Sora told me I should start posting the sermons I deliver. I did two in the past 8 days, on deputation visits to churches in New York. The first was delivered at St. Stephen’s Anglican Church in Amherst, NY. The text was Luke 16:19-31, the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. I wrote the sermon in my car, but I had access to the internet via Sora’s iPhone, and I had grabbed Joachim Jeremias’ The Parables of Jesus before I left, because I knew I would be preaching on parables both Sundays.
Fr. Slish, who was my pastor back in the days when we were both Presbyterians, has asked me to give an exhortation on Luke 16:19-31, the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. It is a parable with a singular application to our day, and to us in this country.
Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees, who were “lovers of money” (16:14). Nowadays, we understand the word “Pharisee” to mean a hypocrite, an arrogant, wicked person for whom is reserved the greater condemnation. But in Jesus’ day, it was not the case. Pharisees were respected and honored as the spiritual leaders and religious conservatives of their day.
First, it is significant that Jesus tells them a story. Why does he do that? Because stories operate on us in a different way than a discourse does. Jesus wants to grab our hearts, change our affections. The problem with Pharisees is not that they are missing information. They know all they need to know.
In a similar way, the prophet Nathan did not show up and confront David by saying, “You committed adultery and murdered a man to steal his wife.” David already knew that he had done that – no one on earth knew the facts of David’s sin better than he did. Nathan wanted David to change how he felt, so that his emotions and desires and will would be in order with God’s requirements. God requires our hearts, our affections, and for that, He uses a story. So I want to talk about what the plot of this story is, and what it is supposed to do to us, and to our desires.
The story opens the way fictional stories do in the Bible: “There was a certain man.” This is the equivalent of “Once upon a time.” It lets us know that we are dealing with a story.
The man is “rich”. In modern terms, he is engaged in an ostentatious display of wealth. Jesus, with his love of hyperbole, paints a picture of the starkest possible contrast in class. The rich man “fared sumptuously every day” – the Greek “λαμπρως” means “shiningly”, “magnificently”. He is dressed in purple. In the ancient world, purple cloth was made with dye obtained from the murex snail, harvested at low tide from the seaside. Pliny tells us that to make purple dye for just the border of a single garment required about 12,000 snails.
(A pair of Murex snails from Beirut, representing 0.00016% of the dye needed to produce a single toga praetexta.)
Linen also was expensive in the ancient world. This “certain rich man” is the equivalent of a fellow who wears suits by Armani to take a walk, and drives his Ferrari to the grocery store. He has no need to work, and is banqueting continually. Life is a continual party. In Charlie Sheen’s terms, he is “winning.” And as in our day, when rich celebrities appear in commercials designed to excite our desire for their lifestyle, so Jews in the first century would have recognized the rich man as obviously a blessed man living the good life – when Jesus says that “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven”, and the disciples reply, “Who then can be saved?”, they are merely expressing the default perception of their day.
By contrast, Lazarus is in the depth of poverty. He is crippled – that is why he is “laid at” the rich man’s gate. He is afflicted with a skin disease, “full of sores”. When Job is in this same condition, scraping his sores with a potsherd, his wife and friends conclude that God must hate him. Jesus’ disciples express the same sort of perception when they say, about the man born blind, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind.” To be afflicted and poor were interpreted as signs of God’s displeasure.
Worse still, Jesus says that Lazarus was “desiring to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table” – and just as when the prodigal son “would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods” the words “was desiring” mean that he wanted to, but could not. And the expression, “which fell” denotes scraps that have been rejected by the rich: Jewish table manners were probably similar to the Talmudic rule: “One should not bite a piece of bread and then dip it in the dish again, on account of danger to life”, sc. from communicable disease, but throw the rest under the table. (Tos. Ber. 5:8, cited in J. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, p. 184, n. 53.)
In this helpless and abject state – crippled, poor, neglected, his stomach tormented by the pangs of hunger and the sounds of the rich man’s continual party – the crowning affliction is the presence of the dogs licking Lazarus’ sores.
And then, in the twinkling of an eye, Jesus pops his hearer’s expectations. God turns out to be on the side of Lazarus, not the rich man. That is what his name means, after all: Lazarus, Hebrew Eleazar, “God helps”. As soon as these two men die, the rich man gets his comeuppance, and Lazarus gets his comfort.
Some have tried to make this parable answer questions about what hell and heaven are like. Will there be real fire? Will we be aware of what the damned are suffering? Will the damned be able to speak to us? But the parable is strictly speaking only of the intermediate, pre-resurrection state: the rich man lifts up his eyes, not “in hell”, but “in Hades”, the interim abode of the wicked dead before they are “raised to dishonor” and are cast into Gehenna; likewise, Lazarus too is not yet resurrected, but is “in Abraham’s bosom” awaiting that blessed fate.
No, the story is not designed to answer our curiosity, but to test our affections. The rich man has five brothers. They are just like him, feasting while the poor suffer. They too are headed for punishment. Really, we might well call it “the parable of the six brothers.”
The rich man appeals to Father Abraham, pleading his relation to him as a Jew. And Father Abraham does not deny it, but acknowledges him as a Jew, calling him “Son.” But he does not grant that he has any claim on his mercy because of this relation. Instead, he explains, “remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things” — Jesus says the same thing with his phrase, “They have their reward.”
This is Jewish two-age eschatology: the present age, and the age to come. There will come a day when every tear is wiped away, and when the unjust and oppressors will be punished. The present age is dominated by the wealthy and powerful, but if we have faith, we can see beyond this age, and know with certainty and fervent desire the promise of a new age, which has indeed already begun – not that we see all evil done away as yet, but that we are in Christ. And if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. This present age is not the abiding reality. It is temporary, a mirage even.
In Matthew 13:22, Jesus says of the seed sown among thorns that “anxiety about this present age” and “the deceitfulness of riches” combine to “strangle the word and it becomes fruitless.” Instead of “the deceitfulness of riches,” a better translation would be “the deception of wealth”. It means that wealth in this age is a mirage. It is not real wealth at all. It is a mere decoy to keep your eyes off the real prize.
I could multiply passages like this. Their meaning is unmistakable; their weight is overwhelming. What, then, hinders us that we do not obey them? We live in the richest, most sumptuous age in the history of the world. In our society, the deception of wealth is very powerful – so powerful that we do not often realize how wealthy we are. On my way here, I was typing this sermon on my iPad in my air conditioned minivan – rear air, even! –with power windows and cruise control. My wife was chauffeuring me. Any ancient Roman or Israelite would think I must be a wizard or the richest man in the world. But as we were driving on I-90, we passed a Bentley Mulsanne worth more than my house. And we say, “That guy in the van is ‘just a schoolteacher.’ The guy in the Bentley is rich.” No, they’re both rich.
This is all possible because of several remarkable developments: first, industrial economy has led to such improvements in efficiency that no one in this country need lack necessities, or even such things as televisions and microwave ovens are ubiquitous. With our basic needs more than met, and the economy so efficient that it produces far more than we can use, consumer culture arises, stimulating us to consumption as a way of life by enticing our eyes, ears, and heart with advertising that is designed to sell us everything from cigarettes to toilet paper by associating products with Madison Avenue’s vision of the good life. A mom buys Tide laundry detergent, and she and all her children smile as folded clothes magically whoosh through the air onto their shelves. A man gets in his Mercedes, and traffic disappears. But there is a tragic, and very high price to pay: “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and loses his life?”
We in Christ are commanded to live as though this present age were already passed away: Paul tells us this in 1 Corinthians 7: “But this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth that both they that have wives be as though they had none; and they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; And they that use this this world, as not abusing it: for the fashion (Gk. σχήμα – the outline, the organization, the way things are done, the social structure) of this world passeth away.”
The same sentiment is in the epistle of James 1:9-11 says, “let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, but the rich in his abasement, because he is passing away like a flower of grass.” Wealth is transient. You can’t take it with you. Jesus tells the parable of the rich man building bigger barns in Luke 12: “And I will say to my soul,” – I love how he talks to his soul, his life – “Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years. Take thine ease. Eat, drink, and be merry.” He experiences the same reversal of fortune as the rich man in the parable with Lazarus: “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee. Then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?” And there is also the rich young ruler, who “went away sad, for he had great possessions.”
Where are our affections? Do we love Christ, or do we love this world? Do we love our possessions and our neighbors? Or are we persuaded that outward appearances and social class are abiding and eternally significant realities? James warns us about this, using language that is obviously borrowed from our parable today: “if there come into your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel (Greek λαμπρά, shining, magnificent clothing, just like the rich man in Luke 16), and there come also a poor man in vile raiment (just like Lazarus), and ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?”
The rich man, wrapped in purple and linen, has banqueted his way to eternal punishment while he ignored Lazarus begging at his gate. Now he wants father Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead:
“for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment. Abraham said to him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.”
Let them hear them. That is, let them OBEY Moses and the prophets, who command men ” to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)
And he said, No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent. But he said to him, If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:28-31 NKJV)
The demand for a sign is an evasion and a sign of impenitence, as Abraham recognizes in his reply. Those who do not love God, and do not want to obey him, will not be made willing by miracles. The problem is not that they do not have the necessary information. The problem is that their affections are not right. And resurrections do not necessarily change men’s affections. When the real Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, was raised from the dead, did the Pharisees and leaders of the Jews repent and change their attitude? No, they plotted to kill him!
Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, and He has not given us mere information. He has risen and has ascended into heaven to rule all things, so that we can know that the present schema of the world, its principalities and powers, stand condemned. He has given us the Spirit so that we may seek — may desire — the things of God, and not the things that are on earth, so that we may not be like those whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame; who set their mind on earthly things. (Philippians 3:18, 19 NKJV)
According to James 2:5, “God has chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? (James 2:5 NKJV)
This does not mean that it is impossible to please God as a rich North American. Paul gives instructions about how to do that: “Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life.” (1 Timothy 6:17-19 NKJV)