Section 1: Opening Prayer
God of compassion, whose Son became poor for our sake: Help us to see the face of Christ in those who are poor, and in serving them to serve you. Give us generous hearts so that those living in poverty may have adequate food, clothing, and shelter. By your Spirit move us to affirm the dignity of all people and to work for just laws that protect the most vulnerable in society, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Section 2: What’s a Parable?
The Rich Man and Lazarus is a parable that Jesus tells the Pharisees and his disciples in Luke 16:19-31. But, before we dive into that, we need to define what we mean by parable. Parables are fictional stories use to illustrate some kind of moral or spiritual lesson. In other words, the Rich Man and Lazarus weren’t real people that Jesus knew (of course, Jesus knew a different guy named Lazarus), but instead characters in a story he used to teach his listeners. With that being said, give Luke 16:19-31 a read and then watch these two different depictions of this parable.
So let’s be clear. Since this is a parable, Jesus isn’t teaching about exactly what happens when we die. This isn’t a doctrine of heaven and hell. Instead, it’s a story about how to live life well while we’re alive. To use Jesus’s words, it’s about learning to live abundant life. It’s also about the lengths to which God will go to ensure we can live life abundantly.
To recap, here’s what happens. In life, the Rich Man ignores Lazarus’s suffering, even though he could have helped. In death, the Rich Man expects Lazarus’s help, but because in life he lived like there was a canyon that separated them, that chasm remains in death. Though the Law and Prophets point people to justice and compassion, Abraham expects that not even the most unlikely of miracles – resurrection from the dead – will change anything. Of course, that foreshadows something in Jesus’s own journey, but we’ll come back to that later.
Section 3: Faith With(out) Works
You might have heard someone say, “Faith without works is dead.” In fact, this comes from the Bible, James 2:26. The goal, according to James and Jesus, is to have our faith so permeate our lives that it oozes out our pores and appears in our actions. This doesn’t mean being a sappy Christian parody of real life. It means finding out that following Jesus makes life more real, more vibrant, and more worth living than we could otherwise experience.
Consider how the Rich Man lives. Every day he feasted on good foods, and every day he witnessed Lazarus’s suffering. That suffering didn’t need to exist, especially when nutritious foods and resources existed just on the other side of the gate. The only compassion Lazarus experienced came from stray dogs who, like him, were without a stable and safe place to call home. Yet, they somehow found more sympathy for Lazarus than the Rich Man could muster. Part of the issue we see is that Lazarus clearly identified himself as a person of faith; indeed, he calls upon Abraham. Yet, he didn’t allow that faith to transform his life. It seems he didn’t even believe it should change his behavior at all. What’s even more problematic, though, is how he treats Lazarus after they’re dead! When the Rich Man called out, though he could see both Lazarus and Father Abraham, he doesn’t even attempt to speak to Lazarus. More than that, the Rich Man treats Lazarus like a slave. The Rich Man expects Lazarus to do his bidding, and expects Abraham to comply with his desires. In life, the Rich Man never took notice of Lazarus. In death, he treated Lazarus like a second class citizen at best. Abraham’s reference to Moses and the prophets is vital. In essence, Abraham tells the Rich Man that his family has all they need to know what they must do, which implies that the Rich Man did as well. Moses, who recorded God’s Law for the Israelites, showed God’s people how to live. When people strayed from God’s desire, the prophets reminded them what faithfulness looks like. In other words, people know what’s right. The problem isn’t knowing. The problem is that the Rich Man knew and didn’t let that change his life. Your ears likely perked up when Abraham said, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Again, remember that this is a parable. Jesus is using a literary device called hyperbole, or exaggeration, to make a point. The point is that people are so stuck in their ways of ignoring the poor, the hungry, the sick, and the suffering in our world that even the most extreme of measures wouldn’t change everyone’s mind. If we look at our world today, knowing about Jesus’s resurrection, we’d have to say that he’s right.
Section 4: What Does This Mean?
Before you answer these questions, give this song a listen. Pay close attention to the words.
- How does this song relate to the Rich Man and Lazarus?
- Why does Lazarus have a name, but the Rich Man doesn’t?
- Why is it that, even with the resurrection, we’re not fully living grace (yet)?
There’s a number of ways you could relate the song and the story. All of the times we’ve ignored people asking for food or assistance in our churches, or when we’re driving for place to place, puts us squarely in line with the Rich Man. What we have to remember when we read this story is that we’re not always Lazarus. Jesus is trying to teach us to become better reflections of God’s love in the world, to notice those who are poor, sick, or in need that we pass by every day, and to intervene in their lives with the riches that God’s given to us.
One of the subtle yet significant devices that Jesus uses in this story is the fact that Jesus names Lazarus but only describes the Rich Man. The latter’s described by the thing he cares about most, his riches. He’s so infatuated with wealth that its overtaken his identity. Lazarus, on the other hand, bears the name of one of Jesus’s best friends. Jesus identifies the poor, the sick, the needy as people whom he loves. Remember that Jesus cried at the death of his friend Lazarus, so this fictional Lazarus represents people for whom Jesus has great affection.
This parable still rings true today, which inspires both grief and conviction for the church. We, who’ve seen Jesus rise from the dead, who’ve witnessed first hand the power of the God who sent Moses and the prophets, still struggle to meet the needs of those who suffer at the gates of our lives. Even so, we also live in light of Christ’s inspirational forgiveness. We’re people who not only have the Law and the prophetic influence, but who God has filled with the Holy Spirit at our baptisms. We shouldn’t despair at our failure to care for those in need. Instead, we ought to follow Jesus’s example and relieve the suffering of those we encounter in the world.
Section 5: Closing Prayer
O God, in your love you have given the people of this land gifts of abundance beyond what our forebears knew or could imagine. Mercifully grant that we may not be so occupied with material things that we forget spiritual gifts, and thus, even though we have gained the whole world, lose our souls; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Opening and Closing Prayers from Sundays and Seasons.com. Copyright 2017 Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved. Reprinting by permission under Augsburg Fortress Liturgies Annual License #25165.