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The ultimate role reversal. The rich man became a beggar, and the beggar was transported into the coveted position.
"There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
"Then he cried and said, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.' But Abraham said, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. Besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.'
"Then he said, 'I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father's house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.'
"Abraham said to him, 'They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.' And he said, 'No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' But he said to him, 'If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.'" Luke 16:19-31 NKJV, condensed
Turning the Tables
You may have heard the wealthy man called by the name of Dives, but that's just one of many Latin words for rich. The name of the beggar was Lazarus, which means, God is my helper! If you think that name is not appropriate for this man's forlorn condition as he sat by Dives' gate, then you are short-sighted and not seeing the complete picture. We could call the rich man by the Latin word for short-sighted, too, because he didn't get it either. Or maybe we should name him Terrenus which means earthly or temporal.
Jesus described the extravagant man as two dimensional--what he wore and what he ate! Here was a man who could be featured in the lifestyles of the rich and famous. He dressed in the most expensive clothing and feasted every day with his kind on the most exquisite food. But instead of having the paparazzi outside his gate, he had an unsightly beggar.
We must forgive Jesus for exaggerating the extremes of these two men. Jesus did that frequently in his storytelling for effect. Just to make sure the likes of you and me got the message.
Lazarus, in contrast, was so destitute he couldn't walk, he had nothing to eat, no one to take care of him, and no cloth to cover his many sores. Dumped beside the rich man's gate, he waited pathetically for the servants to throw scraps of bread over the fence and close enough for him to grab before the dogs ate it. Those dogs, who may not have been much better off than Lazarus, licked his sores. Whether the saliva of dogs is antiseptic or infectious, and their presence a blessing or an insult, is a matter of individual interpretation.
Then both characters died. The wealthy man had a lavish funeral. The poor man was picked up by angels and carried off to feast with father Abraham. The old slave song, "Rocka' my soul in the bosom of Abraham", was based on this image of Lazarus at long last receiving the dignities and comforts he was entitled to. The rich man was dumped, bankrupt, into the torments of Hades, the place of the dead.
Seeing father Abraham in the far distance, Dives cried to him for mercy and asked that Lazarus bring him just a drip of cooling water. But Abraham reminded him that in their previous lives Lazarus suffered at his gate and he never gave him so much as a drop of kindness, so now each of them was simply getting what they had coming. Besides, there was a gaping chasm between the two so that neither could cross to the other. So Dives asked another favor. Please send Lazarus to my brothers and warn them so they don't end up in this horrible state, too.
Again the answer was negative. Slaves might have thought this parable comforting. But if you were hearing it for the first time, you would probably be shocked into silence. Jesus intended it to be so--to jar us out of our lackadaisical attitude and stimulate a change in our behavior.
Are we listening? Dives was not in Hades because he had been rich any more than Lazarus was safe in Abraham's bosom because he had been poor. Dives was suffering because he had failed to pay attention to the Law of Moses which requires hospitality and charity to all, especially the poor. Nor did he heed the words of the Prophets to repent and turn from the sins of his self-indulgent demeanor. When someone stood up to read from the ancient texts in his house of worship, his mind was on other things, like eating and strutting. He professed to believe the words of God, but did not act accordingly.
"Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life," as Martin Luther King Jr preached, "but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance." Dives and Lazarus learned that first hand. The former had given no thought to the treasure of heaven. Whereas thoughts of heaven were likely the only treasure Lazarus had. Are we listening and paying attention. No one, no matter how rich or poor we are, is exempt. We can learn this unalterable lesson from Jesus, the greatest Prophet of all. Or if we prefer we can learn it the way Dives did.
Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further study or reflection.
Icebreaker: When you splurge, what do you like to eat, or wear?
What are the things which absorb most of your time and attention? Are you similar to the rich man in any way? Or have you ever felt like the poor beggar outside the gate? How do you react to the rich man's reversal of fortune? Was it fair what happened to him and Lazarus, both in life and in death?
Dives, a son of Abraham, wore his religion on his fine purple sleeves while at his doorstep Lazarus , another son of Abraham, had nothing to cover his sores! What is wrong with that picture? How does your faith influence the way you treat people in need?List other contrasts you see in this parable and tell how they reflect the injustice of earth and/or the justice of heaven.
Heaven has been described as that place or condition where justice will finally and ultimately be done. Do you agree with that definition? Why or why not? Does this parable support that definition?
Helmut Thielicke commented, "The torment of the dead is that they cannot warn the living, just as it is the torment of the mature that the erring young will not listen to them." Relate an experience you had trying to tell someone something they needed to know, but they would not listen to you. Is this also the great dilemma of God?
Jesus often used figurative language in his teaching. What is the symbolism of Abraham's bosom? Discuss the common images of fingers and tongues, fire and water, and the separating gulf, and determine how Jesus used these familiar words to convey spiritual meaning. What was the point Jesus was making with these words?
You and I are in the position of the five brothers at the end of the story. What do you think happened to them? What is required of the living so they don't end up like Dives did?
Think about the person who most represents Lazarus in your life, and how you interact with them. As a result of hearing this parable, is there anything in your behavior toward that person which must change?