I’m working on the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. It is an amazing parable. If you want to read someone who reads the text slowly and carefully with a culture eye see Kenneth Bailey’s treatment of it in “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes”
What strikes me going through it this time is the constancy of characters portrayed by Jesus here in this afterlife story. We should note again there here in Luke we have a banquet/feast story connected with after life consignment of reward and punishment. For more see my piece on Hell and Parties.
The story is told clearly with lock-tight symmetry. Lazarus is laid at the gate (a barrier can be crossed and is crossed daily) where he is ignored while a rich man feasts EVERY DAY (never allowing his own servants to observe the Sabbath) likely within Lazarus’ sight. Lazarus, which means “the man who God helps” receives zero help from anyone, with the possible exception of the dogs, depending upon which commentator you want to go with.
The table is the reversed in Hades (lots to discuss on this point but not here) for both. Lazarus now reclines (he was laid before), still silent in the story, but now he reclines at the feast of the patriarchs (see Luke 13:22-30) in of all places the seat of honor, reclining intimately with Abraham (the paradigm of Old Testament hospitality, a host of God himself) himself, now within plain view of the rich man who is in fiery torment.
At this point the story is a nice reversal of fortune story, very much in keeping with numerous Lukan texts including the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6 and Jesus’ party exhortation in Luke 14:1-13, but the story continues.
Abraham, Lazarus and the Rich Man In Character
What is shocking is that Abraham, Lazarus and the rich man all are in character in the afterlife Abraham (a very rich man himself) is still the paradigm of hospitality, now hosting the feast of all feasts, much to his joy. Lazarus too remains silently reclined, but his circumstances have improved dramatically. The rich man too, as we will see when he opens his mouth, has not changed a bit.
So unlike silent Lazarus, who sat by a gate as people passed through, the rich man starts bellowing from his torment intentionally trying to disturb those enjoying the feast. He is now in torment, but exactly as he was in life. He thinks only of himself and his own comfort. He recognizes Lazarus but doesn’t address him directly, just like he never addressed him as he stepped over him coming and going through his date. Instead he tries to leverage a family obligation on Abraham, to get Abraham to order Lazarus into the rich man’s place of torment in order to comfort his suffering, something of course the rich man could have done easily, numerously before.
Abraham notes that there is once again an obstacle, but at this point this obstacle no longer passable. This is a common feature again in a lot of Jesus’ stories of the great divorce of the age to come. In Luke 13 the door is shut. Again and again in these stories the door is shut, the time of passing from one side the other has passed. The rich man once owned the gate and could do with it as he pleased, now there is a great chasm.
It’s also noteworthy the response of Abraham and Lazarus to the request. In an American movie we would expect some really juice revenge taking and enjoyment of the rich man’s judgment. We want Lazarus to stand up and give a speech about how the rich man has this coming to him. Lazarus remains reclined, silent. We want Abraham to shout him down and set him straight in this very teachable moment. Abraham uses ‘teknon” a term of near tenderness. He doesn’t renounce the family connection to the rich man but simply explains that now there is no way that this request can be granted. You almost imagine that Abraham himself would help him out.
We might imagine this is enough, but now, the rich man won’t stop. He has learned his lessons well in the age of decay and he is who he is and even the fires of his torment teach him nothing beyond what he learned in his daily feasting. Now he wants Abraham (he still won’t talk to Lazarus) to send Lazarus, not to the rich man’s context of torment, but back to the scene of Lazarus’ former torment. Go back and warn his brothers. Commentators have noted that counting the man and his brothers they are 6, the number of evil. If they had added Lazarus to their feasting, their number would have been 7.
Abraham is again hospitable and gentle, but this guy won’t listen. Now he’ contradicts Abraham “no father!” which places him in the same position as the elder brother who stood out in the field away from the party of his younger brother while his father pleaded with him.
Now Abraham simply sets him straight, and I think this is the heart of the story. There is no setting them straight. They don’t listen and even if a man comes back from the dead their ways are set, whether it be in the situation of wealth and feasting, or it be in the situation of fiery torment. They are who they are and they will not be changed or deterred.
This story is told in a the broader context of stories of stewardship. In Luke 15 we have a son who squanders his father’s fortune. In Luke 16 we have a story of an unjust steward who steals and loses the wealth of his master. That story is followed by Jesus’ response to the accusation of the Pharisees that he is a law loosener. Jesus notes in fact that the Pharisees are really all about the game. Now we see where devotion to the game leads. Abraham, Moses, the prophets, not even a man rising from the dead can talk them from the game. They play the game and they become the game. It reminds me of CS Lewis’ observation in “The Great Divorce” of those who grumble and become nothing but a grumble.
This is an amazing story, but it is also a chilling story. The characters are told in extremes. We are not as rich as the rich man, we don’t wear royal clothes or feast every day. Neither are we at the extreme of the silent, suffering Lazarus who though he was broken at the gates never said a mumbling word. We are someplace in the middle. Just as in Luke 15 the story ends with the Pharisee-cast older brother’s fate uncertain as he is outside the feast, so also this story has us in the middle by the gate yet able to be crossed. The story speaks both of characters that do not change, and opportunity for taking advantage of the accessibility of game-rejecting hospitality and the character creation it affords.