A great deal of what I am writing about today comes from a podcast from Rob Bell. You can listen to these fabulous podcasts here.
Unlike last week’s reading of the shrewd manager, this week’s reading of the story of the rich man and Lazarus is really well known. This story needs to be seen within the context of the surrounding stories. In previous stories in chapters 15 and 16 we have read about lost sheep being found, lost coins being searched for, and culminating in the well known story of the undeserving son’s welcome back home.
Now we come to another story that again is stressing a new paradigm, a new way of thinking, a new way forward.
On the surface we have a simple story of the reversal of favour for two people, Lazarus who is a poor beggar and ends up in “Paradise”, and a rich man that ends up in “Hades” in torment. We are told that the rich man is able to communicate with Abraham and asks for mercy, but none is given. He then asks for a messenger to warn his family, and this also is denied.
Are you ready for it… this is not a story of what heaven and hell will be like! It’s a story about a new world not based on transactions and wealth, but rooted in the intrinsic value of all people.
So lets open this story up a little. Firstly I would like to note that the story isn’t really about Lazarus- the focus of the parable is the rich man and how he behaves.
We have a rich man who presumably has many slaves who do his bidding. He is living the high life with complete disregard to the suffering of those around him (personified in Lazarus). When he dies he ends up not in paradise with Abraham where he feels he deserves to be, but rather in a place of torment. What he does in this awful place is the key to the message of the story. He acts in exactly the same way as he did when he was alive. He appeals to Abraham as his kin (Father Abraham) to order Lazarus to serve him. Abraham recognises the kinship (Son), but informs the rich man that kinship will not make any difference to the situation in which he finds himself. This appeal to kinship is important to the story, because it was an overriding law in the first century that you looked after your own. We see it even today in sayings like “charity starts at home,” but it was an order of magnitude more important in the first century. This rejection of an appeal to kinship would have been quite shocking to the listeners.
So what does the rich man do in this parable? Does he understand what Abraham is saying to him, and understand that it was his greed and disregard of human suffering that has led to his position. Does he change?
In the continuation of the dialogue with Abraham, he continues to treat Lazarus as a slave and a lesser person, requesting he be ordered to act as a messenger to his own family to warn them of this impending situation. He continues to have complete disregard for humanity, and is completely focused on his personal family, and also continues not to see Lazarus as a person of dignity and value, rather viewing him still as a slave and a messenger.
The final message of Abraham is a message aimed straight at the Pharisees and religious leaders who were listening to the story. The message of the value of all people, rich or poor, Jewish, Roman, or foreigner, ruler or slave, was written in the very DNA of bible. It cannot be read without being confronted with this reality. If the reader ignores this message, then nothing, even someone rising from the dead, will change their minds.
The rich man was operating from a mindset of wealth, where your value is determined by your monetary value, the size of your house and the number of slaves you have at your disposal. The rich man was unable or unwilling to change his thinking, even when confronted with the most extreme of circumstances imaginable. The world of Jesus is one in which value is not found in material possessions, but in the truth that all are children of God, all are valued, and all are deserving. This is the upside-down world of Jesus, where monetary value is irrelevant, where the homeless and the destitute are equal to the businessman and the millionaire, where the asylum seeker is equal to the resident, where there is no racial or ethnic divide, where women are equal to men. Think this is easy?- look for a minute at your own wealth and prestige. We want to think of ourselves as Lazarus in the story, but my friend, Jesus would have us absolutely placed in the role of the rich man. This story is two loaded barrels aimed squarely at western society and its wealth and prestige.
Makes you think doesn’t it…(but does it make you think differently?)