Lazarus and the Rich Man: a Study in Entitlement (Luke 16: 19-31)

A sermon preached at United Reformed Church of Clifton, March 14, 2021, 10:30 a.m.

When I was younger I once heard Soupy Sales tell a joke on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. 

Once there was a rich man who died and presented himself to St. Peter at the gates of heaven.  St. Peter looked at his list and said “I’m sorry but I don’t see your name in the book.  However, I see that you were very wealthy. So if you can show me how you used your money to help the poor, I can probably admit you.” 

Well the rich man thought for a long time and finally said, “Oh, yeah!  About a year ago, I came across a homeless man outside of a store and I gave him a buck.” 
St. Peter raised his eyebrows and said, “Anything else?” 

Again the man thought a long time and finally said. 

“Well about 5 years ago I saw homeless on the subway platform and I gave him 2 bucks.” 

St. Peter said, “I’ll have to take it up with the Lord “

So St. Peter approached God on the throne, told him the rich man’s story and asked, “What do you want me to do?”

God replied, “Give him back his three bucks and tell him to go to hell!”

The rich man in this joke and the rich man in Jesus’ parable have a lot in common.  They both live a privileged life, they both think only of themselves and they both end up in hell.  These two rich man are both studies in entitlement.  They’ve got the world by the tail and they expect the world to cater to them even in death. 

Let’s dig a little deeper so that we can understand both the rich man and Lazarus. Jesus’ story begins with these words

 “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.”

Now I want you notice three things about this rich man. 

First, he wore fashionable and expensive clothing.  Joel B. Green tells us

Wool was used to produce vestments that advertised the social status of those who wore them. The process by which wool was “fulled” in a basin with special clay in order to render the cloth brilliantly white was time-consuming and costly. Clothing colored with Tyrian purple dye was likewise a striking luxury. Though white garments indicated membership among the elite, they were regarded as modest when compared with clothing dyed purple. White garments underneath a purple robe— this was the sign of the highest opulence. (Joel B. Green, Commentary on Luke, 1997, p. 604)

This man wasn’t keeping up with the Kardasians; the Kardashians would be trying to keep up with him. 

Second, he feasted sumptuously, not just on special holidays, but every day of the week.  The word for feasting is the same word that was used in last week’s story of the Prodigal Son. Meat was a rarity even for wealthy people, and that was why it was such a big deal for the father to kill the fatted calf.  But this man had filet mignon and lobster every day of the week. 

Third, however, there is one thing that suggests that the rich man’s life is not all that it is cracked up to be.  Usually the most important people in society have their names mentioned and acknowledged in the story.  But the rich man here is anonymous: the rich man has no name.  Dr. Robert Williamson, Jr. says, “To be named is to be seen and valued.  That the rich man is not named puts him into a position of diminished honor.  That Lazarus is named elevates his position and honor.” (Bible Worm Podcast, March 14, 2021) The rich man may think highly of himself, but Jesus honors Lazarus.

By the way, the name, “Lazarus,” means “God is my help.”  That almost seems to be a cruel joke, because Lazarus is the most helpless person in this story.  All the advantages and all the “help” seem to go to the rich man.  Yet God is always on the side of the downcast, so in the end it is Lazarus whom God saves and the rich man who is cast aside.

Let’s think about Lazarus for a while.  Verses 20 and 21 say, “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 first thing to notice is the difference in their clothing.  Dr. Amy Robertson says, “Although the rich man is clothed in expensive and fashionable clothing, Lazarus doesn’t even have enough skin to cover his whole body.”  (Bible Worm pod cast, March 14, 2021) Let that sink in for a minute, The rich man has expensive clothes, but, because of his boils, Lazarus doesn’t even have a complete set of skin. To add insult to injury, the dogs come up and lick his soars

Dr. Audrey West also notes, “The Greek word for sores (elkos) is the same as the boils in the sixth plague against Pharaoh (Exodus 9: 8-11).”  (Working Preacher, March 26, 2017) Remember the story of Exodus. God sent ten plagues in judgment upon the Egyptians in order to get them to let the Israelites go free. One of those plagues was the plague of boils and that is the same word that is used to describe Lazarus’ soars. Consequently, the rich man and his friends may have been tempted to think that Lazarus’ condition was his own fault, that God’s judgement rested upon him.

It is always tempting to blame the unfortunate for their own misery since it relieves us of the responsibility to care for them.  I hear this when people say that service workers don’t deserve an increase in the minimum wage.  “If they had only gone to college or joined the service,” so people say, “they wouldn’t be stuck in this dead end job.”  But what that really means is that it is okay for me to take advantage of them, because I am better than they are and I don’t have any obligation to help their situation improve. To which Jesus might say, “Really?”

Second, notice that Lazarus lays at the gate.  Interestingly the Greek word for “lay” (ballo) is also used with the meaning to “throw away.”  So for example in Luke 14:35 Jesus talks about throwing worthless salt away to be trampled underfoot, and in Luke 3:9 John the Baptizer talks about an unfruitful tree that will be thrown into the fire.  So for the rich man and his friends Lazarus is a throw away person.

Third, notice that Lazarus was always hungry.  Joel B. Green says,

Lazarus longed to eat what was apparently scavenged by dogs from the food that fell from the wealthy man’s plentiful table. These would have included morsels of food that fell from the table, to be sure, but also the flat pieces of pita bread that served as napkins and were then tossed from the table at the daily repast. (Green, p. 606)

In those days, people did not use knives, forks and spoons to eat. They dipped their hand into a common bowl and then would wipe their hands on a piece of pita bread and then cast that aside. At least the rich people in this story did, something that the poor would never do. They couldn’t afford to throw those calories and nutrition away. Lazarus longed to eat this cast away bread.

How heartless the rich man was to simply discard this bread.  How easy it would have been for him to collect the bread and give it to Lazarus.  All he needed to do is set an extra basket on the table. (However, remember that the same thing happens today, when grocery stores and fast food franchises discard their unsold food in garbage bins kept behind locked fences so that no one can go dumpster diving.) Even more importantly how hard would it have been to simply bake a few extra pieces of pita bread and give them to Lazarus?  Lazarus could see the smell the feast, he could see the wasted bread but he could not eat it.

Now in the course of time they both died.  The rich man was buried with all the ritual and ceremony that accompanied a funeral.  No such honors were accorded to Lazarus. Joel Green says,

It is not by chance that Jesus observes that the rich man received burial but provides no such detail in the case of Lazarus. The former is honored even in death; the latter receives the final disgrace. (Green, p. 607)

After the burial of a body, the family would have gathered for another ceremonial where they would drink wine and eat the bread of mourning. But Lazarus had no family and so even this simple honor would not have been accorded him.

Now it was not permissible to just leave people on the street so instead they must have have collected his body and buried him in the potters field. The potters field had no sepulchers where the body could be laid as though sleeping. Rather the dead were buried “standing up” in a vertical trench; one final indignity.

But then the tables are turned; for although Lazarus is apparently not buried, he gets something even better—he is carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham.  This is a picture of the heavenly feast.  The bosom of Abraham at that time was pictured as the place where righteous souls went to live with Abraham and enjoy a great feast.

The mention that Lazarus is in Abraham’s bosom suggests that Lazarus is seated at Abraham’s right hand in a place of honor.  In a formal dinner a low table in the shape of a “U” had low divans situated around them such that the diners reclined on their left side with their feet pointing away from the table.  They would lean on the left side and reach in with their right hand to get food from the common serving tray. The one who was seated on the right of the host could lean their head back into the host’s bosom to have an intimate conversation. 

You can see an illustration of this at the last supper as recorded in John 13:21-25. Jesus has just told the 12 that one of them who will betray him “One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast of Jesus; so lying thus, close to the breast of Jesus, he said to him, “Lord, who is it?” That is what Lazarus is doing; he is leaning in to Abraham’s bosom. After the hunger he had experienced in life he experiences a level of care, comfort and honor previously unknown to him. 

Meanwhile the rich man is being tormented in Hades and he still doesn’t get it.  He’s as clueless in death as he was in life. He demands that Father Abraham have mercy on him and that Lazarus be sent to wait on his needs.  “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; ”  The verbs “have mercy on me” and “send Lazarus” are both in the imperative case; they are both commands. There is no “please,” only an expectation, as most rich folks have, that the world exists to serve his needs.  Joel B. Green says

Amazingly, the wealthy man has not been humbled by his new and undoubtedly startling circumstances. Instead, he assumes that Abraham is still his “father” and that Lazarus, whom he knows by name but has never helped, is present with Abraham in order to carry out errands on behalf of a wealthy man like himself. His audaciousness is only exacerbated by the long-standing tradition regarding Abraham as a model of hospitality to strangers, a model that this wealthy man has manifestly not followed with regard to Lazarus. (Green, p. 606)

Now notice two things. First, the rich man knew Lazarus by name. If he knew him by name then the rich man cannot plead ignorance of Lazarus’ condition. To know someone’s name implies a relationship, a relationship that the rich man did not honor. Second, Abraham had a reputation for hospitality. He once entertained some angels unaware and welcomed them as strangers into his home. The rich man calls him “Father Abraham,” but by his failure to show hospitality to Lazarus he shows that in actuality he is not Father Abraham’s child.

Even in death the rich man still feels entitled.  He expected to be served in life; he himself did not offer any service to Lazarus or the poor.  Even so he still expects to be served in death, to make demands and to expect them to be fulfilled.

But Father Abraham quietly shuts the door in his face. 

But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, [good things that were meant to be used to help people in need], 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.’ (Luke 15:25-26

There is an old poem that says, “Only one life, ‘twil soon be past / Only what’s done for Christ will last.” The rich man has lost his chance to do the good he could and after death there are no second chances.

Conclusion

There is much more to this parable, but we are running out of time.  But before we go, I want to ask one final question:  Are we more like Lazarus or the rich man?  Living in America, I think you know the answer:  We are the rich man. Even the poorest of us in this room have so much more than most people in the world. It would be so easy for us to condemn the rich man, but in doing so we condemn ourselves.

So what do we do about it?  Let me conclude with these words from the blog “Sacred Space”

This is a parable of startling contrasts, but its central message is simple: be alert to the needs under your nose. The parable invites us to see ourselves as richer in the goods of the world than many millions.

We have been blessed to be a blessing.  Therefore, we have an obligation as Christians to feed the hungry, to heal the sick and to welcome the outcast. Every hungry man, woman and child in the world is on our conscience. While we did not create the problem, we can be part of the solution.

The rich man is not presented as being deliberately cruel to Lazarus or mistreating him. He was ‘condemned’ for doing nothing, for seeing the miserable state of Lazarus and doing nothing about it. The rich man closed his eyes to the needy at his gate. And without an eye for the needy around us, our life becomes self-centered and callous. Jesus is asking us, his listeners, to open our eyes to what is around us, and to open our ears to the simple command of the Gospel: love your neighbor.
(The Irish Jesuits, https://www.sacredspace.ie/scripture/luke-1619-31)

We are blessed to be a blessing. All the things God has given us are good things. But they are also given to you so that you can bless others. We can’t spend it all on ourselves in sumptuous living. We need to reach out and share what God has given us. We must open our eyes to the needs around us and use our possessions to respond with action and care.

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