Well, the message of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus seems clear enough – beware being “rich and haughty” (as the letter to Timothy puts it) or else you will burn in hell. After all “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil”.
But doesn’t the story worry you more than a little, the more you listen to it?
The rich man dresses finely and feasts sumptuously, the poor man, Lazarus – a name that means ‘God is my help’ – certainly has no-one else to help him – his is starving and covered in sores. But it seems the rich man never did much more than step over him.
They both die – and the tables are turned. The poor man “whom God helps” is taken to be with Abraham: the rich man is in torment. He looks up and sees Abraham and Lazarus and calls out “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.”.
There are at least two puzzles here: the rich man knows the name of the wretch he never helped in life ‘Lazarus’. He knew who he was – or at least he knew his name – but he never gave him even the scraps from his richly-laden table.
And even from the grave he can’t stop being the one with all the influence and power – he thinks he can cajole Abraham into using Lazarus as his servant – to cool his tongue.
Even now it seems the rich man hasn’t learned the lesson of how to treat Lazarus properly. So we might feel that he was asking for the refusal that he gets from Abraham – “there is a great chasm between us”.
This is grim stuff. Is Jesus really telling us that all our deepest fears about eternal judgement and heaven and hell are true? And is he trying to frighten us into behaving better in this life by telling us about the fiery torment that waits for us otherwise? None of that seems to square with the good news of salvation that Jesus spent so much of his life talking about – so perhaps we’d better keep thinking about the story.
Where does the chasm between poor Lazarus and the rich man come from? Surely it was the rich man himself who created it – in his earthly life each time he ignored Lazarus, each time he failed to wonder whether he should share some of his sumptuous feast, each time he refused to look down on the ground just by his gate. The divide between rich and poor was created and maintained by the rich man’s selfishness. So by the time they both die there is indeed a great gulf between them.
But did you notice what happens next? The rich man says (and he’s still trying to order Lazarus about..) “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house-- for I have five brothers-- that he may warn them”. Abraham’s reply is “they have Moses and the prophets, they should listen to them”. To which the rich man says “but if someone goes to them from the dead they will repent” and Abraham’s final word ? “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.. like that could ever happen?!
I think Jesus’ parable – like all parables – leaves us thinking.
“Even if someone rises from the dead…”. But that’s exactly what is going to happen. To another Lazarus, according to John’s gospel, and of course to Jesus himself.
The resurrection of Jesus tells us nothing about the heaven and hell of our nightmares, and everything about the love of God which bridges the divisions we create in our world. Jesus came to heal the division between rich and poor, between Jew and Greek, between life and death. Jesus came to show us the kingdom of God, where divisions are broken down and there can be life in all its fullness for all people.
So what is the message of the parable? Certainly there is a warning – of the terrible effects of selfishness and greed: which creates exactly the sort of division that Jesus came to break down. If we want to be people of God’s kingdom we need to be generous, giving, ready to see the person in the street as a person, with value and identity, who is a precious child of God as we all are.
The parable also serves as a reminder – that God’s values turn the things of this world upside down – the rich become poor, the poor rich.
But in the end it is a parable of Good News – that we can be part of God’s upside down kingdom, that we can bring life and hope to those who lack it.