We are continuing our series in parables. Parables are stories – controversial, challenging, disturbing, often with a twist, something we don’t expect. They work at different levels – say different things to different people – depending on who you are, where you are. This is no different.
I’ve found this one quite hard – what does it mean? What is it about? Why did Jesus tell it? Who was he addressing? Parables make us ask questions when we try and engage with them – that’s a good thing and we shouldn’t be afraid of that. . Keep looking at the blog – useful comments – you may not agree – but think! This series has really helped me go beyond what I’m reading – and that’s been really helpful to get me out of a rut.
Reading this parable, it seems to me that it speaks to different audiences at the same time – I think this is often true of the parables. And its often why they seem to be saying different things at the same time.
Let’s start by recapping on last week – because it seems to me that there is a link.
Last week – Shrewd manager – slippery Sam! Strange story – not really what you’d expect, because Jesus seems at face value to be praising dishonest behaviour, and yet as Ben pointed out – maybe not. Jesus seemed to have been addressing the disciples – yet at the end, there is a reaction from the Pharisees, so clearly they were in the audience too. Let’s look at this for a moment because I think it has a bearing on today’s parable. In vv 13 he clearly points out that you can’t serve two masters – a message I think Jesus wanted to make really clear to his disciples – really well known verses – “No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” Now let’s look at the Pharisees reaction – in v14. “The Pharisees who loved money heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them you are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.” The Pharisees – concerned to be “doing the right thing” very concerned about the law and how important it was – and yet something seemed to be lacking.
Let’s look at the parable for today – and I want to look at it from the standpoint of some different audiences – and by doing that see what it has to say to us.
Let’s start with the Pharisees – from what I’ve already said, I think they were perhaps the people Jesus was talking to. They loved money so I guess would have identified with the rich man – who doesn’t have a name. He is doing very well for himself. The poor man is a beggar, full of sores – and bothered by dogs – probably would be considered unclean by the Pharisees – and so to be avoided. Remember the Good Samaritan – the religious people passed by, afraid to become unclean. The rich man dies and is buried – Lazarus dies and is not buried.
There is a twist – it’s the beggar – the unclean, dirty, poor man who seems to now have the luxury – close to Abraham – Abraham the friend of God.- and therefore by inference – close to God.
The rich man on the other hand is in torment. Still he was rich so even in torment surely he has some influence – so he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to bring him some water. Its as if he thinks that the influence he had because of his money and wealth will still be with him. But no – there is no way. Abraham explains that there is a great chasm between them and nothing can cross. There is a finality about this.
Now it seems to dawn on the rich man – and he now wants to do something to stop his brothers facing the same torment – we see a change of heart perhaps – suddenly the reality of the situation he is in seems to dawn – now he wants Lazarus to be raised from the dead and go back and tell his brothers to warn them so they won’t have to face this torment. This is a good reaction – but it’s too late. The parable ends by saying that they have already had this information in the law – the law and the prophets already tells them what they should be doing.
This is another twist – the Law was really important to the Pharisees – they worked really hard to meet its demands and yet had missed the vital point about love and mercy towards fellow man being a vital part of a real faith.
Let’s look again at the story from a slightly different viewpoint – that of Lazarus or the poor.
For a start – this poor beggar has a name where the rich man doesn’t. That suggests to me that the poor matter to God. We can tend to see the poor as a faceless, nameless mass of something – somehow stripped of their individuality they become less real and almost less human. This poor beggar is named. The Pharisee saw him as something to be avoided in case it made him ritually unclean – Jesus knew his name.
The rich man died and was buried – still receiving honour and privilege because of his wealth. Lazarus dies and is carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. Now close to Abraham – the friend of God – a picture of comfort and blessing. The rich man is in torment.
The very name Lazarus means “he whom God helps” – this poor man could do nothing but trust God – he had no other way, no other means. We often hear don’t we of the amazing way God seems to be moving in countries where people are poor – we have so much else we can trust in – they have nothing but God. This was true for the rich man – he had his wealth, position, status – the poor man had nothing – but God helped him. And in the final analysis – this is what matters.
Let’s remember what Jesus himself said when he started his public ministry – Lk4: 18 – he quotes part of Is 61. “The spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”. At the heart of Jesus ministry was this – the poor, the needy, the blind, the oppressed, the prisoners. This was a direct quote from Isaiah – the prophets – this was known to the Pharisees – known to the Jews. Interestingly when Jesus quoted this he stopped half way through v2 – which goes on “and the day of vengeance of our God”. This passage seems to give more than a hint of this sense of judgement – of God putting injustice to rights.
What about us?
As I was reading this passage in preparation – I was reminded of James letter. You see for the Pharisees – they were a real mixture – time and again Jesus said they were one thing on the outside and quite another on the inside. He described them as whitewashed tombs – looking all ok on the outside but dead inside. Think back to the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus says in Mt 6: 5 “When you pray do not be like the hypocrites, they love to pray standing in the synagogue and on street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth –they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your father who is unseen. Then your father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” He says here as we’ve already seen – they try and look good to the eyes of men but God detests what’s in their hearts
In James letter there is a debate about faith and works – James 1:22 “Do not merely listen to the word and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”
At the end of the parable, the rich man has a welcome change of heart. He realises that he should have done more for the poor – and he wants Lazarus to tell his brothers. This is a good desire – but too late. And actually as Abraham says – his brothers already know because care for the poor is writ large in the Law and Prophets. This is not some new revelation – this is something throughout the Old Testament.
For me the challenge of this passage is to make sure that I match on the inside and outside. To borrow a slogan from ads – does it do what it says on the tin! Some more of James 2:14 – 18 “ What good is it my brothers if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds. Can such a faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him” Go I wish you well, keep warm and well fed but does nothing about his physical needs what good is it? In the same way Faith by itself if it is not accompanied by action is dead. “
There is also the challenge that the rich man realised too late – the eternal realities of the finality of judgement. He wanted to save others from receiving the torment he had. We can forget about this reality – because it seems unreal and unclear to us now. But it is a reality. We need to tell people now while we can about their need to repent and come back to God. We need to make sure that we are living up to what we know we should be doing.
As we look to mission and all the very many different ideas that we have come up with, let’s not lose the plot. Let’s remember what’s at the heart of it.
So often we struggle to know what we should be doing and we can get stuck – but actually in very broad terms we do know. Micah 6: 6-8 …” He has shown you O man what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
The truth is that as we walk humbly through our lives with God our whole lives, inside and out will be changed. It will affect everything. The choice before us is will we do that.
A challenge for us. I have a very violent picture for you – but one which I think helps us. Imagine your faith is like a hand grenade – with the pin in so it’s quite safe. We have a choice – do we leave the pin in – then we keep our faith “safe” – something to do on Sunday’s but that’s it. Or – do we take the pin out and let our faith permeate us through and through and make our inside and outside match.