Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Parable of the Rich man and Lazarus

Luke 16:19-31

The gospels are full of teaching stories, stories which teach us important truths about God and God’s relationship with humanity. Recently we have been spending a lot of time in the teaching stories of Jesus, in the parables, Jesus used to teach the crowds, his disciples and the 12 while he was here on earth. Stories are one of the best ways to learn something. People remember a lesson they learn from a story much better than they will remember a lesson simply taught to them.

As we are looking at these stories it is important to not take them too far. Parables are teaching stories which are usually told to teach you one simple thing. They may contain some narrative details and some good story telling elements but the story as a whole is there to teach a simple truth. In many ways parables are extended similes or metaphors. If you say her eyes are like an ocean, you are probably saying that her eyes are blue or green and have the kind of depth of color that the ocean has, but you are not saying that are made of salt water and are teaming with fish and other kind of marine animals. It is very similar with this parable. Jesus is trying to say something with this parable to teach us something that he thought was important. Jesus chooses to teach this important lesson to his audience using this very colorful story, but we can not try to learn something from this parable that Jesus was not trying to teach.

This parable falls into a particular kind of parables, called “Kingdom of Heaven” parables. Gospels are full of “Kingdom of Heaven” parables. “Kingdom of Heaven” parables which usually begin with the phrase, “The Kingdom of Heave is like…” “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed. . .” “The kingdom of Heaven is like a woman who. . .” These parables are ones where Jesus is teaching about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. This parable is not a “Kingdom of Heaven” parable. It neither begins with the proper phrase nor is it teaching us what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.

Since this is not a Kingdom of Heaven parable and it is not attempting to teach us about Heaven, we really, can not conclude anything about what Heaven is like from this parable. As far as this particular parable is concerned, Heaven, Heaven’s attributes or its’ geography simply are not what Jesus is teaching about through this parable. Since it is a parable and not an historical account, the situations in the parable are not supposed to be taken literally; it is a story after all; a story teaching us an important lesson, but most defiantly not a description of the Heavenly life to come.

So the parable begins by telling us about an unnamed rich man. Names are important in Jewish culture, so it is very telling that Jesus gives Lazarus a name in this story but does not give the Rich Man a name. Jesus does tell us that he is dressed in fine purple cloth. Purple was a very costly dye, so only the very rich could afford to wear garments which were dyed purple. We are also told that this rich man feasted sumptuously everyday. In other ways he dressed and lived in a very extravagant manner. His clothing and lifestyle were actually way over the top, even for a rich person.

And then we have Lazarus, who by comparison is dressed only in sores and would like nothing more than to eat the scraps from the rich mans table. Lazarus is the poorest of the poor. And he lived outside the gates of the rich man. One man lived in extravagant wealth why the other lived in absolute poverty. One man lived in absolute ignorance of the other in spite of the fact that the other man was dieing on his doorstep. The other man lived in constant awareness of what the one man had which he did not and that the mere scraps which the one man threw away would have, if offered, sustained the other man.

The parable is about what happened to these two men. Lazarus dies and he is taken way by angels to be with Abraham. This might not be what we usually think of what will happen when we die. This was a very Jewish understanding of the best the afterlife could offer, being taken away by messengers of God and placed in the care of the Abraham the father of the Jewish people. On the other hand we have the rich man. He also dies. He is taken to the place of the dead, Hades and is tormented. Jesus tells us that from his place of torment he sees Lazarus and recognizes him as the man who used to sit at his gates and beg. And Rich Man wants Lazarus to dip his own finger in some water and bring that drop to him cool his tongue. He basically wants Lazarus to fetch him some water. After ignoring him and being completely unaware of this man and his plight in life, the Rich man now that Lazarus should be his servant in the after life; he wants Lazarus to run errands for him. Even though Lazarus is with Abraham and the Rich Man is being tormented, the Rich Man sees Lazarus as being less than him. In fact he sees himself so much above Lazarus that he does not even ask Lazarus, but asks Abraham to send Lazarus. He sees himself as a peer of Abraham, one who can call out to a friend and ask a favor of him. He asks Abraham to send his servant, Lazarus, to him so Lazarus can do a service for him. Abraham says, “No.”
The rich man, not to be thwarted and seeing that things are not going so well for him here in the afterlife once again calls out as if he were an equal and asks Abraham to send Lazarus on a different errand for him. Can Abraham send Lazarus to go and warn his brothers? Abraham “Says they already have a warning.” They know what is required of them in the Law God gave to them through Moses, if they do not heed the warning given to them by Moses and the Prophets, basically the Old -Testament, then they will not heed one come back from the dead.

So the question at this point is, “What is Jesus talking about?” We have already discussed that he is not talking about the geography of Heaven. This does not definitively tell us that all those who live in torment can see Heaven from where they are. It does not even tell us that al those who please God in this life go to live Abraham and all those who do not will be tormented. What Jesus is really talking about is our treatment of other people, our treatment of the people who live all around us, with whom we come in contact every day.

The parable tells us that the rich man was not a righteous person and he ended up in torment. Why? Because of the way he treated Lazarus. Here he was living an extra-extravagant lifestyle and Lazarus would have died (and probably did die from lack of) for the crumbs off the rich man’s table. Here was one man living wastefully all the while another is dieing of starvation on his doorstep. He was living in ignorance of this man dieing at his feet. He lived ignoring and in doing so mistreating this other man. One man is rich and the other is poor living in proximity to one another and the former does nothing to help, or ease the situation of the latter. This makes this rich man an unrighteous person. Now hear me correctly our treatment of the poor is not the only thing that denotes a righteous person. But our, kind, caring, compassionate treatment of all the other people around us is the good fruits which a righteous person bears. And Paul tells us that good trees produce good fruit. There are lots of things a righteous person should naturally do because they are righteous and their treatment of other people especially those less fortunate of them, is just one of them.

The topic of care for the needy is something which is not an unfamiliar topic in the Old Testament, Moses and the prophets talk about all the time. O. T. is full of instructions for the people of God to make sure the poor and the widows are taken care of and are not taken advantage of. These were the needy in the land. Taking them was part of the system God set up by which the people of God were to live. Often times when God is pronouncing Judgment on Israel in the Old Testament and is listing the sins of the people, the sin of not taking care of the needy or taking advantage of them is almost always listed. Jesus believes everyone should do what they can to take care of those who are less fortunate than themselves.
At the heart of taking care of the needy is Jesus’ call for us to love God and to love one another. Taking care of those who must struggle to make it day to day, or who are daily going without basic needs is just one way in which we show our love for one another. It is just one way we can take that love which God gives to us so freely and share it with those around us in just as free of a way which God shares God’s love with us.

So I can hear you, “Pastor I am not Rich like the rich man. I do not wear expensive clothing and eat expensive food. I am not what anyone would consider rich. But the “Rich Man” is not unrighteous because he wears purple clothes, he is unrighteous because he wears extravagant clothes while those around him are dieing of exposure. He is not unrighteous because he eats expensive food but because he does so while those around him are dieing of starvation. The “Rich Man” is not unrighteous because he is rich. The “Rich Man” is unrighteous because he does not treat those around them with kindness, caring or respect. The Rich Man is unrighteous because he does not live by the most basic thing Jesus calls for those who follow him to do, that is to love God and to love others.

So the question is not whether or not we are rich or poor. The question is not whether we adorn ourselves with fine clothes or eat good food. The question is, “How do we live?” not matter what our station in life is. The question is not, “How much money do we have?” Or, “Do we have more money than others?” But the question is not matter where ever we are in the social structure of our world, however much money we have or do not have, “Are we showing love for those around us?” “Are we living the love of Jesus Christ to those who are sitting on the doorsteps of our lives?” Or are there “Lazaruses” populating our lives, dieing on our doorstep from lack of things we have in abundance without our even knowing or acknowledging their existence? This parable is about living righteously before other. This parable is about living righteously toward others. This parable is about living righteously in relationship with others. Jesus to us this morning is to look around our lives. Open our eyes, step outside the safety and comfort of our lives and look at those who live around us. Are we loving them? Are we sharing the love of Jesus Christ with them, in our words, in our deeds, and in our actions? Living as Christ calls us to live, is not only about loving God. It not only about living right and good lives which are pleasing to God, but it is also about loving the people in our world; taking care of the needy; taking care of those who are struggling; showing the love of Jesus Christ by living the love, by acting the love, by allowing our hands, our feet, as well as our resources to speak the love of Jesus Christ into people’s lives. We are the only Jesus Christ many people see, what kind of Jesus Christ are they seeing if we walk by them everyday and allow them to suffer on our doorsteps?