“There was a certain rich man who clothed himself in purple and fine linen, and who feasted luxuriously every day. At his gate lay a certain poor man named Lazarus who was covered with sores. Lazarus longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Instead, dogs would come and lick his sores.
“The poor man died and was carried by angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. While being tormented in the place of the dead, he looked up and saw Abraham at a distance with Lazarus at his side. He shouted, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I’m suffering in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things, whereas Lazarus received terrible things. Now Lazarus is being comforted and you’re in great pain. Moreover, a great crevasse has been fixed between us and you. Those who wish to cross over from here to you cannot. Neither can anyone cross from there to us.’
“The rich man said, ‘Then I beg you, Father, send Lazarus to my father’s house. I have five brothers. He needs to warn them so that they don’t come to this place of agony.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets. They must listen to them.’ The rich man said, ‘No, Father Abraham! But if someone from the dead goes to them, they’ll change their hearts and lives.’ Abraham said, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, then neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’”
This is one of the most famous stories in the world. Admittedly, it’s not as famous as the other story about Lazarus, but famous nonetheless. Even people who aren’t followers of Jesus or particularly religious know this story—bits of it, anyway. But even though we’re familiar with it, I think a lot of us miss its point.
For the last two chapters, Jesus has been confronting the grumblings of the Pharisees and legal experts (Luke 15.1-2). He confronts them by telling stories that have been about two things—who’s part of Yahweh’s family and the separation of classes based on socioeconomic status and how those two things are intertwined.
In his first couple of stories, Jesus talks about people losing something precious, doing whatever they can to find it, and once it’s found, having a celebration with their friends. However, “there’s more joy in heaven” when someone turns to God rather than (supposed) righteous people (supposedly) doing the right things (Luke 15.2-10). A story that directly points to self-righteousness of the religious leaders of Israel.
The next story is the more famous story about the lost child (aka, “The Prodigal Son”). The real focus of the story, while it does talk about the life of the lost son, and the forgiveness of the father, is on the “other brother.” You know, the self-righteous one who thought his younger brother was beyond forgiveness, mercy, and love. After all, he had his chance to “live right” but blew it and, therefore, didn’t deserves their father’s love and forgiveness. The older brother, on the other hand, had done all the right things, said the right words, but still felt like he deserved more (Luke 15.11ff). Here again, the story clearly points to the way the self-righteous of Israel (the grumbling Pharisees and legal experts) looked down upon the outcasts who were coming to Jesus.
The story that precedes this one is about the owner of a business and the manager. We find out that the manager was only looking out for himself because we see him “cooking the books” and letting the people in debt pay less than they original owed. It’s like he had two sets of books—one for himself and one for his boss. Jesus tells those standing around him to be shrewd like the manager because the time was coming very soon when they would need the help of others around them (Luke 16.1-13).
So, the story above isn’t an isolated story; it’s a continuation of a series of stories Jesus told that were directed toward the sneering, self-righteous, money-loving Pharisees and legal experts (Luke 16.14). We can see that, in all of these stories, Jesus is contrasting those who thought themselves better than others (the religious leaders and wealthiest among them; Luke 16.15) with the outcasts, those seen as “tax collectors and other notorious sinners” by their own spiritual leaders (Luke 15.1-2; NLT).
In that world, those with wealth and power and religious superiority had name and position. But, in Jesus’ story above about God’s Realm, Lazarus, the outcast of that world, was named and the rich man has remained nameless and unknown. So once more, Jesus has leveled judgment upon those who are supposed to know better. The religious leaders of Israel were given the responsibility of showing the world what life looks like when God’s Realm of love, forgiveness, and justice was fully realized. But they were failing. They were more concerned with their own wealth, their own power, their own position. They looked down on others, thinking their plight was either their own laziness or God’s judgment for some sin. Jesus’ stories are about the reversal of those standards; about putting the world to rights.
Certainly, Jesus’ story has an unexpected climax, a climax that pointed beyond itself to his own approaching death and resurrection. But even then, he said, even if someone was raised from the dead, some people wouldn’t believe in God’s (then) coming Realm. They’d still cling to the “old ways” of power and greed. “That’s just the way the world works,” they’d say. “That’s the real world; not some fancy, day-dream, pie-in-the-sky, make believe world.”
But that’s not the Way God’s world works.
And it’s not the way the story ends.
Jesus was raised from the dead.
And because of that, the world will be—has been, continues to be becoming—rightside up. Like the family of the “rich man” in the story, the signs are all around us. God’s Realm is still speaking to us in the loving actions of others; in the “Big Book of God,” nature herself; and, yes, even in the sacred texts of many faith traditions. Some of us just refuse to listen.
The world seems to be going through some very dark times right now. But that’s because some people are fighting to keep hold of the “old ways.” They’re fighting to keep their places of power and wealth. But God’s Realm is here. It’s challenging the “status quo” to show all of us that love and peace and forgiveness and justice are the only ways forward. That God’s Realm is “without end.” That it will continue to grow until it covers the whole earth like the “water covers the sea” (Isaiah 11.9; Habakkuk 2.14).
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC