Luke has been stressing on the topic of the right use of money and the necessity to share (Luke 15, Luke 16: 1-13). The same theme continues this week. Lazarus is the only person named in any of Jesus’ parables. Lazarus in Hebrew means El-azar, “God helps.” This indicates that Lazarus was a pious man. Even though poor and a beggar, God was his helper. Though devout, he lay at the gate of a rich man, sick and hungry, his body covered with awful, running sores, waiting and longing for scrap of food discarded from the man’s daily feasting. In those days they did not use knives, forks or tissue papers. One would eat with their hands, wipe grease from their hands onto a piece of bread and then throw the bread on the floor. This has been what Lazarus is pinning for. On the other hand, the rich man’s body is covered in purple fine linen, symbolising wealth and power. Purple dye was expensive in Jesus’ time.
Only a gate divides them. The gate not only symbolises the rich man’s wealth but acts as a barrier to unwanted guests and cuts off the harsh truths on the other side of the gate. Lazarus not only has no gate, he has no roof over his head. He was not even capable of fending off the dogs that lick his sores. It is no surprise that poor people like Lazarus who are sick and have no access to medical care die early.
We were told of the rich man’s death as well. Rich or poor, we all will die. There was no mention of Lazarus’ burial, only the rich man was buried. Lazarus’ body was probably thrown outside the city walls, in a dump, together with the other bodies of beggars. Ironically, the rich man is in torment while his grand funeral is taking place on earth. Even in his torment, he sees Lazarus only as a subordinate figure, as an errand-boy, in a servant-role to warn his brothers. Having exhausted all possibility of helping himself, he begins to think of others, but the intention is still self-centred.
We must take note that the rich man was not in eternal torment because he was rich nor was Lazarus in heaven because he was poor. There will be many poor men in hell, as there will be rich men in heaven. The rich man was punished because he refused to heed the words of Moses and the prophets. His self-indulgent life is a reflection of that refusal. He lived a shallow life in pursuit of his self-centred desires. The main thing in life is to give heed to what God has said, to “keep His word”. His sin was not his wealth but his hardness of heart. Lazarus was ignored totally by the rich man who travelled daily in and out via his gate. He wa aware of Lazarus lying there but did nothing to help. Lazarus’ presence at his gate gave him opportunity to render a helping hand, but he felt no compassion and took no action.
It might seem that God is unfair. Why does our all merciful God not allow the rich man’s request to warn his brothers? It is not because God is unwilling to give them the opportunity to change but because it will be useless. As Abraham points out, if they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced by someone who rose from the dead. This accurately depicts our human desire for the spectacular, the dramatic. We sometimes ask, why does God not open the heavens and speak to us? Why does he not perform miracles or send an angel to speak to us? Then we will surely believe. However, how many who saw our Lord’s miracles stayed with him at the foot of the cross? Even when Jesus resurrected from the dead, how many of us today truly believe?
Luke wrote this Gospel many years after Jesus’ resurrection. He has seen that, even though Jesus rose from the dead, people still refuse to believe and heed the call of Moses and the prophets to care for the needy and helpless. We too pass by the needy without seeing. We too fail to follow Moses and the prophets. We too choose not to fully believe in our Lord’s resurrection. We too are lovers of money. Christ is waiting for us in the poor Lazarus in our midst. Are we willing to see and take action?