one striving for God's reign to come to earth, bringing his peace, wholeness, completeness, and health to all aspects of life.

The Rich Man and Lazarus: a new reading

This morning in my time with God I flipped to Luke 16 and began reading the parable Jesus told there about the rich man and Lazarus.  I memorized these verses when I was in high school, and have read them or heard them preached many times.  But today I read them in an entirely new way, and I think I may have finally understood what Jesus was actually intending to say through the parable.

In case you’re not familiar, and so that we’re all on the same page, here is the parable:

Luke 16:19 ¶ “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.
Luke 16:20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,
Luke 16:21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.
Luke 16:22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.
Luke 16:23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.
Luke 16:24 He 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.’
Luke 16:25 But 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.
Luke 16:26 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.’
Luke 16:27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—
Luke 16:28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’
Luke 16:29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’
Luke 16:30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’
Luke 16:31 He 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.’”

Until now, I have read this parable as a statement about the afterlife and about the interplay of wealth and poverty in the world’s eyes versus true wealth and poverty.  And certainly I think these issues are at play in the parable.  But it finally occurred to me that Jesus did not tell the parable to make any sort of statement about the afterlife.  This is at best a sub-plot.  As you read the parable, it is going somewhere, and that somewhere is the final few verses.  The entire story about Lazarus and the rich man seems to me to merely be the set-up, the context, for the punch line. 

Jesus wants to get a point across TO THE PHARISEES about the fact that they need to listen to what Moses and the prophets have said.  He makes it clear in other statements that Moses and the prophets (a shorthand way of saying the entire Old Testament) all point to him, find their culmination in him, are ABOUT him.  The parable is about Jesus, and he is trying to get a point across to the Pharisees, who will not listen to him.

He gives the context of the rich man and Lazarus, with Lazarus in heaven and the rich man in hell.  THIS IS NOT A STATEMENT ABOUT WHAT HEAVEN WILL BE LIKE.  It is merely the set up for his parable.  Now surely we can assume that if anyone knows what heaven will be like, it is Jesus.  Christian doctrine even states that he was in heaven with God from the beginning, and he descended to earth.  So I am not saying Jesus is unaware of what heaven will be like, or that he is wrong, or that people in hell can’t see those in heaven, or anything like that.  I’m merely saying that wasn’t his point.  It wasn’t his point at all.  It’s all just part of a story he’s telling to get to an important truth.  We must not read a doctrine of heaven and hell into a parable, extracting doctrine from Jesus’ words when he is speaking in parable, in metaphor. 

After giving the context, he gets to the crux of the parable: the rich man’s brothers.  Since they are his brothers, we can assume they were also elites with some measure of wealth and authority.  These men were Jews.  In fact, it is important to remember that this parable is spoken to Jews (by a Jew) and is about Jews.  This will become important in a minute.  The rich man is rebuffed by Abraham when he requests a drip of cool water.  (Again, Jesus is not making a statement about what Abraham’s position in heaven will be—it’s part of the story, and we must use our imaginations and not seek to extract doctrine).  After this, he begs Abraham to send the dead Lazarus to his father’s house, so that he can warn them about hell.  Abraham’s response is crucial to what I am saying: “They have Moses and the prophets; let them listen to them.” 

As I said, this story is about Jews, so this is why this statement makes sense; the prominence of Abraham in the story emphasizes the thorough Jewishness of everyone in the parable.  Jesus is making a statement to the Jewish leaders, to whom he is telling this parable.  The rich man’s brothers in this parable are the Jewish leaders hearing the parable.  Though they are in positions of power, there is an afterlife, where everyone is rewarded or punished for what he has done.  What we do on earth matters.  And they need to change their attitudes and actions, and stop seeking out power and influence (which is the primary reason they persecuted Jesus) and start seeking God.  If they did, they would realize Jesus was not an impostor or a blasphemer but was from God, was God.  The rich man in the parable begs Abraham to send Lazarus so that they might understand, and Jesus is saying that he wishes the Pharisees would understand.  He desires the best for them. 

When Abraham explains that they have Moses and the prophets, the rich man responds by saying that is not enough.  They need more proof.  Likewise, Jesus is saying that for the Pharisees, the fact that the entire Old Testament points so starkly to him has not been enough to wake them from their vengeful slumber, to take the scales off their blind eyes.  They still don’t understand.  And then comes the punch line of the parable when the light went off for me.  Abraham responds to the rich man’s second request to send Lazarus (since Moses and the prophets won’t be enough to convince them), “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”  Did you hear that?  After reading this a hundred times, it never dawned on me how clearly this statement is about Jesus.  He’s speaking directly to the Pharisees about himself, saying that he will rise from the dead.  They probably didn’t get it, and no one else who heard him probably did either.  But that’s how Jesus worked, and that’s how parables worked.  They become clear after the fact, or they confuse us until we see them in a new light.  Of course I could be wrong about all this, but at least I am convinced! 

If you, Pharisees, are not convinced that I am the Son of God by Moses and the prophets, and that you better stop persecuting me and start following me, you will not be convinced even if “someone” rises from the dead.  Even if that someone was me, after you kill me!  If you don’t want to believe, you won’t.  Simple as that.

This has so many implications for us: certainly for how we read this text, but also for how we understand belief and faith.  Faith is not about being able to define everything and get all the facts straight.  It’s about seeing what is plainly in front of our faces, and trusting that it’s not an illusion.  It’s about believing the compelling truth that is offered to us, instead of trying to find ways to rebuff it (because only a truth tested and examined and “put under the microscope” can be trusted).  The reason this sort of “faith” doesn’t work is because we can always find reasons not to believe.  Even if someone were to rise from the dead, we could find reasons not to believe… 

May you see the truth that has been presented to you: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior and Forgiver of sins.  And may you not seek to find the reason why it’s NOT true, but fall headlong into the freedom of a relationship with him.  The best way to know the reality of God and the presence of God and the love of God is simply to be with God; in his presence faith becomes so simple…

The Greatest of these is Love

I have a thought I wanted to share from Scripture, simply because it is beautiful to me and thought someone else might appreciate it.  This is a thought pointed out by a Greek professor I had a couple years ago, so it's something I've been thinking about for a while. .

It is regarding 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter.  My professor asked us what we thought Paul was getting at when he said, "And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love.  But the greatest of these is love."  I had never really given much thought to what Paul meant when he said this, or to what God is saying to us as Christians today through these words.  If asked, I probably would have said that Paul was simply saying that faith, hope, and love were all extremely important, but that love was the greatest.  In other words, it was just a poetic way to emphasize love's exceeding importance.

However, my professor challenged us to think about why love is the greatest of these three.  In his view (and after a couple years of thought I agree with him), of these three virtues love is the greatest because it is the only one that will last.  It is the only one that, in the end, will ALWAYS remain.  There will come a day when faith is no longer necessary.  If faith is being certain of what we do not see (Hebrews 11), there will come a day when faith will be obsolete, because we will see clearly.  We will see Jesus face to face.  We will know him, and he will be with us, and he will be our God.  And there will come a day when hope will no longer be necessary, for who hopes for what he already has?  On that day Revelation 21 tells us there will no more death or mourning or crying or pain.  Everything will be restored.  Shalom has returned.  Hope is no longer needed, because things are right.  But love...  Love is the greatest, because it will last.  The love we experience now is but a taste of the deep and full love we will experience for eternity, as we are loved by God with the deepest love, loved by the essence and creator of love...  And as we love him back, and love each other.  The greatest of these is love...