It is one of the features of our world that evidence of great wealth and grinding poverty can often be found side by side. Whether it is the beautiful gated neighbourhoods of the privileged, side by side with the ramshackle huts of the poor in a developing country, or the existence of the homeless and apparently hopeless on streets that are walked by prosperous financiers and shoppers, if you have eyes to see, the discrepancies are there: the visual reminders of the fact that the world’s resources are not evenly divided. Jesus told the story of two men who lived on either side of this divide: one rich and one poor. Not only was there a sharp contrast between them in life: a further divide separated them in death. Now the rich man found himself on the wrong side.
Do rich people go to hell? Do they deserve to? Is God on the side of the poor to the point that they automatically go to heaven? What is the point of Jesus’ story?
We’ll see that this is a story about hell, a story about wealth and a story about us. But first, a look at some of the details of the story.
Technically, neither Luke nor Jesus describes the story as a parable. But – like the parable about another wealthy man in Luke 12 – it is a powerful story told to make a sobering point.
As we have briefly mentioned, the story brings together two men, the circumstances of whose lives are very different. One was extremely wealthy. For him, every day was a feast. There was no such thing as a simple snack.
He feasted sumptuously every day.
He dressed well too; great style, nothing but the best. He lived in a large house, large enough to be protected by a gate.
In contrast the other man was poor. And sick. And hungry. The only care and attention that the poor man seemed to get was from the dogs. They licked his sores. No one else cared. Certainly not the wealthy inhabitant of the big house.
One man had everything and the other had nothing.
Another difference that Jesus highlights between the two men is that one of them had a name and the other did not. Obviously both of them had names, but only one of the names is given in the story. It’s here that we begin to be prepared for the later stunning reversal. The poor man was called Lazarus. No one knows the name of the rich man: he is sometimes referred to as Dives, but that is simply the Latin word for a rich man.
It is estimated that thousands of people across the world die from hunger every day; millions every year. I doubt that very many of us know the name of a single person who has died from hunger this year. For most of us in the developed world, these people are just a collection of statistics: an uncomfortable reality that we would rather not know about. We certainly don’t know their names.
We know the names of the rich and famous. We know the names of their children. It is the names of the rich and famous that make the headlines; not the names of the millions who will die from hunger in the next twelve months.
Jesus reverses this. He names the man with nothing and the man who had everything dies, nameless, and goes to hell.
When we add the information that the name Lazarus means someone whom God helps, the picture becomes more intriguing. On the one hand, it’s an unfortunate name for someone whose life is so wretched. If God helps him, why does he end up hungry, lying at the side of the road with only the dogs to provide any kind of comfort? On the other hand, however, even though no human appears to help him in his lifetime, God ensures that the end of his story is better than its beginning.
To be found at Abraham’s side, or in Abraham’s bosom, likely means that we are to picture Lazarus at a banquet. Jesus spoke in Matthew 8 about people who would come from East and West and who would recline with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven. It would be a banquet of surprises as outsiders took their places while many of those who should be there would find themselves outside.
Lazarus, a social reject, found himself at the banquet. Angels carried him there. He was indeed the one whom God helps.
Whatever their differences in life they would both die. Death is a leveller. It carries away the weak and the victims of famine. But it also carries away the wealthy and successful. Wealth is no safeguard.
That much they have in common. But on the other side, the gap is renewed. Prosperity is reversed.