T HE RICH MAN is ridiculously rich. The poor man is punishingly poor. To radical extremes. The rich man wears royalty purple, lives in a gated community and lavishly feasts every day.
The poor man has nothing. Not even his health. He depends on someone to lay him on the street corner every day. He has no health care. No food. No shelter. No hope except for the hope that maybe, some day, the rich man will give him crumbs from his table.
The rich man (we don’t know his name) lives large. The poor man (we know his name — Lazarus) teeters on the very edge of death. (It’s odd that Jesus names this character, the only character in a parable that has a name. Jesus recognizes his humanity.)
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LUKE OVER AND AGAIN emphasizes the danger that wealth poses to spiritual well-being. Luke records Mary’s prayer in which she thanks God because God has “filled the hungry with good things and sent away the rich empty” (1:53). Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain” offers a “woe” as a counterpart to each of the “blessings”:
● Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. But woe to you rich, because you have received your consolation.
● Blessed are the ones hungering now, for you will be sated. (vv 20–21) Woe to you who are full now, because you shall hunger. (vv 24–25).
Earlier in this chapter, Luke recounts Jesus’ advice about not being able to serve both God and money. (16:13).
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BOTH MEN DIE. Lazarus goes to heaven. The rich man goes to hell. Who’d a thunk it? With so much prosperity gospel being preached on TV and memes on FB proclaiming that if you type “amen” you will be blessed with financial riches, you’d think the outrageously rich man, not the devastatingly poor man, was blessed. It was a surprise to Jesus’ listeners as well.
Even though they know the story of Job and his innocence, people believed — and people continue to believe — that riches equal right standing with God. Poverty equals punishment.
I’m not sure any of you places yourself in the position of the filthy rich man. Rich folks are at least one tax bracket above our own. That said, no one here can place themselves in the position of the extremely poor.
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SO WHO MIGHT BE Lazarus today? Some possibilities:
● The child at school who gets fed a cheese sandwich instead of a hot meal because his lunch account has no money in it.
● Someone digging through the dumpster behind Wolf Bay Lodge or Winn-Dixie.
● The mentally ill walking the streets because of the closure of mental health facilities.
● The cancer-ridden who have no insurance or way to get proper care.
● The vast majority of the world’s population.
● The woman holding up a sign by the highway.
● Syrians who have lost their homes, jobs, possessions and are living in refugee camps.
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THE RICH MAN MUST HAVE FELT, as many do today, that his money was his own to spend or keep as he wished. The needy have no claim or right to it and the wealthy are under no obligation to give any away.
Should we be surprised that this parable conveys that God is really, really concerned for the poor? God’s unrelenting care and compassion for the poor and vulnerable is a major topic of both testaments.
Exodus makes it clear that withholding from the poor the assistance that they need is a form of stealing (Exodus 22:21–27). Deuteronomy includes frequent reminders that Israel, once enslaved, has been freed by a God who watches over the disenfranchised, and that the Israelites will always face that the danger that, in prosperity, they will become pharaohs.
I’ve already talked about Luke’s concern.
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ALTHOUGH THE RICH MAN apparently makes no attempt to relieve the suffering of Lazarus, it’s not that he doesn’t know him, or even that Lazarus was invisible to him. After all, in the afterlife, he not only recognizes Lazarus but refers to him by name.
“Send Lazarus to my family so they won’t experience this fate.” They have Moses. They’ve got their Bibles. They’ve got the Old Testament with prophets like Amos and Micah who ripped into the selfishly rich people of Israel long ago and whose chastisement has been preserved as a warning to future generations. If they won’t listen to the voices of Scripture, they won’t listen to a dead man who will say to them the exact same things.” The rich man, his surviving family had — and we have — every opportunity to know better.
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WE HAVE MOSES, TOO. What’s more, now we have Jesus. In this powerful parable, our Lord asks us what we will do with the knowledge that comes to us from the Word of God and the very Son of God. What kind of lives will we lead? What kind of government policies will we get excited about? What kind of congregation should we be?
We have Moses. We have Jesus. Will we listen to what they say? When it comes to just treatment of the poor, no one with a Bible can claim not to know any better.
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SIX-YEAR-OLD ALEX saw Lazarus and acted:
“Dear President Obama, remember the boy who was picked up by the ambulance in Syria?” Alex began his letter, referring to the 5-year-old who garnered global attention when a photo of him covered in dust and blood as he awaited treatment following an airstrike went viral last month.
“Can you please go get him and bring him to our home? Park in the driveway or on the street and we’ll be waiting for you guys with flags, flowers and balloons.”
“Catherine, my little sister, will be collecting butterflies and fireflies for him,” he continued. “Since he won’t bring toys and doesn’t have toys, Catherine will share her big, blue, stripy white bunny. And I will share my bike and I will teach him how to ride it.”
“We will give him a family and he will be our brother.”
— Keith Cardwell