I have always enjoyed reading and studying the parables of Jesus – maybe it’s because there’s not much I like more than hearing a well-told story. One of the first definitions of a parable that I learned is still one of the best: an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. Jesus was a Master of taking common, ordinary elements from everyday life, and using them to make an application of a spiritual principle. One of the best is the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, Luke 16:19-31. (Go ahead and get your Bible if you want to – I’ll wait.)
One of the first controversies people get bogged down in concerns whether this is a fictional parable, or a true story that Jesus somehow knew through His divine awareness. The argument has often been made that it must be about real people since Jesus calls “Lazarus” by name – something He does in no other parable.
I must respectfully disagree. “Lazarus” is a form of the Hebrew name, “Eleazar,” which means, “God helps.” It was a very common name and doesn’t have to mean anything other than Jesus, a good storyteller, is giving a fictional character a familiar name. In fact, its significance may be in its Hebrew meaning: the rich man had many resources on which he could rely, but this poor man’s only help was from God.
One thing that I’ve learned in my study of the parables – people use them to preach and teach all sorts of screwy things. Many interpreters seem to regard the words of Jesus as a blank screen onto which they can project whatever point of view they’re wishing to promote.
That’s especially true with this text. Many interpreters come up with some strange applications of this text, but in my opinion, they miss what Jesus is trying to teach. To understand His point, we have to back up a few verses in the chapter. Earlier in Luke 16, Jesus had been speaking about having the right priorities when it comes to money, and understanding that our money is an asset, a tool, that God has given us, and we must be wise and responsible in using that tool for God’s glory. In Luke 12:21, He talked about the foolishness of storing up wealth for oneself but failing to become “rich toward God.”
Meanwhile, the Pharisees, “who loved money” (Luke 16:14), were “sneering” at Jesus. They had totally bought into a version of what is today called the “prosperity gospel:” the idea that God rewards His followers materially, and that earthly riches are a sign of God’s favor. (There are plenty of TV preachers and others today who audaciously proclaim this same falsehood.) But it is in response to the cynical, sneering Pharisees that Jesus tells this story.
His point, in my opinion, was to teach that we have a responsibility to use our money, as well as our time, our talents, our possessions, and whatever else God may have given us, in such a way as to glorify Him. If we use our wealth only to make ourselves comfortable – as this rich man did – then we have failed to love God with “all our heart,” and we have certainly failed to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”
Lazarus, according to the story, hung out every day near the rich man’s garbage cans, hoping just to eat the scraps that were being thrown out. His only companions were the stray dogs that he competed against for dinner. Did the rich man know he was there? Did he even see him?
It’s easy to condemn the rich man for his failures, even as we let ourselves off the hook. But Jesus doesn’t let us off that easy. Many of us have become quite skilled at NOT seeing those around us. Who are the needy among us? Who are the friendless near us? Who is the neighbor or co-worker that just wants someone to talk to? We rationalize our failure to help; we excuse ourselves by thinking about the “wrong choices” that “the poor” have made, to put them where they are.
Do we know that? And even if we do, are we really that self-righteous and smug? Is that how God treated us? In another place, Jesus talked about the need to remove the plank in our own eye before we worry about the speck in our brother’s eye. Many of us are quick to give ourselves “grace” for the wrongs we have done; can we not find some grace to help others?
Ultimately, in the story, Lazarus was “helped” by God. May God “help” each of us to see and reach out to those around us.