Some think that the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is a reversal of fortune tale. There is definitely a reversal of fortune involved in the tale. The wealthy comfortable does become tormented in the afterlife and the poor tormented finds himself in a place of honor and comfort. Fortunes reversed. So, is this a tale to comfort all poor people? Is it saying that if you are poor, don’t sweat it, in the afterlife you will be kick back comforted; that if you are wealthy and comfortable in this life, enjoy it while you can, because a time is a comin’ when you will long for a tiny drop of water to be place on your tongue? Well, that doesn’t sound right. There are plenty of evil poor people and definitely a few humble and righteous wealthy people. There was this other kind of tale in Jesus’ day in the Middle East: The Pearly Gate Tales. This story telling devise was not about laying down a theology of the afterlife. It was about pointing out deficiencies in this life. What happens in the afterlife sets the contrast. Maybe that is what Jesus is doing here.
The parable is found in Luke 16:19-31. It is about two men. The first one is a wealthy Jewish guy who seemed to immolate the wealthy Roman culture. He dressed in purple, which was considered a royal color because it was so expensive. This guy wears purple habitually. What a show off. He also wore fine linen, which refers to expensive Egyptian flax linen that was often used for underwear. The very finest of this fabric was described as “woven air.” Hey everyone! I’m so wealthy that my underwear is woven air. Did he make sure to let people know? Every day this man lived luxuriously. Money bought comfort.
Just outside of his entrance gate laid a poor man named Lazarus. And here we have the only name Jesus dishes up in one of his stories. The name means “God helps.” And when we first meet him it doesn’t seem as if God is helping him in any way that makes a difference in the life of Lazarus. He is cast at the rich man’s gate and the words may imply that he camped out there day and night. He was too weak to move himself elsewhere. We don’t know what caused the weeping ulcers that covered him. Not sure we need to know. Weeping ulcers is bad boys and girls. So, there he was weak, covered with oozing sores, longing to eat even the crumbs that surely drop from the wealthy man’s table. The dogs, which were most likely the rich man’s guard dogs, licked his sores. Some see this as the final insult; attacked even by filthy dogs. Others see this as the only comfort he was able to receive. Whatever we think the point of the dogs might be, the overall point is that Lazarus is in dire straights and the rich man, with all of his wealth, is doing absolutely nothing.
Then Lazarus died and was born away by an angel to Abraham’s bosom, which most likely refers to a banquet table with Lazarus being in the position of greatest honor a Jewish person could hope for. The rich man also died and was buried. That he was buried is mentioned as a contrast to Lazarus who, as many poor people of the day, was not given a proper burial. And the rich man finds himself in Hades; the shadowy realm of the dead. He is in torment. He looks up and sees Abraham and Lazarus far away. Again, this is not afterlife theology; this is not a glimpse of heaven and hell. He said, “Father Abraham send Lazarus.” Apparently he knows Lazarus’ name. That makes his indifference glare, doesn’t it? And he is still treating Lazarus as a servant; somebody to be ordered to give him some comfort. Abraham says, “Uhm, NO! Your life was good and his was bad; now his is good and you now know what agony is. Oh, and there is this fixed chasm between us that no one can cross.” The rich man then wants to have Lazarus sent on an errand to warn his five brothers, and this warning is most likely about how they are living their lives. Abraham again refuses. They have Moses and the Prophets. God has given them instruction on how to treat the poor; how to be stewards of their blessings. There is within the word of God all that they need.
Jesus did not utter this story to give us a glimpse into heaven. If it were, that would mean the people in hell will be further tormented by being able to see the banqueting at the table of God blessed. And that seems over the top cruel. Here is the point of the tale: The rich man, even in his agony, reduced Lazarus to a second-class, to be ordered around for his comfort, servant. This tale is about what we do with the resources God has blessed us with. Do we use those resources to make ourselves comfortable and to show off how blasted wealthy we are? Or, do we use those resources to help the helpless; to give comfort to the uncomfortable? The story is an example of a man slaving for mammon instead of for God. Peace.