The parable of the rich man and the poor man in Luke 16:19-31 is a dangerous story.
Like all parables in the Bible, it is important to be cautious about how hard we press the details of the story. Parables are not systematic theology. They are stories, illustrations, pictures to make a point. Some of the details in the story are just to keep the story moving along, others are simply there to make a broad sweeping generalization. Not all aspects of the story necessarily carry particular significance.
In this story, there is a rich man who is not named and a poor man named Lazarus. The rich man ignores the presence of Lazarus “at his gate,” and feasts “sumptuously every day,” while Lazarus longs “to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.”
Lazarus dies and is swept “away by the angels to be with Abraham.”
The rich man dies and finds himself in a place where he is “tormented… in agony in these flames.” From his place of suffering, the rich man calls out to “Father Abraham,” asking that Lazarus be sent to “dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.”
Abraham replies that the journey is impossible. When the rich man pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus as a messenger to his five brothers to warn them about this place of torment, Abraham replies that if they have not listened “to Moses and the prophets,” they will not “be convinced even is someone rises from the dead.”
The problems arise in the middle part of the parable after Lazarus and the rich man die. If we assume that this parable is primarily about what happens to us after we die, we run into at least four serious difficulties:
1. If this is a story about how we can avoid the place of torment to which the rich man is condemned, then presumably we should strive to avoid being like the rich man in order to stay out of hell.
Since Lazarus also dies in this story but he gets to go to heaven, presumably we should seek to be like Lazarus in order that we too may be called into celestial glory after we die.
If we need to become like Lazarus in order to get into heaven, we all need to become poor beggars covered in sores, lying at the gate of the rich. This is absurd.
2. But it gets worse. If the threat of hell is to encourage us to be compassionate, we are left with a disgusting motivation for being kind. “Compassionate” action carried out simply to avoid the possibility of hell is fundamentally self-interest.
If I am only kind to avoid an eternity of suffering, my kindness is selfishness not compassion.
3. This story can also carry a whack load of guilt, as if somehow we are responsible for every poor person in the world. And unless we are giving away all that we have to serve the poor, we risk the rich man’s destiny. This can be paralyzing and shaming.
4. Finally, if Jesus is seeking to motivate compassion in this story, there is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the story. When the rich man seeks compassion from Abraham he is rebuffed in the most callous and heartless manner. Abraham refusing to ease the suffering of a man who is in agony, is hardly a picture of compassion in action.
We need to reach a little deeper than the do-good-to-avoid-hell version of this story.
In this story Jesus was seeking to make three points.
1. The first point is in the middle section. When compassion fails, suffering happens. We do not need to take it any further than that. Much of the suffering of the human community and of all of creation results from the human failure to exercise compassion.
2. It is important to pay close attention to the introduction to this story:
19 There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.
20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus… (emphasis added) (Luke 16:19, 20)
The important thing here is that Lazarus was lying at the rich man’s gate. This was a need that was on the rich man’s doorstep. It was a real need that had presented itself in the rich man’s life. In order to avoid dealing with Lazarus, the rich man must walk by him each day avoiding the reality of suffering on his doorstep.
Jesus has made the same point in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The problem in this parable is that the priest and the Levite in the story, both chose to ignore the wounded man lying in the ditch:
Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. (emphasis added) (Luke 10:31, 32)
There is some Lazarus who lies at all our gates. There is some need in the world that has our name on it, that presents itself to us and that we can only avoid by looking away. There are situations that call to us and we need to pay attention.
There is a beautiful example of a church community that got this right, which you can see here:
Heartsong church could have looked the other way. They could have ignored the need on their doorstep. Instead they paid attention. When we look away, compassion is absent. When we pay attention, compassion happens.
The difficulty of course today is that, when we do not look away, we see so much desperation and brokenness in the world. It is hard not to feel that every need is “lying at our gate.” It is tempting to feel utterly overwhelmed and paralyzed. That is why the last part of the parable is so crucial.
3. When the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers about this place of torment, Abraham replies,
If your five brothers do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead. (Luke 16:31)
Christian faith affirms that, “someone” has risen “from the dead.”And, because Jesus has risen “from the dead” the Spirit of Christ dwells in our hearts. The challenge is to listen deeply to the voice of love that speaks in our hearts and respond with openness to the call of love.
Compassion comes from deep listening and paying attention. When our hearts are open we will discern the specific need that God has placed at our “gate.” We will know what situation is calling our name. We will be empowered by the Spirit of life and love that dwells in our hearts to reach out and offer compassion and mercy as we are moved by the life of Christ.