19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25But Abraham said, ‘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. 26Besides 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.’ 27He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house — 28for I have five brothers — that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Text © New Revised Standard Version, used with permission.
The “villain” in this story which is familiar to any regular church-goer is described as a rich man, dressed in purple and fine linen, and who feeds sumptuously every day. These days we have a wide range of colours available, and the price varies little, but in biblical times purple was an expensive colour which was generally restricted, partly because of the cost, to royalty and people in places of great responsibility. This description, then, is a very thinly veiled reference to the Pharisees and, particularly, to the Temple hierarchy, who loved to dress in expensive outfits, and who expected those beneath them to provide more than ample food, often at great expense. The poor man, not to be confused with the Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead, represents the starving millions who would have enough food if our rich character would only share some of his edible wealth. Translations from the original Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic of our scriptures all too often misses the sense in the text. Here, Lazarus didn’t just decide to lie down at the rich man’s gate: the Greek suggests that he was dumped there, inviting our rich man to show some compassion. Instead, it is the dogs who tend to Lazarus’ sores. We might cringe at the thought of dogs licking our wounds, but in doing so they were providing first aid to someone in need.
If we wonder what was the cause of the death of our two characters then we miss the most important points of the story. Despite finding himself being tormented the rich man doesn’t appear to have learned how to approach others. He speaks to Abraham as an equal, rather than as God’s chosen one to lead his people, somewhat like a young footballer with little talent talking to the Queen in the same way as he would to his team-mates. Our rich man also treats Lazarus as if he were a slave, not talking directly to him, but asking Abraham to send him to cool his tongue in his hour of need. He truly hasn’t got the message that he’s being tormented because of what he has done, or not done, during his earthly life.
There is a modern-day story about a priest who was warned to leave his home because a dam wall had burst and the town was about to be flooded, but refused help three times, only to drown. When the rich man in this parable wants Lazarus to warn his brothers about his fate Abraham reminds him that the prophets have already been warning people for a long time, and they have chosen not to listen. Then, in a precursor to Christ’s own resurrection, Abraham points out that even if someone returned from the dead that person’s warning wouldn’t be heeded. Christ Himself returned from the dead, but few people accepted that it was Him, and fewer still heeded His advice. These days, with our scientific expertise, people try to find alternative explanations to events which don’t fit our normal experience, missing the message which they should hear. It was no different then.
How close are we to either of the characters in this parable? Do we take advantage of the riches we can accumulate in our lifetime, and ignore the needs of others who are less fortunate than us? Do we treat others as if they were slaves to make us more comfortable, or to get us more possessions which we leave behind when we die? Do we even think about others in the world around us? Even worse, do we see the people in need around us, or are we too focussed on what we want to notice their existence.
It’s good to have a stable home in which to live, and enough money to provide for our basic needs, but it’s far too easy to want bigger or better things, or more possessions that we think will make us happier, and it’s far too easy to lose sight of those who are in need. As to the target of this parable, the old favourite “the Pharisees” it’s no surprise that they didn’t understand, or didn’t act on, the message Christ was giving them. What about today’s church leaders – and that includes me?