Tag Archives: Rich man

The fifth parable of the lost – it is not about rich or poor

Luke 16:19-31

Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side…” (Read the whole passage)

The parables keep coming this week. And unlike the parable last week, the parable of the wealthy land owner and the dishonest manager, where the land owner praises his manager for being dishonest, this parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus seems very straight forward.

There is a ridiculously rich man who acts selfishly and goes to Hell because of it. The poor Lazarus gets nothing in life, and so goes to Heaven in death. It sounds like a simple formula for us follow.

If we look out of the poor, and make sure not to hoard all of our wealth and, we don’t act like little kings and queens, we should probably be okay. If we aren’t poor like Lazarus, we should probably help those who are… and that should be enough to save ourselves from eternal punishment. Right?

Not so fast. As usual, there is more to this parable than its surface reading.

In fact, throughout history, Christians have had some problems with this parable. One problem being that the rich man doesn’t have a name. If characters in parables are given names, it is almost always the important ones. And this rich man is the focus. He has most of the lines. Lazarus doesn’t even say a word. In order elevate the status of the rich man, Christians have often called him Dives. Rich people aren’t nameless characters in stories, we know that rich folks are more important than that.

And probably there is a part of us that hears this parable and identifies the most with Dives, or at least if we had to choose, we wouldn’t want to be pitiable Lazarus… however this really isn’t a choice between rich and poor.

Dives is not your average rich guy. He is ridiculously rich. He acts like a king. He wears purples robes, clothing reserved for royalty. He has a feast every day, even most monarchs didn’t do that. He is the epitome of self-aggrandizement and entitlement. Dives is the ultimate rich man.

Lazarus on the other hand is the opposite. Unable to even move his own body, he has been laid at the Dive’s gate in the hopes the rich man will have compassion. Lazarus is so pitiful that the street dogs look after him. He is utterly helpless. Lazarus is absolute bottom of society.

Lazarus and Dives are complete opposites… they are caricatures of rich and poor, cartoon-like, beyond reality. Yet, still when Lazarus ends up with Abraham and Dives in Hades something is off, this is not the way things work in 1st century Israel. Lazarus was not only poor, but he was also unworthy and unclean. He would was too poor to make sacrifice at the temple, too unworthy and unclean to even go to synagogue. He wouldn’t have been able to pray, to receive God’s forgiveness, to follow the law. He would have been doomed.

Dives however, could have easily kept the law, easily afforded to make sacrifices, easily maintained his righteousness. Dives should have been set in life and in death.

So when Lazarus and Dives die, what unfolds would be have mind boggling to Jesus’ hearers. For Lazarus to be carried by Angels to Abraham would have been preposterous. Only two people had experienced such an honour, only Moses and Elijah, patriarchs and heroes of faith. A poor man lying a rich man’s gate is no patriarch and no hero.

Dives’ fate is equally absurd. Dives is the one who should have gone to be with Abraham. Rather he goes to hell, but not just any hell, he goes to Hades. Greek Hell, Gentile Hell. Hades is the hell of a different religion entirely, not judaism. Dives is no pagan gentile.

Yet, somehow despite ending up in the complete opposite places of where they should be, somehow Lazarus and Dives maintain their earthly positions. Lazarus still does not speak or act for himself, but instead Abraham speaks and acts for him.

And even in gentile hell, Dives has not understood that his fortunes have been reversed. He calls out to Abraham, but not for mercy. Instead he treats Abraham like the butler of the house, and Dives orders some room service from the bell hop Lazarus to bring some water. And even when Abraham explains, Dives still does not understand and tries to order something else. He wants to send Lazarus the telegram delivery boy to bring a message to his family. Dives cannot stop being self-righteous and entitled. And Lazarus continues to be a silent and helpless character who needs to rely on the care of others.

The rich man and Lazarus are two extremes, polar opposites, they really represent concepts or ideas more than they portray real people. In fact their names say it all. Dives is the Latin word for “Rich”. Lazarus the Greek word for “God has helped”.

When we see Dives and Lazarus in this light, they stop being examples of what we should do or not do.

These two characters represent the extremes of human behaviour. The extremes that exist within each of us.

We are all Dives. We are all Lazarus. We are all both.

We have the capacity within us to be completely self-centered. We have moments when we believe that we are truly in control. We wish, deep down, that we could save ourselves. We think we are righteous when we follow the rules, or receive blessings, or are gifted with wealth.

We also have the capacity within us to feel truly unworthy and totally helpless. We have moments when we believe that we are nothing and undeserving, that we cannot be saved, that we are unclean and cursed, that we are the victims and the guilty of the world.

So often as human beings we trick ourselves into thinking that we are the ones who have earned our success, our status, our blessings. And when it comes to God and heaven we think we can save ourselves.

So often as human beings, we can trick ourselves into thinking that we are to blame for our failures, our downfalls, our curses. And when it comes to God and heaven, we think that we have made ourselves unworthy.

Abraham explains the problem we have to Dives. “Between you and us, a great chasm has been fixed”. Not a rocky canyon or deep hole. But a chasm of self-righteousness. A chasm built by our trust in ourselves, our trust that we have made ourselves worthy or that we have made ourselves unworthy.

And when Dives cannot see why the chasm is there, Abraham explains again. You will not “be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

And there is the key.

There is the point that Jesus is making.

This is the fifth parable of the lost. The lost sheep, lost coin, prodigal son, dishonest manager and now the rich man and Lazarus.

And its both the dives and Lazarus who are lost. Lazarus is found, because he is hopeless. Dives isn’t quiet ready to not be the one saving himself. And yet, there is nothing even the richest man can do to achieve salvation.

For you see, Lazarus doesn’t need to rise from the dead, someone already has. Someone has already gone to the cross. The cross bridges our chasms of self-righteousness and self-doubt. The cross is what God traverses in order to join us in our hells, our pits, our isolation. The cross that connects a dead creation to an alive creator.

Christ is the one who has risen from the dead, and Christ is the one who shows us just who does the saving, the righteous making. Christ reminds us that we cannot make ourselves righteous and we cannot make ourselves unworthy. We simply don’t have the power. Our own chasms are too great for us, but no chasm is too big for God in Christ.

And so we gather to hear this again, to be convinced over and over again.

Christ has risen from the dead.

We repeat this good news, over and over each time we worship, in many and various ways

Christ Jesus who came to save sinners.

God who brings us home from the wilderness of Sin

Your sins are forgiven and you are made free.

Worthy is Christ, the lamb who was slain.

You have the words of eternal life.

On the third day he rose again.

Jesus Christ who on this day overcame death and the grave.

Christ has died.

Christ is risen

Christ will come again.

Save us from the time of trial

Lamb of God you take away the sin of the world.

We repeat this good news, over and over and over, and maybe one day we will believe it, even if it takes a lifetime to sink in. God keeps reminding us. No matter how much we act like rich Dives, no matter how much we feel like poor Lazarus. It is Christ and Christ alone who makes righteous, who makes us worthy.

This parable seems straight forward and seems to give us ideas on how to live. But isn’t life advice at all. It is yet another declaration and another promise.

Only God saves, and because of Jesus being raised from the dead, we too are raised from being dead in sin into alive in Christ.

Can Jeff Bezos inherit eternal life?

Mark 10:17-31

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Read the whole passage)

We have just come through Thanksgiving, a time to celebrate the end of the harvest, time of abundance before the scarcity of winter. A time of rest following the hard work of keeping and tilling the land and animals through spring and summer. 

Most of us don’t orient our lives according to nature’s seasons. We are far removed from the subsistence lifestyle… we don’t depend on our own hands to grow our own food. 

And it is of course, still important for us to remember where our Canadian society came from and to give thanks that there are those who still do provide our basic needs… yet, how we do that by hosting a fancy meal for ourselves is a good question. 

Thanksgiving is a holiday that survives mostly on tradition, but as we take the time to give thanks each year and to reflect on our own blessings… we might discover an uneasiness with our wealth and possessions much like the rich young ruler in the story we hear today. 

Sometimes we can forget where the famous sayings of our language come from, and today we are reminded. As Jesus speaks with this wealthy young man and challenges him to give up his possessions, we hear familiar sayings. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven” and “The first shall be last and the last shall be first”. 

Jesus seems to be coming down hard on the rich today. And this might make us uncomfortable. We know that we are the world’s wealthy. Anyone with an income over 34,000 is in the top 5% of income earners on the planet. And Jesus says that if you are rich, it will not be easy for you to enter the Kingdom of God. That means most of us. Ouch. 

But for those who have been here week after week listening to a difficult year of Mark’s gospel, where Jesus has been uncharacteristically harsh, calling people dogs, or Satan, or telling them they would be better off dead or that they have hard hearts…

Jesus might just be letting us off the hook for our particular wealth today. 

This story about the encounter between the rich young ruler and Jesus is all about absurdities. So let’s put it into modern terms so the point can be made. 

Extremely wealthy folks are often in the news these days. The world’s wealthiest person  Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is in the news for deciding to pay his employees a minimum of $15 an hour, yet also planning to open 3000 cashier-less retail stores because what better way is there to add to 156Billion in personal wealth than owning 3000 stores that don’t need staff… wealth carries power and prestige in our world, just as in Jesus’ world. 

And what do the extremely wealthy have to do with today’s story? Well, when we hear about this young man coming to Jesus, we aren’t meant to think of a nice young middle manager at the bank. We are meant to imagine someone like Jeff Bezos pulling up to Jesus in an expensive sports car with loud base booming in the air long before you can see the car and that neon glow coming from underneath. And then Jeff steps out to ask this wandering, near homeless street preacher named Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

It is easy to get bogged down in Jesus’ criticism of the rich… which may be warranted. But the point is not to hear Jesus criticizing us for trying to be faithful citizens, spouses, employees, and parents by providing for our families. 

We are meant to see the absurdity of someone as rich a Jeff Bezos thinking he has fulfilled all the rules of righteousness and done enough to get himself into heaven. 

The point isn’t the problem of heaving a certain amount of money or having possessions. The problem is thinking that being rich is a blessing from God. 

When the rich young man walks away from Jesus unable to give up his possessions in order follow Jesus, the disciples want to know what is up too. 

And that is because like our world, they live in a world that thinks being rich is a blessing from God. They have been taught that being rich and wealthy and healthy is a sign of God’s favour. Just like so many of us have heard on TV or from pulpits or from well meaning friends and relatives. Our world thinks that God is in heaven dolling out the cash to the good people and suffering to the bad. That’s until we see a person who is rich but not a good person. or we see a good person struck by illness or tragedy. And then we wonder what is going on with God. 

Over the past month, I have been humbled to attend the deathbeds of a few people. Some have been people I know, others have been complete strangers. 

Attending to the beside of a person who is dying is moment where all other things in the world stand still. Where all of life and death is contained in small hospital bed with close family and friends. 

In those situations it is my practice to pray the commendation for the dying, or what used to be known as last rites. 

In the commendation, a section of the litany goes like this:

By your holy incarnation,
deliver your servant. 

By your cross and passion, 
deliver your servant. 

By your precious death and burial,
deliver your servant. 

By your glorious resurrection and ascension,
deliver your servant. 

By the coming of the Holy Spirit,
deliver your servant. 

You will notice that we don’t pray:

By all the money he made in this life,
deliver your servant.

By all the good things he did,
deliver your servant. 

By all the rules he followed and commandments he kept,
deliver your servant. 

When all there is is a hospital bed, and a ventilator and tearful loved ones – 

money, rules and good deeds don’t mean a thing. 

And this is what Jesus is trying to make the rich young man understand. A camel could never pass through the eye of a needle. And even a rich man cannot enter heaven by his own effort. 

Rich or poor. 
Healthy or ill. 
Sinner or saint. 

The only way we get into heaven is by God’s mercy. 

The only way the Kingdom of God is opened to us, is because Jesus died on the cross for us. 

The only person who earns our salvation is God. 

God is the one who does the work. 

We do not inherit or earn or achieve eternal life. 

God gives it to us. 

Jesus accomplishes it for us.

And maybe, just maybe that is what Jesus means when he says the first shall be last and the last shall be first. 

Those who are relying on their own righteousness, their own goodness, their own faithfulness, their own achievements, their own riches and health and wealth, those who are relying on those things to get themselves into heaven will be incredibly surprised when they find out none of that stuff mattered. They might go from feeling first to feeling last. 

But those who feel like sinners, like wretches, like unworthy and unloveable people. Those who know that they don’t measure up, that they aren’t good enough, or powerful enough, or important enough, or rich enough, or pious enough for God to show them mercy… won’t they be shocked when they find out that none of that stuff mattered. That God gives grace and mercy even to them. They might feel like they have gone from last to first. 

We might feel like we have gone from last to first… because we have. 

Because, thanks be to God regardless of our blessings, possessions, wealth or lack thereof, God has decided to give us mercy, to show us grace, to grant us eternal life through Jesus.