus share the motif of God’s concern for the powerless—divorced women and the poor.
Who are the characters in this parable? This is the only time we know of that Jesus names one of the characters in a parable. With that in mind one immediately wonders if there is some significance to the name of Lazarus. The name Lazarus is a shortened form of Eliezer. In that way Eliezer is like Jim for James, Bob for Robert, Bill for William, and Peggy for Margaret, etc. Even more significantly, Eliezer is the name of Abraham’s servant in Genesis 15:2. The name Eliezer means “someone God helps.”
The Rich Man
We aren’t given many details about the rich man of the parable. That he wore purple is an interesting fact. Purple was an expensive dye, and the Romans limited who could wear it. That would seem to imply that the rich man had some significant standing in the community. The ability to feast “luxuriously every day” also implies an abundance of resources. Could the rich man have been identified with any one of the Roman appointed rulers like Herod Philip or Herod Antipas? I suppose it is possible, but that identification is not the point of the parable, since Jesus is telling it as a lesson for the Pharisees who were lovers of money.
The Parable and the Story of Job
Diving into the story, we see that Lazarus had very modest hopes for help from the rich man, but to no avail. Instead dogs would accost him, licking his sores. That would also render him ceremonially unclean. Given his name of Lazarus, it seems obvious that he is not deserving of the suffering he is enduring. This brings to mind another story that Jesus was doubtless familiar with, that of Job. It is very clear in the book of Job, that Job did not deserve the suffering he went through either. Like Job, Lazarus also was afflicted with sores.
Assuming the Pharisees were familiar with the book of Job, they might catch on pretty quick that Jesus is drawing the parallel. So what in the book of Job would Jesus try to have brought to mind? Job is a book that is designed as a corrective to some very poor interpretations of scriptures like Deuteronomy 28. That chapter can be read as if to say that following God’s commands brings material blessings, and failure to follow God’s commands brings curses. That theme is also present in the book of Proverbs. It is Job’s friends’ arguments, based on a literal reading of Deuteronomy 28 and select proverbs that are categorically rejected. As Jesus said in Matthew 5:43-48
43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you 45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.
…and in another case in John 9:1-3 Jesus also rejects the idea that either the man born blind or his parents did anything to deserve his affliction. It is safe to say that Jesus rejects the prosperity Gospel that says material wealth is a result of God’s blessing, and he additionally rejects the idea that suffering is always the result of sin. Of course given the fate of Lazarus after his death, it becomes clear that he did nothing to deserve his misfortunes in life.
The Rich Man’s Misfortunes
Why then did the rich man, who seemed to have a great many blessings in life, end up in such a terrible position after his death? Once more the clues come from the scriptures. The abundant food of the rich man echoes Ezekiel 16:49, “This is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were proud, had plenty to eat, and enjoyed peace and prosperity; but she didn’t help the poor and the needy.” Did the rich man know Lazarus? It is clear that the rich man does, as he asks Abraham for Lazarus to help him.
Now we get to one of the most ingenious aspects of the parable. A common literary form in the ancient world used close thematic parallels in storytelling for a variety of reasons. Let’s look at it here…
The Parable’s Conclusion: Resurrection?
The rich man accepts his situation of agony in the afterlife, but requests that his brothers be warned. This too is not going to happen. Abraham insists that all the rich man’s brothers need is in the Law and the Prophets that are readily available to them. The rich man apparently doesn’t think it will be enough, and requests that Lazarus come back from the dead to warn them. There is plenty of irony in the final statement that even a resurrection is not going to work to change the mind of someone who has not heeded the message of the scriptures (given the bodily resurrection of Jesus).
What is the message of the scriptures? I think there is no better verse to sum it up than Leviticus 19:18b, “you must love your neighbor as yourself.” The essence of the Law is to care for one’s neighbor. And who is my neighbor? That is a theme that Jesus explores in another parable, the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:29-37. What does this story mean for us today? We are not called to save the entire world ourselves. God does, however, give us opportunities and means to help others. This can take the form of directly feeding those who, like Lazarus, need some help. This can mean supporting the work of the Woodinville Storehouse Food Bank. This can mean being faithful givers to the church through tithe or Faith-Promise. Being part of a denomination means supporting many ministries around the world that just one church by itself would not have the ability to do.
God has provided us with gifts, resources, talents, and abilities. It is up to us to follow God’s leading. Perhaps you should take a class on spiritual gifts to better discover the places God may be calling you serve. Sometimes God may lead you to service through the “still small voice” of the Holy Spirit. More often others in the church can help you to discern what God’s direction for your life is. You may not be called to feed the hungry like the rich man of Jesus parable, but I am certain there is something God is calling you to do. It is up to you to find what that calling is. Like the rich man, who had Lazarus right there, God’s calling is not something hidden. Listen to the guiding voice of the Spirit in the community of believers to find the “Lazarus opportunities” in you life. Good works don’t make the Christian, but a Christian does good works, so it is up to us to follow the leading of God toward the works God would have us do.
© 2013 Lee Karl Palo