19 ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” 25But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” 27He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” 29Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” 30He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” 31He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’
Luke 16:19-31 – NRSV
The view that a great many people seem to take about the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is, I think, along these lines: “If you’re fortunate enough to be wealthy in this world, God will turn the tables after your death and you’ll be sent to hell for eternity. Conversely, if you suffer a life of destitution, illness and misery on earth, God will compensate you after your death and you’ll spend eternity in heaven”.
If this depiction of the parable were true, then it would explain why so few of our fellow citizens feel that Christianity has much to offer them. But I think a closer look at the parable reveals that Jesus’s real meaning may have been lost.
The rich man isn’t just rich, but fabulously so. He dresses in purple every day. This was hugely expensive and remained the ‘royal’ colour until synthetic purple dye was accidentally discovered by Sir William Perkin in 1856. In fact at today’s values you’d need to pay £500 to buy enough purple to dye one pound of cloth in Christ’s time. In addition, the rich man wears fine linen – the words in Greek mean that he had the most expensive underwear, too! And he feasts sumptuously every single day, which not only adds to our picture of privilege, but we now also gain the additional message that he cares not much for his Jewish faith, because he insists on his slaves serving him every day, including on the Sabbath when they were meant to be resting. These are the little details of Christ’s stories that are so often missed and which make such a difference to our reading of the Bible!
Lazarus, the poor man in our story, is the only person in any of Jesus’ parables to be given a name, and therefore it’s safe to assume that his name is important (He’s not, incidentally, the same Lazarus that Jesus raises from the dead in John 11:43). The name means ‘the one whom God helps’. At the start of our story, we’re meant to see the irony in this. He’s not merely poor; the Greek word ptochos is better translated ‘destitute’. He’s dumped daily at the rich man’s ornamental gate, too sick to walk, in the hope that those coming and going might see him and take pity on him.
The dogs aren’t strays – if they had been, they’d soon have been chased away by the rich man’s servants – no, they’re the rich man’s guard dogs. And the irony is that the dogs almost certainly would have benefited from the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table, in a way that we’re told that Lazarus longs to, but can’t. And we hear that these guard dogs come and lick Lazarus’ sores. In the first century it was known that dog saliva had healing properties, and this has been proved by modern science. Jesus wants us again to see the irony in this – Lazarus receives healing and maybe even doggy loyalty and companionship from the rich man’s scary guard dogs; from the rich man himself, he receives absolutely nothing. The picture we’re building up is not a pleasant one of the rich man, and it’s made worse when he reveals from Hades that he knows Lazarus; he recognises him at Abraham’s side and he knows his name, because he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water to cool his tongue. The rich man doesn’t address Lazarus directly – he gives the impression that he wouldn’t wish to stoop to address such an untouchable directly – he treats Lazarus as a slave who’s only there to do his bidding. Put simply, he just doesn’t get the message, even when he’s suffering after death. As we listen to this increasingly critical story of the rich man, we expect Lazarus to respond to the rich man’s arrogance with anger and a determination to get his own back. And what does Lazarus say? Nothing, not one word. In contrast to the vivid depiction of the arrogant, self-centred and self-righteous rich man, Lazarus is the very picture of Christian charity, serenity and conciliation. Does he forgive the rich man? There’s even a hint in this parable that he might; Abraham explains to the rich man that there’s a chasm between them and ‘those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so.’ Who might those people be, who want to pass? Are we meant to think that Lazarus has said to Abraham: ‘Let me go, I don’t mind taking him some water to ease his pain’? Perhaps.
So, the more we look at this parable, the less it looks like the traditional way it’s been seen. In first century Palestine, wealth was seen as a sign of God’s blessing and favour; whereas poverty, illness and hardship were seen as signs of God’s judgment and displeasure. As is so often the case, Jesus tells a story that turns the world upon its head. One of the reasons that the parable speaks to us, is that in our world, it’s dangerously tempting to see things in the same distorted way; if we’re wealthy, it’s because we’re deserving; we’ve worked hard for it. Conversely, if we’re destitute it’s because we’re lazy and undeserving. Over the years, I’ve become very aware of how often advertising mirrors these assumptions: we must spoil ourselves, we must treat ourselves; because we’re worth it, because we’ve deserved it.
So we can see that the picture that Jesus is presenting us with is far more nuanced than the traditional distorted interpretation allows. As is so often the case, we learn far more from the stories told by Jesus than the stories told about Jesus. The traditional way this parable has been seen, leaves us with the impression that Jesus is almost trying to scare us into helping the poor, or that somehow if we help the poor, we might gain enough brownie points to avoid having to spend eternity in hell’s flames. If such a view is a distortion, what does the parable mean? Is this Jesus telling us that all wealth is bad?
I think the fact that Jesus paints such an uncompromising picture of the rich man, and such a full picture of the longsuffering Lazarus means that there’s far more to it than that. The message would seem to be not about how rich or poor we are, but how we live our lives. The picture of the rich man is that of a man in isolation. No wife or family is mentioned; he lives securely and comfortably; nothing touches him; he walks past Lazarus every day and even knows his name and yet Lazarus is invisible to him. He’s completely self-reliant and self-centred. The danger, Jesus is saying to us, is not wealth itself, but what it’s in danger of turning us into. Through wealth, we’re in danger of becoming self-reliant, self-satisfied and self-centred. Riches can so easily become an idol; something that’s both superficial and transient and yet all-consuming. If we put all our confidence in ourselves, we automatically forsake confidence in God and that can lead to isolation from him.
In contrast, Lazarus doesn’t complain about his misfortune. He doesn’t criticise; he lives in quiet harmony with nature, and with his world. As a beggar, he relies on others, even the intimidating guard dogs. He’s dependent for everything he has on the compassion of others in the community. Maybe this is the sense in which he is ‘the one whom God helps’. Of the two characters in the story, Lazarus is the one who seems to have the most inner contentment.
This, I think, is the moral of the story of the rich man and Lazarus, that if we’re tempted to see ourselves as deserving and others as less deserving, we’re turning our backs on our dependence on our fellow human beings, our relationship with others and with the world at large, upon which our contentment, ultimately, depends.
The parable mentions Hades, meaning the place where all dead go before they’re judged, and it mentions Abraham’s bosom. It has nothing whatsoever to say about ‘heaven’ or ‘hell’ as those terms are generally understood in our world. The parable is basically a warning that wealth, if coupled with self-reliance and self-centredness, has the ability to dehumanise us. Our God is a compassionate God, and our duty is to reflect His compassion in the world. We can only do that if we see our material possessions as our good fortune and accept that the concepts of ‘deserving rich’, and ‘undeserving poor’ come from man, not from God.
These are issues that everyone, and not just Christians, should think about long and hard.