In the last two parables we’ve read, we’ve seen the rich man of the village, the great landowner, in the story as a figure for God—merciful, generous, loving, someone who uses his wealth to give life to the community. This morning, we have the polar opposite. The thumbnail sketch of this man in verse 19 is brilliant: he’s ostentatious, self-indulgent, indifferent to people, and indifferent to God.
To start with, every day, he wears purple. As you may know, purple dye was obscenely expensive, so only the wealthy could afford even one piece of purple clothing; and of course, even today, when we have a particularly expensive piece of clothing, we’re very careful to keep it clean—how much more then, when they didn’t have washing machines or detergents. This guy is so rich, he has enough purple clothes to wear them every day of the week; he’s so rich, he has enough of them that he can afford to let them get dirty. And just to put the point on it, that bit about fine linen? That means, not only did he wear the most expensive clothes, he also wore the most expensive underwear.
Then too, he feasted every day, which means two things. First, he didn’t even observe the Sabbath, let alone the Jewish fast days. Second, he didn’t let his servants do so, either. All he cared about was indulging his own appetites, with no regard for God and no concern for anyone else. His servants existed to serve him, nothing more. He should be ashamed by his flagrant selfishness, but he isn’t—he flaunts it.
Verses 20-21 give us an even more loaded picture. “At his gate”—this guy’s so rich, he doesn’t just have a house, he has land in the village with a wall around it—“at his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus.” First thing: was laid. By whom? By the community. Remember this: the community is always present in Jesus’ stories—if not right onstage, then just offstage. Almost everything happened in public in that culture, and they’re always a part of the events. They laid Lazarus at the rich man’s gate because they loved him, but they didn’t have the resources to help him. The rich man did—it was his responsibility. But he didn’t care, so he did nothing.
Second, this is the only character in all of Jesus’ parables who’s given a name, so his name must be important. “Lazarus” is the Greek form of the Aramaic name El‘azar, “the one whom God helps.” He’s so sick he cannot stand, and so poor he has to beg; he can’t walk, so his family and friends carry him to the gate each morning and then back to wherever he sleeps at night. This is the one whom God helps?
He lies there every day as the rich man’s guests come for the feast, listening to them eat and drink and talk, watching them all go by again as they leave. He’s desperately hungry, but they give him nothing. There’s food left over each day, and of course, no refrigerators, so the rich man could easily feed Lazarus with no effort at all; instead, he throws the food to the dogs. Dogs were despised in Israel, barely a step above pigs; they didn’t have pet dogs, just half-wild guard dogs. The rich man would rather feed them from his table than Lazarus.
The final irony is in the last line of verse 21. We read that the dogs licked his sores and it sounds painful and disgusting, when it’s actually a blessing. Centuries before Christ, the ancient world discovered that wounds licked by dogs healed more quickly. For one thing, their rough tongues cleaned away the dead skin, dirt, and pus; not only did that promote healing, it also made the sores less likely to attract flies. More than that, saliva contains natural antibiotics, so the dogs were actually disease fighters. The rich man actively refuses to give the beggar anything, but the despised, violent, unclean guard dogs care for him, and do what they can to help.
In time, of course, both die. Now Lazarus is at a feast, reclining at the table on Abraham’s right side, in the position of the honored guest, and the rich man is in torment. As you might guess, he handles this situation very differently than Lazarus did. For the purposes of the story, he can see into heaven, and he calls out, “My father Abraham!” Family is everything in the Near East and Middle East; when you’re in need, you can go to the patriarch of the family and throw yourself on his mercy, and he’s honor-bound to help. The rich man is making a racial appeal as a Jew to Abraham as his father, and on that basis, he demands services.
Note the sheer gall of the man. He recognizes Lazarus, and he demands that Abraham send Lazarus over to ease his suffering. He doesn’t even ask Lazarus! In life, he thought he was important and the beggar at the gate was nobody, so he was indifferent to the beggar’s torment. Now he’s in Hell and that beggar is Abraham’s honored guest, and he still thinks he’s the one who matters, not Lazarus.
The unrepentant arrogance of this rich man is infuriating, and Lazarus would have been justified to respond with a torrent of purely righteous rage; but he is silent. Like David before the sleeping Saul, he has the chance to get his own back against one who caused him pain for no reason, but refuses to strike; like God in his patience with us, as the Lord holds back his judgment to give us opportunity to repent, Lazarus sets his anger aside. In so doing, he refuses to allow the evil done to him to drive him to respond in kind; he chooses to act differently, and to create his own meaning from the situation.
In his place, Abraham responds—and his response is also gracious and kind, you will note, but unyielding: this is justice. Interestingly, as Kenneth Bailey points out, Abraham doesn’t say that Lazarus is now healed or well fed, but that now Lazarus is comforted. His greatest pain wasn’t physical but emotional and spiritual, from the way he was treated by the rich man. God gave the rich man good things; out of them he passed on only evil to the beggar at his gate. Now things have been set right.
Abraham continues: not only is this justice, but changing it is impossible. What the rich man asks can’t be done, even by those who want to. But why would Abraham add that last? Who could possibly want to? That’s such a jolt, it has to mean somebody does—and as Dr. Bailey notes, there’s only one other person on stage: Lazarus. It appears that not only is Lazarus not seething with rage at the rich man, he has compassion on him and is volunteering to go!
If anyone thought this exchange would make a dent in the rich man’s arrogance, they were wrong. As far as he’s concerned, Lazarus exists to serve him, one way or another, and so he says, “Well, if he can’t wait on me, make him my messenger boy. Send him to my brothers with a warning.” Again, Lazarus is silent, and again Abraham refuses. Moses gave the rich man and his brothers alike the law of God, so they know what God requires; the prophets showed them God’s anger at unrighteousness, and called them to repentance. If they care to listen, they don’t need anything else, and if they won’t listen, nothing else will get through to them.
Does that shut this man up? No—he actually has the nerve to contradict Abraham, even though his own actions prove Abraham right. Why would Lazarus coming back from the dead with a warning make the rich man’s brothers repent? He himself is in Hell, and he hasn’t repented! Abraham tersely cuts him off: if they aren’t willing to listen, they aren’t willing to listen. If they can ignore Moses and the prophets, they’ll find a way to ignore someone who rises from the dead. On that note, the story ends.
The problem with the rich man is that he had an instrumental view of the value of human life. You may not know what I mean by that, so let me explain. He valued other people solely for what they could do for him—for their usefulness. He thought he mattered more than anyone else because he was richer than anyone else. Those who didn’t have the money to do for themselves, and didn’t do anything for him, had no worth at all in his eyes. We can see that in his treatment of Lazarus—both in life and in death.
This is a common spiritual disease in modern Western society—that is, the last 250 years or so. In Buck v. Bell in 1927, the Supreme Court upheld the forcible sterilization of a young woman on the grounds that “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Similar arguments were made in favor of legalized abortion—and continue to be made. The British National Health Service rations care based on the economic value of the patient—they only approve expensive procedures if they figure you’re a good investment—and there are those in the White House who think America should do the same. The worth of a life is calculated in dollar signs.
God does not approve. The gospel does not let us look at other people that way. You have never met a person whom Jesus Christ considered not worth dying for; if we treat anyone as any less, we’re selling him short. The meaning of our lives is not—ever—in our possessions, our abilities, or anything the world can make of us, because none of those things are really ours at all; they belong to God, and we’re just stewards. The only thing that’s truly ours to keep from this life is whatever we gain of the truth of God. “Let not the wise boast in their wisdom, let not the strong boast in their strength, let not the rich boast in their riches, but if anyone wants to boast, let them boast in this: that they understand and know me,” declares the Lord. Let’s pray.