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The Rich Man & Lazarus [The Parables of Jesus]

The Parables of Jesus: The Rich Man & Lazarus

Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor • August 14, 2016 • Nigel Berry, Family Life & Staff Paster


Good morning!


We’re so glad that you’re able to join us this morning.  Last week, Anna Hillaker launched our final summer sermon series on the Parables of Jesus with a deeper look at the parable of the  Two Builders.  If you weren’t able to join us last week because you were out of town or your children had a sports tournament or you were getting matching tattoos with your co-workers, you missed a great sermon and you can find both video and audio links to our past sermons on our website under the ‘Resources’ tab.


This summer we’ve been moving through a couple of major biblical themes as they correspond to how we live our day in, day out lives.


At the start of the summer we had a sermon series on judgment, exploring the ways that we tend to harm our relationships through postures which withhold mercy.  We followed that series up with a look at how we are to be neighbors to those around us.  And in our time together this morning we’ll looking at Luke’s recorded parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man because I believe that this story, like many stories, has more to offer us than we’ve perhaps assumed before.


Now, before we dive into the story, I’d like to contrast two different approaches to the Biblical parables for you to help engage more deeply with the parables of Jesus.  Kenneth Bailey is a professor, author, and researcher at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis.


A metaphor’s purpose is to invite the hearer into discourse; into conversation, and examination, into reflection and into imagination so that the metaphor can teach us again and again and again.


Bailey reminds us that parables serve as metaphors and that a metaphor’s purpose is not to merely illustrate a theological picture but rather to invite the hearer into discourse; into conversation, and examination, into reflection and into imagination so that the metaphor can teach us again and again and again.


In my experience, the more prevalent understanding of Jesus’ parables, has been similar to that of a bullet casing - who's sole purpose is drive the shell in the direction of a target, after which it can be discarded.  And many of us have fallen into this trap, understanding Biblical parables as only serving to launch and idea or a single concept forward in our spiritual walk and then, once we’ve hit our target, we simply cast away or dismiss the story since it no longer has a  functioning purpose.


Anna touched on that a little bit last week where we examined how the simplicity of the Two Builder’s Parable is often filed away and dismissed as a “children’s story” despite its incredible challenge.  And I find this bullet analogy to be helpful in that not only can it serve to illustrate our common errors of interpretation but also because such postures are detrimental to our spiritual health in the same way that an actual bullet is a threat to our physical health.


In such a case, I think a violent comparison could be considered appropriate.


Bailey has another recommendation for how we might think about parables. He suggests that metaphors do more than explain meaning, but rather they create meaning. A parable is an extended metaphor and as such it is not a delivery system for an idea but a house in which the reader/listener is invited to take up residence.”


“The metaphor does not explain meaning, it creates meaning.

A parable is an extended metaphor and as such it is not a delivery system for an

idea but a house in which the reader/listener is invited to take up residence.”

Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes


And as we’ll see in just amount that there are many rooms and viewpoints for the Rich Man and Lazarus story.  Or, tying it to my previous assertion that this story explores connections, there are a lot of correlating themes which might present themselves like themes of

  • injustice/justice
  • blessing/cursing
  • compassion/ignorance
  • self-preservation/self-indulgence
  • materialism
  • empathy/indifference
  • wealth/poverty
  • family/race/belonging


So as one or more of these themes might be something that we care about and that God certainly cares about, let’s look at the text together.  We’re in Luke Chapter 16 for this story and it reads like this:


“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. 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. 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.’ 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.’ 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.’”  Luke 16:19-30


As I was growing up, the “bullet point” of this parable reduced it to be a simple ‘turn or burn’ story.


It’s a warning, right? Don’t hold your cash, or you’ll turn to ash. Ignore a poor man, enter the frying pan?  If your heart is hard you’ll get charred?  Reject the Holy Ghosty, end up toasty?  I could do this all morning…


Now this parable is certainly a cautionary tale among other things, but the challenge and the inspiration of this story can be lost on the strong “Follow Jesus or else” theme that I had walked away with.  And I’ve come to believe that such a gross application at the end of the day only dismisses the real power of this story and invited me to rest in the assurance that I was nothing  like the rich man.  If there were any gates in rural Indiana where I grew up, they were to keep cows in, not beggars out. So - putting my traditions of self-righteous judgment on the curbside where they belong, let’s take a couple of considerations along with us.


A primary consideration of this story is that is the only parable of Jesus where a character is named.  All other characters in all other parables have generic labels - worker, servant, master, neighbor, pharisee, builder, and so forth.


a poor man named ‘the one who God helps’ was laid at [the rich man’s] gate, covered with sores,

and longed to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table.


But in this story, the name ‘Lazarus’ is given to the beggar.  In the Hebrew language, the name ‘Lazarus’ means “the one who God helps”. And this would have really stuck in the minds of the original listeners who would have likely read his introduction like this: a poor man named ‘the one who God helps’ was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longed to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table.a


Now, unsurprising to you and I, because our reaction might very much be the same - the earlier listeners would have been caught up in this naming.  Like, “Really? God helps this guy? No.  No - God certainly does NOT help this man. This sounds like a mean joke - a cruel twist of fates.  Why of all the names in the world Jesus, including your own would you name this man Lazarus?!”  Especially in contrast with the man who has it all because the picture that Jesus paints of the rich man isn’t a commonly rich man - his wealth was above and beyond what even in wealthy societies would be considered excessive.  To illustrate this, Jesus described the man’s satire as ‘wearing purple and fine linens daily’. Purple dyed fabrics were difficult to produce at this time and would have been very expensive. If a person was fortunate enough to own purple clothing, they would only be worn at the absolute BEST of occasions.  To wear purple daily would be our cultural equivalent of a man wearing a designer tuxedo every day.  And adding a bit of humor missed by our culture, Jesus also describes the man as wearing exceptionally fine linens which, would have essentially been describing the man’s underwear.  As if the Rich Man were not ostentatious enough to wear tuxedos each day, he also wore luxury underwear.  Only something cush can touch this man’s toosh!


In stark contrast, Lazarus’ existence could be considered a textbook definition of cruel.  Of unfair.  Not only was he painfully crippled but was ignored every day by those who had the means to save him..


It would even appear that the neighborhood’s stray dogs were conspiring agains his happiness as several translations phrase it in such a manner.


besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. (NASB)

Even the dogs came and licked his sores. (NIV)

moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.(KJV)


Rather the Greek language denotes a contrast - being carried to/from the rich man’s gate & getting licked by stray dogs were the only notably “helpful” things this man has experienced in life.  Dogs were culturally despised as well.  Even today in the Middle East, dogs aren’t really pets.  They’re scavengers.  Dirty and Dangerous. Unwanted.  And in this story, not even the lowest person but the lowest animal is the only steady comfort this man received.  If your next question is, “Why would a dog licking him be comforting?”, there existed at this time these ancient healing cults that were popular in surrounding countries where dogs were considered to be sacred.  Injured persons would take their money to a priest or priestess and they would let puppies lick your ouchies.


It is true that there are properties in canine saliva that can indeed promote healing.  But it is also true that there’s some really gnarly bacteria that can make you even sicker so we don’t recommend puppy kisses as official home remedies.  Now there is debate as to whether or not Jesus was also alluding to such cults which operated outside of Jewish law and custom or if he was simply declaring a contrast between Lazarus’ potential care and his actual care but that would be best to speculate later.


So then, where is God’s goodness and favor in this story?  Are such blessings only for the next life? Lazarus’ name was the same in both lives so there must be something more.  And I think we got a glimpse of that in the interactions between Abraham, who was holding Lazarus, and the rich man, who was in torment.


Now to be “cradled in Abraham’s bosom” conjures a vivid image for the listener. There are few people that we would cradle in our chests.  This is a posture far more intimate than a mere hug. The best way to understand this posture is to imagine a new parent holding their child.


The embrace doesn’t just convey a “We’re cool” sentiment or a warm “You mean something to me”.  Such an embrace conveys that you couldn’t be any closer if you tried. It speaks safety and warmth, love and acceptance, dignity and hope to its recipient. And what a sweet message that must have been to a man who longed each day for his basic needs to be met.


That’s not an embrace that says you can have bread crumbs - that’s an embrace that says I will buy you tacos. Forever.


Now at this point in the story we begin to see the first verbal exchanges, initiated by the Rich Man who has found himself in a form of torment while Lazarus us resting with the patriarch of their faith and their people.  And its not what people might expect.


As the wealthy man sees Lazarus in the company of Abraham, he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to him to bring him relief.  This was a wild request considering how each have faired in judgement, where the rich man has the expectation that Lazarus should serve him and be below him, still. After Abraham diplomatically tells him, “Not gonna happen, man.”, the rich man then requests that Abraham send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them.  Still not taking the hint that he’s in torment for being a jerk, he still wants Lazarus to run a personal errand for him.  Abraham again, in defense of Lazarus asserts that his brothers have adequate warnings for how they live their lives and that even if he were to send Lazarus, they would not believe him.


Now let the reader understand that Abraham is not giving up on the rich man’s family by withholding Lazarus, but rather is judging their posture. If the rich man is unwilling to see Lazarus as significant even from the depths of his own judgement, the likeliness that his brothers would repent is slim to none, even if Lazarus were to appear to them.  They would fail to see him too.


Within the Christian faith, there is a lot of talk about this idea of being “saved”. And its been for me a mixture of confusion and excitement.  I had always known how to answer the question so that people would leave me alone but inside my head I always wondered “saved from what?”  Like, if people are asking me if I’m saved from hurricanes or polar bears, my answer is “Yes!  I live in the midwest.  Those jerks can’t touch me!”


When I was younger, “getting saved” wasn’t about submitting myself to the Lordship of Jesus.  It was more about being accepted by my peers and my family.  The blessing wasn’t in being saved through the rigors of discipleship but in being saved from harassment or exasperated looks when I didn’t want to go to church or when I goofed around too much. Sometimes I still want salvation from those things…


When we consider the theme of salvation in this story, it takes us to curious places when we ask questions like, “Is salvation for now or for later? Both?”  If Lazarus experienced salvation on earth, how?  What did he do or not do to experience it?  I suspect that in examining Lazarus’ response, or lack of response rather, to the Rich Man, we discover a clue.


I’m frequently frustrated by injustice.  If you’re willing to look for it, it is not difficult to find.  And if I were to put myself in Lazarus’ position, I would have given the rich man a verbal beat down from across that chasm.  And perhaps Jesus’ audience would have been surprised by this as well - that Lazarus did not explore at that pompous jerk who has the audacity to request his use as an errand boy after years of neglect and mistreatment?!  I mean, come on!  This was your chance, Lazarus!  Put that disgrace of a neighbor in his place!  Shut him up for good then drop  the mic!  You know we’ll cheer!


You want to offer him an anger translator. I mean, Barak Obama has Luther - why can’t Lazarus have a little more backup?  Abraham was firm but still too controlled.  We just want to see someone cut loose, to come down on this literal fancy pants and destroy him.


But he doesn’t.  He doesn’t.


And what I’m going to wager is that the reason Lazarus holds his tongue is because he truly loved his neighbor.  Both in his earthly life and while by Abraham’s side.  Because there’s more to a beggar who returns to a wealthy man’s gate every day when he’s likely to receive nothing. There’s more to his request for proximity without any positive history or promise of help. Lazarus displayed an incredible belief in the Rich Man’s ability to change.  He had a wild hope in his ability to be more than a tuxedo donning narcissist. Lazarus chose to believe the best about his neighbor despite the evidence and loved him his entire life without abandoning him; all the while the rich man and his brothers abandoned Lazarus daily.


When we read Paul’s description of love to the early church in Corinth, we can recognize Lazarus’ posture towards the rich man.  The infamous love chapter reminds us that:


Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  1 Cor 13:4-6


Interestingly enough, Ken Bailey noted that love both begins and ends with applications of patience.


Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 1 Cor 13:4-6


Now a quick mathematical note about this story.


The man’s number of brothers was significant because if you added him into the mix, it would create a family of six brothers.  In Jewish understanding, 6 was a negatively associated number for several reasons.  But one of the reasons it was poorly favored was because it falls one short of the number 7, representing perfection.  Had the rich man and his brothers have taken in the man outside their gate, the achievement would have been numerically noted as being “perfect” in this story.


Lisa Sharon Harper, author of the The Very Good Gospel


The Hebrews understood perfection as not existing inside the thing

but rather existing between things.  -Lisa Sharon Harper


reminds us that The Hebrews understood perfection as not existing inside the thing but rather existing between things.


Perfection should not be understood as happening only the other side of this life but in-between.   That would mean that the idea of being saved is something that doesn’t just happen later, but also must happen NOW.  You see, Lazarus’ name worked. God did help him.  God did save him in his physical life. If we were to imagine our love verses as frameworks of salvation, we can see why Lazarus was named the “one who God helps.”


Our salvation is from impatience, from cruelty and jealousy; Salvation is protection from our own egos and forgiveness for our own missteps; We’re saved from selfishness and provocation, saved from revenge and the delight of things that are always negative; Loving salvation invites us not only to bear all things, but also to believe, hope, and endure through all things.


We call this the Christian love, the (agape) love, in Greek.


To follow Jesus puts us in the midst of a backwards-leaning tribe where we love our enemies, where we pray for those who make our lives miserable, where the blessed are those who mourn, those who are poor, those who are weak.  We’re to be a tribe where we go the extra mile with a joyful heart even when the first mile was SUPER annoying.  This parable keeps us rooted as followers of Jesus in our hope to experience salvation and to extend it towards our neighbors.  Such perseverance grows in us a richness that this world is craving.  Its a richness that knows love and peace and goodness and shares them freely with any who might be open to receive it.  We sow seeds of compassion, of patience, of endurance because we know that they yield transformation not only in our lives but in the lives of our neighbors too.  And this parable is again, sowing seeds.  There are seeds of simplicity, of generosity, and of empathetic action. And the beautiful thing about this love is that it is here.  Right now.  For each of us “Being saved” can mean something more than what the “Christian” T-shirt and Bumper sticker industry has made it out to be.


You see, what we do with our material things matters.  The value is made clear in our parable because not only would the material kindness have aided Lazarus, but the character transformation on behalf of the rich man would have had a far reaching impact on his character and influence.

As we wrestle with the stories and images within the Biblical text, some things begin to stand out to us.  For example, Jesus’ analogy of a cup where the outside is clean but the inside is dirty is an important reminder for us to take care of the stuff inside of us and I think of it almost every time I hand wash a coffee cup of mine.  Or when Jesus breaks bread with his disciples - I can’t escape the fellowship imagery when I visit an Italian restaurant and destroy a crispy loaf of fresh bread with my family.  In this way, everyday things have opportunities to become ‘icons’, or symbols of something greater than themselves.


My question becomes, if we can be patient in accepting the imperfections of our stuff, how much more can we be patient with the imperfections of our families?  If we can be generous with our material goods, how much more could we then be generous with our immaterial goods such as our time, our attention, or our kind words?  If we can identify clutter in our material lives, could we identify the clutter in our spiritual lives, such as weeding out our imbalances of television so that our calendar has space to deepen friendships? Or deleting phone apps that distract us from conversations? Or perhaps offering that 2nd lawnmower in the garage to the new couple that just bought their first house.


Practical Tips

  1. Identify a possession of yours as an “icon” to remind you of your commitment to find the good in difficult places and to practice patience. Mine is currently an electric weed eater hat I’ve wanted to replace for 7 years.  I hate it.  It’s annoying.  I have to take a 75ft extension cord out of my garage, untangle it, plug it in, and drag it everywhere so that the city of Ypsilanti doesn’t fine me for having a hideous lawn.  On top of that great annoyance,  I typically have to stop at least twice per lawn care session in order to draw more wire off the coil.  What would be done in 5 minutes with a newer gas model takes me about 15 minutes.  But it works.  My yard looks good when I use it.  I do not need to spend $100 to replace it. It reminds me to practice patience when I am frustrated. So find YOUR icon and embrace it.
  2. Clean our your garage, attic, basement or wherever the place is in life that you store your junk.  In other words - simplify. And here’s a romantic way to do this: The romantic journey is 10 dates, 5 breakups, and one marriage.  It looks like this:
    1. 10 Dates - pick 10 items of yours that you seldom use and write today’s date on it with a  sticky note or piece of tape.  If you haven’t used it in a year - get rid of it.  This is best for those items you really like but you aren’t sure if you have a future together.
    2. Initiate 5 Breakups - Pick 5 items that aren’t doing you any good and end your relationship.  And remember that breakups are often painful so there are two rules that come with this:
      1. no rebounding - you aren’t allowed to replace the items you breakup with to numb any pain and
      2. no take backs - It’s not you, its them. Let them go.
    3. 1 Marriage - marry off one of your treasures to someone who needs it more.  This is the equivalent of walking your material goods down the isle to unite them with someone else.  Give away something valuable that you love to someone else. You can even dress up for the occasion.  Your item of choice would prefer it that way and you’ll look very attractive in the wedding pictures.
  3. This parable invites us to do a lot of “heart work”, exploring our own postures towards those who act unjustly, unkindly, or who don’t know how (or care to) live generously to the benefit of their neighbors.  Our posture is not to be one of condemnation or smug separation but rather one of humility, choosing to align ourselves to Christ.  So your invitation is to reimagine Pauls’ description of love with me, and inviting God to continue working out his salvation in your life.  And you can do this in a couple of ways
    1. Spend time reading this morning’s parable and enter into the theological house with fresh eyes.  Read this short parable three times this week and invite the Holy Spirit to move.  Or, if you want to aim for perfection, read it seven times.  (Just kidding.  Unless you want to)
    2. Apologize to someone that you’ve been trying to “fix” or that you’ve written off as being a lost cause for change.
    3. Join our prayer team on my left hand side to accept God’s gift of salvation for the first time
    4. Repent from our “Rich Man tendencies” whether it may be an unhealthy relationship with our resources, our unwillingness to see the value of another, or an air of entitlement to God’s favor.
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