Lazarus, the Rich Guy, and Me
By Paul Lewellan
I’m not sure when I first heard about Lazarus and the rich guy. Probably when my weekly Sunday School classes shifted from crayons and white butcher block paper to Intro to Theology. That would be 1959, Mrs. Botts’s third grade class at St. John’s Lutheran.
Mrs. Botts didn’t spend a lot of time lesson planning, pouring over theological texts or religious commentaries. There was no Wikipedia. The internet hadn’t been invented. She kept it simple. And why not? The story seemed straightforward to my young mind. The rich guy thought he had everything. He ignored the poor guy (Lazarus) and went straight to Hell. Pastor Schardt, preaching on the same text, inserted more hellfire and brimstone, but the message was the same. In other words, the story had nothing to do with me.
My parents ran a corner grocery in Cedar Falls, Iowa, USA. They were not rich. Which meant I wasn’t rich (or going to Hell). Phew! But we were also not poor, not like Lazarus. No crumbs from the rich man’s table for us. Our home was attached to the store, shopping made easy. Plus, I wasn’t covered with sores. Rich bad. Poor good. ’Nuf said.
Some context might be helpful. The story appears only in Luke 16:19-31. Unlike other stories considered parables, this one has named characters: Lazarus and Abraham. In other parables characters are referred to as a type: a Samaritan, a widow, a shepherd, a farmer sowing seeds, a prodigal son. Also unique is the parable’s portrayal of Heaven and Hell. This imagery, which some accept without question, appears nowhere else in the Bible. It contradicts every other conception of the afterlife presented in scriptures. So what can we make of these facts? Here are some options.
Interpretation #1. Literal. St. Jerome chose to view the story as an actual event recounted by Jesus to his followers. The strength of his claim is this key detail, the use of personal names: Lazarus and Abraham. Jesus would be in a position to know who is in Heaven and who is in Hell. If literal, the story is a chilling warning for those who ignore the poor at their door.
Interpretation #2. A Story of Conscience. Martin Luther considered the story a parable but warned that the details about Heaven and Hell couldn’t be taken literally. Luther argued, “The bosom of Abraham signifies nothing else than the Word of God.” And hell in the parable was “a place where the soul can be and has no peace…” So, if our pantry is full while others die from malnutrition, we shouldn’t sleep well at night.
Interpretation #3. Targeting A Specific Person. Some commentators have suggested that Jesus told the story to the gathering of Pharisees for a reason. The rich man was actually Caiaphas, the High Priest at that time. Not only was he rich, his position as High Priest meant he wore fine purple linen robes. Plus, Caiaphas had five brothers like the rich man in the story. The brothers were priests who ignored the teachings of Moses and the prophets. Ouch! This interpretation gets us off the hook. We are not them.
Interpretation #4. A Parable Directed to Us. Each character in a parable is meant to symbolize a type of person. Parables are designed to teach a lesson, though the message is often obscure. How many times after the crowds left did the disciples ask Jesus to explain what he’d just said? He didn’t need to do that in Luke. Everyone got it the first time.
Although most people don’t live in the luxury ascribed to the rich man, clearly he is meant to represent us. And even if there is no literal Heaven or Hell, the message is simple. If we hope to claim a relationship with God, we must tend to the poor living among us, loosely defined as “anyone with less stuff than we have.”
The means we should look for the Lazarus in our lives. Who seeks comfort? Who is suffering? Who is in need?
Reach out to them.