The parable of Lazarus and the rich man challenges our beliefs about justice &mdash both here and in the hereafter.
Luke 16:14, 19–31
as told by Deborah
The Pharisees, who loved their creature comforts, mocked Jesus’ words. So he told them another parable. Jesus said:
There was a rich man who wore designer suits and ate at all the best restaurants. Every day he walked past a homeless veteran named Lazarus who would have been happy with the leftovers from the rich man’s lunch. The poor man spent his days begging on street corners and his nights fighting the demons of PSTD. In time he died and the angels carried him to his father Abraham.
Around the same time the rich man died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far in the distance with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to bring me a swallow of cool water — for I am in agony.”
But Abraham replied, “Child, remember that on earth you lived the good life, and Lazarus suffered. Now he is comforted, while you are in agony. Besides, the separation is too great: no one can pass from here to there, and no one from there can reach us.
“Then, father, I beg you,” the man pleaded, “Send him to my parents’ house to warn my five brothers — so they won’t end up here like me.”
“They have Moses and the prophets;” Abraham said, “they should listen to them.”
“No, father Abraham, that won’t work.” the man said, “But if they get a warning from beyond the grave, surely they will change their ways.”
Abraham shook his head, “If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, nothing will convince them, not even if someone rises from the dead.”
It’s impossible for a Christian to hear this parable and not be struck by the fact that Jesus calls the dead man “Lazarus.” Combine that with the punchline: “Even if a man came back from the dead, people wouldn’t believe him,” and we think we’ve got the whole story. This “parable” isn’t a parable at all; it’s a documented Near Death Experience!
Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus has been there (and back) and can tell you of life beyond the grave. Despite his eyewitness account, though, no one believes him. The elite are still obsessed with money and power, they continue to scorn the poor and ignore those in need. Nothing changes, even when the dead return to warn the living.
Yet why is it that “our” Lazarus, Lazarus of Bethany, is said to have returned from the dead, yet we never hear him speak? As a character in Jesus’ parable, and even in his own story in the gospel of John, Lazarus never says a word. We might say that he is “as silent as the tomb.”
Like the grave from which he was brought forth, the figure of Lazarus looms over the story. He stands, tall, silent, waiting, watchful, impossible to ignore — a presence every one of us must confront; a signpost, a warning, a reminder of death: no one gets out of here alive.
None of us knows the day or hour when our time here will end, therefore be generous, be caring, do the right thing and don’t delay. But we knew that already. The prophets preached it repeatedly.
Yep. Even if a man came back from the dead, it wouldn’t change things. The good do what is right while the wicked continue along their evil paths.
The tale of Lazarus and the rich man is a powerful reminder of the limits of our earthly existence, and a call to seize the day: to do all that we can while we can. But there is a troubling aspect to the story. It is the issue of divine justice.
We are told that the heedless, selfish rich man is suffering torments far worse than poor Lazarus ever experienced, with no hope for respite; enduring a punishment that will last forever. His soul has been damned for eternity.
Yikes. That’s horrible.
Is that the kind of God that Jesus believed in: one who discounts human lives as readily as the rich man discounted the life of Lazarus, considering them of no value, unconcerned with their suffering? That makes God sound like the rich man on steroids, not “our heavenly Father.”
Perhaps this parable was intended to encourage those who lived in want while the wealthy and powerful scorned and ignored them; a promise that, in the afterlife, the situation would be reversed. God would even the score — and then some. It does sound like a kind of first century version of Die Hard or RoboCop: a tale to thrill hearers with fantasies of revenge; visions of the wicked and mean-spirited being humiliated, terrorized, and destroyed.
Let’s face it: we’ve all been there in times of stress, outrage, or anger: we fantasize about evildoers being filled with regret, humbled, demeaned… even, perhaps, dead. We readily imagine how it would be if the situation were reversed, to “do unto others as they have done to us.” It is a deep-seated human temptation: to exact pain for pain, so that the wicked will know what it feels like to suffer. We sometimes call it “justice,” but it is often simply revenge. We’re rarely able to limit ourselves: we always want to make others suffer more than we have done.
That’s how it works out in this parable that Jesus tells: that nasty rich man is getting his just desserts — and then some. Now let’s see how selfish he is! But …. but … there is no hope for reformation, no lesson learned, no redeemed life; only another’s unending pain.
The parable’s conclusion leaves us feeling unsatisfied, grieving, empty — just as revenge will do. It gives us no solace, and we take no delight in the rich man’s sufferings, rather we are moved with pity as he asks for mercy for his brothers; that they be given a warning and so spared the torment he must endure. This man is not without compassion, it’s just limited. We shake our heads: If only his concept of “family” extended to all humanity rather than only blood relations; then none of this would have happened.
Yet for him and his brothers and those like them we are told that there is no hope; all will suffer the same destiny: fiery pain and unquenchable thirst throughout eternity. The line has been drawn, the barrier cannot be crossed: there they are, and there they will remain. We hear of the man’s agony and we realize that revenge isn’t sweet at all, but salty with tears.
The parable’s conclusion fills us with regret and longing. Surely there is hope. Surely there must be a chance for mercy and forgiveness. Surely, if we can feel this much compassion, God must feel it even more. Surely God is better than we are.
And surely we, as a faithful people, ought to be better. Surely we can be more thoughtful, more compassionate, more concerned with justice than with vengeance.
Was that what Jesus wanted his followers to understand: that hatred and condemnation makes destroyers of us all? Did he hope to kindle compassion in the hearts of those with ears to hear? What lessons can we learn from this complicated parable?
Lazarus stands as a reminder of the brevity of life, the reality of death, and the need to do all that we can today. The figure of the rich man serves as an additional sign; a warning against the temptation to use “justice” as an excuse for revenge and retaliation. Far beyond what is just or fair, vengeance will drag us down into hatred and destruction.
There is another Sign embedded within this parable, one that stands above all others: the Lord Jesus Christ. It is no coincidence that the early Christians remembered and retold this parable, in which Jesus appears to predict his own “rising from the dead” and the unwillingness of so many to believe in his Message despite it all. It seems like a divine Stamp of Approval.
And indeed it is significant. It calls us to see things through Christ-centered eyes.
As Christians we are to interpret this parable — and all of the stories of what Jesus said and did — in light of the Gospel. The ultimate message must always be love: of God and of our neighbors. No other understanding honors the One we say we follow; the One who never harmed, but always healed; the Lord of Life who preached compassion, mercy, and generosity.
Read in the Light of the Gospel, this is not a story of God’s vengeance, but a caution against human viciousness in whatever form it may take, whether it be lack of compassion for the poor or for for thoughts of vengeance against “wrong-doers” of whatever stripe.
As revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, God’s love is primary: filled with compassion, it has no desire for retribution, but for restoration. Whatever harm we may inflict, whatever damage we may do, whatever our faults and failings and flailings and outright wickedness, God’s love can overcome. Nothing can separate us from that love. Nothing, not demons or drugs, not devices or desires, not doubts or delusions or depths of despair, not even Hell itself can separate us from God’s abiding love.
In Christ all barriers have been broken; death has been destroyed; the impassible barrier between sin and redemption has been breached and the threat of Hell is no more. God’s love washes away all that keeps us apart: in the holy kingdom there is no division. In that love we are transformed: we are compassionate, merciful, and generous — not because we fear God’s wrath, but as reflections of the divine nature within us that lifts up our souls.
We love because we are loved.
Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,
How does God’s love shape your life?