Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Rich Man and Lazarus, Part 1

Growing up I often heard the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 preached in revival services, usually on pack-the-pew night.

The late Ken Chafin, well known in Baptist circles, told about a friend in college who use to preach a lot at small country churches. Chafin received cards from his friend saying something like: 35 saved in Rival at the Mossy Bottom Baptist Church. Chafin thought that was pretty good since they only had about 25 members.

It ignited his curiosity, so he decided to go hear him preach. It was a Friday night and his friend’s sermon that evening was on the Great White Throne Judgment (the text coming out of the book of Revelation). The preacher was decked out in white: white suit, white tie, white shirt, white belt, and even white shoes. He thundered from the pulpit that if you didn’t become white as snow through the blood of the lamb you will find yourself literally in one hell of a predicament, a hell of fire and brimstone. Chafin said that he didn’t think he was going to get home that night until the preacher was sure that all 52 people present had decided to purchase fire insurance.

Now, I must say as clearly as I can: This story is not about where you go when you die. This story is about this life, not the afterlife. 

This story is not unique to Jesus. It was a traveling story, showing up in several different cultures. Some scholars believe the story originated in Egypt. Some form of this story can be found in the teachings of a number of different rabbis. So Jesus utilizes a story pattern common to his world and then adapts it for his own purpose.

This is a story about the injustices and inequities of this life and how we justify these inequities and injustices. It is also about God’s vindication. In a pattern that is common to Luke’s Gospel, those who suffer unjustly, the poor who have been rejected, excluded, forgotten, ignored, and marginalized in society will be vindicated.

This story is about God’s assessment of the disparity between the rich and the poor, the well-to-do and the down-and-out, the haves and the have-nots. And the story paints the contrast in the starkest colors.

The rich man engages in conspicuous consumption. He dines at the most expensive restaurants. He dresses in the finest clothes. His gated, luxurious estate is filled with every convenience. The impoverished man at his gate is covered in soars. He has no health care. He can’t even find an open soup kitchen to get a meal. Congress has cut off his food stamps.

The rich man is living in the lap of luxury while Lazarus is living in abject poverty.

I find it interesting that Lazarus is named in the story. The very ones who are no-names in society, the forgotten ones, are the very ones God gives special consideration and attention.

While God loves everyone, God takes special interest in the disadvantaged and suffering. This is how Jesus defines his ministry in Luke’s Gospel: to bring good news to the poor, to preach freedom for captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18-19).

Jesus goes around telling people: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (Luke 6:20-21).

But then Jesus also says: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep” (Luke 6:24-25).

The tables will be turned says Jesus. A great reversal is coming. 

Mary, in the Magnificat, sings about it as if it is a done deal: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).

Jesus often puts it this way: The first will be last and the last will be first.

Whether or not that is good news depends, I suppose, on which side of the tracks we are standing.

Jesus says that he was sent to bring good news to the poor. Is it bad news to the rich? Something to think about. 

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