‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.’ Luke 16:19-21(NIVUK)
The parable of ‘Lazarus and the Rich Man’ is unique because it is the only parable in which Jesus names one of the characters. This has led many Bible commentators to conclude that this isn’t a parable at all but rather a true story about the nature of the afterlife. But I would suggest that this interpretation of Jesus’s story entirely misses the point. The parables of Jesus frequently used Second Temple Jewish beliefs to challenge his hearers, and this parable is no different.
The Jesus Luke portrays in his gospel is concerned for the poor, the marginalised and the outcast, which brought him into conflict with the Pharisees time and time again. They despised those undesirables they classified as ‘sinners’, thought that those who were poor were under God’s curse, and were intensely disturbed and irritated by the fact that Jesus not only welcomed such people but ate with them too
(Luke 15:1). Added to this the Pharisees were lovers of money
(Luke 16:14) whilst ignoring the plight of the poor. Someone like Lazarus, begging for scraps of food, covered with sores which the dogs licked, was in his own hell now, never mind any prophetic visions of the future.
The challenge to the Pharisees was how are you going to treat the suffering and hurting people who are near to God’s heart. It’s a challenge that confronts the readers of this parable 2,000 years later.
But why is this poor beggar named in Jesus’ parable? Surely it is his way of telling us that the poor are not anonymous, just a number who attend a food bank, but rather are real people with their own life stories who we should be interested in and care about. This parable is telling us that we can’t just hide behind the impersonal dropping of a few coins into the charity tin. Naming the individual gets us up close and personal. It shows that we are to feed and heal the wounds of real suffering people going through their own hell. It asks us the question, ‘who is the Lazarus at our gate?’
I find this parable extremely challenging, not because of its supposed references to the afterlife, but because it places us in the position of the Pharisees – how are we going to respond to Jesus’s message? That’s the question left hanging in the air.
Loving Father, we know every human being is precious in your sight deserving of worth and dignity. We lament for those who are hurting, hungry and vulnerable, and ask your forgiveness where we have neglected their plight. May we identify the Lazarus at our gate and be Jesus to them.