The story of the rich man and Lazarus is a favorite parable for several reasons. Jesus puts a rhetorical cap on his teachings about money and faith that we’ve been reading for several weeks now. He also gives one of the few descriptions in the Bible of what life is like after death. And Abraham, in Jesus’ telling, gives a bit of a Bible study.
We are familiar, I think, with the basic story. Every day a rich man dresses up in his best party clothes and enjoys a personal feast (Luke 16:19). Just for comparison, even Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey didn’t wear white tie to feasts every night! Then Jesus introduces the photo-negative of the rich man. We don’t know the rich man’s name, but the poor man is Lazarus (a Hellenization of “Eleazar”—God is [my] help/God helps). The rich man wears party clothes while Lazarus is clothed in sores. The rich man lives in splendor in a fine house; Lazarus sits at the gate of the oblivious rich man. While the rich man feasts, Lazarus somehow observes the festivities and longs to eat the scraps that fall off the rich man’s tables. Instead, Lazarus actually becomes food for dogs, who lick his wounds while he is still alive. These men are in drastically different situations. It’s important to note that we don’t have any overt indication of either man’s beliefs.
The first, and only, similarity between the rich man and Lazarus is that they both die. Just as someone had dropped him off at the rich man’s gate during his life, the angels carry Lazarus to Abraham’s “bosom.” The Greek word kolpos means the pocket/fold of menswear above the belt on the front of the chest where a man would store precious things that he didn’t want to chance in a money belt or bag. Lazarus is recognized as precious, whereas the rich man is simply buried and finds himself in Hades.
We should also be clear that Hades isn’t the medieval notion of hell, and Abraham’s bosom isn’t heaven. Think of them as extremities of a spectrum of the land of the dead, rather than differing realms. Communication from one side to another is possible, even if travel is not (Luke 16:23-26). Finally, notice that God is completely absent from this parable.
In his suffering, the rich man seeks to convince Abraham to use Lazarus as a tool, asking that the poor man be removed from his comfort so he can bring him water. Abraham responds to the rich man, as his child, and objects to his request on two grounds. First, the rich man’s suffering and Lazarus’ comfort is just, as they are both receiving the opposite of what they had experienced in their earthly lives. Second, travel from Abraham’s bosom to the place of suffering, or the reverse, wasn’t possible for Abraham to grant.
We go back to Scripture, rather than signs or wonders, to learn about how to be God’s people.
Then, for the first time in his life/afterlife, the rich man thinks of someone else and asks that Lazarus be sent to his brothers in order that they won’t join his suffering after their deaths. Abraham says something that we often skip over: “They have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them” (Luke 16:29). The rich man objects, saying Scripture is insufficient. But if someone comes back from the dead, he believes his brothers will repent.
Jesus closes the parable with Abraham insisting: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). What is Abraham saying? What is Jesus saying?
Miracles can be explained away or discounted. Jesus himself would rise from the dead, and yet many didn’t believe. Remember the synagogue president who saw Jesus’ miracles on the Sabbath and told the people to stop coming to be healed on that day (Luke 13:10-17)? Miracles are neat, but they are signs that point to God on the move, not something to orient our lives around. Moses and the prophets, however, speak of the heart of God for justice and a Holy Community that follows God. After his own resurrection, Jesus gave multiple reminders of Scriptures he applied to himself (Luke 24:6-8, 27, 32, 44-45).
Jesus sums up his teachings on the dangers of wealth and acquisition by telling a story about a rich man and Lazarus. And the story’s punchline, which his previous teaching points to, is that Moses and the prophets’ teachings on wealth and equity are more important and should be more convincing than any miracle. This insight is at the heart of the Reformation impulse—we go back to Scripture, rather than signs or wonders, to learn about how to be God’s people. Moses, the prophets and Jesus consistently warn about the dangers of wealth that is not shared and lack of care for our poor neighbors. Abraham says paying attention to the words of Scripture, especially concerning the dangers of wealth, should take precedence even over miracles.