“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 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.’ 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. 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.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 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.’”
Three friends die in a car crash, and they find themselves at the Gates of Heaven. Before entering, they are each asked a question by St. Peter himself.
"When the funeral service is taking place and your friends and families are talking about you, what would you like to hear them say about you?" asks St. Peter to each in turn.
The first man says, "I would like to hear them say that I was a great doctor and a great family man."
The second man says, "I would like to hear that I was a wonderful husband and a teacher who made a huge difference to our children."
After some thought, the last man replies. "I would like to hear them say....
!!! HE'S MOVING!!!!!"
No, I’ve not gone mad. I start with that as an illustration: given time, I’m sure we could all come up with a joke about the afterlife and today’s Gospel reading illustrates that there were stories about the hereafter at the time of Jesus too but what we need to recognise straight away is that the parable teaches absolutely nothing about the nature of the afterlife and it was not intended to; here Jesus is merely playing around with an old folktale. The difference is that we tell our afterlife jokes to amuse: Jesus told his to challenge a group of people – The Pharisees. The passage tells us: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and Scribes were grumbling…” (Weren’t they always?)
Now the nature of a parable is that it has two levels of meaning: there is the literal meaning – what you see is what you get – but there is always another level, often more obscure and it is this level that usually carries the real punch. It’s a story with a hidden message: a spiritual nugget for those who understand. “I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” We hear from Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. (Ch 13)
So, let’s consider the literal meaning.
This parable takes place at a gate: an entrance, a passing point. The rich man in this story lives a life of ostentatious comfort on his side of the gate, while Lazarus suffers on the other side of the gate. The rich man's preoccupation with wealth and their different social status prevents him from acknowledging Lazarus or reaching out to ease his suffering during his lifetime. We can imagine the rich man passing by the poor man at the gate several times a day, never once addressing him. From the rich man's point of view, they live in two entirely different worlds with a huge divide between them. There is a gate between them which keeps them apart and, because that divide had been so fixed during their lives, the parable tells us that the distance – or chasm as the text puts it, kept them apart in the afterlife too.
In so many ways, this is a parable about society and illustrates today, as it did then, how fractured and compartmentalised society at its worst can be. It speaks of social division with so many people leading life in a bubble, separate from, and ignorant in any real sense of the lives of others. We live in very different worlds from so many other people and because of that we can apply the parable in a variety ways in relation to our society: wealth, class, education, political affiliation, race etc. but however we choose to interpret the story, Jesus is teaching us about the link between our spiritual life and how we serve and treat our neighbours. So, looked at that way, the gate where the story takes place can be understood as the gate of ignorance, of understanding, of empathy, of compassion – or lack of.
Anyway, both men die: Lazarus likely of starvation and illness, and the rich man? Well, it’s tempting to imagine his death as an over-indulgence linked heart attack or stroke. Lazarus goes to heaven; and the rich man to Hades and in the afterlife their roles are reversed, with Lazarus resting in the "bosom of Abraham" and the rich man suffering the torments of Hades.
Just because this is the literal story and Jesus’ message is really to be found in the hidden meaning doesn’t mean that we can’t take a moral from this level of understanding. We can. We can talk quite reasonably about a practical application to our attitude to wealth and status, or at least relative wealth and status. We need to make this parable real for ourselves otherwise it will remain as a story without the power to touch us. We need to find an application to our daily lives: I don’t have a starving beggar living on my doorstep but, as it happens, I personally find beggars in general, alcoholics and addicts, often aggressive and all rolled into the same person, a problem.
How about you? Who is it that you don’t see? Who is your Lazarus? Is it about race, sexuality, gender, age, disability, social class, weight, political affiliation, a position on BREXIT? Which is it? The parable should become very uncomfortable because in so many ways we are like the rich man. What sort of future do we have to look forward to? How have we been a part of the problem or solution in terms of a more equal society? Have we been good stewards of our riches and do we share them with people in need? Are we judgemental towards those who are different to us? Or do we, like the rich man, live selfish lives, and care less about the outcast in our midst and the poor in the wider world? Tough questions: yet the parable raises these questions for us and it is for each of us to answer them.
So the parable works on the literal level because there is a challenge there to living the Christian life and serving the outcast and the marginalised out of obedient discipleship. We have a perfectly valid application of a Biblical story which is that it is not sufficient merely not to do evil and not to do harm, but rather that we must seek to be helpful and do good, to go the extra mile. The Rich Man wasn't even a little merciful to Lazarus in his lifetime; he was blinded to the needs of compassion by his own wealthy lifestyle. Lazarus, by contrast, was forced to live a life relying on mercy and compassion, which was not forthcoming.
But we must still struggle with the hidden meaning. One of the keys to unpicking this level of understanding is to recognise that the key characters almost always stand for someone else. Well, we only have three – unless you include the dogs – The Rich Man, Lazarus and Abraham - and we should include the dogs because they aren’t there as a throw away detail. Indeed they may be the key to unlocking the puzzle. Do you remember the account of Jesus meeting a gentile woman in Mark’s Gospel: a woman from Syrophoenecia? Jesus is initially very harsh with her: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” He just called her a dog, which was how the Gentiles were seen, so who are the children in that story? The Jews.
It is the same in this parable. Lazarus, unclean because of his sores, is comforted by, and associated with, the dogs: unclean animals in Jewish belief and the Rich Man would certainly not have had one in his house. Lazarus is being presented as the outsider, the Gentile. At the same time the Rich Man is being identified with the Jews so, on his death it would be only right and proper for him to go to the bosom of his father Abraham and take the seat of honour beside him. But no, it is the outsider, Lazarus who takes the place of honour at the spiritual banquet so far reserved for the Jews, while the Rich Man is cast away.
Yes, well, very interesting but so what? What has this to do with me?
Well the stories of the Syrophoenecian woman, the Centurion with his Servant, the parable of the Good Samaritan and a number of others, open up the prospect that Gentile believers would also become “sons of Abraham” through faith in Christ. The Jews had been Abraham’s physical descendants, but after the crucifixion the place of honour and blessing would be also opened up to the people represented by Lazarus. That’s you and me and potentially most of the people we know.
The self-righteous, accusing Pharisees and scribes, the religious authorities, should have been the ones telling these people of God's love for them. They should have been the ones teaching the people, all people, exhorting them to return to God and receive His love and forgiveness. But, because of their faith in their own righteousness and their contempt for these common people who didn't measure up to their standards, the Pharisees and scribes excluded them and considered them outside the scope of God’s grace.
And what of the ending which didn’t get much attention in the literal understanding of the story? It’s key here: the ending points beyond the parable to Jesus. In the same way that the rich man’s brothers wouldn’t believe if someone were sent from the dead to warn them, The Pharisees would not believe even when Jesus was raised.
Not even a visitor from the dead would convince the elite to recognize the needs of the outsider. Neither does Jesus’ resurrection have the power to create faith, if one does "not listen to Moses and the prophets”, which directs us to caring for the poor, the needy, the outcast and the marginalised. In this understanding the physically marginalised become the spiritually marginalised and the injunction is now to go beyond their physical needs and acknowledge their spiritual needs.
Now this is quite a different understanding of the story to the first and yet in many respects the outcome is the same in terms of its practical application: in either understanding of this parable we need to talk about our obedient discipleship in the way we relate as Christians to others. From the literal understanding of the story we can legitimately talk about understanding our own prejudices and recognising the other in our society to whom we need to express the love and compassion of God. We can then work out ways in which we can be servants of those people in our charitable giving, in our volunteering of time and in our attitudes when we meet those people.It is the same when we consider the hidden meaning of the parable. We are confronted again with issues of obedient discipleship in the way we relate to others. This time, though, our responsibility lies in recognising that it is not for us to seek to put limits on God’s grace but to recognise that through Jesus’ incarnation, the way to God - so often seen as the exclusive preserve of one group - is now open to all people. The task here surely lies in our being willing to see God in those we come into contact with, regardless of who they are, and to trust the Holy Spirit that those same people will see God in us. This is our Christian witness by word and deed and the Spirit works through us to convict others of God’s love for them and to bring them back to Him – whoever they are. This is God’s grace and it isn’t earned: it is a free gift. It doesn’t depend on a person’s status in society, their wealth, their morality or their religiosity: it depends simply on faith in Jesus. The gate in the parable now becomes not just the gate of compassion but the gate of salvation.
Because of the incarnation no one is an outsider any more. As St. Paul teaches us in his letter to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” That’s not to be seen as an exhaustive list as it merely reflects the social divisions of its time. People just need to know that God’s gift of a relationship with Him is a free gift of grace and how will they know that if not through us? Surely we would want to share with others who have not yet experienced it, our experience of the saving grace and love of God.
Now there’s a practical application and a challenge.