Theological Insights from a Modern Perspective

The Rich Man and Lazarus

Luke 16:19-31: “There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Laz’arus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Laz’arus in his bosom. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Laz’arus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Laz’arus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.'”
A lot of people misinterpret this parable, for years it was the platform from which the Roman church taught that it was evil to be rich. But, that is not what Jesus is saying here, and if that’s the lesson you take away from it then you missed the point.

This parable falls on the heels of the Unjust Steward, where Jesus taught us a lesson about greed. The problem with the steward was that he cheated many people to gain his riches (master, tenant farmers, merchants) only to lose it all in the end. The lesson here is similar, and that is one of the points that Jesus is trying to make.

Here we see a man so wealthy that he wears purple and fine linen, that is not something you pick up at your local Wal-Mart. Purple was a very expensive color, and finely woven linen took a long time to make, and at great cost. We are looking at someone in the proverbial 1% of society.

Jesus tells us that he feasted sumptuously every day, also a sign of great wealth. Meat was very expensive, a half day’s wages for a single pound – how much would you be eating if a cheap cut of meat was $30/lb? To be able to eat beyond content, every day, required great wealth.

Then Jesus draws us a picture of Lazarus, so poor he was reduced to begging (even the steward would not lower himself to that level). He didn’t have the money for oil to treat his sores, nor the wrappings to cover them, so the dogs came over to lick the open wounds. Now, disgusting as this sounds today, it was considered a beneficial wound treatment for thousands of years. The licking of the wounds would clean out debris and insects, the saliva itself was thought to cleanse the wounds and promote healing. Even today many cultures, and much scientific debate, center around the benefits of allowing people and dogs to lick wounds as a method of treatment. So, Jesus was not trying to paint a disgusting image, but to bring out the point that Lazarus was so poor he could not afford the oils usually used to treat wounds, but was left with having to be treated by licking of the wounds.

Jesus then tells us that both men die, Lazarus goes to Abraham’s Bosom (Heaven) while the rich man’s fate is to spend eternity in Hades. Let’s not take the image too literally, Jesus was not telling us what the afterlife was like, this is just a picture being given to illustrate his point. Lazarus, having lived a hard life will find good things waiting for him; while the rich man, who had things good here will find things very differently for him.

Now, Jesus isn’t putting down being rich, or telling us that we shouldn’t have good things here. He is also not saying that just because we suffer here that things will be better. This is all about what our responsibilities are in this life. Jesus had many rich friends – Lazarus, Joseph of Aramathea, along with Nicodemus who provided the oils to anoint Jesus’ body. Wealth, in and of itself, is not bad, in fact it can be a method of doing God’s work in this world. The problem isn’t what we do with the money, but what we don’t do.

All along in these parables Jesus has been trying to get across pretty much the same point – that we are responsible for our brethren, our neighbors. Just as he told the lawyer that one thing more than strict obedience to the Law is required – that we care for our neighbors. This was the failure of the rich man in this parable, not that he had money, but how he used it (or didn’t us it). Rather than caring for Lazarus who was right outside his door, whom he passed at least twice a day, he cared only for his own needs, far beyond what is needed for this life. His greed was his undoing, and will be ours if we don’t heed this message – care for your necessities, then for those around you who are in need, before you look for the added luxuries of life. Most people need a car to get around, and there is nothing wrong with a Mercedes, unless that Mercedes was purchased instead of doing what you could to help others.

Now, don’t go overboard on the other side either, for Jesus is not saying not to purchase the finer things. Lazarus, Joseph, and Nicodemus, all had great wealth and lived comfortably, but they also used their wealth to help those in need. You can’t help everyone, you will never end poverty (anyone who thinks it possible is naive), but you should do what you can to help the situation.

And that, dear friends, is the message being delivered – to help out those in need.

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