Jesus Tells a Hard Story

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table.”

So opens the story Jesus tells in Luke 16, which I recently preached on. Lots of preachers from various traditions don’t find it to be such a difficult parable to interpret. (I’m aware of the minority view which holds it isn’t actually a parable at all—more about that view in a bit.) At the same time, I think conservative Lutheran preachers approach this text with a fair amount of trepidation, worrying they’ll either have to soften what Jesus says so he doesn’t really mean what the story implies, or they’ll have to preach a message which can’t be squared with the rest of the New Testament message.

Why is this parable such a problem? (Let’s assume for the time being it is a parable.) How is it a problem text, and how can we deal with it responsibly?

You probably know it well enough, but the synopsis of the story is this: Two men, a nameless rich guy and a beggar named Lazarus, have their life stories intersect twice—once in this life, and again in the afterlife. In this world the rich man has an abundance of wealth, so that day after day he lives the good life, while in contrast, Lazarus has a truly wretched and miserable life. Dressed in rags, starving, with open sores all over his body, Lazarus spends his days lying at the rich man’s gate, hoping for just crumbs and scraps from the rich man’s table.

Then they both die. And after his time is over, the formerly-Rich Man looks up from torment in hell and sees ol’ Lazarus now enjoying the good life at Abraham’s side. When he asks Abraham to send Lazarus on a mission of mercy with a little water to cool his tongue, Abraham tells him why it isn’t possible. When he follows up with a request to have Lazarus rise from the dead and go back to earth to warn his brothers, Abraham tells him they can listen to Moses and the prophets, and if they won’t listen to them, neither will they be convinced if one rises from the dead.

At least the plot is pretty easy to follow. Now what did Jesus mean by it? And how does this story raise issues?

A good place to begin is how this text is usually preached, which is moralistically. The rich man is so well off he could easily use the wealth he’s been blessed with to make an impact in the life of Lazarus.The mere fact that life never improves for Lazarus, that Lazarus dies in poverty, reveals the hard-heartedness of the rich man. Having no mercy on the poor or suffering, it is no wonder when he’s judged he is judged without mercy. This passage then gets used as a basis for sermons about social justice, compassion on the poor, the way money and luxury corrupt the soul, and the necessity of using earthly resources to help others.

All of which are worthwhile things to teach on. All of which are conclusions one could draw from other Scriptures. On another blog I’ve written about how concern for social justice should be one dimension of our proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But if I interpret the story this way, I simply make it little morality tale, like a Christian fable or a Just So story:“Here’s what happens to rich people when they aren’t willing to share.” Or, if you prefer to dress it in more pious language: “Here’s what judgment awaits those whose religion doesn’t prove itself genuine through acts of mercy.”

So if I’m a theologically liberal or moderate preacher in a theologically liberal or moderate mainline church, I don’t find it hard to preach on this text. It simply becomes a convenient pretext for talking about social issues. There’s no issue if I believe (as some do) that when God judges a world divided between Haves and Have-nots, He’ll condemn the Haves, or at least condemn the Haves who lacked compassion.

There. Easy.

But what if it’s not obvious how this conclusion squares with the rest of the New Testament? Also, what if this terrible confusion of Law and Gospel (because that’s what it is), causes souls who are already troubled enough as it is to now wonder if they’re going to hell?What if I’m that troubled soul, reading these words of Jesus and worried whether they portend bad things for me? How do I know when I’ve been compassionate enough? As long as there’s anyone poorer than I am, how do I know if I haven’t held on to too much wealth?Responsible preachers ought to think about where people’s imaginations are going to run with that. But the biggest issue is finding a morality lesson where Jesus’ story really doesn’t have one.

Consider what Abraham actually says to the rich man when the first request is made: “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.” Of course Abraham also adds the part about a chasm in the way, but the main answer is that both of them are getting the opposite what they’d experienced before death. Abraham doesn’t say anything about compassion or mercy, or sharing or social justice, and he never says the rich man would have escaped destruction and torment if he’d only been more generous in his previous life—all that is just stuff people read into the story, because otherwise Jesus makes no sense to us. After all, on the surface it simply sounds like he’s saying it’s only fair if Lazarus gets good things now, since he had to suffer so much before. And it’s also fair that now the formerly rich man should be getting bad things; he got his good things in his earthly life, and it would be unfair if he got more good things in his afterlife on top of it.

You can have your good things now—your comforts and pleasures and partying—or you can get the nasty bits out of the way first (like Lazarus), and save your good things for the afterlife. That’s certainly the plain-sense meaning of what it says. But can any one imagine this is what Jesus means? If he did mean it that way, could anyone believe it or think it was a good thing?

So you see, as soon as you take the actual words of the text seriously, you’ve got issues! If you approach it as a morality story, you still have issues, because you put it firmly into people’s heads that generosity and deeds are what count in the end, and therefore all that stuff about grace is mostly a fiction.

Getting back to whether it’s actually a parable or not, most people who say it isn’t a parable only make things worse. They dispute it being a parable because:1. Neither Jesus nor Luke say it’s a parable, and 2. Abraham appears in it, and he was a real, historical person, and 3. the beggar is named Lazarus, and characters in parables aren’t given names. These three points are taken to prove that Jesus is relaying something that actually happened. In other words, according to this view Lazarus was a real person, the rich man was a real person, the rich man really went to hell when he died, Lazarus really went to heaven, and the dialog between the rich man and Abraham really took place.

So taking this to be historical narrative (albeit a narrative Jesus only knows because he’s omniscient), they use the story to intentionally terrify people with literal fires of hell. But all the same issues still remain; they’re only made worse because now it doesn’t involve fictional characters, but supposedly real people!It makes the literal implications for us who live in the materially prosperous West so much worse when we consider all the Third-world Lazarus-figures lying at our gates! Parable or narrative, the issues don’t go away, although it’s easier to ignore Jesus’ words so long as he’s just telling a made-up story.

I don’t apologize for having issues with this. As much as I believe the social implications of the Gospel are important, such interpretations undercut the message of the cross.

Of course I haven’t said much so far about the request to send Lazarus back to the brothers. The climax of the story is in the final words of Abraham: “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if one rises from the dead.” This is clearly a forward reference to Jesus’ own rising from the dead.Had the unbelieving Jews listened to Moses and the prophets, they might have repented at the rising of Jesus from the dead, but as they refused to hear the witness of Moses and the prophets, the message of the Gospel and the empty tomb was scorned by them.Here at least we have an angle for working in the need to believe in Christ, right?

Sure. And a good Lutheran preacher will run to that climactic point and embrace it. And he’ll be right, because in those final words we are pointed away from basing our chances of getting into heaven on our own goodness. The reference to Moses and the prophets call to mind when Jesus lectured the disciples on the road to Emmaus about how Moses and prophets testified that the Christ would have to suffer and die, and rise again on the third day. In the story, Abraham implies the only way the brothers will avoid destruction in hell is if they listen to Moses and the prophets, and a Christian interpretation takes that to mean believe on God’s Christ. By further implication, the rich man would have not have found himself on the wrong side of the chasm if he’d only listened to Moses and the prophets.

So that takes the story, from the Christian preacher’s point of view, in a more helpful direction.Unfortunately, it doesn’t cause the earlier issues to go away. Even if now a faith component is added, the words of Abraham still amount to, “Lazarus never got a break before, so he’s comforted, but you had your good things, so now you’re in agony. You’re out, and he’s in.”

So how should we understand this? I’m going to suggest we interpret this very differently than it normally is interpreted, and it may be such a radical reinterpretation as to be unsettling to both liberals and orthodox alike. I hope so, anyway.

First things first; for now I’ll take this to be a parable, even though Jesus doesn’t say it is. Honestly, before I’m done I’ll offer something else it may be besides a parable, but for now that’ll work.

Secondly, I’ll agree up front the words about listening to Moses and the prophets are key to understanding what Jesus means, and how it applies to hearers today. This is not a motivational story to get us to be more generous. This is not a thinly veiled threat that the rich will have to make up for any excesses in the hereafter. Jesus’ story is consistent with the Gospel, both as Jesus preached it, and as St. Paul preached it, and no history of good works gets around the necessity of hearing Moses and the prophets.

What’s the main thing that drives this story? Isn’t it the total reversal that takes place between the two characters in the story? Consider the rich man first.He’s not only wealthy, it would be hard to imagine in Jesus’ day how anyone could be wealthier, or more comfortable, or more blessed. He’s not just dressed in fine clothes, he’s dressed in purple, which represents the most expensive clothing one could have. He doesn’t just have more than enough to eat, he feasts at a sumptuous banquet every single day! He’s not just rich, he’s super rich. And don’t even start about his house! When it says Lazarus was lying at or in his gate, you can’t think of a little gate in a white picket fence in front of a four-bedroom, two-bath, split-level.Instead of house, think castle or villa, with a defensive wall going completely around his property, with a gate in the wall for traffic to go back and forth through. Lazarus lies in the gate, not only because he hopes to beg alms from the traffic passing him by, but because the enormous gate in the wall provides shade. No one could live a better life in this life than the rich man.

In the same way, no one could imagine a more wretched life than the one Lazarus was living. Without health in his body, or any means of support, he exists every day in crushing poverty. He’s in rags and he’s starving. And he doesn’t have a single thing on his horizon to suggest things will ever get better for him.One assumes he survives as long as he does on the occasional table scrap he gets from the rich man’s table.

The rich man’s situation is as good as it can get, and the poor man’s is as bad as it can get. And then a life-changing event happens to both of them, namely, death, and after each dies, everything is changed. At Abraham’s side, enjoying the pleasant comforts promised for Abraham’s offspring, Lazarus finally experiences relief and acceptance. Likewise, the rich man now experiences for the first time what it feels like to be rejected and miserable and the lowest of the low. After death, nothing could be better for Lazarus.After death, nothing could get worse for the rich man.

Mark this fact well—this story hinges on a total reversal situations. The rich man, who formerly was “in,” is now completely out, but where he’d always expected he’d be someday—at Abraham’s side—is Lazarus instead.Lazarus is in that position of blessing and honor that the rich man no doubt assumed was his as his birthright. If there was ever a story that illustrated the truth that “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last,” this is it. It illustrates it even better than the parable of the Workers in The Vineyard, when Jesus originally made the point.

But can we understand this story in a way that doesn’t contradict the Gospel as it is explained in other passages? We can. But to get at what it means, we have to pitch out what doesn’t mean and what it’s nottalking about.

It’s not talking about heaven. It’s not talking about hell. It’s not talking about money. It tells us almost nothing about personal salvation. Abraham in this story isn’t the real, historical Abraham. Abraham is only important in this story for what he symbolizes, or more specifically, what being at Abraham’s side symbolizes. Also, as far as this story is concerned, heaven and hell only matter for what they symbolize, that one either finds oneself inheriting the blessings of Abraham, or shut out from them, comforted or being destroyed.Heaven represents the final vindication, the fulfillment of the ultimate hope, and hell represents retribution and a tragic downfall beyond imagination.

Needless to say, if Abraham appears in this story as a symbol, so also does Lazarus and the rich man. These are not historical people. They aren’t even a general type of person, as if the rich man represented all hard-hearted, wealthy people, and Lazarus represented all the world’s destitute. Actual money doesn’t figure into this story at all, which is why all the morality lessons about showing mercy to the poor are misplaced. Just as when Jesus talks about sowing and reaping he’s never really talking about agriculture, and when he’s talking about sheep he’s never really talking about four-footed, fluffy animals, when he uses money to make the plot work, it never is really about money.

So let’s consider what Jesus does mean in the parable, even if later we have to reconsider whether the story is a parable after all.

The Rich Man is unbelieving Israel. The riches are spiritual riches, blessings beyond compare. Lazarus lying at his gate is the entire Gentile world—the spiritually impoverished, starving Gentile world. Israelhad Moses, and the prophets, and the promises made to Abraham, along with the covenant, the Torah and the temple and the messianic hope. Israel was fed in the desert with the manna God sent them daily from heaven, but even more they were fed with words spoken to them by the Living God.

In contrast, the Gentile cultures around them had either no prophets, or lying prophets. They worshiped idols. They slaved away to carry out meaningless ceremonies and sacrifices. They searched for omens and oracles. If they were like Druids, after all the dancing and orgies, the high priest would throttle a goat, cut it open and spill it, and then try to read the future in the bloody muck. Their religions were at the root of their disease. Occasionally the Gentiles got a scrap from the rich man’s table—the prophet Jonah being one example. Occasionally the Jews demonstrated to the nations around them there is a real God who really hears prayer, and the Syrian general Naaman would be one such person who learned about the true God from the Jews.

But for the most part, unbelieving Israel was content to keep her spiritual treasures to herself, and also content to keep the starving Lazarus well away from the Big House. Israel, the favored nation, the Chosen People, never shared more than table scraps from time to time, while she anticipated what she thought was going to be the consummation of her blessedness. When the end came, Israel expected to be at Abraham’s side, in a good place to watch the demise of all the godless nations that had been thorns in their side.

Instead what happened? A total reversal of outcomes, precipitated by Jesus Christ. Unbelieving Israel will not listen to Moses and the prophets. Neither is unbelieving Israel convinced by one rising from the dead. And in the end, Israel goes through a kind of death, in that Titus of Rome destroys their temple, lays siege to their capital city, scatters the people into exile, and puts an end to their national and religious way of life. John the Baptist had foretold it way back in the beginning when he announced on the eve of Messiah’s appearing that the ax was already laid at the root.What he meant was that God was getting ready to chop down the tree He’d planted, which is to say Israelhad a limited time to repent.

Israel “died.” Not only that, but their covenant with God came to an end. The promises God made to Israelwere transferred. To where? To the very Gentiles who became incorporated into the new Israel because theydid believe the same Gospel to which Moses and the prophets had testified.

The Gentiles “died.” Don’t think because it was rough on Israel, the cultural upheaval was easy for them.They died to a lot of their own previous culture, but the difference was they received an incredible blessing, purely by God’s grace as a result. As St. Paul once wrote in Romans, though they were merely wild olive branches, God broke off the natural branches and grafted the wild branches in. When you’re a branch that’s been grafted in, where do your nutrients come from? From the roots. From Abraham’s roots, planted in Jewish soil, watered with Living Water, the Gentiles gained every spiritual blessing.

To put it back in the terms of Jesus’ story, all the rich man could do is look up, see where he was and where Lazarus was, and wonder what happened. And historically, this total reversal really did take place.Unbelieving Israel really is cut off today from the promises once made to Abraham. Many Christians who are ethnically non-Jewish are adamant that the God they know and trust is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We are therefore misled when we try to grasp what this parable means for any particular individual’s salvation, because the story invites us to think corporately, not individually, and about the history as it has unfolded, not about my own personal history.

So maybe when Jesus told the story it wasn’t a parable after all. I’d be all for characterizing it as a prophecy.

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