What does it mean to be saved? How do we avoid the fate of the rich man in Jesus’ parable? (Luke 16:19-31)
19 There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.
This man was extremely wealthy (i.e. "filthy, stinkin' rich"). Feasting everyday is a significant luxury (that we might easily underestimate because food is rather abundant in this country). Most people in First Century Judea were subsistence farmers. Most did not have the ability to save up much more than they needed day to day. But this man owned enough and could pay enough to have plenty everyday.
Moreover, purple was a very pricey dye in those days. There were no synthetic dyes to speak of back then, so in order to color a fabric, one needed to find the color in nature. The color was very rare in the ancient world, could only be found in certain parts of the Mediterranean coasts, and required a long and tedious process to distill it into a dye for fabrics (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, IX.62). To wear such an expensive fabric everyday also signified the man's extravagant wealth.
20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 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.
Lazarus was clearly poor by world’s standards, but Salvation came to the one who suffered and was poor in this life, and not to the wealthy one, who seemed to have it all on earth.
22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.[g] The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.
Rich man was poor in the eyes of God because he was poor in love. He did not share his wealth; he was not generous with the food and money he had. Lazarus longed to eat leftovers from the rich man’s parties, and the house owner either didn’t know that or didn’t care. Even though Lazarus sat at the man’s gate, he seemed to pass by him day in and day out without much of a second thought… until he needed something
24 ‘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.’
Despite being poor and uncared for, people around their village knew who Lazarus was. Even the rich man knew his name.
That said, the Rich man remains poor in love in the afterlife. Even when the rich man suffers and Lazarus sits in Abraham’s bosom, he will not share with Lazarus or dine with him; he will not treat Lazarus as an equal. He still won’t speak directly to Lazarus. He still won’t speak to God. He reaches out instead to Abraham. He looks to Abraham as his equal. Both are men of wealth and status and they *should* be able to interact on the same level. To the rich man, Lazarus is still barely present, worth ignoring.
He wants to use Lazarus to accomplish his own goals, to bring himself pleasure and comfort, and later, to help his own family. He wants Abraham to send Lazarus as a servant or nurse to tend his wounds. This still places the rich man in the position of social power and influence and Lazarus in a subservient role. This is the main reason why Abraham refuses.
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.
Lazarus is not saved because he suffered. But rather, this is a classic example of the upside-down gospel of Jesus. The humble and lowly shall be raised up and honored. The rich and powerful will be humbled and made low.
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.’
Pay attention to the fact that God is not a speaking character in this parable. Abraham speaks as God’s Prophet and representative (so to speak), but he isn’t God. He acknowledges that he didn’t create the chasm that separates them and doesn’t have the authority to cross it.
27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’
The rich man’s relationships are shallow, though he still cares enough about his kin to want to reach out to them supernaturally, but not without the pomp and circumstance of one who does not recognize his own privilege. He still wants Lazarus to function like a servant. In those days, rich and influential people sent children, servants, and slaves to send messages.
29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 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.’”
Even if someone rises from the dead, many still will not change. Here we enter into real “parable territory.” Jesus is foreshadowing his own death and resurrection. He came back from the dead and even some people who saw him in his glorious, risen flesh doubted and would not worship him (Matthew 28:17). People who know better will not change. They will not live as God’s people who have been saved, who are being saved by miraculous grace.
And the point of this story is not the scare and shame people into avoiding hell. The point is to remind us of how strong our free wills are. God won’t force us to change, but God also won’t hold us back from the consequences of our choices.
So how do we change? How do we avoid the fate of this rich man and become more Christ-like?
One of my teachers used to tell a story about how he imagined heaven and hell. Heaven and hell are in the same place. It’s one big banquet table where everyone is invited. Everyone is welcome and everyone shares the same place of honor before their Heavenly Host.
For those who have lived in charity, love, and generosity with their neighbors, this is joyful. This is great. They love being in the presence of God and their fellow creatures and give thanks for the chance to live in unity and fellowship!
But for those who carry bitterness, envy, and hate, the same banquet is torturous. Imagine, for the sake of example, how hard it would be for a Nazi to break bread with a gypsy or a Jew? Or for a Klansman to sit next to a black woman who is treated the same as him at the feast? Or how hard would it be for me or you to sit across from one of those Klansmen or Nazis at God’s Table?
The scary part of hell, the punishment that we might experience in this life or the next, is the scandal of God’s grace. God loves even those who we hate. Even the ones who absolutely positively do not deserve to be loved and honored. The ones who have committed the worst of crimes. And even boring, old me.
Even when my sins aren’t very noticeable or very noteworthy, they are still sin. I am still a broken human being in need of God’s forgiveness. And so is everyone else.
We become more like Christ when we begin to see Christ in others and see Christ in ourselves. When we acknowledge both our weakness and our worthiness, when we strike that holy balance, we can love ourselves like God loves us. And with that same grace, we can seek the face of Christ in everyone we meet.
So think of the Lazarus in your life. Think of the one whom God puts you in contact with but you wish you didn’t have to deal with. Think of the one who you’d rather ignore or avoid or be angry with. And pray for them, say hello, invite them in, share some time and maybe a meal, learn their story. Humanize your enemy.
Remember that they are not too different from me. We all need grace. The image of God lives in us all. If we live out of that glorious truth now, we just might enjoy the Heavenly Banquet in the age to come. Amen.
Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book IX, chp. 60-65.