“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” so begins Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. This “superlative degree of comparison” was not original with Dickens. Jesus perfected lessons of extreme dissimilarity.
Perhaps none of Jesus’ teachings are more illustrative of this than that of an unnamed rich man and his poor opposite, Lazarus. /1
The lives these two men live are so starkly contrasted that it is almost surprising that their existence after death could be even more different.
This rich man was not just rich, his was an opulent life. He showed out with his clothing and “feasted splendidly every day” (Luke 16:19, LONT). Having means is not inherently sinful. Abraham, Job, and Solomon were all extraordinarily wealthy. However, it becomes clear that it was the misuse of his means which was the issue.
Lazarus (“God has helped”) is a poor man who is covered in sores. He is “laid” at the rich man’s gate. This passive form of the Greek word for throw may give more color to this situation. It seems Lazarus was one of the many suffering from infirmities. His health may very well have contributed to his poverty. He did not walk and set himself at the gate, but was placed there, perhaps unceremoniously.
While the rich man feasted daily, Lazarus longed for the crumbs that fell from his table. Day-by-day Lazarus waited. Each time this rich man left his house he passed by the diseased and debilitated man and heard his pleas for a morsel or two.
But soon their positions would drastically change. While Lazarus may have been laid at the rich man’s gate in life, in death he was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. Lazarus may have been tormented by hunger and disease in this life, but now he is in paradise (Luke 23:43), feasting with the patriarchs in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 8:11).
The rich man also died. Instead of being transported by angelic beings to a place of comfort, he finds himself in torment in the unseen realm of Hades (see this excellent article).
He pleads with Abraham for physical relief from the pain, but is rebuffed. First, the justice of his situation is recalled (Luke 16:25). Second, the practical realities of his situation are explained (Luke 16:26).
Being rich does not make one automatically wicked, neither does being poor make one necessarily righteous. It is clear that Jesus means for us to see the rich man as one who trusted in his riches (see Luke 16:14) , and Lazarus as a righteous poor man.
Even if God’s justice were not an issue, practically there can be no change to the situation. There is a great chasm, which is forever impassable (Luke 16:26).
We cannot pay for our sin, earn our freedom, or otherwise be released from this prison.
The second request from the rich man is that Lazarus come back from the dead to speak to his brothers (Luke 16:27-31). His request should send a shock through all of us. Residents of this permanent place of anguish desire no neighbors. Misery does not love company here. The anguished spirits of many are pleading that those who know Jesus call out to their loved ones with a message of repentance.
The rich man was rich only in this life. Lazarus was rich in death. One is ephemeral and finite, the other is eternal and infinite.
Let us spend ourselves in the pursuit of justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Micah 6:8; Matthew 23:23), so that when our bodies go to the ground, our spirits will be transported to a place of joy, peace, and tranquility.
It will be a far, far better rest than we have ever known.
1/ Many commentators view this as a parable. There are similarities with the dishonest manager parable which precedes it (e.g. “There was a rich man,” Luke 16:1, 19). However, Luke does not designate it a parable, which gives us room to consider why one character is named. This would be unique in Jesus’ parables. While this is not definitive, I do not treat this text as a parable.