Bible Studies
Written by Jim Jordal   
Monday, 25 October 2004

Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus calls attention to the plight of those who suffer in society, and those who because of their callused indifference ingore their cries for justice.  But soon the tables turn, and it is the rich and unconcerned who cry for aid, but to no avail because the promised judgment of God has fallen.

by Jim Jordal

Now there was a certain rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, gaily living in splendor every day.  And a certain poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores.  Now it came about that the poor man died and he was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried.  And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his bosom.  And he cried out and said, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue; for I am in agony in this flame.”  But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things: but he is being comforted here, and you are in agony.  And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, in order that those who wish to come over from here to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.”  And he said, “Then I beg you, Father, that you send him to my father’s house---for I have five brothers---that he may warn them, lest they also come to this place of torment.”  But Abraham said, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.”  But he said, “No, Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”  But he said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.”
                                                                                                                                      Luke 16:19-31 (NASB)

      Jesus’ account of the Rich Man and Lazarus is a parable of economic justice crying out over the ages against vast disparities of wealth amassed by the few “beautiful people” of society, coupled with their callused disregard for the suffering of the masses oppressed by poverty and physical affliction.  It is a parable, or story, of an economic situation begging for attention from Jewish religious authority.  That this was not forthcoming is a tragedy compounded by excessive tradition, fear of change, ritualistic behavior, and selfishness.
     You’ve possibly heard this parable explained as a contrast between the outcomes of good and evil lives, or as a strategy for impressing the eventuality of eternal hell fire upon sinners or reluctant Christians. Perhaps you’ve even heard it used to contrast the teachings of Jesus with the values of those Pharisees opposing Him.  But I think there is another explanation that is even more valid, since it more closely fits the context of what Jesus and the prophets actually taught.
      Since this is a parable, we must take care to interpret it symbolically, not literally.  The Rich Man and Lazarus are not individuals, but metaphors for groups---the small numbers of rich, powerful, complacent ruling clique and the vast multitudes of marginalized, suffering poor people.  The description of Lazarus eating crumbs from the Rich Man's table is also metaphoric, representing a situation of gross disparity of wealth remedied only by crumbs of charity, but lacking advocacy for change.
      The parable is in three scenarios.  In the first we see justice denied, as the Rich Man, representing the wealthy, powerful, selfish elite of society, lives sumptuously in gaiety and splendor; unconcerned, or even ignorant of Lazarus’ miserable existence outside his very gate.  Lazarus, representing the poor and needy of society, covered with sores of disease and malnutrition, lies in abject misery waiting in vain to be fed with left-overs from the Rich Man's table.
     Was Jesus able to pierce the mists of two millennia to discern the plight of most of the world today?  It seems so.  If income disparity and maltreatment of the poor was a problem in Jesus’ time, how much more so today?  If Jesus perceived the poor as being fed with “crumbs from the Rich Man's table,” how much more does charity today often consist of little more than crumbs falling from the overflowing table of a rich, decadent society? 
     The second scenario details both the Rich Man and Lazarus reaping the outcomes of their lives---the Rich Man suffering in Hades, and Lazarus comforted in the heaven of Abraham’s bosom.  The Rich Man now seeks the compassion he refused to give as he begs Father Abraham to send Lazarus with a little water to cool his fevered tongue.  But Abraham refuses, citing the necessity of what we might call retributive justice for the Rich Man and restorative justice for Lazarus, as well as the impossible-to-cross great gulf—belief in Christ and adherence to His teachings--between the two.
     The final scenario is perhaps the most sorry of the three.  The Rich Man, realizing his hardness toward the poor and the justness of his punishment, asks only that someone warn his five brothers so they never reach his level of torment.  But again Abraham refuses, citing the refusal of the Rich Man’s brothers to hear the ageless clarion call of Moses and the prophets concerning economic justice.  One last time, the Rich Man pleads his case by saying that if someone should go to his brothers from the dead, they would repent.  But no, Abraham offers, even though one should rise from the dead with a message of economic justice, as did Jesus, they still would not listen.
     How sad that those callused, arrogant, oppressive rich classes refused to heed historic prophetic warnings concerning injustice and oppression.  And how awful that their hardness and resistance also led them to refuse even the great teachings of Jesus, as well as His miraculous rise from the dead.  But isn’t this also the case today?  Aren’t there literally hundreds of Scripture verses concerning justice, mercy, truth, righteousness, and love embedded throughout the Bible?  Yet how many Christians today heed the message begun by Moses, heralded by Old Testament prophets, and paid for by the death and resurrection of the Messiah?  How much more do we need?

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