In the parable, The Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus adapted a well-known folktale to illustrate an important spiritual truth. This familiar story may have had its source in an Egyptian folk-tale of the journey of Si-Osiris to the underworld. It concludes with the words: "He who has been good on earth, will be blessed in the kingdom of the dead, and he who has been evil on earth, will suffer in the kingdom of the dead." (His listeners clearly understood that this "story" did not describe the reality of life after death.)
In a popular version of this story the setting was Palestine. The characters were a poor scholar, and a rich publican. When the poor scholar died, no one noticed; no one came to his funeral. But when the publican died, it was a splendid funeral with many in attendance because, although he was a great sinner, he had done one good deed just before he died. A friend of the poor scholar had a dream in which he saw his friend in paradise, enjoying the water from cool flowing streams. The rich publican was standing on a riverbank unable to reach the flowing water no matter how hard he tried.
Jesus' parable was a variation on this well-known story. It is composed of three scenes. The first scene contrasts the situation of the rich man and that of Lazarus. Everything that is said of one man is in striking contrast to the other. The rich man is well fed, clothed in purple and fine linen. (Purple dye was extremely expensive as was linen, which was imported from Egypt.) He was so wealthy that he had a gate in front of his mansion and so rich that he might have broken the fourth commandment's admonition to work for six days each week. The second man is described as a poor beggar, so diseased and sick that he could not keep dogs from licking his running sores.
It is interesting to look at their descriptions to see exactly what is said and what is not said about these men. The rich man's wealth was not an indicator of immorality. (The wealthy Abraham is in heaven.) And he did not command his servants to drag Lazarus away from his gate. However, his namelessness indicates poverty of character. He was a man that had insulated himself from the needs of the world at his doorstep. He paid no attention to Lazarus. He was busy enjoying himself. Like the rich farmer, he was egocentric. He knew the law and read the prophets, but he failed to conform his life to their admonitions. No, "being rich was not his crime; being rich... was his opportunity."
We must assume that Lazarus was not simply poor. His name means "God helps," and may indicate his reliance upon God. He must have been a righteous man for the angels of God deliver him to Abraham's bosom at his death. It is significant that in this story that the poor man has a name while the rich man has none.
This scene ends, as does the story of the rich farmer, with the sound of God's voice. "This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things which you have prepared, whose will they be?"
Thielicke describes the funeral of the rich man as an occasion where all the wealthy leaders of the community gave their usual eulogies. The rich man, tortured by thirst, sees and hears everything. While alive he had thought about what a splendid affair his funeral would be. There would be long processions of charitable societies, the best preacher in town would praise him to the skies, and long lines of poor people whom he had showered with benefactions would weep because he had died. Now the eulogies and praise increase his agony because they are so at odds with the man he knows himself to be.
In the second scene, the situation is reversed. Lazarus is with Abraham buddy, enjoying all the good things he never had before his death. The rich man is in Hades being tormented in flames of fire. In the first scene Lazarus was poor, begging for the leftovers from the table of the rich man. Now the rich man is begging Lazarus for a drop of water to cool his tongue. The request of the rich man is denied by Abraham who says to him: "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. Besides 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."
Death creates the great unbridgeable gulf between those who have followed the teachings of Jesus and those who have refused and followed their own willful, selfish ways. The most terrifying aspect of death is its finality. There can be no more repentance, no more change of heart, no more new resolutions. All we hope to be and to do must be done before the final curtain is drawn. The words, "This very night your life is being demanded of you" will not be frightening if we, through God's grace, have followed Jesus' command to treat others as we would wish to be treated. The denial of the rich man's request ends this scene.
In scene three the rich man realizes that his destiny is fixed and unchangeable, and he resigns himself to that fact. If nothing can be done for him, perhaps his five brothers may still have a chance. "Then father [Abraham], I beg you, to send Lazarus to my father's house--for I have five brothers--that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment." At first glance his request might seem to indicate that the rich man is becoming less selfish; he is beginning to think of others. But it turns out to be the following subtle self-justification. "Father Abraham, if someone had come to me and warned me, I would have changed my ways. I did not have sufficient opportunity."
Abraham is not fooled. "They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them." The rich man doesn't give up easily. "If some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent." But Abraham answers with finality, "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one rises from the dead."
In fact a Lazarus was raised from the dead, but the response of the Jewish leaders was not repentance but a strengthening of their determination to kill Jesus. They reasoned, "This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation." (John 11:48)
As Buttrick says:
An emissary from the shades of death might arouse our gaping wonder--but conscience lies deeper than the eyes. He might fill us with sharp fear--but the fear would pass, and fear has scant power to change the fiber of our motives. A moral change demands a moral instrument. Only deep can call to deep. Only love can quicken love; and love is its own best evidence. The proof of inner conviction is not an outer marvel, but the courage to trust God and obey! When love accepts its Calvary and dies, the just for the unjust, it has shot its last bolt. Golgotha is the ultimate resource; if that entreaty fails, nothing but flame and torment can bring the soul back to reality.
These words say something very important about the nature of faith. Faith is not based on miraculous events-they can be explained away or misconstrued. Faith is not based on intellectual understanding or the conclusion of a logical syllogism. Faith is a manifestation of trust, and trust is established by a developing relationship that establishes confidence. If trust does not exist, signs or miracles will not engender either the trust or the faith and "inner conviction" that obedience requires.
When Moses and Aaron went before Pharaoh asking him to let Israel go, he wanted proof in the form of a miracle that their request was God inspired. So Aaron cast his rod before Pharaoh, and it became a serpent. But Pharaoh did not believe. He called his sorcerers and by some magic they too were able to produce serpents from their rods. But even when Aaron's rod swallowed up their rods, Pharaoh still did not believe; instead he refused to believe them. Miracle after miracle was successively performed, but the result was a persistent hardening of Pharaoh's heart.
This parable reminds us that if we, like the rich man, live apathetic lives, death can put us on the wrong side of the river of life. If we are waiting for some great crisis, some clear-cut sign of Christ's second coming to inspire us to change our lives, we are living dangerously. It is the way we live today that determines our destiny. Now is the day of salvation. Who knows when God shall say, "This very night your life is demanded of you"? Those words only lose their terror if we take to heart, if we trust, if we believe, if we act on the words of Moses and the prophets and Jesus and the apostles.
You and I are the five brothers. God will not send us a messenger from the dead to shock us and awaken us from our lethargy. There will be no voice from heaven, no spectacular miracle. There is, however, this parable and the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit to remind us of the words of Jesus in Matthew 25: 34-40.
The King will say to those on his right hand, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me . . . I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.' (Matthew 25: 34-40)
Let us therefore make our salvation sure by words and actions that demonstrate a loving trust, a shining faith, and an unshakable belief that these words are true.